The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative

By Steven D. Mathewson
Grand Rapids : Baker (2002). 279 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 245-247

“I write as an evangelical pastor to other evangelical pastors who have the amazing privilege and awesome responsibility of proclaiming the Word of God to their congregations week after week. You are my heroes” (15). So begins Steven Mathewson, the senior pastor of Dry Creek Bible Church, Belgrade, Montana, as he introduces this book, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Mathewson recounts his own frustrations as he began to preach through 1 & 2 Samuel in his second year of pastoral ministry:

I had preached a sermon chock-full of exegetical insights and laced with historical-cultural data. I even pressed it into a neat analytical outline. But my sermon did not do justice to the purpose of Old Testament stories: to lure people into real-life dramas where they run smack into God’s agenda and his assessment of their lives (13).

His frustration led him to raise the level of his own OT narrative sermons. His passion was to devour every book and article on interpreting and preaching OT narratives and become a preaching practitioner of what he was learning. He has preached through nine of the historical books of the English Bible and has also prepared sermons from individual texts in every other narrative book of the OT. A large part of his D.M in. studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary was devoted to preaching OT narrative literature. In 1997, Mathewson published a summary of his findings in the article, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming Old Testament Narratives” (Bibliotheca Sacra 154 [October-December 1997]:410-35). Though he admits that he still has much to learn, Mathewson writes, “But I reached a point in my journey where I feel compelled to help other preachers who struggle with the proclamation of Old Testament narrative texts. I am attempting to write the book I needed when I first started” (14).

Mathewson begins the volume with an introductory chapter, “The Challenge of Preaching OT Narratives” (19-27). He notes that in a culture where people are programmed to think in stories, preachers need to take the narratives of the OT seriously. “As evangelicals, we’ve taken Old Testament stories seriously enough to defend their historicity. Now it’s time to learn to preach them effectively” (20). He avers that preachers who are committed to expository preaching, i.e., preaching that exposes the meaning of Scripture and applies that meaning to the lives of the hearers, need to realize that good storytellers do not convey their stories through analytical outlines. Yet the analytical outline is the approach usually used by contemporary evangelical expositors. Mathewson proposes in this volume to remodel a method of preaching OT narratives built on the stages of sermon preparation presented in Haddon Robinson’s textbook, Biblical Preaching (2d ed., Baker, 2001).

The author divides the core of his book into three parts. Part 1 is entitled “From Text to Concept” (29-90), and it concentrates on the hermeneutical task of interpreting the OT narrative texts. Part 2, “From Concept to Sermon” (91-157), deals with the homiletical task of how to craft an accurate, clear, interesting, and relevant sermon from an OT narrative text. Part 3, “Sermon Manuscripts” (159- 226), provides five examples of sermons based on OT narrative texts to show how to apply the concepts described in the first two parts of the book. Two appendices follow the main discussion. Appendix A details how to analyze narrative plot structure from the OT Hebrew text (227-55). Appendix B supplies resources for the study of the OT narrative books, Genesis through Esther (256-60). A bibliography (261-70), Scripture index (271-74), and subject index (275-79) complete the volume.

The most valuable section of the book is Part 1 where Mathewson displays pedagogical skill in summarizing the exegetical steps a preacher needs to follow in his study of OT narrative. These steps are listed in one of the helpful charts that the author has sprinkled throughout parts 1 and 2 of the book (77-78). In Appendix A (228-29), the writer also challenges the expositor to get his Hebrew up to speed and use it in his study of the OT text. He then proceeds to summarize and demonstrate how preachers can do discourse analysis from the Hebrew narrative texts (229-55). Further, building on Robinson’s concept of “the big idea,” i.e., the exegetical idea of the biblical passage that becomes foundational for the homiletical idea of the sermon, Mathewson proposes that the exegetical idea stage be divided into exegetical idea and theological idea. While the exegetical idea states the biblical writer’s intended meaning that reflects the time and culture of the original audience, “(t)he theological expression of the big idea states it in timeless language that applies to God’s people living in any stage of salvation history” (83). This insight is beneficial to the expositor of OT narrative, especially when he wrestles with the contemporary application of the biblical text (101-3).

Part 2, which deals with the construction of the sermon from the interpretation of the narrative, is recognized by the author to be the more difficult process. He writes, “Arriving at the exegetical summit with the author’s intended meaning is the easy part. It’s getting back down to deliver the goods to the congregation that’s hard” (94). Because there is more subjectivity in sermon preparation, Mathewson is more tentative in his suggestions in Part 2 that he was in Part 1. He does a good job of reminding the expositor of the basics of sermon preparation, i.e., determining the homiletical big idea, deciding the purpose of the sermon, specifying the introduction, body, and conclusion of the sermon. The expositor will find this discussion stimulating and challenging. The most difficult part of the sermon preparation process is outlining, especially in preaching biblical narrative (122-30). The writer opts for an inductive approach, because “while stories work inductively, outlines work deductively” (124). Therefore, the expositor of narrative should think in terms of “moves” instead of points, following the suggestion of David Buttrick in his book, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Fortress, 1987). The five sermon examples given in Part 3 of the present work (by Mathewson, Donald Sunukjian, Paul Borden, Haddon Robinson, and Alice Mathews) all follow the inductive, “moves’ approach. It is at this point that some readers, including the present reviewer, have their greatest tension with Mathewson’s suggestions. Although induction is the best approach to the study of the OT narratives, is it the best means of exposition? The biblical text is an objective revelation from God whose meaning needs to be explained to a contemporary audience. For example, Ezra and the Levites “read from the book, from the law of God [which included narrative], explaining to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh 8:8). The inductive, “moves” approach implies that the hearer will discover the sense from a sermon, whereas a deductive, “point” approach implies that the expositor gives the sense to the hearer. It seems that the latter approach is more consistent with the biblical mandate. Therefore, this reviewer sees the approach of Dale Ralph D avis (see the review of 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury above) as a better model of OT narrative preaching than the models found in the present volume.

Mattewson is to be commended for introducing the biblical expositor to the challenge of preaching OT narrative. He has issued a challenge that no evangelical pastor can ignore. This is a book that all expositors should read. There is much that is of value in its pages, although some of its suggestions need to be refined.