Preaching Christ in Ezra and Nehemiah
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, James M. Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders. CS: What is your process for turning a sermon series into a book? JH: I had been manuscripting my sermons to be published…
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, James M. Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: What is your process for turning a sermon series into a book?
JH: I had been manuscripting my sermons to be published with the Revelation volume for the Preaching in the Word series, and I just kept doing that as I prepared with Ezra and Nehemiah. Essentially, I was writing the sermons as though they were going to be published.
I was also teaching an exegesis class on Ezra and Nehemiah here at the seminary, so it was sort of a three-fold process: I was working through it in the classroom, I was writing up the sermons, and then I was actually teaching the sermons.
During a mission trip to China, I would wake up at 2:30 a.m., jet-lagged, put my headphones in, hit play on the sermon audio, and start typing. I would pause it so that I could rethink something, reorganize, and reshape.
Coming at it from different angles for different purposes has, I hope, given me a well-rounded appreciation of both the academic and scholarly issues in the book, and I’ve been forced to think through the pastoral implications of the book.
CS: You say that you didn’t preach this for a building project. What role did this sermon series play in building “a church of seemingly insignificant people with normal lives and normal problems?”
JH: Some people regard Ezra and Nehemiah as relatively insignificant books in the big story of the Bible. You’ve got two books of the Bible where a little city, an outpost of the Persian Empire, is repopulated and then has its walls reconstructed. How significant is that? You can almost look at this and say, “This is what God is doing in the world? This is God’s program? That little city of Jerusalem? That’s nowhere.”
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We could say this about any church, in any city, in any country in the world. So, I find it tremendously encouraging to look at this from a worldly perspective: this insignificant thing that God does through these two men, Ezra and Nehemiah. This is where from a biblical and spiritual perspective, God is at work in the world. This is how God is advancing
I think it’s encouraging for us because when we find ourselves in what seems to be out-of-the-way, insignificant places, we can be encouraged that we’re really in good company.
CS: In the book, you reference the inconsistencies regarding numbers recorded in Ezra as scribal errors. What challenges do you face when preaching that to a church?
JH: I think that people made in God’s image can handle difficult issues if you present it to them in terms that they can understand.
We’re dealing with a time where the system for writing numbers is the alphabet, so in Hebrew they don’t have a separate set of characters for their numbers; they used the letters of the alphabet to designate their numbers.
We simply affirm that the inspiration applies to the original biblical author, and God did not re-inspire every scribe who copied a passage of Scripture.
This does not threaten our understanding of inerrancy or inspiration because we trust that the original author had the correct information. Any time we find discrepancies, we look for explanations of these things and often they are very easy
CS: You demonstrate that the Word of God played a central role in helping Ezra and Nehemiah accomplish their task; it allows people to prosper. How do we lose sight of the Word in the midst of methods, programs, and initiatives?
JH: I think what happens is we slowly drift away from the Bible, and the world and its concerns slowly, incrementally, begin to eclipse the significance of the Bible in our own lives.
Related: Learn from James M. Hamilton in our Master of Divinity program with a concentration in Biblical and Theological Studies
What’s remarkable about people like Ezra is that he set his heart to study, to follow, and to teach the Bible. Here’s this Persian diplomat whose priorities are not political networking, ladder-climbing, or diplomacy according to the world’s standards. His priorities are, “I’m going to study the Bible; I’m going to obey the Bible; and I’m going to teach
That is profoundly encouraging because we can look at our own situation and say whatever my calling in life might be, I can adopt Ezra’s priorities and I can study and obey and teach the Scriptures just like Ezra did.
CS: What is your method for preaching a Christ-centered sermon from the Old
JH: A holistic understanding of Old Testament theology, and ultimately biblical theology, enables us to see how the Messianic hope or the Christ-centeredness of the document is actually functioning.
From Genesis 3:15 forward, the people of God are looking for this seed of the woman that’s going to defeat evil by crushing the head of the serpent and thereby re-open the way to Eden. Therefore, the concern to record the history of God’s people is a concern to keep track of what God has done in the outworking of that ultimate purpose of God: to overcome evil and reopen the way to Eden, reopen the way to God’s presence. The concern for that figure is always lurking just under the surface, even if he isn’t being
discussed on the surface.
When preaching a Christ-centered sermon from the Old Testament,it’s not like a Gospel where they’re telling you the story of Jesus. However, it is giving you the history of people who are looking for a perspective of someone who’s looking for that future coming king from the line of David.
CS: What is it about the opposition Nehemiah faced specifically that you think is encouraging for Christians today?
JH: As Christians, we want to see ourselves as installments in this same pattern as God has put his favor upon us. In response to this, the seed of the serpent is enraged. They’re gathering together against us, and consciously or not, they are trying to overthrow the king of the universe and trying to usurp his kingdom and trying to defeat his people. And this is why Christians across the ages have been persecuted. This is why the people of God across the Old Testament and New Testament are persecuted, and it’s tremendously encouraging to identify yourself with the persecuted like Nehemiah.
CS: I know preachers have different methods for gathering illustrations. I’m curious how you develop a method for how you use illustrations since you use a wide variety of them.
JH: I heed the counsel of Doug Wilson who says try to read until your brain creaks and read knowing that you’re going to forget most of what you read. And, I appreciate what J.R.R. Tolkien said when he said that his stories sprang from the leaf mold in his mind and the leaf mold in his mind was there from the layers and layers of reading and study that he had done.
I don’t keep a catalog of illustrations, but I’m always trying to listen to audiobooks. I’m always trying to read fiction; I’m always trying to read relevant, historical or obscure accounts that look like they might repay me with illustrative material. So I feel like I’m trying to be a sponge and just soak things up.
I’ve talked to preachers who will arrive at what they think is the main point of the passage. They will have worked through the exposition, and then they go mow the lawn and something comes to them while they’re not thinking about it anymore. Or they are in the shower and they have a thought that’s a perfect illustration.
Usually, once I’ve worked through the exposition of the text, I’ll sit back and just sort of gaze off into the distance and open my mind to anything that I’ve read that makes what I see as the main point of the passage or that illustrates it somehow. And it’s remarkable what the Lord will bring to mind. Usually it’s when I’m not sitting down working on a sermon that the illustrative material will be suggested to me from something I’ve read or something
CS: What do you want this book to accomplish?
JH: I hope that people will be encouraged to see that even books that may seem not very exciting are tremendously relevant. I hope that they’ll be encouraged and stirred up to see God’s glory in these books. I hope that they’ll be encouraged to put the whole Bible together and to think about how these books fit into this big unfolding story that we’re a part of. I hope that they’ll be provoked to love the Lord, to love the Word, to love God’s people, to read the Bible more, and to see how everything fits together.
James M. Hamilton Jr. is associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary. He has written and contributed to a number of works including What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. You can read more by Hamilton at his blog Jimhamilton.info. Also, follow him on Twitter: @DrJimHamilton. This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Towers.