Knowing your Bible is key to OT narrative
One of the things that struck me about 1 Kings 1 is how the original readers’ Bible knowledge would have made a great difference to their reading. To us, the story is full of colour and detail but it doesn’t really resonate with the 2 Samuel story as it should.
Take verses 5 and 6. Have a read. Familiar? Not really; and yet, if we knew our Bibles well, we’d be screaming out 2 Samuel 15.1, “Absalom, Absalom, Absalom.” This story drips with parallels – Adonijah was, after all, “born after Absalom”. And handsome? Well, we know what to make of that. And that’s just a couple of verses.
Many of the characters have a 2 Samuel history: Bathsheba, obviously, Nathan, Joab (oh, what a history!), Beraiah, Jonathan (not that one) – all are not newcomers on the scene. And yet, to most 1 Kings readers, it’s all brand new. And the 2 Samuel promise crops up again and again, as you would expect.
Now, the simple fact is that we don’t have the same Bible knowledge today. That’s a shame and you and I should be thinking about how we encourage folk in that area. But you’re not going to change it by next Sunday and griping about it is not going to make it better.
So, here’s the deal Mr Preacher. You’re going to have to preach in such a way that you help people see those links where they’re important, without letting that dominate your sermon.
It’s a tough gig, this preaching business.
The curious case of Abishag
Truth be told, some by-path meadows are easily avoided. Others are just too tempting, like a cool lake on a hot day. Splash! In you go. I’ve heard of preachers who feel that they have to explore every such cul-de-sac in great detail, but I think that’s missing the point of preaching.
It is not the mission of the sermon to explain every detail in the text. That’s the part of preparation. It is the job of the preacher to understand why things are there and why they’re written the way the they are, and then to let that knowledge shape the sermon. It’s not the same as simply explaining everything (in fact, the preacher who does has generally been more lazy, even though he may convince himself he is being more thorough).
Which brings me to the curious case of Abishag, David’s hot water bottle in 1 Kings 1.1-4. What are we to do with her? I’ve read sermons and commentaries which spend pages (in one case, the entire sermon) making this into a treatise on sexual purity. It goes something like this – look what a godly king David is, even when you put a hot chick in his bed he remains undefiled.
That’s a lot of nonsense in terms of both what verses 1-4 are saying and also what they’re in the passage for. Why do we need to know about this young woman and her hot body (a common medical approach to coldness in old age, by the way). Well, think about it for a moment. Why does the author tell us that they sought a “beautiful young virgin”? Why that detail? It’s to make a point. True, David does not have sexual relations with her (v4), but the sense is surely this: he couldn’t. It’s not just that he wouldn’t.
David is an impotent king in every sense and what is happening in his bed is only a picture of what is happening in the kingdom. He does not even know that the entire royal household (bar one or two) have disappeared off to have an afternoon of mutiny. Some king! Some father (v6)! Some lover! Here then is a crisis moment for the kingdom. Everything is at stake because the great king has grown old, cold and powerless.
The curious case of Abishag is nothing to do with sexual purity and everything to do with the danger the kingdom is now in. Will the promises of God fail? I think you probably know the answer.
Such a story
I’ve just preached on 1 Kings 1, a privilege I found enormously stretching and satisfying in equal measure, sharpened as it was by the application connecting with my own heart in a way you hope sermons will, but don’t always. It’s a dense passage which got me thinking a lot about preaching OT narrative all over again.
The first challenge, of course, is picking your passage. In a book like 1 Kings, this is made more difficult by the battle to understand what constitutes a preaching unit. This terminology is not biblical, for sure, but the concept is – it fits with our doctrine of Scripture: that the Holy Spirit inspired these words for us for a reason, so that we might learn and grow. There is something that he wants us to learn, and I as a preacher have to try to connect with God’s mind and heart in order to do justice to the text. At the heart of good narrative preaching is therefore good narrative selection.
There are always other factors at play, for example how long the series is planned for. However, on the whole, the preacher wants to immerse himself in the text to be able to see where the natural breaks and units occur. And in this, Bible divisions are sometimes helpful, but by no means inspired or reliable.
