Thoughts on Preaching: Expository Preaching (1)

Yes, I’ll speak.” You’ve made one decision, only to be faced with another: What will you say? Well, hopefully you’ll preach from a Scripture text. Even the preacher to the Hebrews, Spirit-inspired as he was, wants to preach from a text. In his sermon in Hebrews 3-4, he takes up Psalm 95. With a whole Bible to preach from, one need never run out of something to say.

So you choose a text too. Say it’s 1 Kings 3:16-4:34, where King Solomon displays his wisdom. But the question stubbornly continues to confront you: What will you say about your text?

There are two ways to chase the question away. The first is by asking: “What can I say about this text?” This liberating approach can produce pages of sermon material. Applying it to 1 Kings 3-4, you could talk about wisdom – its importance, definition and relevance for leaders. Add a choice selection of Solomon’s wise sayings from Proverbs, and a verse or two from James, and you’ll soon have enough to fill the hour.

The resulting message will include much sound and helpful Bible teaching. But the preacher to the Hebrews models a different way of approaching the text. Instead of the liberating question, “What can I say about this text?” he teaches us to ask a constraining question: “What does this text say?”[1] Do you hear the difference? Let’s join him in his study, and try to pick up his approach.

A Method of Study

He’s brooding prayerfully over Psalm 95: “What does the text say?” We watch him perform the following steps to find out:

He reads the text carefully to discern its structure. See how he noted the shift in speaker in Psalm 95:7d. This structural indicator divides the psalm into two halves and gives our preacher his preaching unit (see Heb 3:7-11).[2]

He traces the passage’s flow of thought. His sermon makes much of the thought flow between the two occurrences of “heart(s)” (3:8,10) and the intervening “therefore” (3:12-13). He knows the promise of entering God’s rest still stands (4:1) because he’s traced the logic of the passage from beginning (4:3) to end (4:7).

He interprets it in its historical and literary contexts. His whole point near the end of his sermon (4:9) rests on the historical context of Psalm 95 – that it was written and sung in worship many generations after Joshua gave Israel rest.

He interprets the text in its biblical-theological context. The preacher knows that the Spirit of God has woven themes into the Bible, and into the story of salvation, that culminate in Christ. He’s detected one such theme – the theme of rest – in Psalm 95, a theme that first appears in the opening pages of Genesis (4:3-4,9-10).

Finally, he wrestles to put it all into one summary sentence: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12).[3]

We tiptoe out, and try running through these same steps for our preaching text (1Ki 3:16-4:34):

Structurally, the text breaks into three main sections: 3:16-28, 4:1-19, 4:20-34.

The flow of thought runs like this: by his wisdom King Solomon brings about justice (3:16-28), order (4:1-19), and flourishing (4:20-34).

In the historical context of 1-2 Kings, the author is writing to God’s people who have suffered exile (2Ki 25:27-30). Their temple is in ruins, their king captured. In the literary context, a foolish king succeeds the wise one, and the united kingdom is soon divided (1Ki 12), then exiled (2Ki 25). Even so, the book ends on a note of hope for David’s line (25:27).

As to the biblical-theological context, the passage describes a moment in Israel’s history when earlier promises of fruitfulness (4:20; Gen 22:17), territory (4:21,24; Gen 15:18), and prosperity (4:22-23; Exo 3:8) are initially fulfilled. God’s people are experiencing God’s shalom – life as it was meant to be. Surrounded by safety, everyone is living “under his vine and under his fig tree” (4:25), just as it will be one day in the coming kingdom (Mic 4:4). But not all is well in this “perfect” picture. Even as God is fulfilling promises, Solomon is also compromising commandments.[4] The cracks that will eventually rupture the whole kingdom are already beginning to appear.

Brief summary of what the text says: Writing to people who have lost their land, king and temple, the author of 1-2 Kings recounts the golden age of their nation. He’s showing them what it looks like when wisdom reigns – God’s promises coming true, everyone enjoying justice, order and flourishing – and what happens when sin takes over.

A Method of Preaching

Once we’ve followed the “what does the text say?” approach in study, we have only to follow the “how do I say and apply what the text says?” approach in preaching it. This is known as expository preaching,[5] and is modeled by our preacher: “His intention is not arbitrarily to select a phrase or two from this psalm, and then … build around them a sermon composed largely of ideas that have little or nothing to do with their original context. His sermon will take the form of expository preaching. He will follow the passage’s own progress of thought from the beginning to end … all the while justifying his application of the warning of this Old Testament psalm to his contemporary [hearers].”[6]

Briefly, an expository sermon on 1 Kings 3-4 could look something like this: The world we all want is a world of (1) justice, (2) order, and (3) flourishing. (4) The world we want is a world we’ll get – when a greater, wiser, and more faithful than Solomon returns (Luk 11:31). “What does the text say?” In constraining the preacher to the text, the question sets him free.

[1] Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2017), 124.

[2] David Gooding, The Riches of Divine Wisdom: The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament (Coleraine, N Ireland: Myrtlefield Trust, 2013), 259.

[3] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV. The observation that this verse is the preacher’s summary of his text comes from Gooding, 260.

[4] 4:26; Deu 17:16, for just one example.

[5] For a solid introduction, see David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014).

[6] Gooding, The Riches of Divine Wisdom, 259. My emphasis.