How (Not) to Preach Historical Narrative
Despite making up roughly 40 percent of the Old Testament, historical narratives are often a locked box for many evangelicals, including preachers.
The biggest question we need to answer when preaching historical narratives is “what is the meaning of these events?” And given that these narratives often don’t come with explanatory theological commentary, how do we determine the meaning of the event?
Below I’ll discuss ways you shouldn’t preach historical narrative, illustrating each point by primarily looking at 1 Samuel 4–7: the battle of Aphek, the conflict between Dagon and Yahweh, and the battle of Ebenezer. If you haven’t read those chapters in a while, I’d encourage you to give them a look.
1. Don’t create your own version of the story.
Preach the text, not historical backgrounds. Sometimes preachers are more fascinated by their historical reconstruction of the events described in Scripture than by the actual words of Scripture. Describing the landscape of Aphek or postulating why the Philistines chose to attack along a specific route may help our understanding of the text, but emphasize the text. Never let your historical reconstruction overwhelm the story as God told it in Scripture.
2. Don’t isolate it from earlier stories.
The basic rule of interpretation is context, context, context. Before you jump straight to Jesus, consider how your story develops previous themes in Scripture. Or consider how it mirrors previous events, or assumes an already established understanding of characters and motivations.
For instance, a number of scholars have ridiculed the notion that Rahab’s scarlet cord foreshadows the blood of Christ. Certainly, some preachers have approached the connection between the two events fancifully. But the relationship between Rahab’s cord and the cross isn’t as far-fetched when we read Joshua in light of earlier stories. Joshua 2 shares a number of linguistic and thematic parallels with Exodus 12, including the fact that both the scarlet cord in the window and the Passover blood on the doorpost are called “signs” of God’s deliverance (Exod 12:13; Josh 2:12). These allusions and a number of other features in the early chapters of Joshua invite readers to see Rahab’s salvation as a new Passover. Yet astoundingly in this Passover God isn’t saving his people from Egypt but making a Gentile prostitute part of the people of God.1
Of course, not every detail in the text produces such rich theological connections, but reading in light of earlier narratives still helps your congregation understand the logic and drama of the story. Consider the first verses of 1 Samuel 4. After the Philistines slaughter 4,000 Israelites on the battlefield, the Israelites ask that the Ark of the Covenant join the military on the front lines (1 Sam 4:3). But as the Ark arrives the narrator offers an important detail: “the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (1 Sam. 4:4).
Cue the foreboding music. If we’ve been paying attention to previous stories, we know Hophni and Phinehas’ presence is an ominous one. These sons of Eli are symbols of Israel’s covenant infidelity (1 Sam. 2:12–17), the failure of the priesthood (1 Sam. 2:27–36), and the Lord’s impending judgment (1 Sam. 2:34). They represent death, when what Israel really needs is resurrection.
3. Don’t forget the covenants.
Scholars sometimes note that Old Testament narrators are characterized by reticence. In other words, the way they tell stories is suggestive and allusive; they don’t often break the fourth wall and tell readers “the point.” On occasion, the narrator breaks in with an explanatory comment, like the ominous conclusion to the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba —“the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). But these instances are remarkable precisely because they’re the exception, not the rule.
So how do we know “God’s perspective” on the meaning of the events recorded in Scripture if the authors don’t always tell us? Simple, we read each story in light of all of Scripture, particularly in light of the covenants. In the covenants, God defines his relationship with his people through promises, laws, blessings, and warnings. The covenants provide us a set of expectations. They give us an interpretive lens to assess what’s happening. In other words, they give us the divine perspective on Israel’s history. We don’t ultimately need to be told that David’s actions with Bathsheba are evil; the covenants already tell us as much (Exod. 20:14, 17; Deut. 17:17). The fact that the author underscores God’s response signals that God is mega-displeased with David.
