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Preaching From Lengthy Books Of The Old Testament

Category Articles
Date April 6, 2006

Preachers are meant to grow in the manner of their preaching-develop the use of certain oratorical skills, hone exegetical proficiency, better discern the human heart. But some things are difficult to learn. How is it possible to preach week after week, several times a week, and still not have learned how to do it properly?

First, something of a confession! Thirty five years ago I preached what was my first sermon. The text was not from the Old Testament (it was Romans 5:1) and neither was it a lengthy one (just one verse). It signaled (unconsciously then, to be sure) what would be a haunting trend in preaching, particularly for those of us who cut our teeth on what we (wrongly) perceived the shape of reformed preaching to be: patterned after the style of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ expository sermons on Ephesians and Romans, volumes then emerging annually like clockwork just before Christmas. Lloyd-Jones’ pattern, taking short texts, often merely one or two verses from New Testament passages, carefully analyzing each word, savoring every last nugget of truth, every delectable morsel of sweetness so as to maximize profit and display homiletical prowess, seemed to be what preaching-reformed preaching-was about. And many have tried to mimic it, and some with not so good results.

What I didn’t realize then was that these sermons were not typical of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching (the Romans series, for example, was preached on Friday evenings to an enthusiastic audience). And even those sermons which were preached on Sundays were preached to a congregation that was in all likelihood very different from our own. And there is also a fairly obvious matter which can easily be overlooked: our skills in preaching are probably very different! All of these factors affect the choices we make in preaching methodologies.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that we should abandon consecutive expository preaching. Not at all! But there is more than one way, and certainly more than one “speed” by which we do it. The issue of defining what a preaching text should be-the block of material that constitutes a “text” (focused for us by the versification of Scripture in late Middle Ages)-is not without its problems. It is all too easy to take something out of context and engage in tangential preaching when the choice of text is too small.

My question here focuses on one aspect of exegetical preaching: preaching from lengthy books of the Old Testament. In this case, short texts would imply series of considerable length-too long for the patience of most congregations not to mention the skill of most preachers. What I offer are a series of observations based on a combination of principles I hold dear, practices I have observed, and failures I have most certainly made.

For our present purposes, I have assumed the need for consecutive expository sermons (preaching through entire books of the Bible), rather than textual (though these too should be expository) or topical sermons. I am not denying the place for these alternatives on certain occasions, but I am assuming that the overall emphasis of preaching involves preaching through books of the Bible. Many preachers of reformed persuasion, past and present, have not adopted this method (e.g. Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones on Sunday evenings), but I have here assumed that consecutive expository preaching is the issue rather than an occasional practice.

1. Preach the whole Bible

It might seem obvious, but experience shows otherwise: preachers rarely set out to preach the whole Bible. Two contemporary British preachers come to mind. First, Geoff Thomas. As I write this he is celebrating his fortieth year in the same pastorate in Aberystwyth, Wales, and claims to have preached on most of the books of the Bible. His aim, as I understand it, is to preach through the whole Bible in his lifetime. He seems on course to accomplish his goal. Second, Stuart Olyott. His is a unique style of preaching- simple, direct, structured analyses of large passages of Scripture with an aim to preach through the entire Bible in ten years. Two very different preachers both attempting in different ways to preach the entire Bible.

Preaching through the Bible is not at all a simple formula to follow. In America, for example, pastorates rarely last longer than four or five years in the initial years of a “preaching career” and perhaps twice that in later stages. We may lament this trend (and we do), but it is a fact and it greatly influences what material from the Bible gets preached. Who, for example, knowing their pastorate is only going to last four or five years, would engage in a series of sermons covering a few verses at a time, on books such Exodus, Jeremiah, Job or Isaiah? Even if each sermon text covers half a chapter, the total number of sermons is still going to be around a hundred. And even if we assume no gaps due to vacation or special or seasonal services, the series is going to last over two years. When there is no evening service or any serious attempt to preach at a mid-week meeting, most pastorates of short duration would then merely cover a couple of Bible books! Given this scenario, choosing to spend half of my ministry in Jeremiah or Exodus would be a brave choice indeed. In certain circumstances it makes more sense to preach through Luke rather than Leviticus, John rather than Jeremiah. Biblical illiteracy is then almost inevitable. In cases of this sort, impossible compromises have to be made and preaching lengthy books seems an impossible choice.

2. Preach the Old Testament

It might seem obvious but it needs to be said: we must preach the Old Testament. Two-thirds of the Bible is Old Testament. True, to spend more time in the shadow than in the light says something about our theology perhaps, as does the reverse! But the New Testament is meaningless without the Old Testament. Large tracts of it become incomprehensible without the material of the first 39 books. Concepts like substitution and satisfaction, and words like propitiation, atonement, reconciliation, peace, and Savior are at best ambiguous and at worst objectionable without the input of Old Testament teaching. The church is “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and believers are “children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:29). We are a “chosen People, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God”-all of which allude to massive concepts explained in the pages of the Old Testament (1 Pet. 2:9). Israel’s history, despite the cautions of the redemptive-historical school of preaching, is meant to provide us with valuable lessons for today (1 Cor. 10:1-13). Theological confusion among Christians today often stems from ignorance of the foundations upon which the New Testament is laid.

