The Thrills & Joys of Preaching 1 Chronicles
Ask any professing Evangelical Christian if the 66 books of the Bible are the Word of God. You will most likely get an unequivocal yes. No one will wink at the answer with the slightest hint of doubt. But in reality: do we treat all of Scripture as God’s Word? If we do, why have some of us never read portions of say 1 Chronicles? If all of Scripture is God’s inerrant Word, how come most of us preachers have never preached from Obadiah or Zephaniah?
As a teenager, I remember attending a seminar put up by a notable scholar of the theological liberal persuasion. He opened his talk by asking us a relatively obscure question from the book of Ruth. Though there were many professing evangelicals in the auditorium, none of us knew the answer. The professor went on to argue that there only two kinds of Christians: honest liberals and dishonest liberals. No one, according to this professor, actually believes that all of Scripture is the Word of God; every Christian only believes there is a small “sacred portion” of Scripture. But the problem is this: there are some who are honest enough to admit this. The rest just blatantly lie about it.
I came home from that seminar in tears. This was because the professor was right, though I outwardly admit that all of Scripture is inerrant, I don’t believe it via my reading patterns. There were parts of the Bible I had never read. There were books in the Bible I couldn’t tell you, out of the top of my head, what they were about. And what was even sadder was that this had never bothered me.
When God called me to be a pastor, one of my goals is to preach the entire counsel of God, and this means even the challenging bits of Scripture. One of such portion is 1 Chronicles. Preaching 1 Chronicles itself does have a myriad of challenges. Let me mention only a triumvirate of them: first, though there are many commentaries on 1 Chronicles, none of them is consistently helpful. Many commentators fall into the trap of explaining the meaning of the list of names without giving attention to the larger questions such as: what purpose(s) do these the names in this section serve? Few commentaries, if any, actually capture the overarching narrative of the book.
Second, there are few model sermons out there to help us preach 1 Chronicles. Most sermons try to tackle the book in one or two broad brush strokes via only a couple of sermons on the entire book. Such an approach is hardly helpful if you want to camp yourself in the book for considerable months.
Third, preaching 1 Chronicles is time consuming. 1 Chronicles is a different type of literature that we don’t have any contemporary equivalence, it is foreign and it is extremely difficult to tackle. Therefore, it is just impossible to work on a sermon on 1 Chronicles on a Saturday night. Sometimes it took me two full days just to figure out what the text means.
So, what are some of the thrills and joys of preaching 1 Chronicles for a period of months in the church? Due to the lack of space, permit me to elucidate only three of such joys.
1. Obscure Texts like 1 Chronicles make us tremble before God’s Word.
I often look at the scriptural text for the next week on Sunday evening and most of the time I would not have a clue what I would say. And this is a good thing. God inspires difficult texts so that we can throw ourselves on His feet in surrender and utter dependence on Him. Further, difficult texts help us to meditate. One of the reasons why preachers of yore such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon or Martyn Lloyd-Jones could spend weeks and weeks preaching on a clause of a sentence in Scripture is because they were great meditators of Scripture. These men spent time wrestling with God’s word. Challenging texts disciplines us to be better meditators; this, if acquired, is a valuable tool that will elevate a preacher’s homiletical skills to a new level.
2. 1 Chronicles Helps Us Discern the Delights of God.
1 & 2 Chronicles, in the Hebrew Bible, are the last books of the Tanakh (Old Testament). They are one of only two books in the Bible (the other being Matthew) that begin with Adam and ends with the time of the writer. 1 & 2 Chronicles find God, through the Chronicler, re-telling the history of Israel all the way from the start to the return from Exile. The first 9 chapters of 1 Chronicles, for instance, find the Chronicler re-telling the history of Israel all the way from Adam until the first monarch, Saul. Yet, this re-telling of Israel’s history is pedagogical; it is not without an agenda. God, through the Chronicler, has delights, concerns, lessons, and priorities he wants to teach as he re-tells this history. As preachers, our task is to uncover this agenda for our hearers. What is the message God wants to impress upon the readers of Chronicles and us?
This delightful agenda of God can be discerned in several ways:
First, through the use of silence and the dearth of elaboration. If we were to re-tell the history of Israel right from the start, we may spend considerable time writing about Adam, after all, he was the first human being God created. But what is most shocking about God through the Chronicler is that he says absolutely nothing about Adam. Not even an adjective to describe Adam! Why? This is because in the Chronicler’s eyes, Adam sinned and fell away. And Adam sets the paradigm for sinful human beings. Thus, in the first 57 verses of 1 Chronicles, there are just names and generations of them. Conspicuously missing are narratives about these individuals and any mention of the word “God.” This is the Chronicler’s way of saying that regardless of what human beings had accomplished in these 57 verses, as long as sin prevailed, God was not impressed.
