Biblical exposition is becoming a lost craft. These days what I mostly hear from the pulpit is either meandering personal reflection or speculative historicizing in the style of academic exegesis (“you see, back then people thought …”). Exposition is more than scripturally based meditation or exegesis spoken aloud. It entails re-presenting the biblical text in a manner that faithfully conveys its form as well as its content. It is not just storytelling either, but a discerning rearticulation of the biblical material. Exposition must of course be more than mere repetition. But it has been a fatal modern flaw to insist that the biblical text must be translated into a suitable contemporary idiom. Karl Barth instead construed the act of biblical interpretation as nachsprechen, a “speaking after” in which the biblical text is echoed even as it is reproclaimed. The resultant task for preachers is both harder and easier than is often thought. Preachers don’t need to decide on a position to take. They don’t need to summarize their research. They do need to determine what their text is already saying and then “double down” on it with renewed affirmation. As Lauren Winner has put it, the job of the preacher is to love the scriptures in public.
Expository preaching is also frequently taken to mean simply preaching verse-by-verse or section-by-section. In its modernist form, such preaching can operate with as much of a translational hermeneutic as other modes of biblical interpretation. This type of preaching can pay admirably close attention to the wording of a passage, but it often focuses on the identification of propositions or “principles” to the exclusion of the passage’s literary features. Narrative texts don’t teach principles. The whole point of narrative, according to Hannah Arendt, is to disclose meaning “without committing the error of defining it.” Neither is the purpose of biblical narrative to verify history. While grounded in history, biblical narrative relates past events in order to offer a living word for the present and the future of its intended readers. As John writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31, NRSV). So the purpose of John’s Gospel is not to give a complete account of what the historical Jesus said and did, but to convey what is needed for the Gospel’s readers to entrust their lives to Jesus. For this reason, Paul Ricoeur contrasts a hermeneutic of “verification” to one of “manifestation.” Biblical texts not only reflect—they project a world. The task of the biblical preacher is therefore to welcome others into that world and show them around. The point is not to translate the Bible’s world into ours, but to “translate” ourselves into the world of the Bible!
Biblical narrative offers a wonderful arena for the development of expositional skills because it is so rich and nuanced, and because standout writers from the past have left behind inspiring examples of the expositor’s craft. An absolute classic in this vein is Contemplations on the Historical Passages of the Old and New Testaments by Joseph Hall (1574–1656), a multivolume work available in various print editions and now also quite affordably in electronic formats. (I have the whole thing on my Kindle.) To learn how to read biblical narrative again, with what Ricoeur has termed a “second naiveté,” you can’t do better than to work through Hall’s expositions. He instructively attends to the narrative context of each individual story, while at the same time spotting how small details within the stories open up into broader theological perspectives. I would sooner have seminarians study Hall than the Anchor Bible.
For Samuel, another compelling exemplar of exposition is John Calvin’s Sermons on 2 Samuel 1–13 (Banner of Truth, 1992). Once you push past Calvin’s polemics, you will see that he is brilliantly relentless in sticking to the narrative contours of the biblical text. For more recent work in a literary vein, Robert Polzin’s Samuel and the Deuteronomist (Harper & Row, 1989) and David and the Deuteronomist (Indiana University Press, 1993) have much to offer. David G. Firth, 1 and 2 Samuel (Apollos, 2009) combines similar literary sensitivity with the additional features of a biblical commentary. For a modern example of christological interpretation, the two volumes by John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Preaching the Word, 2014) and 2 Samuel: Your Kingdom Come (Preaching the Word, 2015) are valuable precisely because Woodhouse is willing to cross the customary divide between OT scholarship and confessional Christian theology.
For Kings, traditional exposition is represented in Ronald S. Wallace, Elijah and Elisha (Eerdmans, 1957). For recent commentaries attentive to narrative features, Lissa Wray Beal, 1 and 2 Kings (Apollos, 2014) and Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Kings (Smyth and Helwys, 2000) are good choices. To sample the riches on offer in the history of biblical interpretation, a place to start for Kings, and many of the other books in this section of the Bible, is Marco Conti, ed., 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic, 2008). In keeping with the series, only snippets from earlier biblical interpreters are provided, and without the kind of critical contextualization that would be even more helpful. Still, this sort of approach is useful in providing a quick exposure to the tradition, and then it’s always possible to engage the primary sources on your own.
Chronicles has suffered from relative inattention in modernity, although a number of its episodes—especially those that don’t appear in Kings—were well-known and heavily used by premodern and early modern interpreters. Scott Hahn, Kingdom of God (Baker Academic, 2012) provides a robust Catholic reading, which vigorously counters traditional Protestant disparagement of priests and temples. Paul K. Hooker, First and Second Chronicles (Westminster Bible Companion [Westminster John Knox, 2001]) also offers a more expositional treatment. August H. Konkel, 1 and 2 Chronicles (Believers Church Biblical Commentary [Herald Press, 2016]) combines historical awareness with an eye toward how Chronicles can function as Scripture today. I especially value the Believers Church Biblical Commentary series because of its consistent attention to the communal dimension of the biblical texts. The default mode of interpretation in twenty-first-century capitalist America is a highly individualistic one. Yet the biblical narratives, particularly in the OT, are resolutely about a people.
Ezra and Nehemiah are well-served by Tamara Eskenazi, whose commentary In an Age of Prose (Scholars Press, 1988) sparkles with creative literary insights. She perceives more irony in these accounts than most other interpreters have recognized. The commentary of David J. Shepherd and Christopher J. H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah in the Two Horizons Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2018) features both literary and theological sensitivity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (Westminster Bible Companion [Westminster John Knox, 1998]) also provides expositional commentary on these books.
Esther is a book with which Christians have always struggled. Many Jews, too—but since the Holocaust, Esther has attracted the efforts of Jewish scholars seeking to reflect anew on questions of peoplehood, election, nationalism, and communal self-defense. For an exploration of the book’s literary features, Jonathan Grossman, Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Meaning (Siphrut, 2011), offers thought-provoking insights. Adele Berlin, Esther (JPS, 2001), is magisterial in her handling of the material, and particularly good on the comic aspects of the book. Just as magisterial is Jean-Daniel Macchi, Esther, now available in English translation (International Critical Commentary on the Old Testament [T&T Clark, 2018]).
Job deserves its own bibliographic essay. Contemporary readers can still gain much from John Calvin, Sermons on Job (Banner of Truth, 1993). For recent commentaries with literary sensitivity, Kathleen M. O’Connor, Job (New Collegeville Bible Commentary [Liturgical Press, 2012]) is full of insight and Samuel E. Balentine, Job (Smyth and Helwys, 2006) has rightly been praised. The Ancient Christian Commentary series offers a volume on Job edited by Manlio Simonetti and Marco Conti (IVP Academic, 2006). James Crenshaw, Reading Job (Reading the Old Testament [Smyth and Helwys, 2011]) boldly engages the book as a witness to the problem of theodicy. Karl Barth gives rich readings of Job spread over vol. IV.3 of his Church Dogmatics. For Barth, rather than an exploration of theodicy (the usual approach to the book in modernity), Job describes the life of faith for every Christian believer.