Preaching from the Old Testament
Donald MacLeod


If a young preacher wants to preach from the Old Testament, he can easily find models. He has only to read the published expositions of Dr. Lloyd-Jones and John Stott to see master craftsmen at work in a contemporary idiom. The situation with regard to the Old Testament is quite different. It is often difficult to find even competent commentaries on the Old Testament. For any given part of the New Testament, one can easily find three or four masterpieces of insight and scholarship. By contrast, there are many books of the Old Testament for which not one single good commentary exists.

Underlying this there is something deeper. The hermeneutical barriers which separate us from the world of the Old Testament are enormous. Everything is on a grander scale than the difficulties of New Testament exposition. The time is more remote. The language is more alien. The culture is more unfamiliar.

Absolute Authority

Can we find any general principles to guide us? First of all, we can plant our feet firmly on the rock of the absolute authority of the Old Testament. It was precisely these Holy Scriptures that Paul described as “inspired.” Curiously, he does not say that the writers were inspired. He says that the books were inspired. They were breathed out by God. Nor is this true merely of some portions of the Old Testament. It was all inspired. Some parts may be less interesting, less majestic and even less useful than others. But every single part is inspired. What any Old Testament scripture says, God says.

This means at once that the entire Old Testament must be handled with reverence. It is all “holy.” It also means that the preacher has to interpret it harmonistically. He cannot set one part against another. Nor can he contrast any part of it with the truth. As a word from God, it must hang together coherently and harmonise with all that we know from other sources.

For the same reason the preacher knows that the whole Old Testament is profitable. Its usefulness is coexistent with its inspiration. This applies even to those parts of it which have been superseded, such as the civil law of Israel and the cultic arrangements associated with Tabernacle and Temple. The detailed instructions laid down in these connections are no longer binding on the church. Yet they still served to illustrate, symbolize and typify important truths, and the statutes of the theocracy can serve as paradigms to indicate how the principles of the Decalogue should be applied in specific political situations.

The Unity of Biblical Religion

The second important general principle is the unity of biblical religion. The whole of Scripture is a revelation of the one God, disclosing one single scheme of redemption and one covenant of grace. However important the transition from the Old Testament to the New, the parties, the promises and the stipulations of the covenant remain the same. Similarly, the church of God is one under both dispensations. The New Testament church is not a new church — instead, the Gentiles are grafted into the existing people of God, the stock of Abraham. We have Abraham’s faith; we are Abraham’s seed. It is because of this that the New Testament church can be described in terms lifted straight out of the Old Testament: we are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people.

One immediate result of this is that we can take an exemplarist approach to preaching the Old Testament. These saints were under the same ethic and subject to the same experiences as ourselves. The criticisms urged against them by God are still relevant today. Their moods are our moods, their perplexities our perplexities, their aspirations our aspirations. God’s call to Abraham we can parallel from our own experience. His anguish as God tries His faith we can follow in our own souls. We can understand Moses as he resists God’s call and protests, “I am not eloquent.” We have often sat with Elijah under his juniper tree. We admire the compassion of Job as he cries, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” But we can also follow him, in all the utterances of his impatience and frustration as he struggles, often unsuccessfully, to accept the will of God. What terrible utterances they are! God destroys the perfect as well as the wicked! He laughs at the trial of the innocent! “If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean, yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch and mine own clothes shall abhor me” (Job 9:30).

Of course, our calling is to be content, cheerful and thankful. But how marvellously encouraging it is to know, on those days when we cannot understand and cannot shrug off the pain and cannot hold back our own bitterness, that our complaints do not put us out with the people of God. And how instructive it is, too, to look at the failings of these great Old Testament men of God. What a rebuke to our complacency to realise what happened to Moses and David and Solomon and Jonah. Yet, in a strange (and always dangerous) way, how comforting! Ungodly men and sometimes appalling failures, and yet God did not cast them off.

The differences in culture, temperament and theological insight which separate us from these men are enormous. Yet the things that unite us are far greater than those which divide us and the record of their struggles is one of the most precious possessions of the New Testament church.