But how should we preach on those big books of the Old Testament?

Take Jeremiah, for example. Phil Ryken’s magnificent sermons on Jeremiah and Lamentations, now published by Crossway as Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope [2001] is over 830 pages in length. It is without doubt a model of expository preaching. But not every congregation committed to biblical preaching could sustain this without serious consequences. To undertake something like this requires both self-knowledge of one’s own gifts as well as the ability of the congregation to sustain such a series. In certain contexts, it might be wiser to preach a series of sermons covering much larger tracts of material, covering (say) the biographical details of Jeremiah’s life. This is, after all, one of the main benefits of the Old Testament-that it contains such a wealth of historical and biographical material. Given that it covers some 1,500 years of history, in contrast to the few decades of the New Testament, the Old Testament has more time to give to biography. It explores characters in a way that the New Testament rarely does. Preaching the major historical moments in Jeremiah’s life (for example) is still a reasonable way of approaching an otherwise massively intimidating project.

3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew

One of my most acute memories as a young preacher was beginning a series of sermons on Jeremiah and discovering, around chapter thirteen or so, that I wasn’t at all clear how to pursue the next fifty and more chapters! I abandoned the series, with suitable apologies! Many books of the Old Testament can be considered lengthy. Jeremiah certainly! But so are Ezekiel and Isaiah. And so are the five books of the Pentateuch. And the historical books, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. For that matter, so is the Book of Psalms (though few preachers have preached through the entire Psalter, consecutively). Even assuming that we take a whole chapter for each sermon, most of these books would take well over a year to accomplish.

Joseph Caryl (a Congregationalist present at the Westminster Assembly) preached over 250 sermons on Job! He began in 1643 and ended, almost 24 years later, in 1666! In the final sermon he apologizes, saying: “I have not attained so clear an understanding of some passages.” Despite the value of the sermons (currently in print in ten volumes), this is not an example to follow!

It is possible to make two equally treacherous errors here-of the congregation and of oneself as a preacher. It is necessary to discern what a congregation is likely to accept. Congregations unfamiliar with either the Old Testament, or with consecutive expository preaching (at a slow pace), might need more imaginative preaching. Mark Dever, of Capital Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C., for example, more than anyone else I know, has the ability to preach through large portions of Scripture in one sermon. Not every preacher has this skill.

But there is an additional problem that arises in the Old Testament. Some books, the historical books for example, are sufficiently varied to enable the sermons to sound very different from week to week. Large tracts of the major prophets, for example, are not like that. Isaiah 13 begins a series of “woes” on the surrounding nations that last for the next 20 and more chapters! It is necessary to preach this material, of course. It is an imbalance in the doctrine of God that is the cause of many of the church’s ills. Preaching the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, will re-shape out thinking on certain issues. Where we are prone to be tolerant, the Old Testament is steely. As Derek Kidner puts it: “Like John the Baptist all skin and bone and leather at Herod’s silken court, it may jar on us but it speaks out like a prophet, not a courtier.” [1] But preaching slowly through these chapters is to guarantee the suggestion from the deacons that it is time to move on-to another pastorate! One way to avoid the sense of repetition is to decide on emphasizing different features in different sermons even though the exegetical material is similar. Not everything in a text needs the same emphasis every time we preach it.

4. Decide carefully which book to preach

Many preachers are tempted to preach on a book of the Bible because a great “preacher’s” commentary has just been published on that book! It is amazing just how much the great evangelical publishers influence the material preached over the subsequent years following the release of one of these commentaries. But not every congregation needs the message of that book as urgently as others. Jesus teaches us (Rev. 2 & 3) that different congregations have different problems and different needs. Much of the material in the major prophets deal with issues such as social justice, relativism, and formalism-material that may be more needed in some congregations than others. Sadly, the relativism Jeremiah saw in ancient Israel predominates in western world. That’s why his words are so relevant. Better than anyone else, Jeremiah exemplifies through his courage, passion, even his sufferings, how believers can live for God in a society that has turned against Him.

While the book of Jeremiah shared the last, desperate days of the Jerusalem its author loved, Lamentations expresses the cries of his heart. Yet they reveal more than the prophet’s grief, they are an attempt to reflect on the meaning of human suffering. Lamentations gives voice to the deepest agonies, with the hope that some comfort may come from crying out to God for mercy. Together the two books illustrate the eternal principle that man reaps what he sows.