Second, through the extensive use of elaborations. The Chronicler is a writer of extremes. While he doesn’t drop an extra drop of ink for Adam, but he devotes 100 verses on the family of Judah. While the word “God” doesn’t appear not even once in the first 57 verses, when it comes to the family of Judah, the Hebrew name of God “YHWH” appears over 500 times from chapter 2 onwards. While the Chronicler gives us zero stories relating to Adam or Ham or Shem or Esau, but when it comes to the family of Judah, he tells us seven very poignant stories.
Third, through the use of narratives. The common misconception of 1 Chronicles is that it’s just a book of genealogies. But this is not true. Narratives are interwoven into the genealogies. The stories are inserted as commentaries to the genealogies. Within 1 Chronicles 2:3 to 4:23 (such as within the family structure of Judah), the Chronicler tells seven stories. Six out of these stories tell why God was displeased with the line of Israel. But in the seventh story, the famous story of Jabez, he spells out the Gospel, of which I will return to later in this paper.
Fourth, through the careful selection of names. Genealogies in the Hebrew Bible have a different function than how genealogies are used in the west. Genealogies in Chronicles are so arranged not primarily for the purpose of historical precision, but they function to make a theological point. Chapters 1-3, for instance, only trace from Adam to Noah to Abraham and then it zooms into the family of Judah at the expense of other of Israel’s children. Thus, these records are not to give us a full-history of Israel but they are created to tell a story: human beings have sinned, but out of the family of Judah will come King David and out of David, the Messiah would come.
A chapter before the Chronicler actually introduces us to King David (in chapter 10), he gives us a whole genealogy of King Saul followed by the death of Saul. Unlike the books of Samuel, nothing is mentioned of Saul’s accomplishments or his in-filling of the Holy Spirit or his fierce pursuits of David. Rather, his death is what the Chronicler was most interested in. Such a grim portrait of Saul is not without purpose. The account of Saul (9:35-10:14) functions to contrast Saul with David (and the ensuing Messiah); Saul in many ways is the antithesis of the Messiah. Thus, the names in 1 Chronicles are not without its rhetoric. They are placed together to tell a story—a story about how God will save his people from sin through his Messiah.
3. 1 Chronicles Reveals the Glory of the Gospel
The greatest thrill of preaching 1 Chronicles is that within a book that has more names than verbs, the Gospel of Jesus Christ still shines brightly. Here’s just one example: any reader of the Hebrew text of 1 Chronicles will run into this frustration. In a book that tells the story of Israel, there are a ridiculous numbers of Persian and Aramaic names. Moreover, in a book that’s supposed to tell the story of Israel, there are also many detours the Chronicler will take into foreign (and often unidentified) territories. Moreover, the Chronicler has an etching ear for the slightest foreign trivial. Why is the Chronicler, for instance, so preoccupied with who the Pharaoh’s daughter marries (4:18)?
However, the answer becomes apparent when we come to the (in)famous story of Jabez. In the midst of sin and failings, there is a woman who gives birth to a child. The child is no ordinary kid; right at his birth, he causes his mother extreme pain. Thus, the child is named Jabez (Hebrew meaning pain). Just as a sword would pierce Mary’s soul at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:35), Jabez brings pain to his mother.
But there is something unique about this child Jabez. While many of his ancestors only cared about themselves (see, for example, the story of Er in 2:3 & 4), Jabez cries out to the God of Israel. But what does he pray for? He prays that God would bless and enlarge his tents. This was precisely God’s hope in the passages prior to Jabez’s pericope. God, through the Chronicler, had this desire to enlarge his love to the foreign lands and nations. Jabez is simply working in sync with God to make God’s vision of reaching out to the Gentiles come true. And the Bible tells us that God actually does answer Jabez’s prayer. In this regard, Jabez is a type of Christ: just as Christ wants the ends of the earth to know him, here is Jabez asking for God to extend his territory, even to the Gentiles.
Read in the context of the genealogies, the story of Jabez is not a greed-intoxicated excuse to ask for more health, wealth and prosperity. Rather, the prayer of Jabez is the cry of Jesus who wants the world to know him (Matt. 28:18-20). In Jabez, we see Christ and his love for the nations.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon is right in saying that all texts ultimately point to Christ. This even applies to 1 Chronicles. Even in a book that is often deemed as unreadable, the text points to Jesus Christ and his glorious Gospel. Pastors and teachers of the Word, don’t short change your people, teach them the whole counsel of God. And let them meet Christ in the pages of his own Word.
Dr. Timothy Yap
Pastor, Evangelical Christian Church of East Keilor