Old Testament narrative, the story of God’s interaction and intervention with His people, cries out for proclamation today. Comprising nearly one-third of all Scripture, narrative represents the most common of the biblical genres. The sheer bulk of it compels Bible teachers—whether in preaching or communicating Truth in a more informal setting—to give high priority to presenting it effectively. Further, contemporary audiences are more and more drawn to stories as means of understanding. Their ability to captivate mind and heart oblige us to bring the stories of Scripture to bear on our hearers’ lives. Yet with this treasure of revelation often comes a trap.
By its very nature, narrative literature communicates subtly. Propositional statements do not thrust meaning to the surface. Instead, the message emerges from the story itself, through characterization, plot development, narrator comments and other tools in the writer’s box. Any story can presents this challenge, but biblical narrative carries additional complexity.
Inherent narrative subtlety melds with historical-cultural distance to multiply the potential misunderstanding of biblical story. Moses never logged on to CNN.com to read the latest on stem cell research. Our hearers have never had a priest assess the mold growing on the kitchen backsplash.(cf. Lev. 14:33-53) At times, it seems as if the two worlds never intersect. Yet they do. Our hearts cheer the underdog to slay Goliath, and grieve the loneliness that threatens widowed Ruth.
As Bible teachers—of children, teens, or adults—we cannot allow Old Testament narrative to remain enigmatic. We cannot acknowledge its power then ignore it because of its perplexity. We must proclaim the largest portion of the larger testament as part of the whole counsel of God. Neither can we proclaim it as stories of people like us in vastly different situations that may yield occasional practical tidbits. We must proclaim Old Testament narrative as authoritative and relevant for today.
The key question is, how can we insure that our message fulfills that purpose? A substantial part of the answer lies in how we develop contemporary applications from these ancient texts. We must help hearers accurately understand what the Bible says, and how God asks us to put it into practice.
In this article, we will look at five methods that can clarify our proclamation of Old Testament narrative, by strengthening the application construction. First, however, we will look at common approaches to determining Bible application, including conventional training and current common practice.
The basic interpretation and application scheme common among evangelicals flows from the historico-grammatical approach. A Bible passage is studied and shared in the following progression: 1) world of the Bible; 2) main idea; 3) general theological principle; 4) specific application practice; 5) world of today.
In this model, the first step is to discover the main idea of the text, considering essential aspects such as word usage, grammar, syntax, genre, historical-cultural background and literary context.  The goal is to uncover and formulate the single main idea of the passage.
Once this is accomplished, the goal shifts to crafting this idea into a universal statement.  This statement serves as a bridge from text to today. It must be equally true for the original audience as it is true for us. Specific applications flow from this general principle. All applications in this model stem from the main principle. While this represents the accepted approach in the majority of interpretation and preaching books, much current biblical exposition does not consistently follow this pattern.
The handling of the David-Goliath account (1 Samuel 17) illustrates the gap between accepted theory and current practice. Most scholars understand the main thrust of this story to be part of the demonstration of God’s choosing and establishing David as king over Israel. One would expect, then, that applications would flow from this main idea of God’s choosing and David’s establishment. Respected commentators, however, have suggested a wide range of options:
- In reference to Goliath coming out to challenge Israel forty days: “How applicable to any ‘giant’ we encounter! That’s the way with the giants of fear and worry, for example. They don’t just come once; they come morning and evening, day after day, relentlessly trying to intimidate.”
- In reference to David choosing the five stones (17:50): “In my imagination I see David kneeling at the brook to select stones for his sling. The text doesn’t say he knelt…but he must have knelt to select the stones…. Are we going to live this life from our knees, imaginatively and personally?”
- On David’s conversation with Eliab, his brother (17:28-31): “David knew who to fight and who to leave alone. We need to choose our battles wisely.”
- On Saul not fighting Goliath: “When people are out of fellowship with God, they can lead others into defeat.”
- On David not taking Saul’s armor (17:38-39): “The way we do our work is as important as the work we do. Means must be authentic, true, appropriate to our prayers and proclamations.”
- On David’s trip to the battlefield: “David lived an ordinary life and armed himself with ordinary things…. Take some time to examine an ordinary day.”
- “Doing battle is a lonely experience. No one else can fight for you. Your Goliath is your Goliath.”
- On David taking Goliath’s sword (17:54): “Winning battles is a memorable experience. We’re to remember the victories of our past. We’re to pass on our lion-and-bear stories…our own Goliath victories.”