Progressive Revelation

Yet there is a third principle — the progressiveness of revelation — which pulls us in the exactly opposite direction by reminding us of the distinctions between the two administrations of the covenant. God did not reveal Himself all at once. Instead, He gave us a great series of cumulative acts of self-disclosure, speaking “at sundry times and in divers manners.” This never means that the later revelation contradicts the earlier, but it does mean that some doctrines which are very clear and prominent in the New Testament receive very little emphasis in the Old. For example, the Law and the Prophets contain virtually nothing on the resurrection of the body, the state of the soul between death and judgment or the doctrine of hell. Nor does the earlier revelation contain any overall doctrine of the Person of Christ. All the ingredients for a doctrine are there: the deity of Messiah, the humanity of Messiah, His suffering, His humiliation and His victory. But no one in the Old Testament ever put these strands together to say, “God will become flesh.” Nor did anybody ever synthesize the concepts of the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man, as our Lord Himself did when he said, “The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.”

In view of these considerations, the preacher must avoid ascribing to the saints of the Old Testament more light than they actually possessed. Augustine’s famous illustration should remain with us. He compared the Old Testament to a room fully furnished but unlit. The occupants cannot see the contents because of the darkness. These become visible only in the light of the New Testament. That light puts nothing there which was not there before. But it does enable us to see adumbrations of the sacrifice of Christ, intimations of a blessed immortality and even hints of the doctrine of the trinity. But those who had only the light of the Old Testament could not see these things and it is anachronistic to read them back into their experiences. David in Psalm 51 had a very clear grasp of the mercy of God, but there is no indication that he saw that that mercy would operate through the blood of One who was God’s own Son.

A further important result of the progressiveness of revelation is that we must emphasize much more than we do the superiority of the position of New Testament saints. We seem to have lost sight almost completely of the point made by Paul in Galatians 3:23-4:7. Before Christ came, he says, believers were like children, under the care of a Guardian (the Law) and in many respects no better off than slaves. Not only did they lack much of the insight of New Testament believers. They lacked much of their comfort. It was much more difficult then to cry, “Abba! Father” or to come with boldness to the throne of grace. It was difficult — much more difficult — to face death with confidence. Instead of Paul’s, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better” we have David’s, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol, who can give thee praise?” (Ps. 6:5).

Above all, the Old Testament was a time of bondage. The Custodian was everywhere, interfering with what one ate, what one wore, what one sowed, how one ploughed, how one built a house. Life was circumscribed with endless restrictions. Indeed, it was virtually impossible to move without stumbling against an ordinance. From all this, Christ liberated His church, a point which our own Confession brings out admirably: “Under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected, and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”

This great fact must come out — and come out prominently — in our preaching. We are no longer slaves, but sons: “Stand fast, therefore, in the freedom with which Christ has made us free” (Gal. 5:1). Even as we thank God for the inspired word of the Old Testament, we are called upon to praise Him for the fact that we are not Old Testament believers. There are indeed parts of the Old Testament from which the very conclusion to be drawn by the preacher must be, “Thank God that things are different now.”

The Nature of Prophecy

It is even more important for the preacher to have a firm grasp of the true nature of prophecy. We have tended to see the prophets too narrowly as fore-tellers and our expositions focus almost exclusively on their predictions. They were, of course, fore-tellers, and we have no wish to minimize this. But they were much more. They were forth-tellers, men who have been summoned into God’s presence, told His secret (or “mystery”) and commissioned to be His spokesmen. Sometimes their message was a prediction, but more often, it was not. The fact that Moses was the greatest of the prophets should alert us to this. His messages were hardly ever predictive. He came forth from the Presence with great doctrines such as the unity of God (Deut. 6:4); and with a massive statement of the Law of God, involving great moral principles, complex cultic ordinances and detailed civil statutes. The same is true of the other prophets. More often than not, they were bearers of weighty doctrinal and ethical messages. Indeed even when they are predictive, their predictions can be traps for the unwary preacher. Much of what they say about the last days does not refer to the end-time at all, but to the New Testament era, marked as the age of fulfilment by the incarnation of the Son and the coming of the Spirit.

But maybe the most important fact for the expositor of the prophets is that the great bulk of Old Testament prophecy consists of God’s critical evaluation of the church. There are vast tracts, which contain only indictment and arraignment of the people of God, and if we go to them looking for predictions, Christology and clever allegories we shall go hopelessly wrong. Even in such a prophet as Hosea, with his matchless portrayal of the love and mercy and faithfulness of God, the judgmental element is uppermost: “Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you” (Hos. 6:4, 5). This was the nature of prophecy from the first, a fact upon which the perceptive Ahab laid his finger when he called Elijah “the troubler of Israel.” Was the same not true of our Lord Himself, with His great denunciations of the Pharisees? Indeed, even after His resurrection was it not the same word — the word of judgment — which he sent to the Seven Churches by His servant John? “I have something against you!”

