Phil Long's Tips for Preaching the First Testament
Professor of Old Testament Phil Long has spent his career studying and teaching the Old Testament (or, as he prefers to call it, the "First" or "Larger" Testament). In a recent interview, we asked Phil for his advice on preaching the Hebrew Scriptures. He responded with a list of seven tips—and some encouragement for preachers who find the First Testament intimidating.
God will smile on you for trying!
Don’t feel like you have to answer every complexity before you can get
the big points.
Make sure you read the whole text. Getting the big points should involve reading the whole text several
times, getting the flow of the text. Don't dive into the middle of the book of
Job, grab a chapter, and think, “Okay, I can understand this.” That could go
very wrong. It's about the whole scope. So be sure to read the whole thing.
Remember that this was Jesus's Bible! And Paul,
referring to the Old Testament, said very clearly that these things were
recorded for our instruction. There are so many issues—relating to who God is,
what the world is, what happened to the world, why it's broken, and so
forth—that are not directly addressed in the New Testament because they're
already addressed in the Old Testament. If we don't wrestle with the Old
Testament and preach it, people will miss important things. The New Testament
by itself is not enough. It's the climactic chapter, but by itself it's not
enough. And you’ll never fully understand even the New Testament without that
background from the Old Testament.
Preach the overarching message of the Prophets. Preaching the Prophets can be quite daunting—they're huge. But don't
think, “All right, there are 66 chapters in Isaiah, so that'll take me 66 weeks
to cover the book of Isaiah.” Don't do that! The prophets often have oracles of
judgement and oracles of salvation, and there's a lot of repetition because we
have a collection of all the prophet’s occasional speeches—their sermons, if
you will. So you want to find the guiding motifs. What are the guiding themes?
What is the direction of this prophet? What's the overarching message? Try to
sort those out, and then preach that overarching message. I'm keen on teaching
some books front to back because they have a careful structure that calls for
that, but I think the prophets are better preached thematically.
Don't avoid the favourite passages of the Old Testament. I used to think,
“Okay, everyone's preached on Psalm 23, so I'm going to preach on something
more clever. I'm going find something that no one thought had anything good to
say, and I'm going to say something good from it, and everyone will think I'm
clever for having found it.” You don't need to do that! The favourite passages
are favourite for a reason. So, by all means, make sure your people have heard
a sermon on Isaiah 53. Don't let them go for five years without ever hearing a
sermon on Isaiah 53. It's okay to preach the favourite passages—not to the
exclusion of the others, but certainly don't avoid them.
Illustrate your point. As general advice, I would say that it really helps people
grasp what you're saying if you're able to illustrate it well using a contemporary
illustration. It's one thing to know truth, but it's another thing to feel it
or experience it. And it's the illustration that enables us to kind of grasp the
Above all, I think the most important thing to say is that God does approve our trying. He's happy when we try, even if we sometimes make mistakes.