Prophetically Speaking: Cautions & Challenges for Preaching the Old Testament Prophets Chuck Fuller November 1, 2014 The Old Testament prophetic literature furnishes pastors with fertile ground for making sermons by openly declaring “its immediate relevance by presenting itself as preaching.”1 Preachers feel at home in the prophets because with them we find a common task: bringing the covenant to bear on the crisis of the day. Yet, preaching the prophets brings certain challenges contextually and hermeneutically. Contextually, we often pigeonhole the prophets as ancient versions of our own social revolutionaries—imagining them as freewheeling, antiestablishment prophets of civil disruption. However, the prophets refuse to be squeezed into a single stratum. They often spoke with broad support from the community and came from a variety of backgrounds. They were shepherds, farmers, temple workers and royal court servants—bi-vocational ministers with messages to preach. Hermeneutically, we tend to push our present concerns into these ancient writings, forgetting the primary prophetic work was not recording history, drawing charts of eschatology, or systematizing theology. The prophets were real men communicating urgent messages and seeking to change the way people thought about God, the world, themselves and others.2 Preaching the prophets faithfully, therefore, requires a broad view of their role in historical context, a commitment to hermeneutical and exegetical integrity, and full attention to their covenant perspectives and redemptive promises. How did the prophets preach? The prophets spoke not only to their indigenous, home people, but also to converts, sojourners, immigrants and foreigners—foreigners who spoke different languages and adhered to different laws and customs.3 They addressed the full socioeconomic spectrum, as their audiences included rural farmers and urban merchants, the privileged and marginalized, the wealthy and poor. Similar to modern preachers, they preached to diverse crowds. Old Testament scholar Gary V. Smith offers striking insight into the rhetorical means employed by the prophets in the midst of cultural diversity. Where the learned behaviors and thought patterns do not conform to a single paradigm, Smith argues the prophets communicated one way: head on. Rather than minimizing differences, they compared everything to one standard—the Word of the Lord. Slicing through cultural confusion by cutting straight to the truth, the prophets identified the weaknesses of cultural worldviews to demonstrate God’s superiority.4 For example, Elijah knew Ahab had built a temple to Baal in Samaria, so he challenged Ahab on that point—that weakness. In 1 Kings 18, he approached Ahab in the midst of a three-year drought that already undermined Baal’s supposed power. This was a weakness in Ahab’s worldview, and Elijah exploited it fully. When fire fell and consumed everything, including the water, more than an altar was demolished. Ahab’s worldview was ruined, leaving only one answer: “The Lord, He is God.” With clarity and contrast, the prophets ripped through the cultural competition to reveal ultimate truth. How do we do what the prophets did? First, avoid the error of inverting the hermeneutical process. When approaching a prophet’s writing, we sometimes move directly from grammatical exegesis to application—taking what we find in the words and phrases and speaking to contemporary life. The method seems sound, but it overlooks a key ingredient. Grammatical exegesis is critically important, but grammatical exegesis divorced from historical context will lead to an application that the original author never would have imagined, leaving the preacher disconnected from the prophet’s intent and unfaithful to his message. Be sure to survey the historical situation. Smith presents a series of questions that one should answer before going too far into grammatical work: 1. When did this prophet speak? At what point in Israel’s history? 2. What was the political, social and spiritual context? To what issue or crisis was the prophet speaking? 3. Who was in the prophet’s audience? Who were the first ones to hear his message, and how would they have understood it? 4. Why did the audience need this message? What about them did the message seek to change?5 These questions lead to better grammatical exegesis and more accurate application, because knowing why the prophet preached is the key to applying what he said. Whatever problem the prophet addressed then still exists today, and the text still addresses it today. Aim your sermon at that problem. In Elijah’s day, people looked to Baal for their wellbeing. Today, people look to the gods of healthcare and materialism, assuming that if you’re healthy and wealthy, then you must be well! Elijah’s people had the same need as our people: to know that wellbeing, shalom, results only from resting your soul in the promises of God that transcend temporal circumstance. Apply your sermon to the same kind of problem the text originally addressed. Second, avoid the error of reversing your application. Reversing the application occurs when we begin with our current issues—the injustice we witness or the pain we grieve—and press them into the text, making the text support our agenda. Walt Kaiser cautions against allowing such preset expectations to skew interpretation, explaining that we not assume the prophets were speaking to the exact same things. Kaiser says, “most interpreters have let their previous prejudices, education