In fact, in 1 Kings, you’d go wrong, I believe, by splitting the chapter into two (NIV) or four (ESV). “David in his old age (1-4)” might be a very interesting historical account especially when seen in the light of the curious case of Abishag (wait until tomorrow for that!). But you’d have completely missed the point of why this little piece of narrative is there.
For this chapter, it seems pretty obvious that it’s about the handover of the kingdom so you have to go from verse 1 (David is king) to the end, verse 53 (Solomon is king). That’s the right selection.
Me? I got given my text. Ha! As it happens, it was the right one, but the comfort for preachers is that in the goodness of God, even when you think the division you’ve been given is not the best one, it is still the inspired word of God that you are proclaiming, and there is still a sermon there.
Christopher Ash on John- EMA 2015, Identity Crisis
There were lots of highlights from this year’s EMA – but preachers and teachers will find Christopher Ash’s morning expositions particularly helpful. He preached from John 8-10 and our brief to him was to stir and encourage those in word ministry. He certainly did this. I once heard Christopher’s preaching fondly described as “understated passion” – there’s no doubt what Christopher feels and believes as he preaches, and it’s a good model of how passion and power do not equal noise and movement. Many preachers think they need to cover 10 miles in a sermon in order to do justice to the text, but Christopher demonstrates what we believe to be true – the faithful preacher expounds the text and then relies on the Spirit to bring his power and passion to bear. Enjoy and be blessed. I did and was.
Videos from EMA 2015- Identity Crisis
Over the next few weeks, starting tomorrow, we will be uploading the videos from our recent EMA. I’ll be writing a little about them here on the blog so please do come by and have a read and watch.
These brothers of mine – a review
I’ve not long finished reading a reasonably concise book about the church and Israel, called These brothers of mine by Rob Dalrymple. The book is clear and direct. The author has clearly held views about this most divisive of issues but they are presented biblically and – for the most part – winsomely. I guess his own background (US dispensationalism) helps. He knows where his majority of readers will be coming from.
Whether you like it or not, this is an important subject. It will become ever more so in UK churches as congregation members are exposed to a variety of views, not all of which are helpful. And of course what you think about land, temple and nation are, at heart, hermeneutical questions, and therefore ones which are very, very relevant to preachers.
I need to nail my colours to the mast, I guess. I’m with Rob. I think his conclusions are basically correct and he’s also right to reject the notion of so-called replacement theology. His approach is more Christological and I really appreciated his repeated assertion that many at both extremes (those who still see a place for physical fulfilment and those who see the church as replacing Israel) make far too little of Jesus. That is a point well made.
There are, however, some omissions. I thought ignoring the concept of rest/Sabbath in any discussion of the land was an oversight. Moreover, he is virtually silent on the Son of Man motif, which looms very large indeed in the gospels and in Jesus own self-designation. There is also no discussion of Romans 9-11.
The largest niggle, for me, however was that the book was wrapped up in Rob’s own story and experiences visiting the holy land. I found these interesting – moving even – but they had the effect of making the argument quite emotive. I can imagine someone who doesn’t agree with him (I have a few in mind) not getting beyond the introductory chapters.
So would I recommend it? Yes, I think I would. It’s the best book of its kind given its length and scope. I think O Palmer Robertson is more thorough (The Israel of God) and Sam Storms treatment of Romans 9-11 very, very helpful. But as an all-round fill in (especially for those who need to read up on this subject), this short book cannot be bettered.
When is a chiasm not a chiasm?
When it’s not, of course. OT preachers get obsessed with chiasms. Chiasms are common Hebrew poetic structures which, in very simple terms, put the heart of a passage at the centre – literally – with a corresponding pattern on either side – ABCBA kind of thing. I’m one of those preachers who finds some chiasms helpful (Malachi structure, I’ll save that for another day), but is wary of finding a chiasm under every rock, so to speak.
Some OT preachers seem obsessed with chiasms. And sometimes, this obsession, can lead you away from what you’re trying to see. Take Lamentations. It’s a mostly bleak book with one or two glimmers of hope. But to force it into a chiasm neither does justice to the text, nor retains the focus of the book. It makes the book, as John Mackay puts it, too optimistic. You can actually end up softening the blow by misinterpreting the structure.
