Preaching the Old Testament

A sermon by Dr Anthony Rees for the ‘Debate the Preacher’ series at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane on Sunday, 9 February 2014. Published here at Anthony’s request.

Last week we commenced on a four week series—Why Bother with the Old Testament?  My colleague, Rev Dr Greg Jenks gave a fascinating reflection on this, inviting us to imagine a bible without the law, a bible without the prophets, a bible without the poems.  What sort of bible would that leave us with?  A narrow one, a lighter one—and not only in size.  Greg’s position was that we should bother with the Old Testament.  For the sake of the series, I considered proposing an alternative view.  But I need you to understand something.  I am writing my second book on the book of Numbers.  To be clear, if there is a book we have not bothered with, it is Numbers.  So if word got out that I had claimed that we need not bother with the OT, that would have been very bad for me.

Greg began by playing a little with this title—Why Bother with the Old Testament?  Is this a question, or a statement?  If it is a question, how should we inflect it?  I want to suggest that the question itself assumes that we should bother with the Old Testament.  Even if we ultimately come to a point of rejection, we can only get there through a process of bothering.  But ‘bother’ itself is ambiguous.  To bother can mean to pay attention to, to attempt to understand.  In this sense it has a positive meaning.  But I say to my son, stop bothering your sister, by which I mean agitate, disturb, and it is generally not said positively.  Can we agitate the Old Testament—can we mess with it, can we play with it, can we bother it.  If we do, is it positive or negative?  Plenty of things I read, and write, suggest that we can—but that is for another time.

What I want to do tonight is to pick up on something that came out of the discussion which followed Greg’s sermon.  If we affirm that we should bother with the OT, how should that manifest itself in our worshipping community?  The simple answer was that we should devote preaching to it—a recognition that much, if not all of our preaching tends to focus in on the NT readings.  For a long time, that meant Paul, and the reinforcement of doctrine.  But in more recent decades, as we have understood that our lives are a narrative, not a series of propositional statements, the gospel narrative has become a more potent source for preaching.  I have to make clear that this focus on NT preaching is not universal.  Indeed, I suspect it is a western phenomenon.  In the rural areas of Fiji, you might be lucky to hear one NT sermon a month.  The same is true of Africa.  I preached a sermon from John in Kenya a few years ago, and I think the local minister was very surprised.

So I am going to preach from an OT text—but I want to do so as a way of demonstrating what I think is another compelling reason for us to hold onto the OT.  That is, that the OT gives us an emotional vocabulary to express our human experience, that is far richer than what we find in the NT.  Much of this is lost, due to the tragically sterilising work of the lectionary compilers.  But if we were in a sense, to reclaim our scriptures, we might be surprised at what we find.  Actually, my experience is that people are always surprised at what they find.


For centuries, one figure dominated our interpretation of the psalms; David, the charismatic, god fearing, heroic King of biblical Israel, whose story we read in the books of Solomon, Kings and Chronicles.  This king, warrior, singer and song writer was thought to be the writer of many of the psalms we have collected in this book.  The superscriptions made it clear.  A psalm of David.  It was thought that at least some of these psalms could be traced to particular events in the story of David’s life as we read it in the historical books.  For example, psalm 51 has been thought to be written as a response to David’s actions with Bathsheba; in some sense, a display of contrition in light of his moral failing.  The psalms inspired readers, being, as Ellen Davis puts it, the spontaneous outpourings of a pious King’s heart.

The twentieth century fractured that romantic view.  No longer are these psalms valued for their insight into David’s life, which is now considered to be essentially unknowable, but instead for the way in which their more generalized language and forms have made them accessible to generations of worshippers.  These songs belong not to David, but to all those who worship the God of Israel.  As Davis says again, they are intensely personal, and yet, not private.  Their response of faith to human experience ensures that they serve as the single most important resource for both Jewish and Christian prayer.

So it is with psalm 22, a lament, perhaps the supreme example of lament in the psalms.  The psalm divides into two major sections. Vss 1-21 are what we might generally refer to as the lament, vss 22-31 being a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance.  The distinction between the two sections is so sharp that some scholars have suggested that these two fragments may have come from separate authors, or at least represent two independent compositions.  If we were interested in looking for an author, this may well be a clue to us.  However, if we approach the psalm with a view to reading it as a liturgical work, what we see instead is not discontinuity, but rather, a liturgical process; the lamenting prayer makes way for the praise and thanksgiving which follows the assurance of God’s gracious response.

My, God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  The opening question leads to another—why are you so far from helping, from the words of my roaring?  And a further complaint—I cry, day and night, but find no rest, by which he means not peace, but rather, no reason to stop crying, God’s abandonment is still real to our psalmist.  This is an interesting problem.  The psalter is full of assertions that God does not abandon his people (see Psalms 9, 27, 37, 38, 71), and yet what we have in this psalm is a writer in despair, complaining bitterly at God’s abandonment.  Despite his bitterness, the writer is still some way from turning away from God.  His cry reveals his desperation, twice calling ‘my God’, what Calvin notes as a distinct profession of faith, the cry of a believer.

The shift in vs 3 highlights the gravity of the psalmist’s theological problem.  The essence of Israelite covenant faith is that trust in God leads to deliverance.    This is the story of ‘our’ ancestors, those who cried out, trusted and found deliverance.  This story is the praise upon which Yhwh is enthroned!  The use of ‘our’ is instructive also.  There is an understanding that personal distress can be held together with a common history.  The prayer for personal deliverance is spoken in the midst of others.  This idea reiterates Davis’ comment; it is personal, but not private.