The covenants reveal the meaning of the event. When God blesses Potiphar on account of Joseph, he’s fulfilling his promise to Abraham to bless the nations (Gen. 12:3). When Moses tells us that Israel was “fruitful and multiplied greatly” in the land of Goshen (Gen. 47:27), he’s not randomly noting Hebrew fertility rates. He’s recalling the Adamic commission of the creation covenant (Gen. 1:28) and the seed promise of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:2; 17:2). God is fulfilling through Israel his purposes for creation he began with Adam. When the narrator chronicles Solomon’s many horses in 1 Kings 4:26, previous injunctions in the Mosaic covenant show us God is ultimately displeased with Solomon’s actions (Deut. 17:14–17)—even if God’s displeasure isn’t mentioned in the immediate context.
Consider how the covenants inform our understanding of 1 Samuel 4. Israel is living in disobedience. The word of the Lord is rare (1 Sam 3:1). The priests are corrupt (1 Sam 2:12–36). Amidst all this, the covenants show us exactly what we should expect. When Israel disobeys, God sends judgment through foreign militaries (Deut. 28:25–26). Israel’s defeat under the Philistines isn’t mere happenstance, but the judgment of God against their corruption. The Lord is enacting covenant curses against the nation. Of course, 1 Samuel 4 never explicitly says that the Philistines are God’s instrument of judgment. But by reading in light of the covenants we see the meaning of this event. And, of course, the covenant sets up our expectations for what follows. If Israel continues in their wickedness they will be exiled from the land (Deut. 28:36).
4. Don’t miss what God is doing.
Closely related to the previous point, don’t forget to ask: What is God doing in the story? It’s so easy to get caught up in the human drama we sometimes forget to see what these stories show us about the character of God and his purposes in the world.
Once again, the covenants provide the framework to understand what God is doing in redemptive history, even when the biblical authors don’t explicitly tell us.
For example, Joshua’s victory in the battle of Jericho shows us something of Joshua’s unwavering faith. But even more, the battle shows us that God fights for his people and fulfills covenant promises. David’s victory over Goliath is truly a story of faith and courage. But even more, it’s a story of how God uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and how he mediates his own victory through a messianic king to his people.2
Back to 1 Samuel and the battle of Aphek. What happens to the book’s main characters—Hannah, Samuel, and Eli—after Israel’s defeat? They completely disappear from the story. Instead, the author focuses on the Ark of the Covenant, a symbolic stand-in for Yahweh himself (Exod. 25:22). At this point, the narrator subverts our expectations. We expect the Philistines to carry Israel off into exile, yet Israel remains in the land. Instead, the Philistines take the Ark of the Covenant into exile, placing it in the temple of Dagon like a defeated, humiliated deity (1 Sam. 5:1–2).
But in this exile and apparent weakness, Yahweh shows his strength. He topples Dagon and cuts off his hands. After defeating Dagon, he goes after Dagon’s people—moving from city to city utterly destroying the Philistines and accomplishing what Israel never could.
The story is one of substitution. Yahweh himself undergoes Israel’s covenant curses in their place—an idea alluded to as far back as Genesis 15:17. Yahweh is exiled in Israel’s place and then from a place of apparent weakness defeats Israel’s enemies.
Preach what God is doing in each Old Testament story. What God does in Christ in the New Testament is foreshadowed in the old (1 Cor. 15:3–4).
5. Don’t ignore the literary features of the story.
The biblical authors employ a number of literary features in historical narrative. Here’s a sampling:
- Parallelism (Abraham and Isaac’s encounters with Abimelech [Gen. 20; 26]).
- Inclusio [Joseph’s brothers bowing to him at the beginning and end of the Joseph story [Gen: 37:6–8 and 50:18]).
- Creative use of numbers (the fivefold “curse” in Gen. 1–11 contrasted with the fivefold “blessing” in Gen. 12:1–3)
- Sandwiched stories (Judah’s story in Gen. 38 sandwiched by Joseph stories [Gen 37; 39–41])
- Narrative patterns (cycle of the judges).
One literary feature in biblical narrative is verbal repetition. In 1 Samuel 5 consider the author’s repeated mention of hands. Yahweh cuts off Dagon’s “hands”—symbols of strength and authority (1 Sam 5:4; cf. Isa. 14:27; 41:20; Acts 4:28). The author repeats the word “hands” four times in the next seven verses, focusing on Yahweh’s powerful hands: “The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod” (6, 7, 9, 11).3 The verbal repetition underscores the meaning of the event. The Philistines think Dagon has the upper-hand on Yahweh, but Yahweh shows Dagon has no hands at all. Dagon’s hands are weightless, impotent, shattered. The Lord’s hand is heavy, strong, and effectual.
