Preaching the Minor Prophets
Preaching the Minor Prophets
Editor's Note: In this article Aaron Chalmers has given us a three tips to help us preach the Minor Prophets. For a more thorough treatment of the Minor Prophets, including help exegeting the Minor Prophets, check out his book Interpreting the Prophets (IVP, 2015).
Preaching the Minor Prophets can be both a joy and a challenge. Their words rebuke and confront us. They can also comfort and encourage us. On a fundamental level, preaching from these books is no different from preaching from any other section of Scripture. We need to listen to the prophets in their world, paying attention to the way they used language (their rhetorical style/s), and the historical context they addressed, as well as attempting to hear how they address our world, which is both similar to yet vastly different from the world of ancient Israel. Nevertheless, there are some special considerations we should be aware of as we attempt to develop and deliver faithful sermons from these texts.
Selecting preaching texts wisely
The books of the Minor Prophets range in length from one chapter (Obadiah) to fourteen chapters (Hosea). It is certainly possible to preach through the shorter books in a single sermon or a short series of sermons. For the longer books (e.g., Hosea, Amos), however, preachers should consider whether they need to work through the book in its entirety or not. It needs to be kept in mind that the prophetic books are essentially anthologies of the prophet's words, and thus we tend to find each prophet primarily focusing on a few key themes which he revisits over and over again. For example, the book of Hosea possesses three central themes: the love and commitment of the Lord for his people, the faithlessness (and imminent judgment) of Israel in her religious and political life, and the eventual restoration of Israel after judgment. These themes are developed in different ways and approached from different perspectives throughout the book, but essentially they represent the heart of what the prophet has to say.
If this is the case, it may not be essential for the preacher to work through the entirety of one of the longer books in a verse-by-verse fashion. Such an approach can become tedious, for both the preacher and congregation, as the sermons may end up being somewhat repetitive. Instead, the preacher could consider focussing on a select number of key passages, which provide a suitable introduction to and overview of the prophet's message for the congregation. These can be identified on the basis of a repeated reading of the text, and resources like lectionaries or Bible dictionaries will also help. For example, when dealing with the book of Hosea the preacher could begin with a sermon on chapters 1-3, which focus on the relationship between Hosea, his wife, and their children, as an introduction to the key ideas and themes of the book as a whole. This could be followed by sermons on chapters 4 and 6 (or sections thereof) in which the prophet focuses on the key sins and problems he sees within the nation of Israel. This would then lead into a sermon on Hosea 11 which describes the Lord's continued love for the people, before culminating in a final sermon on Hosea 14 which summarises the people's expected response to the Lord's love.
Preaching texts must also be selected carefully with a view to the situation of the congregation. The prophetic books themselves are highly situational—they present specific messages for a specific people dealing with specific problems. For example, Amos addresses Israelites living in the northern kingdom in the 8th century B.C., while Haggai and Zechariah address Judeans seeking to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, the temple, and their community following the return from exile in the late 6th-early 5th century B.C. As a result, we will find that the prophetic books sometime speak with more than one voice on a given issue; when compared, the prophets may bring apparently opposing or competing messages depending on the situation of their audience. For example, Zechariah can say to the post-exilic population of Judea, and particularly Jerusalem, "Behold the Day of the Lord is coming - and it will be a good thing! The Lord will protect his people and defeat your enemies" (Zech. 12) whereas Amos announces to his pre-exilic Israelite audience "Alas, do not desire the Day of the Lord, for it will be a time of judgement against you" (Amos 5:18-20). The reason for these different messages is clear. Zechariah was addressing a small, insignificant, powerless community that was threatened by and subject to the whims of larger nations and empires. Amos, on the other hand, was addressing an audience who had become so blind to their own sin they refused to believe God would come in judgment. Different situations, different messages.
