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Getting the Big Idea Right

Did the preacher understand the story?
Getting the Big Idea Right
Image: Eric Skwarczynski / Lightstock

To read the sermon for this clinic, click, "No Selective Obedience."

Old Testament narrative literature provides an ideal fare for preachers who communicate to the video-saturated, story-driven listeners of the twenty-first century. However, preaching the stories of the Old Testament resembles painting your living room walls: it's easy to do poorly. Still, when done well, the results are exciting.

When the meaning of a story turns on a particular literary technique, the sermon should say something about it.

One challenge in preaching an Old Testament narrative is understanding the story. Old Testament stories work differently than poems, legal materials, or proverbs. These stories communicate truth through the interplay of characters, plot, and setting. Skillful preachers must adjust when doing their exegesis.

This sermon clinic evaluates the exegesis of the sermon " No Selective Obedience, " based on 1 Samuel 15. How well does the sermon understand the story? That is, does it reflect an accurate understanding of the text? Overall I give the exegesis a B grade. The preacher's exegesis is solid, yet there is room for improvement.


1. Sermon reflects an understanding of the story's subject.
The sermon avoids the trap of preaching a grab-bag of principles. Some preachers exegete stories by combing them for a list of moral principles they can preach. However, stories rarely work in such a manner. Rather than finding " three marks of the man who fails, " this preacher understands that 1 Samuel 15 deals with the matter of disobeying God's Word. From beginning to end, the sermon focuses on Saul's lack of obedience to God's Word. That is the disease or " depravity factor " in this story. Below I argue that the sermon needs to identify this subject more clearly and then isolate what the text says about it, but at least the exegesis is moving in the right direction.

2. Sermon pays close attention to dialogue.
Author Robert Alter notes, " Dialogue is made to carry a large part of the freight of meaning " in a Bible story. In this sermon, the preacher draws attention to the dialogue when Samuel confronts Saul. Then, the sermon invests a good portion of time in working through this dialogue. I was impressed by the preacher's awareness that Samuel's rebuke in verses 22–23 takes the form of poetic verse. Casting speech in poetic format serves to highlight or emphasize it. Often it summarizes a key idea.

3. Sermon picks up on narrative clues that provide characterization.
Old Testament stories typically show rather than tell us. While the text does not say, " Saul struggled with pride, " the details of the story make this statement. The preacher did well to notice that Saul's act of setting up a monument in his honor signifies a pride problem.

Suggestions for Improvement

1. The sermon needs to note the repetition of the term " voice. "
Good sermons on Old Testament stories do not need to point out every literary feature of the text. They must reflect the narrative artistry, but they do not cite every example of it. However, when the meaning of a story turns on a particular literary technique, and when that literary technique dominates the story, the sermon should say something about it.

This sermon overlooks the importance of the term voice. The term voice occurs seven times in the story (verses 1, 14 (twice), 19, 20, 22, 24). This is where reading the story in a more literal translation or even in the Hebrew text will pay off for the preacher. The New American Standard Bible translates the term voice four times, while the New King James Version translates the term five times. No English versions catch the double appearance of the term in verse 14. But checking the Hebrew text or a good commentary will make a preacher aware of this.

Notice how the story turns on the term voice. Samuel challenges Saul to listen to the voice of Yahweh (v. 1). However, when Samuel meets up with Saul, Samuel asks why he hears the voice of sheep and the voice of cattle when God had commanded Saul to destroy everything (v. 14). After challenging Saul's insistence that he listened to God's voice (vv. 19–20), Samuel rebukes Saul with the reminder that Yahweh puts a premium on listening to his voice over offering a sacrifice (v. 22). Finally, Saul admits the reason for his sin: listening to the voice of the people (v. 24).

2. The sermon needs to nail down the story's big idea.
As already noted, the preacher understands that the sermon's subject has to do with disobedience to God's Word. But the sermon loses momentum because it doesn't specify how the story develops this subject. Does the story primarily probe the causes of disobedience to God (why Saul disobeyed)? Or does it focus more on the consequence of disobedience to God (what happened to Saul as a result of disobedience)?

While the story supplies some answer to the former question, I believe it focuses more on the latter one. The story answers the question: " What happens when God's people disobey? " The answer is: " They experience God's rejection. " Now the main idea of the sermon emerges. I would state it like this: " The result of rejecting God's voice is God's rejection of you. "

If you conducted an exit interview after this sermon was delivered, I suppose most people could identify what the sermon was about: obedience or disobedience to God. But I imagine few could state in a sentence what the sermon said about this subject. This highlights the need for the preacher to identify clearly the story's subject (what it is talking about) and also its complement (what it is saying about what it is talking about). The story in 1 Samuel 15 goes for the jugular. But readers won't feel the story strike its blow unless the sermon nails down the big idea more specifically.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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