A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Steven D. Mathewson
Old Testament narrative texts often intimidate preachers—especially preachers who spend most of their time in the New Testament letters. So I am grateful for Benjamin H. Walton’s book, Preaching Old Testament Narratives. As far as I can tell, it is the first book-length treatment of this issue by an evangelical since my book, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Baker Academic), was published in 2002. Walton provides a clear process for discovering and delivering the message of Old Testament texts written in the narrative genre.
The book contains two parts. In Part I (chapters 1-3), Walton presents five steps to help preachers “Discover the Message.” These steps are: (1) Select a complete unit of thought; (2) Identify the theological and historical contexts; (3) Study the plot; (4) Determine the Original-Theological Message; and (5) Craft the Take-Home Truth.
For Walton, the “THT [Take-Home Truth] is the message of the sermon…. It takes the time-specific language of the OTM [Original-Theological Message] and replaces it with timeless or contemporary equivalents.” This is a major part of Walton’s method, and he insists that “[a]ll moves from the OTM to the THT must be hermeneutically sound.”
In Part II (chapters 4-13), Walton helps preachers “Deliver the Message.” He covers a wide variety of issues, including “four pillars of excellent preaching” (accuracy, relevance, clarity, inspiring), the introduction, the conclusion, movements (in contrast to main points), overcoming listeners’ objections, developing “picture-painting applications,” moving to Christ, and some wisdom for making good sermons excellent.
Throughout the book, Walton applies his methodology to 2 Samuel 11-12. In the Appendices, he includes manuscripts from sermons on 2 Samuel 11-12 and Genesis 11:1-9.
Walton’s book has some notable strengths. First, he really does provide “a doable method for preparing sermons that is both exegetically sound and rhetorically savvy” (which Jeffrey Arthurs, writing in the foreword, says preachers need). Walton definitely understands how stories work. This comes through in his discussion of plot structure, characterization, comments by the narrator, repetition, and dialogue. His footnotes and bibliography indicate he has interacted with some of the leading experts—both evangelical and mainstream scholars—in narrative criticism: Yaira Amit, Shimon Bar-Efrat, Robert Chisholm, and Gordon Wenham. I love Walton’s emphasis on discerning the theological message of the text rather than setting for the kind of sermon which turns Old Testament narratives into “how-to” lists of principles.
Walton’s desire to anchor the sermon to the theology of the text leads him to focus on a single big idea in the tradition of Haddon Robinson and Don Sunukjian. It also leads to a keen sensitivity to the mistakes which preachers often make when applying Old Testament narrative texts. Walton discusses springboarding, the biblical model approach, the illustrated principles approach, and the universalizing the plot line approach.
One of the delights of reading Walton’s volume is the hermeneutical and homiletical wisdom that seeps from it. Here is a sample:
- “The God-centered focus of OT narratives does not mean that they are not intended to influence human behavior.” 
- “We should never underestimate our ability to misrepresent God in the pulpit.” 
- “[W]hen pastors start taking a question-based approach to commentary work, they learn to enjoy scholarly commentaries.”  Walton is referring here to pastors who go to commentaries with their own questions.
- “The biggest problem with Bible software is that the vast majority of the resources in their packages are junk or outdated and should be avoided.” 
- “We need to show we understand listeners’ struggles the way they do, without a smidgen of judgment.” 
- “If we spend ten to twenty hours in focused sermon preparation and cannot figure out concrete ways to apply the message, what is the likelihood that listeners will.” 
While I found myself applauding most of what I read, I did walk away from reading Preaching Old Testament Narratives with one major concern and a couple of minor ones.
My major concern has to do with how preachers should understand the theology of the text and relate it to a twenty-first century audience. Again, much of what Walton says is right on target. Yet I find it hard to see how his quest for the Original-Theological Message sets itself apart from the “Universalizing the Plot Line Approach” which he criticizes. He pans this approach, claiming that it results in a “When you are in a situation similar to the one in the biblical story, God will respond to you pretty much the same way he responded to them” hermeneutic. Notice, though, how Walton’s move from his OTM to his THT for 2 Samuel 11-12 universalizes the message which flows from the narrative’s plot (the underlining is his).
OTM: The LORD will use repentant kings of Israel to fulfill the Davidic Covenant, but despising the LORD’s word brings discipline.
THT: God will use us to fulfill his plan of salvation, but sin brings discipline.