The implication of this phenomenon for preaching from the Minor Prophets is that the preacher has to make sure they carefully discern the situation of his or her audience and identify the appropriate message they need to hear on this basis. Contrasting situations should call forth different messages. If we preach Zechariah's message to the kind of congregation that Amos addressed (or vice versa) we may end up perpetuating and reinforcing the problems which are already present instead of addressing and dealing with these appropriately. At times, we will need to build up and plant, at others we will need to uproot and tear down (Jer. 1:6).
The situational nature of the prophetic literature also means that some passages will speak more directly to ourselves and our churches than others. While we affirm that all of the prophetic literature is God's inspired word, this does not mean that we can equally apply every prophetic passage to every situation. This is a reality that we see at play elsewhere in the Scriptures: the psalms of lament, for example, speak into different times and situations than the psalms of thanksgiving. Thus, we need to be careful of simply assuming that every prophetic passage will be directly relevant to the situation of our congregation just because it is part of Scripture.
Read the text theologically
When we preach from the prophets it is sometimes easy to get bogged down in issues of morality and behaviour—telling people what they need to do or what they should avoid. In fact, this is what some people label as "prophetic preaching": preaching which is designed to influence (social) behaviour. There are two key problems with this emphasis. Firstly, it can lack genuine transformative power. The issue for the majority of the people in our congregations is not lack of knowledge—they know what they should and should not be doing. What they do need, however, is a renewed vision of why such actions are important. Or, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, they require "transformed imaginations": a (re)newed vision of reality based on the biblical text which both calls into question old paradigms, and empowers new ways of living and being the people of God today. Hence, a heavily didactic, morality focussed approach which is not accompanied by a renewed vision of God and reality is somewhat naïve in that it is unlikely to bring about the change for which it calls.
The second problem with this emphasis is that it substitutes what is secondary and contingent in the prophets' message (morality) for what is primary (theology). The primary concern of the prophets was to announce God's Word, will, and acts to his people. The prophets were primarily focused on the character and activity of God—past, present, and future—as it impinged on the life of the people in a given situation at a given point in time. Furthermore, given that the main point of connection between the "then and there" of the ancient Israelites with the "here and now" of the contemporary church audience is the faithful covenant God who is Lord of all, then the character and activity of God should be the central concern of those who seek to preach from these writings today.
In order to facilitate theological exposition of the prophets, it is worth considering a paradigmatic approach to the text. This approach is based on the assumption that the Old Testament, as Allen and Holbert say, "contains paradigms of God's presence, purpose, and power (as well as paradigms of human response to the divine presence and purpose)." In particular, the prophetic books provided us with recurrent pictures of divine behaviour and purpose in the world through which we may catch a glimpse of how God characteristically relates to people. We are also given insight into what God characteristically expects of people and thus may come to appreciate the priorities God has. On this basis, we can extrapolate how God may be at work in the church and world today and the kind of behaviour and concerns the people of God may be expected to embody in their life today.
It may be helpful to compare and contrast this method with the approach that we find in a book like The Late Great Planet Earth, which constantly looks for the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in contemporary events around the world. As Goldingay has recognised in his book Key Questions about Biblical Interpretation, both approaches recognize that the prophetic books are the inspired words of God with a significance that extends beyond their original context and that they are thus important for the people of God A.D. as well as B.C.; the issue, therefore, is not whether the prophecies apply to today but how. The Late, Great Planet Earth approach assumes that the prophets speak directly of our age, and thus looks for the fulfilment of their words in the events of our time. A paradigmatic approach, on the other hand, assumes that the prophets speak directly to our age (just as they speak to every age), but focuses on the what the text reveals about how God works, how he relates to his people, and what he expects of his people.
