Gary Millar on Preaching OT Narrative (Liveblog)

Gary Millar is back at QTC, and he’s talking us through preaching OT narrative in our preaching lecture today. He’s cool because he knows U2. Well, he knows the Edge’s parents.

Four Obstacles to preaching OT

1. Familiarity – we all think we know what the Old Testament narratives mean – because we’ve been through Sunday School and learnt about the characters and the “moral” lessons of the stories. We’re not so good with the theology of the OT narratives.

For example – Joshua 2 – what is it about?

The majority would say that it’s about the miraculous way in which God saved Rahab, which is an element of the passage – but it’s almost a footnote when compared with the disobedience and ungodliness of the spies – who when entering the promised land head straight to a prostitute, and when given an opportunity to speak about God ask “are you going to save our lives”… the main thrust of the chapter isn’t Rahab, it’s on the spies.

When we come to this narrative, and we realise people know this story, we need to remember that their main focus is going to be on Rahab – because that’s what they’ve been taught.

People already think they know what the Old Testament means.

2. Perceived irrelevance

People think the Old Testament is obscure and obsolete. The only Bible reading that ever got a round of applause at the end of it was Nehemiah chapter 3. It’s a long and boring list of insignificant names. In the context of Nehemiah it’s a crucial chapter. Some people, the nobles, thought they were above the rebuilding of the wall. It has huge implications for the book. But we read it and say “this has got nothing to do with me”… sometimes that can work well, sometimes people sit back and say “there’s no way he can connect this to us today” – which gives us an opportunity.

3. Genre – we don’t know what to do with stories

We treat all these stories like they’re one of Paul’s epistles. The problem is that often OT Narrative is one story – like the book of Ruth – not a series of messages. But when we’re preaching the narrative we break it up into pieces. Chapter 1 of Ruth becomes a story about sad women. Which has nothing to do with the point of the book, which at the end of the book is about preparing for the coming of a Messiah.

4. Time – limited time to prepare, limited time to talk

So what do you do with a story that is really long? The Samuel narrative – from Israel asking for a king, to Saul becoming king, is really long. How do we cover it all? There are two problems – we’re probably not familiar with all the details of the story – how many commentaries are you going to read? Two or three. If you engage with that many, that’s a good week. That’s ok if you’re engaging with a short pericope in the New Testament. You go to 1 Samuel 8-11, and you’ve got sixty pages to read through, and the text is huge. Simply to read it in English takes forever. Handling it from the pulpit is difficult. You could just read it. And your time would be up.

If we followed Haddon Robinson’s approach to preaching narrative, working out the characters etc, not only would we have no time to do anything but preparing our sermons, ministry wise, we’d also never see our families.


Five Simple Rules for Preaching

1. Read what it says, not what you always thought it said.
Example – Daniel 1 – is really not about vegetables. They have a purpose in this story, but they aren’t the purpose. Daniel 1 is about setting up Daniel in the king’s court.

2. Learn to feel with the story

Gary quotes from this article by Roy Clements.

“In this respect we must listen humbly to the criticism that expository preaching has been too wedded to rationalistic modes of interpretation. The intention of God in Scripture is certainly to impart objective knowledge of himself but it goes far beyond that. In addition to informing the mind, God seeks to address the will and the feelings. He may wish to encourage or to warn, to praise or to challenge; he may wish to make us weep, or laugh or frown. The purpose of the imperative ‘rejoice!’ is not just to impart objective knowledge about joy but to make the reader feel joyful!

Any Bible exposition will have failed if it locates the intellectual content of the text, but neglects to communicate the emotional texture in which that content is embedded. Good exposition invites the listener to feel with the text as well as to think about it.”

Look for hints, pregnant pauses, what’s left out, the unexpected, mood markers…

You’ve got to get people into the text. Standing beside Daniel as he prays in Daniel 9. Get them to feel with Daniel. Don’t take them away from the text to make them feel by analogy. We don’t want to manipulate people. How does Daniel feel at the end of the prayer? Desparate. It’s not a model prayer, it’s Daniel’s emotional response to learning that spiritual exile doesn’t end with the physical exile.

The best way to help people to read the Bible properly is to read the Bible properly, and to preach it.

The hardest narrative books to deal with are the longest.

Understand the way stories work – Neb isn’t described as a pompous king, but the way chapter 3 of the book unfolds it’s clear that he’s pretty full of himself just by how many people he surrounds himself with in court. We don’t need subtitles in movies to spell out “this is a pompous man” (Me: we do, however, have musical cues to frame a narrative – perhaps we should put music to the passages in our heads as we work through the story…).

Remember just because something is described doesn’t mean it’s prescribed – so when Nehemiah pulls out everybody’s hair we’re not to make an ethical judgment about hair pulling, we’re to understand the frustration that is driving his actions.

3. Zoom out as far as you need to

Get the whole story – don’t make a sermon out of Joshua 1:6-9 where the young men are told to be courageous. See it as part of the broader story. We underestimate the death of Moses. Joshua’s need to be strong and courageous isn’t about entering the land, so much as dealing with his own people.

Don’t be afraid to preach really big chunks. Genesis 38-50. It’s a long story spelling out one basic principle. That God used the evil acts of Joseph’s brothers for his purposes.

Question:What would you say about drawing ethical principles from the text?

Answer: I don’t have a problem with that. Because they are there. Sometimes they are made very clear from the story. But they’re always the minor point – but we get into problems when we focus on the minor thing rather than the major flow. This is the last resort for busy preachers, minor points are better than no point…

Big picture is important. Understand the driving force behind the narrative.

Question: Isn’t there a problem of reductionism if we reduce a book to a big idea and ignore all the other bits – aren’t we ignoring divine revelation by summing everything up in a big idea and preaching it

I would say that understanding the big idea is paying attention to, and respecting revelation. Which we’ll cover in point 4.

Understand the point of the details that seem odd – like the Levitical laws – where the point might be – it’s really important to take God seriously.

4. Make sure you keep pace with the story

There’s a lot of stuff going on at the start of 2 Samuel, and then you come to 2 Samuel 7. The story has been rolling on, and then bang. You get a massive event. And then you’re back into the chronological “this happened, then this happened” rolling out of the text. We should move at the pace the story does. See how the threads of 1-6 move, preach them. Then because chapter 7 makes a big deal about one event, make it important.

5. Preach the story, not the detail

The message of the text should be the message of the sermon. Get the message of the text right, don’t bring your own agenda or favourite parts of the text into the spotlight. Daniel’s prayer life isn’t the focus of the book of Daniel, it’s about the sovereignty of God and the transition out of exile.

The story of Deborah in Judges isn’t about women in leadership. We have to make sure the main message of the talk is the main message of the narrative.

Question: How much Bible do you read on the Sunday morning?

Answer: We’ll focus on the key “jump out” section, or extracts, with somebody giving the flow of events before and afterwards.


[…] returned to the Queensland Theological College with lectures on preaching Old Testament narrative. Nathan Campbell has been kind enough to post his notes at St. Eutychus. Nathan’s listed four obstacles and five simple rules. Here’s one of each to whet your […]

Greg Cooney says:

It was a shame we didn’t have time for him to do the wagon wheel again.