If the main idea of the passage revolves around God’s work in establishing David on the throne, how can one account for this significant variety in application? Must all applications directly flow from the passage’s main idea and its appropriate abstractions? Or do applications that ring true to our experience also reflect God’s authority? Acceptable exposition must not improperly restrict applications, yet it must not proclaim those lacking biblical authority.
Practical Methods for Balanced Application
The seeming disconnect between traditional approaches taught and current expositional practice reveals the need for more detailed examination of the balance needed in application development. On one hand, some preaching and teaching books develop the interpretation and delivery at length, yet deal little with the details of application. In an alternate approach, others devote much discussion to the importance of connecting to the audience need, but do not demonstrate how to insure biblical accuracy in application.
Following are five models for narrative application to help insure it carries the weight of biblical authority to the hearts of modern hearers, whether children, teens, or adults. The primary focus will be to demonstrate how applications can be validated biblically.
Each approach that follows builds on foundational exegesis—careful study and explanation of the text. The steps of interpretation provide all the raw material these models use to produce five types of application.
The central source of validation for narrative application remains the key idea of the passage. Employing the above-mentioned standard tools of exegesis in conjunction with narrative-specific interpretive principles will substantiate applications with biblical authority. These applications are supported in a sermon or other teaching by showing the specific results of interpretation. This foundational model follows a three-step progression: 1) textual support for main idea; 2) statement of single key idea; 3) specific applications from key idea.
Applications of this type are validated by biblical authority to the extent the expositor has rightly synthesized the main idea of the passage and has properly drawn the relevant applications from that idea. While this model effectively funnels the Bible text into a summary statement, which then can provide a solid basis for authoritative application, it may not provide the sole basis for authoritative application. As seen in the examples from the David and Goliath account, many applications made by expositors today clearly do not stem from the main exegetical idea. Does this mean that those applications carry no biblical weight? Can proper interpretation yield legitimate applications not directly flowing from the main idea? Perhaps with tweaking, the interpretive model itself can provide means for discovering and supporting other types of legitimate applications and eliminating illegitimate ones.
A second source of authoritative applications is the contextual setting of the narrative. A supporting element of a narrative may represent one thread in a pattern woven through a series of related narratives. The prevalence of the element suggests it plays more than a supporting role within a single biblical selection. In fact, the recurring element itself may contain an important message for the reader. This model may be considered in three elements: 1) related narratives; 2) recurring supportive elements; 3) pattern application.
An example of pattern application is seen in the contrast of reality and appearance in the account of David and Goliath. This aspect continues a theme already established in 1 Samuel. Hannah appeared to Eli to be drunk in the house of the Lord (1:14), but in fact she was appearing before Yahweh to voice her earnest plea (1:10-11). She was not drunk, but devoted. In chapter 9, Saul had a handsome appearance and literally stood out among the people because of his height (9:1-2). However, he had the heart of a spiritual midget. His height meant nothing as he desperately grasped for Samuel’s robe, begging him to worship with him so that Israel would believe Yahweh remained with Saul (15:26-31).
In fact, the mention of Saul as the biggest of the Israelites later subtly condemns him when he cowers before the biggest of the Philistines (17:4). Appearance also deceived in the case of Eliab, David’s oldest brother. Samuel saw his impressive stature and concluded that he was viewing the next leader of Israel (16:6). Eliab’s heart revealed, however, an angry coward (17:28-29). These elements served to highlight David’s underwhelming appearance, yet overwhelming heart for Yahweh (16:12; 17:45-47).
Based on this latent pattern, a Bible teacher or preacher could rightly conclude that outward appearance often deceives in spiritual matters. From this example, application may be drawn from supporting elements of a narrative. These aspects serve both to clarify the main idea and extend a pattern in the broader framework. Either can produce valid applications.
The weight of biblical authority for pattern applications is relative to the breadth of contextual support and to the correlation to broader biblical revelation. The more contiguous narratives that contain the pattern and the more prominent the pattern in those narratives, the more confident we can be that application reflects biblical perspective.
Thematic application broadens the above pattern until it encompasses the whole of Scripture. Like pattern principles, thematic applications flow from supporting elements of a narrative rather than the main thrust. However, rather than drawing its validation from related narratives, a thematic application represents a recurring theme scattered throughout the Bible in otherwise unrelated passages. Thematic applications surface shared elements concerning the nature of life and humanity. These elements bridge cultural and covenantal gaps to connect all mankind. Their location in a variety of biblical contexts serves to prove their universal nature.
