I’ve decided to read through Hughes Oliphant Old’s entire set on the history of preaching. As I go along, I will note some of the more important insights from the set. Volume 1, interestingly enough, describes preaching in the Bible itself.
The first great insight I’ve come across so far is the very close connection there is between preaching and covenant theology. Old, depending on the work of Craigie, among others, has argued that the very nature of a covenant required the reading and the explanation of the covenant. In the ancient Near East, when a covenant was made between suzerain and vassal, the vassal was required to read the treaty regularly to his people, lest the people forget the nature of that covenant. Ancient Near Eastern treaties were always written down. The main reason for this was so that they would be read at solemn assembly to the people (p. 29). Old makes the point even more sharply when he says “Of the very essence of these treaties or covenants is that they are written down and regularly read and taught to the people in a public assembly” (p. 29, emphasis added). Old says, “If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people.
Old goes on to describe what preaching looked like in the book of Deuteronomy. He observes three main elements in the preaching of Deuteronomy: remembrance, interpretation, and exhortation (p. 37). Retelling Israel’s story is absolutely essential, because God’s people are incredibly forgetful (see Deut. 4:9-14). A great deal of preaching should therefore be focused on helping people to remember what God has done in the past. Otherwise, our view of the future will get very dim indeed. The second element is interpretation (Deut. 1:5, for instance). This is obviously one of the main elements of any preaching. One simply has to explain the text. For the people need to hear what God means. Thirdly, there needs to be an exhortation for the people to do God’s will (Deut. 4:1, 6:4-6, 30:11,14).
I will conclude with this wonderful description of the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word (Old has the radiance on the face of Moses in the back of his mind as he writes these words):
God is a sacred fire, and to come near to him is to catch fire and glow with the same holy radiance. This begins to happen to us when we hear God’s Word. We are transformed after the image of Christ. It is through entering into that covenant that we enjoy his presence and through abiding in his presence that we are made holy (p. 25).