Preaching Old Testament Narratives, and the Danger of the “Homiletical Hermeneutic”

I recently preached a sermon from an Old Testament narrative passage.  Along the way, I came across a helpful section of an article by Daniel Block entitled “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative.”*

Block attempts to bring clarity to the age-old question, “How does one preach from biblical narratives?” (410)  He identifies six features of the always-tempting “homiletical hermeneutic, by which he means “an approach to the biblical text that is driven by the need to preach a sermon from the text, rather than a thirst for understanding its message in its original context” (411-12).  I found these to be insightful, accurate, and corrective.

  1. The preacher first chooses a “bite-sized” sermon text — “long enough to create an image in the mind of the reader/hearer, but not too long to be read from the pulpit without the audience getting impatient with the reading.”
  2. The preacher quickly identifies “preaching points” in the text, since preachers have limited study time.  He feels the need to be efficient, which means that only so much of his time can be given to actually wrestling with the meaning of the narrative.
  3. The preacher’s examination of the text is primarily driven not by the question, “What does the text mean?” but “What does this text mean to me?”  He quickly springboards to what is relevant and practical, rather than settling in on what the text authoritatively says.
  4. The preacher sees every text “through the lens of modern Western definitions of sermon form and structure.”  He grows skilled at quickly dividing every passage he comes across into three of four pithy preaching points, and then interpreting the passage through those points.
  5. The preacher tends to focus his attention on commentaries that summarize “the theological and practical lessons of the text” rather than spending the majority of his time examining the text itself.
  6. The preacher is “driven by the need for rhetorical novelty and homiletical memorability.”  He therefore forces the theological message into literary grids (like alliterated points) that tempts the hearer to leave “more impressed with the preacher’s creativity than the text’s message.”

Block acknowledges that “each of these features has its place.”  He doesn’t expand on this, but I assume he means something like: (1) you have to set boundaries for the text you’re preaching on; (2) preaching points are often helpful for summarizing what the text is saying; (3) the preacher is indeed responsible to communicate the relevance of each text for the current generation of God’s people; (4) the Western preacher may use Western forms of sermon structure profitably in many instances; (5) commentaries are quite helpful when used as tools and not crutches or ultimate authorities; and (6) rhetorical devices can serve God’s people when they clarify the truth and drive it home instead of enslaving the text or simply impressing the audience.

However, as I read these two brief pages from Block’s article (I haven’t read the whole thing yet), I felt keenly the temptation to do every one of these things (negatively) in my preparation.  I believe God gave grace and guidance to lead me to a fair understanding of the true meaning of the text in its historical, biblical, theological, chronological, and progressive context.  But I did walk away with questions about preaching Old Testament narrative, an increased understanding of its challenges and my own personal temptations, and a renewed desire to labor tirelessly and fight fiercely to honor God and help the saints in the way I interpret and proclaim every narrative text that I preach from.

* Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howard, Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2003), 409-38.

3 thoughts on “Preaching Old Testament Narratives, and the Danger of the “Homiletical Hermeneutic”

  1. Nate – I completely agree that these temptations apply to sermon preparation on any passage, and would be good things to remind ourselves of as we study for any sermon. I trust the Lord will give you grace through illumination as you study prayerfully.

    I will add, though, that you will find that OT narratives present unique challenges for several specific reasons. But they are such a joy to read, study, internalize, and re-tell through preaching.

  2. I don’t think those struggles are limited to just Old Testament narrative! I’m preaching from Philippians this week and single one of those points has come up in some form or another. It’s difficult to stay faithful to the pure text…and easy to import what may be truth into a text where that truth isn’t taught and then pass that off as a good sermon.


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