Paul said that all Scripture is God-breathed. Still, when did you last hear a sermon on the Old Testament? A feature story exploring the case for preaching the Old Testament.
When Ellen Davis was growing up in the Episcopal Church, the standard lectionary readings were from the epistles, gospels, and psalms—hardly ever from elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“In some churches, on principle, the Old Testament isn’t read. I rarely hear anyone preach on it. I learned the Old Testament stories as an adult, by teaching them,” says Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament and Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament.
The Old Testament sets up the categories for how we see Jesus. It shows how God calls us to live in our religious, economic, and political realities.
“If the Old Testament was preached more often, the preaching of the New Testament would be deeper—because it presupposes, refers, defers, and alludes to the Old Testament. Ignoring the Old Testament is like reading the last 4 chapters of a 16-chapter novel and thinking you got the whole story,” Davis says.
Preaching the whole Bible begins with truly treating it as God’s Word.
When church members fight about worship styles, leaders often say, “Worship is about God, not us.” In Wondrous Depth, Davis reminds herself and other preachers, “Remember the inspiration is in the text, not in you, so step aside and let it speak.”
She’s not on a church staff but often preaches, so she understands the pressure preachers feel “to ‘find an illustration,’ on which the success of the sermon is often supposed to depend.” But looking on the Old Testament as simply a (sparse) source of sermon illustrations misses its purpose.
Davis says seminaries have helped “perpetuate the neglect of Old Testament preaching from generation to generation.” Most Old Testament scholars focus on historical or historical/critical aspects instead of theological readings of the text. When Davis chose her specialty—how to preach the Old Testament and theologically understand its agrarian economy—her PhD advisor warned her she might be relegated to academic backwaters.
Nevertheless, Wondrous Depth woos preachers to see the Old Testament “as an indispensable source of knowledge about the things of God…to work deeply with the challenge found in a prophetic passage, or perhaps a narrative, expecting to find in the text itself some guidance for meeting that challenge…to discover in the instructions and prayers of the Old Testament a substantial measure of ‘the peace of God, which passeth all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7)…”
Davis knows that “seriously reckoning” with the Hebrew Bible isn’t easy. “It’s very sophisticated literature. It’s gangly, huge, extremely varied in style. A lot of it is hard to know what to do with, which is why I wrote Getting Involved with God.
“We’re more comfortable with New Testament literary style. It, too, has lots—Jesus’ focus on the poor, violence in Revelation—to give offense. We’ve found ways (not exegetically or theologically satisfactory ones) to read around those parts.
“In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the more he read the Old Testament, the more he came to feel Christians move too quickly to Jesus and the New Testament. He said that anyone who moves too quickly is no Christian—because he was concerned how Christians live in political settings. He objected to highly personalized and egocentric interpretations of Scripture,” Davis says.
Though she doesn’t think the New Testament holds up to “privatistic reading,” she says it’s easier to read that way if you don’t know the Old Testament well.
Delving into the Old Testament can be risky. When asked to preach on Exodus 16 for a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Davis says her heart sank. “I knew that preaching about what’s in the text—and its implications for our enmeshment in the global economy—might go over like a lead balloon.
“Then I realized it might be the first time some listeners would be confronted by what happens when God shows up in glory. Everyone has enough to eat. Everyone can worship God without distraction.”
Truly knowing Jesus depends on understanding how he fulfils what Scott Hoezee calls “the unified Word of God. As the Book of Hebrews makes clear, the Old Testament contains shadows, prefigurements, predictions, and promises that came true in Christ.” Hoezee directs the Center for Excellence in Preachingat Calvin Theological Seminary.
He understands why preachers neglect the prophets. It takes effort to understand a prophet and to explain how the book fits within the Hebrew Bible and the big story of God at work in the world. Preachers don’t want to be lumped with those who use prophecy as a “weird codebook for predicting the future.”
Also, as his colleague Michael J. Williams explains in The Prophet and His Message: Reading Old Testament Prophecy Today and in lectures, calling worshipers to other-centered lives is uncomfortable. Most churches prefer to avoid discomforting people, Williams says. (Both the verb and noun meanings of “discomforting” apply.)
The result? Hoezee cautions, “People who never hear sermons on the prophets miss out on key themes and promises in Scripture, especially justice. The prophets forth tell truth about life right now. They reveal the heart of God and who God is.
“To understand the Jesus that Luke presents, you need a good sense of who Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah were. An overriding concern about rich and poor animated the Old Testament prophets, whom Jesus knew really well.”
At age 18 Ellen Davis left for a college junior year abroad in Jerusalem. “I loved Hebrew, everything about it,” says Davis.
It was the first of many trips to Israel, all of which deepened her appreciation for what she calls “a lost friend”—the Old Testament. In her teaching, preaching, and writing, Davis explains how to “experience the Old Testament as an immediate presence that exercises shaping force in our Christian lives.”
The first step is something she’s learned from Orthodox Jewish friends. “The main thing is to slow way down while reading the Bible.
“If we are studying Talmud, Bible, or having a religious conversation, they just cite the text from memory, because they know it so well. That is getting less common in this generation of North American Christians. But with my Jewish friends, the verses just pour out. Orality is still so much a part of that religious culture,” she says.