An example of a thematic application is the truism that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Scripture records the death of Abel, the imprisonment of Joseph, the catastrophic loss for Job, the sickness of Hezekiah, the famine that struck the church in Jerusalem, and many others. These disastrous events do not represent specific cause-effect formulas based on personal actions. In fact, the message of Job answers exactly the opposite.
They do show the Bible revealing a maxim in life. Sometimes good people are innocent victims of another’s sins (Abel’s murder by Cain, for example). Other tragedies become avenues of blessing from God (Joseph’s imprisonment). Still others are left without explanation in this life (Jerusalem famine). Believers today may not know why a particular tragedy has fallen upon them, but they can find encouragement from the multitude of biblical saints who have shared the path and found God’s grace at the end.
At this point, caution must be exercised concerning thematic applications. Often preachers or teachers mingle sage observations concerning life with biblical applications. In the David-Goliath examples noted previously, one expositor focused on the concept of remembering past victories. Substantiation of this idea could come from passages such as the command to memorialize the crossing of Jordan (Josh. 4:1-8) and the command for believers to memorialize the death of Christ (Luke 22:19). This may represent a legitimate thematic application.
Of the same David-Goliath story, another commentator offers the application of battle as a lonely experience. Everyone must fight their own Goliath. No one else can do it for them. This seems to be a wise observation from a mature believer, but not necessarily an application bearing the weight of biblical authority. In fact, the battle was supposed to be Saul’s to fight, yet David fought in his place (1 Sam.). David later says the battle was not his, but Yahweh’s (1 Sam. 17:47). Further, no biblical pattern exists that suggests that believers must face battles alone. In fact, Scripture highlights the necessity of the believing community supporting each other. So what seem to be two equally important statements in fact are one application distilling a theme throughout Scripture and another distributing a personal (though perhaps wise) opinion. Though both applications may find audience acceptance, our calling compels us to focus on principles that find root in Scripture.
Thematic applications carry biblical authority to the extent they represent a genuine broad-based motif. The more varied the historical, cultural and covenantal settings in which the thematic element is found, the more certain the application represents a universal theme.
Though considered in this article as a separate category, theological applications essentially represent thematic applications stemming from the nature of God. Theological applications do not here refer to foundational theological affirmations of God’s holiness, sovereignty, etc. Rather they represent insights into His nature, especially in dealings with His people. Narrative often nuances foundational truths concerning God.
An example of a theological application is God’s tendency to choose a weaker or unexpected person to accomplish His work. Though the cultures of the biblical period gave highest honor and primary responsibility to the firstborn son in the family, God often overturned this cultural practice. Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph and David over their brothers, the list could go on. Further, God used shepherd Amos, fisherman Peter and murderer Paul to accomplish His great work. Woven extensively in biblical fabric are Jael, Josiah, Jonah and John Mark. For the blue-collar worker in the pew and the blue-blood academic in the university, the reality that God uses quite ordinary tools to accomplish quite extraordinary feats serves both to encourage and humble.
Theological application grants appropriate insight into God’s dealings to the extent that it echoes His ways throughout Scripture. Like thematic application, the more varied the settings of the occurrences, the more clearly the principle represents a biblical truism.
Illustrative applications reverse the typical flow of Old Testament study and explanation. Normally an expositor moves from discerning the main idea in its original context to checking for agreement with broader biblical revelation. However, New Testament writers often began with spiritual virtues and turned to Old Testament narrative to exemplify them. The key aspect in the illustrative model is identifying and using appropriate points of comparison.
For example, Paul turned to Israel’s ignoble history to illustrate his warning for the Corinthians to avoid idolatry, immorality, and discontent (1 Corinthians 10:6-11). Also, the fact that long before Sinai, Abraham received righteousness through faith (Genesis 15:6) serves as a key piece of Paul’s argument for salvation through faith apart from the Law (Romans 4:9-15). The writer of Hebrews gathers a host of examples to demonstrate enduring faith in chapter eleven. An expositor focusing on the main idea in those Old Testament contexts might not come to the same applications as the New Testament authors did. However, these narratives do serve to illustrate key New Testament truths.
