Over the last few decades, a revival of interest in the Old Testament seems to have come over the evangelical church. Numerous resources for preaching the Old Testament and for understanding the various genres we find in the first two thirds of our Bibles have been produced. The tide is turning, and more and more we hear of careful preaching through the Old Testament again.
We still have a long way to go, however. Most conservative pulpits major on the New Testament. After all, the relevance of NT books to the Christian living today is much more apparent. Popular expositors have even given us commentary after commentary on the New Testament, to the almost complete exclusion of the Old Testament. Theology-heavy sermons from the doctrinal portions of the New Testament can serve to keep people out of touch with the reality of the story of Scripture. And ironically, in an age where everybody’s story has value, the grand overarching storyline of the Bible is silenced by the Church’s neglect of the first 39 books of her Bible.
Many of the resources being published that are seeking to revive a focus on the Old Testament are locked away in scholarly tomes or couched in some liberal theological garb, effectively kept away from the average pastor’s and Bible teacher’s reach. A new book by InterVarsity Press aims to bring scholarly resources into an accessible and highly useful format. Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, edited by Grenville J.R. Kent, Paul J. Kissling and Laurence A. Turner, actually manages to live up to its title’s bold claim. In an accessible and user-friendly format, the book brings together contributions from a wide array of OT scholars.
After a brief introduction, the book moves on to cover OT narrative plot, OT narrative characters, the Law, Lament, Praise Poetry, Wisdom literature, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Apocalyptic literature, and the Minor Prophets. It also has a chapter on preaching from difficult texts and another on preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The chapters aren’t too long or overly detailed; instead, they are delightfully readable. They are structured in such a way as to clearly convey the primary difficulties and recommended approaches for the particular genre surveyed. Almost all the chapters include helpful footnotes and recommendations for further study. And each concludes with an example sermon which puts the theory into practice.
As I read through this book, I kept earmarking page after page where helpful insights were shared about the various parts of the Old Testament. The sections covering narrative plot and characters were especially helpful and full of examples. Laurence Turner stressed placing each narrative in context to its larger narrative, and on sticking to the flow of the author as much as possible when developing a sermon. Paul Kissling discussed a unique strategy of comparing the speech of the characters over and against the narrator’s account, as a way of finding the main point of a given story. Christopher J.H. Wright’s chapter on preaching the Law was also superb. He stressed the connection Law has with grace as seen in the historical setting given in the Pentateuch. He also unpacked the lesser-known missiological aspects of the Law: namely, Israel living out God’s Law as a testimony to the nations, and the application this has to the Church today.
Federico Villanueva’s chapter on Lament was particularly insightful as he writes from the standpoint of a non-Westerner (he ministers in Manila). Tremper Longman’s chapter on wisdom literature, particularly his discussion of Ecclesiastes and Job, was also very helpful in finding ways to grasp the main point of these books and how best to apply it to today’s Christians. Similarly, Grenville Kent’s discussion on the Song of Solomon was also very helpful. Even though he steers clear of a direct allegorical interpretation, he finds value in analogy and metaphor. His discussion of where God makes an appearance in the Song, and why, is worth quoting here:
So if Yahweh had appeared directly in the Song, the culture may well have misunderstood him as condoning fertility religion or even as just another fertility god. The Song clearly separates worship and sex. it is ‘a non-mythological, non-cultic, non-idolatrous, outright, open celebration of God-given sexual love’. (pg. 130, quote from John G. Snaith The Song of Songs (Eerdmans, 1993), pg. 5.)
The chapter on Isaiah, by H.G.M. Williamson did a great job stressing the literary unity of Isaiah. He traced the theme of righteousness and justice showing how such wide themes inform the specific context of any given passage in the book. Daniel Block challenges us to preach Ezekiel, and offers several helpful charts and analyses of the book and its central message. Alison Lo gave a wonderful, yet brief treatment of the Minor Prophets. She excelled at relating the context and themes of those books to today’s world and its problems. She also discussed the interrelation of the books as a wider whole (the “book of the twelve”), and provided a fascinating outline of Zephaniah.
Gordon Wenham’s discussion of various “difficult texts” in the Old Testament was in the whole, masterful. Some may disagree with his stance on Gen. 1 — explaining the wider context of the ideas about the world of the time (and thus not getting into a discussion of whether the six days are literal 24 hour days), but his comments on the imprecatory psalms, the “eye for an eye” law, apparent divine-sanctioned genocides, and OT slavery are both helpful and wise. R.W.L. Moberly’s chapter on preaching Christ from the Old Testament cites a lot of material that applies to this concern. He stresses that the wider context of the Old Testament includes the canonical grouping of the books and their use by the Church. He sees a second narrative (the NT) interpreting the original narrative in a sense similar to a detective story where at the end, all the initial elements of the plot make perfect sense. He also allows for imagination to impact interpretation and helpfully walks through some examples in how to think through this in a practical manner.
The chapters in the book are not all of equal value. The praise poetry, and apocalyptic literature sections were not as helpful to me. Some of the contributors may not be as immediately accessible as others. But the beauty of this book is how it offers a manual for the preacher who is choosing an OT text to preach. This book won’t be the only resource consulted, but it offers a sensible approach and several helpful points for encountering just about any text in the Old Testament. Throughout, it stresses a literary and canonical approach that focuses on the Old Testament we have, not imagined historical reconstructions. This ensures the book’s usefulness by people of a variety of particular persuasions within evangelicalism.
I trust tools such as Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, will encourage many pastors to pick an OT book for their next sermon series. This book will prove useful for any Bible student, and I highly recommend it. May the beauty of the Old Testament captivate the hearts and minds of more teachers and preachers, and be preached with power to the congregations that God has entrusted to their care.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Inter-Varsity Press for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.