Why I like (and don’t like) preaching from the Old Testament

Bible Open To Isaiah

I’ve heard plenty of pastors say they’re “not comfortable” preaching from the Old Testament (OT). And some will say they rarely preach from the OT texts, usually with a highbrow tone that implies, “I am one of the enlightened ones; only publicans still preach from that dusty, arcane, irrelevant and hopelessly out-of-touch body of work.”

So, allow me to bother you with my own opinions about preaching from the Old Testament:

Why I don’t like preaching from the Old Testament:

1. Too much sex, blood and gore.

2. Too much confusion about what to call the OT. Is it the Old Testament? Or is it the Hebrew Bible? Or is it the First Testament (making the New Testament the Second Testament)? And why all the hand wringing about this? If it’s the Hebrew Bible, then am I preaching from the Torah or the Pentateuch? The Writings? The Prophets — Major or Minor?

3. It’s a lot more work. I haven’t had a lick of Hebrew. Hebrew might as well be Klingon as far as I am concerned.

4. I don’t feel qualified to preach from the OT. Frank Norris, author of many commentaries for Homiletics Online, says, “One largely unspoken reason that not many preach a lot from the OT is that many pastors today are largely ignorant about the Hebrew Bible/OT. These days many men and women become followers of Jesus and sense some call or impulse to a preaching ministry who were not brought up in Sunday school and church. They have very little personal knowledge of the OT other than what they may have acquired in one or two basic OT seminary courses.”

5. It’s too much work to educate my congregation on the historical context.

6. Relevance. The OT was written so long ago that it’s difficult to make the experiences recorded there touch the lives of people living here some 3,500 years later. Trying to translate the OT into our postmodern context is difficult.

7. The New Testament (NT) seems better suited as a document for the Christian church. Dr. Eugene McAfee, another Homiletics Online commentary writer and whose Th.D. is in Old Testament, confesses, “I am surprised that I so rarely preach from the OT myself. I came to this realization a few years into full-time parish ministry, about the same time I realized that I preach from the NT epistles far more frequently than I imagined I would. The reason, for me, is simple ecclesiology: The epistles are addressed to Christian churches, and that’s who I’m preaching to — a Christian church. I’m doing the same thing, using a different literary form, that the authors of the epistles are doing: Trying to explain the significance of Jesus Christ and the implications of his and/or the Christian way of life for us and for all creation. I don’t find that theme as clearly in the OT.”

8. The OT is boring, boring, boring. Leviticus? Come on! The begats and begets. The prophets. Have you read Ezekiel lately?

9. It’s embarrassing when I can’t pronounce some of those ancient personal or tribal names. Mahershalalhashbaz. Hazarmaveth. Arpachshad. Oholibamah. Seriously?

Why I do like preaching from the Old Testament:

1. All the sex, blood and gore. What’s not to like?

2. Rabbis preach from the OT, so why shouldn’t I? Of course, our OT is not the “Old Testament” to our Jewish friends. It’s their Bible. They’re stuck with the Torah, Prophets, the Writings and so on. The “preachers” of one of the world’s major religions, Judaism, preach, study, reflect on what we call the OT. So, there must be something there worth talking about, right?

3. The OT comprises 75 percent of the biblical canon. So, really, 75 percent of my sermons should be based on OT texts, right? Okay … maybe 50 percent. Well … at least 25 percent! Otherwise, I’m ignoring most of God’s word to focus on some first-century letters or four gospels.

4. The OT has better stories than the NT. You like narrative preaching? Then the OT is your bailiwick. How can a preacher pass up on Jonah, David and Goliath, Jacob and Esau, Esther, Daniel in the lion’s den, the great flood, Job, Moses and the pharaoh, or Moses crossing the Red Sea?

5. I’m into poetry. What’s more beautiful than Psalms 23, 42, 51, 90, 91, 100, 103, 139 and others? Or Isaiah 40 and 53? Hannah’s song? The Magnificat?

6. Relevance. The OT stories reveal that the conflicts, burdens, emotions and ambitions that were so much a part of OT characters are still very much alive today.

7. I don’t want to be a 21st-century Marcion, taking scissors to the canon and deciding arbitrarily what is preach-worthy and what isn’t. I need to trust tradition and the church. Not to do so seems arrogant.

8. It’s hard to preach the NT unless I fully understand the Old Testament — and try to bring this understanding to the congregation. Norris says, “The New Testament presupposes knowledge of the Old Testament in the same way that you can’t understand the later chapters of many books without having read the earlier chapters.”

9. As someone interested in social justice, the OT is loaded with themes that speak to the human condition in its portrayal of a God who takes the side of the oppressed.

10. Except for the gospels, the NT is boring, whereas the OT is exciting! See the list of stories in No. 4 above. Have you read Romans lately? Or Hebrews?

11. I can do “first-person” sermons as though I were Abraham or Daniel, and wear cool old clothes, like a turban, sash, toga, cape and sandals.

It’s all God’s word to us, my friends! Preach it!

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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