6. Don’t miss the structure.
You don’t need to sketch out the structure of a passage on a white board for your congregation. And I’m not suggesting you pepper your sermons with language like “this story is a chiasm.” Most of the time, explaining a complex literary structure just before lunch on Sunday morning is not the wisest homiletical decision. But understanding the structure may help unlock the meaning of the event and help you explain its significance to your people.
For instance, the stories in 1 Samuel 4–7 are a chiasm.
A Battle of Aphek (Philistine victory), 4:1b–11
B Ark captured and exiled 4:12–22
C Ark in Philistia (plagues), 5:1–12
D Return of Ark, 6:1–18
C‘ Ark in Beth Shemesh (plagues), 6:19–21
B‘ Ark in Kiriath-jearim, 7:1–2
A‘ Battle of Ebenezer (Israelite Victory), 7:3–174
The parallels between each corresponding section should enhance our understanding of each narrative. Consider the sections C and C‘. When Israelite priests receive the Ark into Beth-Shemesh in 6:19–21, they treat it with no more reverence than the Philistines in 5:1–12. The result is the same: God judges the Israelites just as he did the Philistines (1 Sam 6:19). Just as the Philistines endeavored to get rid of the Ark, the Israelites do the same (1 Sam 6:21). Even Israel’s priests are no better than Philistines. They reflect the surrounding pagan nations. No wonder, Israel will eventually want a “king like the nations,” a man who himself turns out to be a cheap imitation of a Philistine giant.5
Or consider the A-Sections. Did you notice how the last line reverses the events of the first? Once again, the Philistines and Israel have gathered at Aphek for war. But this time, Israel has genuinely repented of sin—they put away their idols and “served the Lord only” (1 Sam 7:4). The rest of the chapter describes Israel’s victory over the Philistines in a way that recalls and reverses the Philistine victory over Israel.
Don’t believe me? Consider the following details. In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites thunder and shout (1 Sam 4:5). But in this final battle, the Israelites are silent while Yahweh himself “thundered with a mighty sound” (1 Sam. 7:10). In the first battle, the Philistines feared the shouts of Israel but ultimately won the day (1 Sam. 4:7). In 1 Samuel 7, Israel fears the Philistines, but the Lord gives them victory (1 Sam. 7:7). In 1 Samuel 4 a child of Israel is named “Ichabod,” which means “the glory of the Lord is gone.” But in 1 Samuel 7, they set up an altar and call it “Ebenezer,” which means “the Lord has helped us.”
Comparing these parallel stories reveals something important: Israel’s victory doesn’t rest on military might, but on their worship of Yahweh. Israel isn’t victorious because they have the better army but because they repent of their sin. The arm of the flesh leads to ruin; repentance leads to glory.
7. Don’t shy away from pointing to biblical characters as positive or negative examples.
As Jason Hood demonstrates in his article, Scripture itself teaches we should preach biblical figures as positive and negative moral examples. Paul said the Israelites who died in the wilderness were “examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6).
The battles of Aphek and Ebenezer are chock-full of negative examples—sinners with whom we easily identify. The Israelite soldiers in chapter 4 are superstitious, treating the Ark of the Covenant like a lucky charm. The members of your church may not rub lucky rabbit’s feet to make them feel safe, but they might look to their bank accounts or other things they own to bring them good fortune. The priests in Beth-Shemesh are obstinate, indifferent to God’s law and thus consumed by his holiness. Those listening to your sermon should know the same: we must not treat God’s law flippantly or his holiness lightly.
The stories are also filled with positive examples—saints whom we should aspire to imitate. Samuel stands out. He’s a model of patience and fidelity in ministry, characterized by speaking the word of God (1 Sam. 4:1) and prayer (1 Sam. 7:5). He begins his preaching ministry in 1 Samuel 4:1 but only begins to see fruit from his labors over twenty years later (1 Sam 7:2). Christians who might feel discouraged by the apparent lack of fruit should remember this: Samuel labored for over 20 years just to get Israel to obey the first commandment (1 Sam. 7:4)!