Practically, this means that we should consider the following kinds of questions when we seek to preach from the prophetic writings:
i) How is God's character and activity portrayed in this passage (e.g., is the Lord portrayed as a wrathful judge, a hurt lover, a compassionate parent)? Why does God intend to act in this fashion (e.g., have the people committed a specific sin, are they helpless and vulnerable, does God's gracious character 'force' him to act in a certain way)?
ii) What is God calling people to be and do in this passage (e.g., are they being instructed to embrace or abandon certain cultic or social practices, is the Lord wanting them to change their attitudes and/or priorities)? Why are they called to act in this fashion (e.g., is this connected with a specific command or law, does this reflect the way God himself has acted towards his people in the past, is there some intrinsic problem which such activity might create or lead to)?
iii) What is paradigmatic in this passage (e.g., how does God's call for his people transcend the specific, historical context of the text, are there elements of the text which resonate with other OT and NT passages)?
iv) In the light of the above, how might we expect God to be at work in our world today (e.g., how do sinners - and others - often suffer the consequences of their actions, how does God bless those who are faithful, how does God continue to speak to his people through his Word)? How might this text shape the life and faith of the people of God today (e.g., is there a certain issue in the life of the contemporary people of God - corporately or individually - that the prophetic text calls into question, does the text encourage us with a renewed vision of God's love, grace and mercy towards his people)?
Develop appropriate analogies
Preaching the prophets well requires an ability to identify appropriate analogies. Analogies are similar to metaphors and similes in that they involve the comparison of two different things which are alike in some way. Stephen Farris puts it this way, "Analogy is not identification but the perception of similarity. Our situation is not the same as that of the first readers or hearers of a text. It may be similar, however."
Identifying analogies essentially involves asking the question: "To what shall we compare this (person, place, thing, or event) in our lives and the lives of our listeners?" Michael Williams goes on to say "The general question when beginning to look for contemporary analogies for an ancient text is, When have my listeners experienced something analogous to the events of the text?" (2008: 183). For example, it has frequently been suggested that the situation of Israel during the Babylonian exile is analogous to the situation of the church today; in both instances we are dealing with a once-great power whose influence has waned and whose symbols of meaning are mocked and dismissed. Because analogies involve finding points of connection between the world of the text and the world of the listeners, they engage the congregation and help them enter into the experience of the text with greater freshness and immediacy. Good analogies help the text come alive.
For example, Hosea 10:5-6 anticipates the coming judgement of the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrian king:
The inhabitants of Samaria tremble
for the calf of Beth-aven.
Its people shall mourn for it,
and its idolatrous priests shall wail over it,
over its glory that has departed from it.
The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria
as tribute to the great king.
Ephraim shall be put to shame,
and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.
Such a passage raises interesting insights into the nature, influence, and consequences of idolatry, and challenges us to think about those things in our lives which we are invested in, in which we take pride, and which might cause us to grieve should we lose them. For some people this might include their work (including ministry work!), especially in those cases where it has become an unhealthy obsession, impacting on all aspects of their and their family's existence. For others, it may be their house or other material possessions for which they have expended considerable time, effort and resources, an expenditure which sometimes far outweighs their contribution to the Kingdom. Furthermore, it is worth considering corporate idols our churches may be pursuing—more money, more facilities, even more people, etc.—which can all potentially be problematic in their own ways.
In the Minor Prophets, we hear the word of God addressing the needs, problems, crises, along with the hopes and dreams of the people of God during the first millennium B.C. This word addressed them with a power and urgency which both pulled down and built up (Jer. 1:10). The challenge which lies before preachers today is to facilitate the engagement of that word with the contemporary world in a way that mirrors that original power and urgency. As a means of encouraging this process, I have proposed a three-stage homiletical process which essentially involves: (i) selecting an appropriate text, (ii) listening to the text theologically, and (iii) identifying appropriate analogies. In this way, it is hoped that preachers may bridge the significant chronological, cultural, and covenantal gaps which separates our world from that of the prophets.
Aaron Chalmers is the Head of the School of Ministry, Theology, and Culture at Tabor Adelaide in South Australia, and the author of Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel: Prophet, Priest, Sage and People and Interpreting the Prophets: Reading, Understanding and Preaching from the Worlds of the Prophets.