You won’t ask around for a list of the best preachers of the Old Testament for very long before you come across the name of Dale Ralph Davis. The former pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson now lives in rural Tennessee. You can listen to many of his sermons in The Gospel Coalition’s resource database. He is the author of many helpful books, including an expository study of Judges and The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts.
As part of TGC’s ongoing project Preaching Christ in the Old Testament—directing you toward the best books, sermons, articles, and workshops on the subject—I corresponded with Davis and asked him to share advice for preachers and teachers who want to grow in their ability to handle all of God’s Word.
What is the greatest challenge for preachers and teachers when it comes to preaching the gospel from Old Testament narratives?
I might say that the “challenge” consists in a “caution”—don’t be trying to “jump start” the OT passage to Jesus. That sounds impious. But I get the sense that sometimes men can be so driven by their christocentric dogma that they don’t really hear the OT passage on its own terms or try to lay bare its own theological intent. They are too busy trying to find clues and handles (typological or otherwise) by which they can get to Jesus. I can recall a case where an interpreter’s eye has been so focused on how a passage points to Christ that he completely omitted the major theological issue the passage raised.
Is there a process you suggest for pastors when they sit down with an Old Testament narrative and begin to search for how they will teach Jesus and the gospel from it? If so, what is it?
As far as a process goes for approaching an OT narrative, yes, I have one, but it’s not worth writing about. I think the best process is for a guy to have a fascination with OT texts and a determination to preach them. If you assume that the living God has given us this Scripture, and if you assume that he had a purpose and didactic intent in giving it—even OT narratives, some of which strike us as strange—then I think you’ll find your way in preaching them.
The fascination and determination will carry you along. I recall going through some of this in my first pastorate with the temptation to play with texts like 2 Kings 6:1-7 (the axe-head story). It seems to border on the ridiculous, but what if I come to it assuming that God, in its given context, had a particular intention in this scripture? Just thinking that way makes me ask the question Why? and tempts me to keep working and thinking until it begins to come clear. I sometimes weary of all the “technique” we put into interpretation, as if working with OT narrative, for example, is some sort of high-priestly craft which only those who know the best buzz-words can carry off. Rather, I think simply a desire to get at the message of the text and an assumption that all OT texts are “preaching” texts will carry one a long way.
Do you have a favorite narrative or book of the OT that helps you see God more clearly and seems to resonate with Christians when you preach it?
Not really, though I confess a sort of partiality for the Book of Judges. It’s just so wild, with a sort of no-tell-me-that-didn’t-happen flavor that it immediately grabs the interest of a congregation. But, in truth, practically any OT section is going to have a sort of strangeness or surprise for Christian congregations and Bible study groups simply because, by and large, contemporary Christians don’t know or read the OT. But this strangeness or surprise of the OT texts is a tremendous advantage for the preacher because, on the whole, people cannot sit back and bellyache about how they have “heard all that before.”
Can you point to helpful commentaries and other resources for preaching Christ from the OT?
There are gobs of books that deal with preaching Christ from the OT. I find I get more use from commentaries because I am usually dealing with particular texts of OT narrative. And what one prefers in commentaries is—like one’s toothbrush—very personal, I suppose. I prefer commentaries that focus on the meaning of the text (rather than go through 200 years of scholarly guesswork on how the text came together) and/or that focus on the theological intent of the text. But I shall not give any list. It all depends on the biblical book I’m working in.