What Does This Text Say?
One of the first mistakes many preachers make as they begin their preparation for Sunday is to pull commentaries off the shelf. It’s good to use commentaries, but the timing is key. Going to authors first has the potential to cloud your thinking with their ideas. You need to take time to wrestle with the text first on your own. But how do you begin if not with a commentary? What text do you start with? The NASB? The Greek and Hebrew? Your own translation of the Greek and Hebrew?
Get As Close to the Text As You Can
The answer will be different for everyone, but the goal of this step is to get as close to the text as you can. If you know Greek, pull out your Greek Bible. If you don’t know Greek, or have forgotten it, grab an English translation and pull up your Bible software to reference the original languages. Or try an interlinear. But there is no substitute for engagement in the original languages. Martin Luther wrote a little tract, entitled “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools”, where he makes a case for learning Greek and Hebrew:
A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.
Luther goes on to say that one key to powerful preaching is a knowledge of the Biblical languages:
Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.
The closer you can get to the text, the better. Push yourself to see how close you can get. Take a Hebrew class, or dive into beginners Greek. All that awaits you is power. And parsing.
Write Out the Text You Are Going to Preach
An unconventional, yet helpful, practice is to write out the text you are going to preach. If you are preaching Psalm 42 on Sunday, sit down with a pen and paper and write it down. All of it. It will force you to think through the text word by word by word, and to go slowly enough to notice details that your over-familiarized brain might miss.
Regardless of which text you begin with, it would be to your benefit to read multiple English translations of the same text. Use the NASB, the ESV, and the NIV. Check the NLT, the NKJV, and whatever other translations you have. Try different translations each week. Note the differences between these translations, because these points of difference are flashing lights that an interpretive decision was made. You need to make this decision, not have it made for you.
Interrogate the Text
What are you looking for in this initial step?
You are on the hunt for key words, interesting word choices, grammatical insights, structure, literary devices, rhetorical choices, repetition, themes, context, and anything else that catches your eye. Don’t get lost in the weeds in this step. Look for seed-bearing plants. Interrogate the text. Analyze the text at every possible level.
What you are looking for will depend in large part upon the passage you are preaching. In an OT narrative or the Gospels, you’ll want to notice things like scenes, segments, plot progression, movements in the narrative, points of climax and resolution, the point of view from which the story is told, the setting, and dialogue. You might ask questions such as: Why did the author decide to include this dialogue rather than just tell us himself? Why is this story interrupted with another story? Why does the narrator repeat what this character said?
If you are in a genealogy, ask yourself why it progresses the way it does. Why was this name included and not another name? Who is this person? Where is this story taking place? How can geography help us? What questions is the author answering? What problems is he speaking into?
You will want to take note of two types of context: near and far. Near context is the words surrounding your selected text. How does your text live within its own context? What is the progression of thought or plot? Far context is how your text fits within Pauline theology or the book of Judges at large. What would be missing from Nehemiah if your verses were not included in holy Scripture? The near and far context will help you to think through the overall theology of the text.
Getting close to the text in these ways will set you up for the next step, which is to expose the text’s structure.