At vs 6 the tone changes again.  The psalmist reveals something of his circumstances.  He is a worm—an object of derision, of insignificance.  People around him taunt him—all who see me, he says.  The taunts reveal to us the nature of the psalmist’s mental turmoil; God’s apparent inaction justifies the taunts of the mockers.  Their taunts have a tinge of truth to them; ‘let Yhwh deliver —let him deliver the one in whom he delights’—their taunt echoes the historical recollection of the ancestors who were ‘delivered’ in vs 4.  The irony is cutting.  God’s abandonment seems evident to the onlookers, their jibes are internalised by the psalmist.

Again the focus shifts at verse 9.  A pattern has emerged: vs 3 commences with the words, ‘But you’, verse six, ‘But I’, and at verse nine, ‘But you’, though this time a little more emphatically.  The psalmist again looks at God’s action in the past, though this time not with Israel, but with himself.  God is imaged as a midwife, taking him from the womb and placing him on the mother’s breast.  God, the gentle, caring, compassionate midwife is tenderly concerned for the well being of this new life.  God has been intimately involved in the development of our psalmist, so much so that he proclaims, ‘since my mother bore me, you have been my god’, forming an inclusio with the opening cry of the psalm—my god, my god—god who has always been my god, why have you forsaken me?  The opening section concludes with a plea which affords us a glimpse of what lies ahead—do not be far, trouble is all around, there is no one to help.

Vss 12-18 reveal an ever deepening despair and unravelling of the psalmist.  The language is metaphorical, the imagery powerful.  His enemies are described as wild animals; bulls, lions and dogs.  The animals are symbols of non human strength.  They are animals that represent a threat to human existence.  In the ancient world they could also represent demonic forces, an image which dramatically heightens the picture of fear that is being painted.  They surround him, stalk him and appear ready to pounce on their prey.  They seem to be ever closing—vivid contrast to God’s supposed distance.  The psalmist’s physical state is disastrous—his energy is consumed, his body battered, his heart melts, his mouth is dried out—he is fatigued and thirsty beyond the ability to speak, death is assured.  So certain are the enemies of his demise that they cast lots for his clothing—this man is beyond hope.  In fact, in the midst of this litany of disaster, God does appear, but only to lay the victim in the dust, symbolising the apparent certainty of death.

Vs 19—But you, and here the psalmist names God Yhwh for the first time, and prays not for closeness, but for deliverance, for help.  Vss 20-21 are remarkable; ‘deliver my soul from the sword, my life (my only one) from the power of the dog; save me from the mouth of the lion’, and then, remarkably, ‘from the horn of the wild ox you have rescued me!’—the perfect tense immediately changes the tenor of the text.  No longer is this a psalm of petition, of imploring god to be close, of crying out for divine help.  This is now a prayer of assurance, you have rescued me!

The praise that follows unfolds in sharp distinction to the lament from which it proceeds.  The lament is marked by a sense of entrapment, of an ever tightening circle of danger.  The praise and thanksgiving section however, moves ever outward in its expression, moving from brothers and sisters, to the congregation, to the offspring of Jacob, to the ends of the earth—all the families of nations, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.  All of humanity is caught up in the psalmists vision of praise to the almighty god of his deliverance.  It hints at Isaiah’s vision—that the whole of the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, though its scope is even wider.

While the universal vision that this portion of the psalm presents is breathtaking, these verses contain other significant statements that we mustn’t ignore.  Vs 22 places the psalmist in the presence of friends, in opposition to the enemies that have surrounded him to this point.  That he is in the midst of the congregation also tells us that what is being described is a liturgical, religious event.  This is extended in vss 25-26, where having offered his vows in recognition of God’s action, the psalmist joins in a thanksgiving meal.  This is a symbol both of a reconciled community and fellowship with God.  The psalmist, who had previously approached death exclaims to those with whom he shares ‘may your hearts live forever’.

The language of verse 26 is particularly significant.  The poor (the afflicted, the lowly) shall eat and be satisfied, those who ‘seek’ will praise the Lord.  James Luther Mays sees here a clear redefining of who Israel is.  It is not the trouble he has faced which has made the psalmist lowly or afflicted.  This suffering has happened to him  ‘as’ one of the lowly, and God’s response shows that he is the God of the lowly, of the afflicted, not in circumstance, but in being.  This too reaches back to vs 24 and is a realisation that God’s apparent absence was an illusion.  So the psalmist answers his own complaint—he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried.  The meal then is not just a meal of physical nourishment, but also represents a spiritual fill for those who continue to be ‘lowly’.

In response to God’s actions on behalf of the psalmist, the nations are called to praise god.  This is an unusual move, as the nations are often pictured as god’s enemies (Ps 2).  Even more peculiar is that they are said to ‘remember’, and ‘turn’, verbs which are commonly implored of Israel.  And then they will worship, or ‘bow low’.  Interestingly, Israel is frequently warned against becoming like the nations.  Here, the nations are to become ‘like Israel’, the clear implication being that Yhwh rules the nations.

The ever widening circle even encompasses those who have died or have not yet lived.  This lends the psalm an eschatological character, particularly with the future tense verbs of vss 27 onwards.  Death comes to all, but the delivering acts of God will be told from generation to generation; he has done it.

The sufferer of the psalm experiences the terror of human mortality, acutely aware of god’s absence and the presence of enemies.  The prayer of the psalmist offers us a paradigm for expressing our own suffering—to use it is to set one’s self within the paradigm.  For Christians, this psalm has taken on special significance, since Jesus’ appropriation of the psalm joins him with the countless others—the company of the afflicted, and he becomes one with them in the midst of suffering.  Jesus’ use of the psalm invites us to pray with him in the midst of our own turmoil.

But this psalm, in the end, is not about suffering.  It is, finishing with the words of Ellen Davis, about the possibility, efficacy and necessity of giving praise to god’.  He has done it.

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