All of which is to say that working out the structure of a text or passage, however short, is an important part of any preparation.
My summer reading list is probably unlike every other Christians for the simple reason that I don’t take any Christian books away with me. Well, I take a Bible of course, but no books on ministry, preaching, leadership, etc. None. Zilch. Zip. The reason is reasonably simple. I read a lot of books. AS, I guess, do many people in ministry. I do so with an eye on my own heart, with an ear for those who might benefit too, and trying to assess biblically and critically so that I can discern what is good and useful. The end point for such reading is often a recommendation or a review. I find it very hard, therefore to read and not think I’m in work mode. I simply can’t do it. So, for my own sanity Christian books stay home on vacation and I have a chance to catch up with all that normal stuff.
And what a catch up! There were a few trashy novels, true. Some had been read before. I’m too embarrassed to tell you which ones. There were some modern novels (The Lie, by CL Taylor, don’t bother, whereas The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, amazingly not an English book I found gripping). I revisited Charlotte Gray (so much better and deeper than movie) having read the non fiction She landed by moonlight – perhaps the most extraordinary tale I’ve ever read. We were on holiday in Normandy so I had to do Pegasus Bridge (just where we were staying) and D Day plus the other side of things in D Day through German eyes. I muddled by way through Vol 1 of Winston Churchill’s biography, though have to confess the thought of another 7 volumes fills me with some dread.
However, my breath was taken away by my favourite read of the holiday – Gary Imlach’s My father and other working class football heroes. I thought this was a really insightful look into the football of the 1950s and 1960s – not quite the glamour years that some like to make them, certainly not for the players. True, there was not the money grabbing commercialism there is now (at least not from the players). But imagine being on a kind of minimum wage and waking up one morning to find that your club has transferred you (without any input from you) to a team halfway across the country and two leagues down the table! That’s how it was, and reading this book is both insightful and profoundly moving as Imlach (ITV’s Tour de France host) explores his father’s career (he was a Scottish international) and discovers lots that he never knew. If you like football, you’ll enjoy this.
Another ministry casualty
Another summer. Another ministry casualty. Plus ça change….
So, you know the story and I’m not one for rehashing other peoples’ failures, nor speculating on what went wrong – in general we know far too little about such situations and would do well to leave the specifics alone. Nevertheless, there is a sober warning for everyone whom God has called into ministry. It is to take care lest we too fall. Our temptations and struggles will be different from those who have failed to finish. But we are naïve if we think that somehow we are immune from the Devil’s charms and the allure of sin.
It is so often sexual sin – but we must not consider that if we can fight that battle, we are off the hook. In fact, there are a whole raft of what Jerry Bridges calls respectable sins that ensnare us more subtly – dare I say, more dangerously.
Let’s turn it around – wherever you are in the ministry race (starting out, middle ground, near the line), what are you doing to make sure you will make the distance? It’s never too soon to start thinking, praying, planning, pleading.
Who sings Lamentations?
Who sings it? Duh. Jesus sings it of course. Here is my working hypothesis. The corporate nature of Israel’s destruction, captured uniquely in the destruction of the temple does not point to the church primarily or individual Christians, but to Christ, the true Israel and the Temple which would itself be destroyed.
Jesus sings Lamentations. This is Gethsemane lament. This is cross-song. This is the sentiment of the nation which seems finished, whose enemies gloat, where things seem so desperate there is no way out, but for whom the faithfulness of God is the hope that keeps the faith alive. He may be forsaken on the cross, afflicted and smitten, destroyed, but he will be rebuilt in three days.
Yep. Jesus sings Lamentations. Of course, we sing it too – but in him. This is our song because it is his song first. As much as we resonate with the afflictions of the Laments, it is in the scope and shape of passages such as Colossians 1.24 and filling up the afflictions of Christ.
Well, you may say, you get to the same applications in the end. Not true, I say. For an application which goes something like “their experience is our experience” is NOT the same as “their experience is our experience because it was Christ’s experience first”. That is a whole different sermon and one, I would argue, which is sharper, more Christ-centred, more likely to draw appropriate lines.
And I’m glad. I’m glad that, ultimately, Jesus sings Lamentations so that I don’t have to.