In approaching a prophetic text in sermon preparation, all of the standard methodologies apply. The correct reading of the text must be established with the use of textual criticism. The beginning and ending of the text must be found by the examination of its genre (form criticism). It must be placed in its concrete historical context. And the meaning of particular terms, like tzedekah and hesed, must be discovered. All of that can be had from a decent biblical commentary, which is usually the first tool to which a seminarian turns.
But having established such preliminary facts, the most important act that the student should then do is to put away the commentary. Now the real work of sermon preparation begins; that is, the work of carefully analyzing a text, of meditating on it, of living into it to discover its emphases and nuances. For that exercise several approaches are necessary, and perhaps the most important is rhetorical criticism. Because most of the prophetic literature is given to us in the form of poetry, its rhetorical structure should be carefully examined. What are the repetitions in the passage? They mark out emphases. What are the exclamations, the questions, the parallelisms, the particles (like ki, “for,” or “because”), the beginnings and endings of strophes or stanzas, changes in speaker, contrasts, triadic structures, imperatives? Where do you find phrases such as “now therefore,” “but I,” “nevertheless”? If a preacher will carefully locate and mark such phenomena, the logic and structure of the passage will begin to come clear.
Then, what is the context of the passage in its own book and in the canon as a whole? And how is the passage used in the rest of the Scriptures? (“Scripture interprets Scripture.”) For example, if you use a cross-reference Bible, what is the meaning of Hos 11:1 in Matt 2:15? Or does Jer 7:11 have the same meaning as in Mark 11:17? And to whom does Jesus apply Mal 4:5? If we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, sermons often begin to construct themselves.
Not to be overlooked, however, is also the necessity of the preacher’s prayer and meditation on the text. Second Isaiah tells us that his words came not out of his own thoughts, but out of his “morning by morning” listening and communing with the Lord (50:4-5). He was like a pupil listening to his divine Teacher giving him words — we would call it “the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” And it is in such daily openness to God, speaking to us through his Spirit, that true preaching from the prophets emerges. The message of the OT prophets was based on their continual communion with their Lord. We will not understand and truly preach their words unless we share in that communion.
As is true in all preaching, however, we must realize that we are addressing a largely biblically illiterate congregation, even evangelicals. Most of them believe that prophets simply foretold the future. But OT prophets deal frequently with the past and present, and a better definition is that a prophet is one who is given words from God (sometimes in the heavenly council; cf. Jer 23:18) that tell when, where, and why God is at work in nature and history.
Our congregations also need to learn that the prophets’ words are dealing with actual history. These are not theoretical pronouncements or simply beautiful poetry (cf. Ezek 33:32), but actually concerned with kings named Ahab or Jeroboam II and with specific deeds of a real people in the ancient Near East. The prophets’ words do in fact come true. Northern Israel does fall to the Assyrian Empire, and Jeremiah’s foe from the North (Jer 4-6) does factually become the armies of Babylonia. In short, the biblical prophets are preaching effective words of power, that do not return to the Lord void but accomplish what he purposes (cf. Isa 55:10-11). And we always have to ask, are those words continuing to act in our lives also?
Certainly the prophets are preaching in a covenant relationship. Israel is a people redeemed from slavery, long before any deserving, and constantly graced with the forgiveness, mercy, protection, and guidance of God, to whom she has promised her sole covenant loyalty and service. But the Christian congregation is also a member of that covenant people, grafted into the root of Israel, and so Israel’s story is also ours. For example, when Amos preaches, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2), those are words to us also, and we must make our people realize that the prophets’ words are not simply from long ago, but also addressed immediately to us.
That arouses the thought of the reality of our sin, of course, and our modern congregations do not like that very well. A. Heschel once wrote that we take sin for granted—our injustices, lying, cheating, stealing, adultery—but the prophets announce that the sky is going to fall because of it. Indeed, it is questionable if there is even anything we consider sin any more; there is less and less that we cannot bring ourselves to do. But the prophets’ words illumine our baalism (how many today are nature worshipers!), our idolatry, our reliance on everything but God, our injustice toward the poor and helpless, our turning to false prophets. And at the center of it all, they point to our corrupted hearts, where above all, love and trust of God are to abide, and instead are lodged only ingratitude, ignorance, and indifference. The prophets’ goal is a renewed relationship with God. And that too is the goal of preaching.
Perhaps the fundamental realization missing from our congregations is that God is the Lord of all, and that therefore we and all nations and nature are beholden to him. K. Meninger wrote that the primary lack in our society is the sense of responsibility towards anyone for our thoughts and deeds, and surely the sense of responsibility toward God has largely been lost in secular America. But of course if we are not responsible, there is no sin, and the prophets’ messages can be largely ignored—or, as is our wont, taken as a reference to someone else.
I do not know how you convince a modern congregation of the lordship of God, and therefore, bring the prophets’ words home to them. Certainly it is not done by pounding them over the head with the prophets’ words of judgment or with our own feeble moralisms. As both Hosea and Jeremiah preached, a people captive to sin has no power on its own to turn and do good (Hos 5:4; Jer 13:23; 17:1; 31:31-34). And so perhaps only the announcement, along with the judgment of the inexhaustible love of God, frees a congregation to repent and to trust — God’s sobbing confession in Hos 11:8 that his compassion is warm and tender, the Lord’s incredible patience and slowness to anger in Jonah and even in Nahum (1:3), his abounding steadfast love in Joel (2:13), his care for his flock in Micah (5:4), his vision of the future kingdom come in Habbakuk (2:2-3), and much, much more, until finally we come to a Servant who dies for the sins of the nations in Isa 52:13-53:12. It all gets gathered up on a cross and at an empty tomb. And it is that love, that patience, that care, that sacrifice that finally proclaims a lordship that saves and leads a people to turn around and to become faithful once again.