Davis wrote Who Are You, My Daughter?: Reading Ruth through Text and Image to give readers the experience of carefully reading the Hebrew Bible.
She says that slowing down enough to savor the Old Testament often gives Christians “a much better understanding of Jesus and Jewish faith, whereas a long history of incomprehension has often led to persecution or contempt of Jews.”
Slowing down lets preachers—and worshipers—be astonished by the text. “No preacher can ever be astonishing (in a positive sense!) unless she has first been astonished. And the only regular and fully reliable source of astonishment for the Christian preacher is Scripture itself,” Davis writes inWondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament.
The second step in letting the Old Testament shape you is yielding to its frank portrayal of human life.
“I’d like to see the recovery of bold honest preaching in the often very gritty narratives of the Old Testament,” says Scott Hoezee.
“The stories are often air brushed for Sunday school. We’ve left out certain ones altogether. That may be age appropriate. But a lot of people never get beyond it.
“The Old Testament is so real about human foibles—failings, flaws, struggles, doubts. It tells about utterly human people with feet of clay, like us. And yet, these are the people to whom God made promises and showed his grace…centuries before Christ came, full of grace and promise.”
Back when Hoezee was a pastor, he and a friend in a neighboring church challenged each other to preach through the Heidelberg Catechism using only Old Testament illustrations. “People loved it. There’s a lot of richness in those stories,” he says.
Ellen Davis says that honestly applying an Old Testament passage to contemporary life begins with seeing how the passage fits within the whole Bible. At a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, she helped people work through Psalm 63 to think with the psalmist, follow the poem’s logic, and recognize its references to real places and body parts.
“How different is your reading of this psalm if you remember that, after the kingship, Israel and Judah usually lost in most conflicts? They were wishing their enemies would be harmed. But what’s it like to pray this psalm from a position of power?” she asked.
Davis says an Orthodox Jewish friend in Jerusalem recently told her, “There are a lot of psalms we can no longer pray in good conscience, not with what the Israeli army does.” Davis added, “It’s something I couldn’t say for him, but he could. Every community needs to take responsibility for how it uses psalms.”
Davis often refers to the Old Testament as “indispensable” for all the ways it pushes us to look honestly at our individual and congregational relationships with God.
In Wondrous Depth, Davis says that preaching on the Old Testament, especially the prophets, can be emotionally harrowing. This biblical pressure takes different forms—guiding the perplexed, confronting our refusal to live as God asks, covenanting with us to oppose injustice.
“The Bible as a whole is pushing us toward something, though its internal tensions witness to the complexity of its subject matter and therefore the inevitable uncertainty of our understanding at many points. The Bible is pressing us toward reconciliation with God (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19); at the upper limit, it even imagines true intimacy with God to be a possibility for us,” she writes.
At first it’s easy to see why many churches rarely offer sermons on the Old Testament.
“If you follow the lectionary and most of the congregation hears just one sermon a Sunday, you’ll tend to preach on the gospel or New Testament lesson,” says Scott Hoezee. Even in churches that still have morning and evening services, such as in the Reformed tradition, evening attendance is often quite low.
But Hoezee notes, “If your church has only one service, follows the lectionary, and is very New Testament-oriented, you still have the huge block of Ordinary Time from Pentecost to Advent. That’s a very fruitful time for preachers to do a 12-week series on Genesis or Exodus or Psalms or a prophet.”
He says worshipers need to hear Old Testament sermons “to connect the dots, to appreciate how God’s whole plan fits together. Preachers should show how the Hebrew Scriptures framework of biblical history connects with major Scriptural patterns. In the Reformed tradition, we might describe those patterns as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.”
What about the idea that every sermon must “preach Christ”? Hoezee says that across a year or two of sermons, it ought to be clear to the congregation that “we look into the Old Testament to see Christ. This is true even if, on a given sermon on Exodus, there aren’t a whole lot of overt references to Christ or the gospel.”
Ellen Davis addresses the same issue in Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament: “Does it violate the literary, historical, and theological integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures to read and preach them as pointing to and illuminating the person, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ? My short answer is no…but that does not mean that every sermon must or should be explicitly Christological.”
Listen to brief audio interview excerpts of Scott Hoezee on:
On the Center for Excellence in Preaching (CPE) website, Scott Hoezee has gathered a wealth of help for preaching the Old Testament, including resources for preaching Genesis and Exodus (scroll down). The sermon starters for all 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism include ideas based on Old Testament texts. You can research cultural trends, books that inform and inspire preachers, and essays on whether to cite references in sermons and how or when to use “theological talk.”
Of the CPE annotated list of OT commentaries, Hoezee says, “Anything by Walter Brueggemann is gold. Terence Fretheim and Daniel Block are great on Exodus. I also recommend Ellen Davis, Sidney Greidanus, and Robert Alter on the Pentateuch, biblical narrative, and biblical poetry.”
Search for sermons by chapter and verse. Sign up for sermon podcasts. Read or listen to sermons about the psalms. Get ideas from the Psalms for a Lenten Journey worship service series planned with help from Carl Bosma.
Other practical, easy-to-read books about adding Old Testament content to worship include
Gather seminarian or preacher friends to dive into these worthwhile academic books:
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