“He really wrung the text dry.”
I cocked my head smiled vacantly, concentrating on finishing my dinner. Beside me, my friend gracefully carried the conversation as I glanced up at the two men sitting across from us with puzzlement. I was glad she did because there were several questions itching in my mind that would likely be best letting lie.
We were enjoying dinner at a conference, Having just come from an exceptional sermon, challenging in its intensity. So much of great importance had been drawn from so brief a text, expounded with great exegetical skill and applied with great pointedness.
In the days and weeks that have followed, I’ve pondered that phrase, the concept of wringing the text dry. So often sermons say so much less that they could because of the constraints of time both in preparation and delivery. What did this man mean? How did he mean it? And is such a feat even possible?
Drinking a River
Strange as it may sound coming from a twenty-something year old British girl (#millennial), I actually like listening to sermons — primarily from my own pastor but that’s a subject for another day. Sunday services and Wednesday nights are something to look forward to in the knowledge that the word of God will be opened and we will drink from it.
Back when I first became aware of exegetical preaching, I often listened to two or more sermons a day and, by God’s grace, over the years I’ve heard and sat under a lot of good preaching.
But here’s the thing, two years of studying Hebrews as a congregation felt like a tidy, if simplistic, overview of the book. Even studying a meagre five verses in depth for the course of over a year (it was the subject of my dissertation) resulted in more questions and less understanding.
Or perhaps you might identify better with this: how many Christmas sermons have you heard on the nativity? How many sermons on Isaiah 53? How many on Pentecost (Acts 2)? How many on Psalm 23 or 73 or Acts 1:8 or the Jesus calming the storm or the parable of the sower, or the beatitudes or the resurrection of Christ?
I’m willing to bet that if you have sat under preaching for any length of time, you’ve heard more than one sermon on the same text. And here’s the thing, they may have all had similarities (there are only so many good commentaries out there) but I’m pretty confident that something slightly different was said each time. There was something in each sermon that jumped out at you, that you hadn’t seen before, hadn’t seen that way before, or simply needed to be reminded of again.
I’ve never yet come across a text in the Bible that has said all it needs to say. But then I’m still very young. This man was at least twice my age so perhaps it was true, that there was nothing more to be drawn from that particular passage.
Yet studying scripture feels like trying to drain a river by drinking it. No matter how deep the drafts you take or how much you manage to drink, there’s still an impossible amount left and it just keeps coming.
One of the questions that went through my mind was that if a year’s worth of intense study couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of those five verses in Hebrews, was it possible even for a gifted, spirit-filled preacher to explain the entirety of a passage in what barely amounted to an hour?
Doing it to Death
We did a lot of books to death in high school. English teachers don’t always seem to understand that there comes a point (far sooner in poetry than prose) when it’s just getting ridiculous and there is simply nothing left to say. A lot of English students do not have the sense to be quiet at that point.
Like in Lewis Grassic-Gibbon’s Sunset Song. There’s a part where the main character, Chris, takes her husband Ewan on a day trip to see some famous ruins and he’s a farmer so he’s not that interested though he tries to be. But it’s supposed to show us the tension between the two (currently warring) parts of Chris, the one that is bright and academic and the other that just loves the land that grew her. The point at which you’re beginning to be silly is when you start on about how the castle is in ruins, symbolising the academic part of Chris being abandoned and ignored and the fact that the castle is overgrown and wild indicates that she is choosing Chris the farm girl and her love of the land is overcoming and swallowing up her neglected love of learning.
As good a grade as such analysis would gain, it’s a load of pants. The point is that you can wring Lewis Grassic-Gibbon’s novel beyond dry. You can do it to Shakespeare too. Even Dickens, king of the astronomical word count, if you study his writings long enough, it would probably take a little less than a lifetime to come to the end of it and have nothing more to say (depending how pretentious you are). In the end, it is just Dickens.
Or, for a non-fiction example you could try the Communist Manifesto. Despite developments in the ideology, even if you read all of the accompanying materials, there would come a point where you knew it inside out and that would be it.
Anyone who has survived high school English classes will know just how quickly and easily one can do a book to death, never mind a passage from said book (despite it all, I still love Othello’s final speech).
So what makes the Bible different? It is, after all, another book. There is only so much to read and understand.
A Different Author
Hermeneutics was quite definitely one of the most fascinating and enjoyable classes of my degree. It changed how I read. . .well, everything. It also made me realise that the academy had things the wrong way round. They seemed to believe that Hardy, Austen, Yeats, Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Plato, Josephus, Pliny, and the like were fathomless mines with ever more secrets to yield to our enlightened minds but the Bible was some old, unreliable Jewish book that couldn’t even decide which genre it was and which the Christians insisted on flogging long beyond its death.
There is a fundamental difference between every other book that will ever exist and the Bible. Quite simply: every other book was written by a man.
Because of this, the Bible is so much more than print on a page. It’s more even than some form of written communication between the author and the reader. I’ve yet to understand quite what goes on when we read the Bible , but it’s more than simply reading.
Those words weren’t just written down, they are God-breathed. There is something supernatural about the scriptures because it is the only book that is alive and there’s no other way to describe it. God speaks through it, the Spirit works in us as we read or hear it, and the truth contained in it brings spiritual life to those who were, until that point, dead.
Shakespeare’s words can move us in the moment but they cannot change us permanently. When we read Plato we can pick out his voice through the style of language and thought but it is faint and means little since he is long dead anyway. Reading political manifestos can stir you up to passionate response– action even –but it has no power to bring about new life in you.
Dickens is just Dickens, a man with a social agenda and a word count to push.
I hope that you will understand that the Bible couldn’t be more different. It is more than just a collection of narrative, poetry, teaching, and letters. This book is unlike any other. God himself went to the trouble of breathing it out so that it was not mere words like other books, but the one true, living word.
And so when it comes to preaching, the expounding, explaining, and application of this word, it is a wonder that these men even know where to begin. This book is not like any other, after 2000 years of preaching and thousands of years of Jewish teaching before that, it still has not been done to death nor will it. It remains new and fresh and challenging every time it is opened.
The sermon we had heard that day convicted and challenged. All of the sermons at the conference did. It opened our eyes to things we hadn’t realised and gave us a glimpse of depths we had not known. So long as God speaks through his word, though the preaching might be dry sometimes, the text never can be.
It was such a curious statement, I cannot understand it. No preacher I have ever heard has wrung his text dry, he has only made us more thirsty for the word than we were when we walked through the door.