To read Exodus, to take another lengthy Old Testament book, is to encounter God. The book is about the mercy, justice, holiness, and glory of almighty God, who rules history by his sovereign power, saves the people of his covenant, and delivers his people from bondage. Few books can relate what true worship is really about better than Exodus-not expediency or utilitarianism but the engagement of heart and mind in accord with a regulative principle established by God himself. A series in Exodus will address, among other issues, the place of law, and the heart of worship-both highly charged issues in the modern church.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Song of Solomon will address the issue of sex in a way that the church desperately needs today. It forms the perfect backdrop to one of the great social problems of our time. A pity, therefore, that an allegorical interpretation seems to have prevailed within reformed circles robbing the church of much needed material to address a continuing Corinthian problem at large in the church today.

5. Don’t be a slave to one method

Not all the contents of a book need to be preached in the order they are given. This is a point that is not always appreciated and even more difficult to convince doughty reformed preachers!

During a time of immense trial in a Belfast congregation (when civil unrest was at one of its worst periods) I decided that the comforting passages of Isaiah were what the congregation needed. But to get to Isaiah 40-66 I would first have to preach through the judgment oracles on the early chapters (some twenty chapters of them!). To begin in the first chapter of Isaiah would have meant months in the condemnation of the law when what I felt the congregation need was the assurance of the gospel. The dangers are obvious: Marcionite tendencies to create a “working canon” within the canon will remove all that is unpleasant and offensive and leave only those passages which invigorate and vivify and “speak to me.” But these dangers need not prevent us from creative approaches to preaching material that has largely become unfamiliar to us. I don’t deny that opposition exists to expository preaching that needs rigorous rebuttal, but I equally believe that the way to do this needs to be carefully thought through. In congregations where significant opposition to lengthy series exists there seems to me to be every justification for preaching 20 sermons on Ezekiel (January through May, say) rather than 80 (January through May of the following year!).

Some options for covering large sections of the Old Testament might be:

* Biographically (e.g. Jeremiah, Elijah, David, Samuel, Joseph)

* Disproportionately: spending more time on some sections (Isaiah 1-12, 36-39, 40-66) than on other sections (Isaiah 13-35). This approach is fraught with potential allegations of seeming to avoid the negative and darker sections. The way to avoid it would be to preach faithfully and clearly the retributive righteousness of God in such a way that no doubt is cast as one’s commitment to these truths.

* Quickly: it is possible to cover large sections of the prophets easier than it would be possible to cover the same material in, say, Kings and Chronicles. I preached around 100 sermons on Chronicles over twenty years ago but would now find it difficult to justify that amount of time on one book at the expense of others. Geoff Thomas has preached through Job in around a dozen sermons and Revelation in five! John Piper seems to have covered Isaiah in around 25 sermons.

* Intermittently: Breaking up the book into various sections allowing for other sermons to be interjected, perhaps from the New Testament to echo the themes, though it might also be preferable to have a decisive break. (e.g. Isaiah might be broken up this way:

o 1-12 Glimpses of Jesus in Prophecy

o 13-23 God’s assessment of a world without Christ

o 24-35 End-Times-from an Old Testament Standpoint

o 36-39 Hezekiah-a story of promise and failure

o 40-66 The Comfort of God in the Gospel)

These titles are merely suggestive of ways to break up into segments what otherwise might appear as relentless and disjointed. Providing something by way of contrast between these sections for a month might also be necessary in certain circumstances.

I have preached through Job three times. The first time I took over thirty sermons, the second in eleven sermons and three (summer) months. The second was more enjoyable than the first, partly because (as every preacher will immediately acknowledge) it is only after you finish preaching through a book once that you begin to feel you understand it! And partly because Job’s plea of innocence is easier to sustain over the short term! Even Calvin wavered here on this latter point. Taking 14 months to preach 159 sermons on Job (mid-week and therefore several sermons per week), Calvin begins to suggest (Ophelia-like) around chapter 23 that no-one can be that righteous, thereby undermining the very premise of the book as given in the opening prologue. A case can be made for preaching a series of six sermons on Job (which I’ve also done) but this requires an ease of conscience with skimming over large sections with the merest whiff of a comment.

Whichever way it is done, the need to preach the whole Bible remains paramount, particularly in an increasingly biblically illiterate church. As we have seen, however, the issue raises fundamental questions about the nature of ministry and the time allocated to preaching. Reformation in the one area can only be done in company with the other. It is to be feared that as preaching gets squeezed and congregations’ diets mimic the faddish South-beach or low-fat, preaching the larger sections of the Old Testament will remain only a dream.

[1] Derek Kidner, Preaching the Old Testament (Edinburgh: Rutherford House Booklets, 1983), 2

Reprinted by permission from the author the article having appeared in ref21 and Preaching and Preachers March 2006 [South Africa].

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