What Helps Me Most As I Prepare to Preach

This post is a quick response to a question in a comment on my post on Jane Austen and Jeremiah 20:7. The question was what commentaries have helped me most as I’ve worked through Jeremiah.

My answer is along the lines of what I recently said about what seminaries are for, because what has helped me most as I’ve preached through Jeremiah has been reading the text in Hebrew.

I’m not boasting about being able to read Hebrew, here. It took me a long time to learn it. In fact, I had 8 Hebrew related classes as a Th.M. student at DTS, and when I got to SBTS I was served up a nice big slice of humble pie when Peter Gentry and Russell Fuller proved to me that I needed to re-take elementary Hebrew. I was humbled, ashamed, offended, but I knew they were right. They served me well, and I went back through elementary Hebrew as a PhD student. My pride made it difficult to accept, but I wanted to be able to read Hebrew more than I wanted to preserve the appearance of being a big smart PhD student.

God mercifully gave me the opportunity to study. He mercifully gave me patient teachers willing to tell me what I needed to do. He mercifully allowed me to have the time as a PhD student to re-take those courses.

And being able to read the Hebrew text of Jeremiah as I prepare to preach that book is the most useful part of my sermon prep.

I’m not dogging people who can’t read Hebrew. We all have different gifts and different opportunities and different privileges.

I am saying to people starting seminary or Bible college, or people in process at such schools thinking about where best to invest their time: an education is more important than a diploma. Get yourself an education, whether that amounts to a degree or not. Ideally the degree will come along with the education, but if you’re picking between the two, the education is the more important.

That is to say, I think it’s more important for you to learn the biblical languages than for you to get your credential. So I recommend that you take the biblical languages early and often. You can get other advice from other people with other concerns. That’s fine.

God has spoken in his word. His word is better than the commentaries upon it. His word is better than biblical and systematic theologies written about it. His word is the tool that he will use to change lives. If you have the chance, why wouldn’t you give yourself to his word in its original languages?

I think a valid reason for pursuing a PhD is developing what Peter Gentry refers to as “sovereign command of the biblical languages.” Obviously that’s a high goal, but we’re talking about the very word of God and the eternal souls of men, right?

So I’m not saying that I make no recourse to commentaries. When I need help, I make use of what I have available, and in God’s kindness I have access to a few books. Often, though, if I’ve done my work in the Hebrew text, I’m pretty clear on what’s going on and just glance through a few relevant books to make sure I’m not missing some juicy inter-textual connection or bit of background or historical information. Many commentaries are just rearranging one another’s footnotes.

The best thing is to hunker down over the Hebrew text, ask the Lord to give illumination by his Spirit, and then let the prophet speak.

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  1. I don’t mean to knock DTS in any way, but are you saying that 8 semesters of Hebrew at DTS weren’t enough (in difficulty, thoroughness?) to prepare you to begin a PhD at SBTS?

  2. Very encouraging! Thank you for sharing not only your convictions, but also a bit of your story. Blessings!

  3. Amen! A few years ago I let my use of the languages slip. Last year I committed to using my Greek text first in sermon prep. It was tedious in the beginning, but the vocab and grammar slowly came back. It has dramatically improved my grasp of the text and readiness to preach. I need to do the same for Hebrew, but know it will be much more of a challenge.

  4. Pastor/Dr. Hamilton,

    Thank you so much for the response (and the encouragement to work, by God’s grace, at achieving a good command of the Biblical languages)! In God’s providence, we trust he will order our lives in such a way in the days ahead!

  5. This is an important post, Jim. As you probably know, there is a lot of downward pressure on seminaries to minimize the biblical languages. Some schools say that students don’t need to know the language because there are so many computer tools available. Yikes! Luther said that preaching without knowledge of the languages is like a bird without feathers, and I’m afraid we have a few naked jaybirds in our pulpits! Thanks for sharing your story and values.

  6. I think we shared a Dr. Fuller class or two on Hebrew. I sure do miss that guy (and could stand to go back and take his class again). Oh the hours (and hours) spent at the blackboard in his classroom writing the correct hebrew word form and vowel pointing (with Dr. Fuller of Mr. Choi looking over your shoulder). Good memories!

  7. Thank you for this post. I hope to start my Ph.D. in Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies soon. Again, thank you! As an aside, I found this quotation encouraging, too!

    “…faced with the ava- lanche of commentaries (and I am writ- ing three more myself!), the busy pastor will have four basic choices. First, he can become an expert in taking notes and cata- loging the opinions of others, and in the end decide which understanding of the text is best based on the opinion of others or the mood of the moment (i.e., which series the commentary is in, which com- mentary my seminary professor liked best, which commentary is the shortest, which one has a blue cover, which one is the most recent, or which one I happen to own because it was on sale in the book- store). This approach is extremely time consuming; and in the end, since the pas- tor cannot really decide for himself, it is really just another way to look for some- one else to tell us what the Bible means. Here the authority for preaching resides in our pope, wherever we find him. Sec- ond, faced with so many experts, the pas- tor can decide not to decide and present to his people a smorgasbord of opinions from the “experts,” showing that he is well read, but not well trained. This approach often gives the appearance of being schol- arly, but in the end communicates to the people of God that the Bible is up for grabs when it comes to understanding what it really means. In taking this approach the pastor downsizes his role into that of a book reviewer. But what is worse, since the pastor is still going to “preach” this passage, it communicates to our people that the real meaning of the Bible does not reside in what the biblical authors origi- nally intended, but in what we make of it. And we can make many things of it. Here the authority for preaching resides in the preacher. Third, he can ignore the whole thing, reasoning that, since the experts cannot agree on everything, it does not really matter which one is right. After all, what really matters is the rhe- torical “power” of preaching, not its con- tent. So instead of wrestling with the text, the busy pastor invests his time in search- ing out illustrations for a basic, thematic, generalized, and pietistic sounding “mes- sage.” This approach makes popular, entertaining preachers, but loses the Bible altogether, even though the biblical text may be read aloud before the fun begins. Here the authority for preaching resides in the life-experiences of others (since a good speaker knows that only so many stories can come from one’s own life).
    The last option is for the busy pastor to use his precious time by hacking his way through the biblical text in its own lan- guage first, and in so doing come face to face with the glories and unresolved ques- tions of the text for himself. The purpose of reading the Bible for ourselves is not, however, to out-commentary the com- mentaries (though you will be surprised what you can discover on your own). Nor is it to out-translate the translators (though you will be surprised to see what decisions they have sometimes made, and I say this having worked on two such translations). Rather, our own work in the text provides a window through which we can see for ourselves just what decisions have been made by others and why. Instead of being a second-hander, who can only take someone else’s word for it, a knowledge of the text allows us to evalu- ate, rather than simply regurgitate. This will not mean that we will be able to out- expert the experts. We all have different gifts and callings. It does mean, however, that we will be able to explain to ourselves and to others why people disagree, what the real issues are, and what are the strengths of our own considered conclu- sions. It will allow us to have reasons for what we believe and preach, without hav- ing to resort to the papacy of scholarship or the papacy of personal experience. It will even provide for us the humility that comes from knowing when we really do not know something, which in itself is a great boon to the ministry. After all, pro- gressive sanctification applies to intellec- tual understanding just as much as it does to moral development.”

    –the SBJT Forum, Scott Hafeman

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