8. Don’t assume there’s only one way to get to Jesus.
While preaching through Old Testament narrative, preachers committed to Christ-centered exposition are often only on the lookout for types. But there are many hermeneutically legitimate paths to Jesus. Sidney Griedanus’ seven suggestions are a particularly helpful catalog:6
- Redemptive-Historical Progression. How does this story develop redemptive history in a way that ultimately culminates in Jesus Christ?
- Promise-Fulfillment. Is there a promise in the text fulfilled by Christ?
- Typology. Is there a divinely orchestrated pattern of events or an institution that prophetically foreshadows the person and work of Christ?
- Analogy. Do any parallels exist between laws, promises, or situations found in the story and the laws, promises, or situations we find ourselves in as God’s New Covenant people?
- Longitudinal Themes. Does this text develop any significant biblical-theological themes (temple, kingship, priesthood, etc.) that are ultimately fulfilled in Christ?
- New Testament References. Is this passage quoted anywhere in the New Testament?
- Contrast. What aspects of this text contrast with Christ’s person and work or the glories of the New Covenant?
By using these seven categories, we can see a number of ways 1 Samuel 4–7 finds its fulfillment in Christ. We’ve already noted how the Ark of the Covenant goes into exile to defeat Israel’s enemies—a type or pattern fulfilled in Christ. But preachers can point to the gospel in other ways.
- Redemptive Historical Progression. 1 Samuel 4–7 takes place at the end of the period of the judges, when “there was no king in Israel [and] everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Israel needs David. They need a king to lead them in obeying God’s law—a king we now have in Christ.
- Analogy. Israel responded to Samuel’s preaching with repentance and worship. God requires us to respond to his Word in the same way.
- Longitudinal Themes. Throughout the Old Testament, God presents himself as a warrior-king saving his people by judging their enemies—something alluded to as early as Genesis 3:15. The exodus from Egypt is perhaps the most prominent occurrence of this pattern—one the Philistines themselves are aware of (1 Sam. 4:8). In 1 Samuel 4–7, God delivers Israel from the Philistines by fighting on their behalf. This longitudinal theme —“God the Warrior-king”—culminates in Christ when “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).
- Contrast. Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas are wicked priests who have failed to spiritually care for the nation. Israel is corrupt from the top down. The church, however, has a faithful high priest who never leads us into sin and always cares for his people.
“SWIFT IN THE BOOKS”
In truth, the key to preaching any passage of Scripture is to immerse yourself in all of Scripture. As preachers, our aim should be to imitate Ezra: “He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). The phrase “skilled scribe” carries the connotation that Ezra was “swift in the books.” In other words, Ezra knew his Bible.
Historical narratives are a rich, faith-fueling section of the Bible that authentically point us to the person and work of Christ. Preaching Old Testament narrative is a daunting task, but these stories remind us that God keeps his promises, even in times it seems his Word has failed.
1 For more on the relationship between Joshua 2 and Exodus 12 see David Schrock, “What Designates a Valid Type? A Christotelic, Covenantal Proposal.” Southeastern Theological Review 5, no. 1 (2014): 3–26; Peter Leithart, “Passover and the Structure of Joshua 2.” Biblical Horizons 99 (November 1997).
2 David and Goliath’s conflict is a small-scale reproduction of Yahweh’s battle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5. Both Dagon’s and Goliath’s heads roll. The Philistine meets the same fate as his god.
3 Further, the paragraph following the destruction of Dagon (1 Sam 5:6–12) both begins and ends with the “the hand of the Lord was heavy” (vv. 6, 12) forming an inclusio around the passage.
4 Peter Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 &2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
5 Saul is just what Israel asked for, a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). He is renowned, not for his godliness and character, but, like Goliath, for his height (1 Sam. 9:2). Like Goliath and the Philistines, Saul uses a spear (1 Sam 18:10)—a spear that he turns against his own people (1 Sam. 22:17–19).
6For more see Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).