Personally, I find Walton’s OTM for 2 Samuel 11-12 more compelling than the one by Haddon Robinson which he criticizes: “When David failed to walk with God, he put his life, his family and career in jeopardy.” However, I’m not sure that Walton’s OTM drills in deeply enough to the specifics of the biblical text. His OTM is certainly true, but it doesn’t capture the uniqueness of the narrative as well as some other OTMs I have heard preachers use for this narrative. For example, Scott Wenig’s OTM is: “When David abused his kingly power by seducing Bathsheba, murdering Uriah and then engaging in a conspiratorial cover up, God severely disciplined him; When David properly used his kingly power to defeat the enemies of God’s people, God blessed him with honor and glory.” Paul Borden arrives at this OTM after studying 2 Samuel 11-12: “David had to learn to accept what the grace of God had given him and what the grace of God did not.” He bases this OTM on the way the narrator draws a contrast between David and Uriah.
My point is not to debate which OTM proposal is best. Rather, it is to push back on Walton’s claim that finding the OTM is “not that difficult”  and that his methodology will result in interpreters—even “folks with no biblical training” —coming close to discerning an Old Testament narrative’s OTM. The fact remains that identifying the theological message of an Old Testament narrative is challenging because these narratives work indirectly and subtly. Walton’s methodology, as helpful as it is, does not guarantee the arrival at the “right” OTM. In fact, I suspect that five different preachers who closely follow Walton’s methodology will end up with five different OTMS—even if the differences are slight.
Furthermore, Walton’s methodology does not avoid the challenge of abstraction from the text’s OTM to the preacher’s THT. I find it curious that Walton feels free to move from “repentant kings of Israel” to “us” (a move with which I agree if the “us” refers to repentant believers), yet says that moving from David to “husband, father, leader, or believer” is necessarily mistaken. This is based on his conviction that OTMs should reflect “what a character represents theologically, not the character’s name.” But how can we be certain that the author intended for David to represent only the kings of Israel? All moves from the specific details of a biblical narrative to a timeless truth require abstraction, and this is where it is easy to skew the theological message of the text. I worry that readers might think Walton’s methodology provides the safeguard against this danger. But it simply can’t.
Here is a final comment related to the theological message of the text. I cringed when I read Walton’s approval of a paragraph in Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible For All its Worth which contains this sentence: “An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine [or behavior] taught propositionally elsewhere.” This undersells narrative as a genre and undermines the notion that books like Genesis and Exodus are Torah (instruction) while Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are all Former Prophets. I doubt that the writer of Judges would be pleased to hear that his stern prophetic rebuke of Israel’s idolatry and disobedience simply “illustrates” what other Scripture teaches elsewhere.
Now here are a couple of minor concerns. First, while the chapter on “Move to Christ” is quite helpful (especially the section on “Extent to Which Christ is Found in the OT”), the debate about Christ-centered preaching in contemporary evangelical homiletics is sharp enough—and sometimes divisive enough—that preachers need to understand it clearly in order to navigate it effectively. Readers may leave this chapter unaware of how Abraham Kuravilla’s “Christiconic” approach and Sidney Greidanus’s “Christocentric” approach are polar opposites. Walton hints at this when he says that “Christiconic interpretation is not really about how to make a formal move to Christ in the sermon” and that preachers would do well to avoid the “longitudinal themes” of Greidanus (p. 190). However, preachers working to form their approach to Christ-centered preaching of Old Testament narratives need to know that Kuruvilla sees no place in a sermon for biblical theology while Greidanus argues that every sermon from the Old Testament must move from the Old Testament text to the incarnate Christ rather than preaching theological ideas or ethical exhortations.
Another minor concern has to do with Walton’s distinction between movements and main points (p. 130) and his counsel not to word movements like main points (p. 131). His approach is legitimate and may be useful to some. In Walton’s grid, main points are prescriptive, application-oriented statements which provide abstract ideas while movements are descriptive summaries which progress a story. But other preachers may prefer to view their main points as summary statements of their movements. These movements in the sermon may simply describe the action, or they may take the form of theological statements. I agree with Walton that not every set of verses yields a clear-cut theological principle. But I find the distinction between movements and main points to be more cumbersome than helpful.
Aside from these concerns, I recommend this book to anyone preaching Old Testament narrative texts. Walton helps preachers proclaim Old Testament narratives with exegetical accuracy and rhetorical savvy. His volume will especially benefit preachers who have been too intimidated to preach from the narratives in books like Genesis, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Esther. Walton’s “heart is for practitioners,” and it shows.
Steven D. Mathewson is Senior Pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois and Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
PREACHING OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVES, by Benjamin H. Walton