To Preach a Book: The First Sermon

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

When I preach a message introducing a book and a verse by verse series through the book, I have few objectives. I want to give a big picture overview of the book. I want to mention the systematic and biblical theology of the book. I want to raise any issues or questions the book addresses. I want to give a brief outline of the book to show the flow of the book from beginning to end.

I want to work through this in this post in reference to my first sermon in the Ruth series. I’m going to look at these topics in the body of my sermon first and then I will look at the sermon introduction and conclusion.

Author, Date, and Place of Writing

Any book study needs to address the author, or writer, of the book, the date when it was written, and where it was written from. For some books, you also need to know whom it was written to. I’m looking for two types of sources—internal and external.

Internal sources refers to any references to these within the text of the book itself. I would also add here any references in the other biblical books relevant to the book I’m studying. The book of Ruth itself does not record any of these facts. No other biblical books give us information on it either. Ruth is only mentioned outside the book of Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5), and Boaz is mentioned there with Ruth and in the genealogy of David in 1 Chronicles 2:11-12.

External sources refer to historical sources outside of the Bible. Such histories are not a part of the inspired record, but we can often identify reliable historical data. Historical sources are better the closer they are to the time of the original writing. We also want historical sources to have verifications. This is where Bible handbooks, commentaries, book studies, etc., can help by pointing to historical sources. In the case of Ruth, there is not much historical data to work with. We mostly find conjectures and speculations, but little that would have any credible foundation. Of course, you can always find liberal criticisms in this realm that seek only to destroy the views of verbal plenary inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture.

I also want to consider the canonical placement of the book. English translations followed the Septuagint’s book order by placing Ruth after Judges and before 1 Samuel. In the Hebrew Tanak, the book was placed in the collection of scrolls called The Writings. It was placed after Proverbs and before Song of Solomon. The book has been placed differently in some different collections, but these are the primary ones.

The events in the book of Ruth happened during the time of the judges and it ends with the ancestry of David, so historically, it naturally goes between Judges and 1 Samuel. The placement between Proverbs and Song of Solomon is a more thematic placement of the book, and makes sense from that perspective. Canonical placement does give us ideas on how the book was viewed and read historically. It is also a helpful key for considering the intertextuality of Ruth with other Old Testament books.

Classifying the Book

Anytime I begin studying a book, I need to know what kind of book I am working with. We call that the book’s genre, and the genre helps guide us in interpreting the book. Among biblical books, Ruth is classified as historical narrative. I am talking about the primary genre of the book. Books typically have a primary genre, but can also have sub-genres within them. A book may be primarily narrative, but also contain poetry or didactic prose.

Ruth is primarily narrative, but does contain instances of poetry that would be of the wisdom variety. It also has legal proceedings at the city gate and includes a genealogy list. Ruth can be further classified within narrative in literary terms. The narrative of Ruth is a love story and a morality redemption story. Ruth does contain conventions of those stories and the plot structure, or story arc, is comedy, since it generally progresses upward to what we call a happy ending.

Crucial Elements

The setting of the story has to do with time in both the period when the story takes place and the length of time the events of the story take. The setting also has to do with general and specific locations. The general locations are Moab and Bethlehem. The specific locations are the field of Boaz, threshing floor, and city gates of Bethlehem.

The story also has an atmosphere in terms of whether events are on the natural plane only, or if they include supernatural acts. Ruth doesn’t have any supernatural occurrences, so the reality of Ruth is realism. This means the book portrays normal life with providential events and inferred Divine activity.

The point of view refers to the writer or narrator for the story. In Ruth, the narrator is the writer of the book. The narrator relays events and can also provide inspired commentary on the meaning of events and actions. As we read the story of Ruth, we see the writer using the device of dramatic irony, where the reader is given information the character or characters in the scene do not yet know.

Stories also have unifying themes, or a primary message to convey. It can be difficult to identify the controlling theme of a story. It often helps to look closely at the ending of the story to see how the story resolves and that gives us a good clue. The unifying theme unifies the various elements of the story, such as character development and plot points. Each main character will interact with the unifying theme and that theme will be present at different levels throughout the story.

In the book of Ruth, the unifying theme is finding rest. The concept permeates the story. Each of the main characters have arcs relevant to that theme. The story ends with all three main characters finding rest temporally and the genealogy of David points to the greater rest through the Son of David, the Messiah Jesus.

Characters

The main characters of a story are indispensable to the story and will experience change (character arcs) in terms of the unifying theme and other major themes of the story.

In the book of Ruth, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi are the main characters. As the story unfolds from beginning to end, each of these characters experience change in terms of finding rest, going from death to life, famine to fullness, and expressions of love, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, or selflessness.

Commentators differ as to the one main character. When I analyzed the story, I saw the one, main character is obviously Naomi. She experiences the most dramatic change in terms of the story’s values. She is in nearly every scene of the story. The story is nearly 60% dialog, and Naomi accounts for almost one third of the dialog. She speaks the most of any character across the most scenes. Boaz does edge her out as speaking the most words, but that is mainly due two lengthy speeches in Scene 2 and 4. (You can find my overall dialog analysis here and my character dialog analysis here.) Many points in the story are told from Naomi’s perspective, or in relation to how events most affected her. The ending of the story is also related in terms of how the outcome related to Naomi more than the other characters.

The Sermon Conclusion

When I conclude the sermon that introduces the book of Ruth, I want to focus on application to the people listening to me. I don’t want to rehash everything I just said. I focused on how each of us relate to the unifying and major themes of the book of Ruth. This is what the book is mostly teaching us today. The message of Ruth is to trust God through our own problems and challenges. Like the main characters, we have temporal needs and greater, eternal needs. We could say physical needs and spiritual needs.

The Sermon Introduction

Knowing the substance of what I am going to say, the body of the sermon, and where I am going to end, the sermon conclusion, I am ready to open and introduce the sermon. I want to pique interest to draw people into the sermon and I want to introduce the sermon and the series in a way that helps them see the relevancy and usefulness of the study.

I opened with an illustration where I retold the story of Ruth in the broadest, most general terms I could think of. I wanted it to sound like I was pitching the story as a book or movie in the broad love story genre. I counted on this sounding familiar to the hearers. This might be the pitch for a novel they would find interesting, or movie they might like to watch. I turned the illustration in the end by stating the obvious—this is the biblical story of Ruth.

To further introduce the series, I wanted to raise and answer the question: Why should we study the book of Ruth? Or, What should we expect to learn from studying Ruth? This is another way to present the practical applications of the book as a whole and speak to ways the book is relevant to a modern reader. I also wanted to point to the greater Redeemer promised in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Reflections

I think I accomplished my main objectives in this sermon and I think it came out okay. It will not go down in history as the greatest sermon ever preached. It will not be accounted as even the greatest book introduction ever preached. That’s okay. I am not the greatest preacher to ever preach. Many have preached the book before me and many will preach it after me. As far as I can tell, it was helpful for the church I pastor, it was faithful to the text, and I am thankful for that.

If I could change one thing, I wouldn’t forget to add the outline of the book in the form of the six scenes I divided the book into. I don’t know how I overlooked that and forgot to include it. I hate that I left that out, but I am not a perfect preacher and I will never preach a perfect sermon. Besides that, I am sure the sermon could have been better and I am sure there are problems I am unaware of. Some blessed saint with the gift of helps will probably point them out to me sometime in the future.

You can listen to the first sermon of the Ruth series here.

Up Next

In the next post, I will look at the second sermon in the series.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

About Jeff Short