When we are thinking of doing a series of sermons on one of the prophets, this is something we must ponder carefully. If we are going to be faithful to our text, our sermons are going to be critical and judgmental; and if we are going to expound consecutively, this is the diet our people are going to have for weeks on end. The question is: Do they need it? When John Knox preached on Daniel at the Reformation, the church needed it. The Abomination of Desolation was only too obviously active. Similarly, in many mainline churches still, there is unfaithfulness to God on a massive scale. Similarly also, in the society of our own day there is acquisitiveness, disloyalty, exploitation and oppression. In all such situations, the message of the prophets is singularly appropriate, provided a man has the courage to preach it. But before we decide to give our own congregations the same fare, we must be sure that they, too, need, in Hosea’s words, to be “cut and killed.” Are they apostate idolators, guilty of deceit and violence, resting on formal religious observances while at the same time violating all the commandments of God?

We stand, as preachers, between the world and the word. We must know the world, especially our own particular segment of it. Otherwise, we shall find ourselves accusing pious old ladies of “selling their souls to many lovers.”

A Primary Source

Two points in conclusion. First, the Old Testament is our primary source for the knowledge of many doctrines. On such topics as the attributes of God, creation and the nature of man it is far fuller than the New Testament. Indeed, one of the grave dangers in neglecting the Old Testament is that we shall produce a generation of Christians gravely deficient in their knowledge of all these fundamental matters. Nor is the problem confined to doctrine. The great bulk of biblical teaching on the subjective and experiential side of Christianity is also to be found in the Old Testament. It is there — particularly in the Psalms, Job and Jeremiah — that we see reflected the inner moods and struggles of the people of God. To ignore this vein of revelation will lead inevitably either to a superficial religion or to blank incomprehension when we find God trying our faith.

The earlier revelation also contains most of the biblical teaching on the world and our attitude to it. Compared with the New Testament, the Old is earthy, and that earthiness is an indispensable element in revelation. It tells us to subdue and colonize the earth; to be fruitful and multiply; to till the soil and keep our gardens; to name and classify the animals. It shows us men drinking wine, playing their harps and singing songs. It shows us men like Daniel, mastering pagan learning, rising to the top in the world’s greatest bureaucracy and eventually becoming the leading politician of a decadent empire — all without defiling himself. It shows us the dignity of the shepherd and the artisan, the legitimacy of the military and the God-givenness of architectural and artistic skill. None of that is rescinded in the New Testament. Indeed, much of it is reiterated. But it was because the Reformed church was so deeply rooted in the Old Testament that Abraham Kuyper could say of it, “The avoidance of the world has never been the Calvinistic mark but the shibboleth of the Anabaptist.”

Finally, the danger of a false Christocentrism. It is very well to say that Christ is everywhere in the Old Testament and that what we must take out of every text is the contribution it makes to God’s revelation of Him. But sometimes those who approach the Old Testament like this are scornful of exemplarist (or as they would call it, moralizing) preaching. They would argue that you must not use narrative texts to teach merely ethical lessons. Such stories as David and Goliath, they say, are not there to moralize, but to extend the horizons of salvation history.

The trouble with this is that it does not square with the way the New Testament uses the Old. What are we to make for example, of the Lord’s words to His disciples, “Remember Lot’s wife!”? Furthermore, the procedure misconceives Christ’s relation to the Old Testament. It is safer to say that He is everywhere behind it than to say that He is everywhere in it. Every preacher must come to his people with “the mind of Christ”. But when Paul made that claim for himself, he was not preaching Christology. He was giving elementary directions with regard to the place of women in the church. Yet he was still “preaching Christ” because he was expressing His mind.

The basic principle here must surely be: Every word in the Old Testament is from Christ, but not every word is about Christ. If so, then we are as surely preaching Christ when we draw inferences from the politics of Solomon as we are when faithfully expounding the 53rd chapter of Isaiah.

This editorial is reprinted from the February, 1984, Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland. It was taken from The Outlook magazine, November 1984.

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