and convictions shape the answers which they earnestly believe they have derived from the text by a methodologically commendable type of textual exposition.”6 In other words, we’re in the text, but we assume too quickly what the text is about based on our own culture and experiences. Kaiser presents 1 Kings 21, the tragic story of Naboth’s vineyard, as a prime example. Naboth refused to give the vineyard to King Ahab, because it was an inheritance from his fathers. Ahab was vexed, but Jezebel schemed to have Naboth killed so Ahab could take the vineyard. It’s easy to see where we might go with the passage—to contemporary social ills or the way the system seems to empower the already powerful and weaken the already weak. However, Kaiser claims this sort of exegesis does not go far enough into the text. Elijah was not after a change in social policy. He was after a change in Ahab. His message was not to the system. His message was to the man.7 Beware of applying prophetic texts to an audience that isn’t in your auditorium. It’s easy to speak to the power, corruption or system out there, but your preaching must first aim at those in here, to the individuals within your hearing. Remember, changing a society requires changing people. That’s how the prophets did it, and we must re-preach their sermons. Third, remember the structure of prophetic preaching. Graeme Goldsworthy observes three main ingredients in the Old Testament prophetic oracles: 1. Indictment: a stinging accusation of covenant breaking. 2. Judgment: a warning concerning the consequences of covenant breaking. 3. Hope: a reminder that God is still faithful to the covenant, and He will act to bring about his purposes.7 The first chapter of Hosea displays the pattern. The command for Hosea to take a wife of whoredom also brings the indictment: “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (v. 1:2). As Gomer bore children, each child was named for an act of judgment God would bring: Jezreel, No Mercy, Not My People (vv. 1:4-9). Then, God offers hope: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God'” (v. 1:10). Keeping the text in context demands that we understand the circumstances of the oracle: the Northern Kingdom’s apostasy was nearly complete, and the Assyrians were on the horizon, ready to pounce. Hosea’s marriage to Gomer is an illustration of Israel’s condition. The people had forgotten their God, and God soon would cut them off. Yet there was still hope. His plan won’t be thwarted. Now, to apply the text, we must ask some critical questions: 1. What similar acts of breaking covenant do God’s people engage in today? What are the ways in which contemporary Christians forget their God? 2. What consequences are at hand? What are the consequences for families, for the church, for the world? 3. How can the situation be redeemed? How might God act? The third question can cause us to be more speculative than necessary. We aren’t required to dream up ways God might change things. There is no need for extreme creativity in crafting exhortations. The redemption to which the prophets pointed already has arrived in the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah. Fourth, connect the redemptive promise. Some texts are more difficult, but Hosea 1 is rather simple to connect because of its use in the New Testament. Romans 9 quotes Hosea 1:10, affirming that the promise that those who were not God’s people will be called sons of God has been fulfilled as people come to faith in Christ, including Gentiles! First Peter 2:9-10 alludes to Hosea 1:10, saying the church itself fulfills the promise. The hope of the prophets finds fulfillment in Jesus, and we preach from this side of His birth, life, death and resurrection. We know the hope for which the prophets groaned. Fifth, return to the enduring prophetic theme of repentance. To repent or to return to the Lord forms the main thrust of Old Testament prophetic literature. It’s the final word of the prophets, and so must be the final words of our sermons when we preach the prophets. The Book of Hosea comes to its end and climax in chapter 14: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to Him, ‘Take away all iniquity, accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips'” (Hos. 14:1-2).8 Preaching repentance in Hosea from this side of the cross and resurrection might sound similar to what follows: “Return, O Church, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to Him, ‘You have taken away all iniquity by the work of Your Son. You have accepted Him, for He is good. He has paid with His blood to keep the vow. By faith we are found in Him, so we return to you.'” Don’t be tempted to think the finished work of the Lord Jesus represses repentance or removes its urgency. The opposite is true. The fulfillment of prophecy fuels repentance. The prophets called the people to repent because God promised redemption. We call the people to repent because God has accomplished redemption. Indeed, the prophets provide fertile soil for preaching. Keeping with sound historical-grammatical method, we can rightly apply their themes and call men and women, far and near, to repent and believe the gospel. 1 Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 228. 2 Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 7. 3 Ibid., 10. 4 Ibid., 11. 5 Ibid., 2. 6 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 187. 7 Ibid., 189. 8 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 171. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.