Some scholars have dismissed this application use as less than valid, but two key passages demonstrate that Old Testament narrative can serve legitimate illustrative purpose. Paul writes in Romans 15:4 that the Scripture record was written for our spiritual benefit. The written events of the past serve to instruct and encourage believers so as to produce endurance that fosters our Christian hope. This statement follows Paul’s quote of Psalm 69:9, but broadens the significance to include all of the Old Testament. Paul’s extensive illustrative use of the Old Testament and his general assertions concerning Scripture (i.e. 2 Tim 3:16-17) further bolster this perspective.
In the second key passage, Paul declares the value of examples specifically from Old Testament narrative. Twice in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul states that Old Testament narrative serves to guide believers by example: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (10:6 NIV) and later “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (10:11 NIV). Paul here seizes the analogies of God’s people, Israel and Church, to warn his readers that evil can infiltrate the believing community with dire consequences. Paul’s purpose here was to make application by way of biblical illustration.
An example of modern illustrative application may be found in the Joseph narrative. Though the broad narrative focuses on Yahweh’s continued working out of His promise against numerous human obstacles, Joseph’s story in Potiphar’s house adds a human moral dimension. If the narrative only served to show how Israel became enslaved in Egypt or how Yahweh turned evil into good (cf. Gen 50:20), then the emphasis on Joseph’s sexual purity was superfluous. Instead, Judah’s immorality in chapter 38 served as a foil to highlight Joseph’s purity. Joseph stands as an admirable model of what the Law and the New Testament would later command (Exodus 20:14, 17; 1 Corinthians 6:18). A Bible teacher or preacher therefore may appropriately apply illustrations from Old Testament narrative.
The certainty of biblical authority behind an illustrative application, as noted above, depends upon the clarity of connection between the Old Testament example and the New Testament command. While the above Joseph narrative fittingly exemplifies the purity commanded elsewhere, some command-example links are not as lucid.
For example, Paul commands believers not to be drunk with wine (Ephesians 5:18), and the ancient Recabites maintained lives without wine for generations (Jeremiah 35:6). However, the command-example does not correspond rightly. Neither Ephesians nor the New Testament forbids drinking wine, while the order of the Recabites did. Further, the Recabites received honor from Yahweh because of honoring their father’s commands, not just because they refused wine (35:18). The commands included prohibitions on living in houses and planting fields as well (35:7). A Bible teacher or preacher must examine both Old and New Testament contexts to insure that behavior modeled in the narrative story accurately exemplifies the moral command.
The Need for Filters
Although the five methods discussed in this article can aid in discovering and evaluating potential narrative applications, some additional qualifiers must be added. For example, one could argue that Old Testament narratives present polygamy as a pattern. Many Old Testament saints had more than one wife and it passes seemingly without condemnation in the narrative. One could establish this substantial pattern and propose multiple personal applications! Even what seems to be a theme in a large number of narratives might not represent a biblical standard. To help in the assessment of possible applications, some filters must be employed.
In order to avoid abuse of application from Old Testament narrative, recognition of key differences between the testaments must be made. Beyond the above polygamy example, the prominence of war in the Old Testament could also lead to disastrous applications. One need only recall the Crusades. These differences necessitate filters to clarify narrative applications.
Even if a substantial pattern exists (animal sacrifice for example), there may remain a factor that requires us to filter, or qualify in some way, the application. The filtering noted here involves distinguishing the timeless elements of the pattern (the necessity of vicarious sacrifice which is support throughout all of Scripture) from the covenant-specific elements (use of animals for sacrifice).
The very presence of two distinct testaments (Old and New) demonstrates a significant level of discontinuity between the covenants. We must ask if the apparent application rising from the narrative has been shaped by the former covenant requirements. This not only includes animal sacrifice, but also practices such as ritual cleansing, land promises, Aaronic priesthood, and other elements unique to the Old Covenant.
Administrative filters are closely related to covenantal filters. The reality of the covenant differences between Israel and the Church require acknowledgement of how the associated administrative distinctions modify the proper application of certain Old Testament narratives. Not only do the covenants differ, the execution of them also differs.
Administrative differences include that fact that Israel represents a single national entity while the Church a universal entity. The relationship of Gentiles to Jews in the Old Testament starkly contrasts with their relationship in the New (Ephesians 2:11-3:13). Any application drawn from Old Testament narrative concerning Gentile and Jew relationships must reflect this change in association.
Further, Israel was a national-political entity where the Church stands as international and separate from human government. Therefore, guides for a righteous national government within Israel must be applied through New Testament filters such as Romans 13. In the Old Testament, Jew and Gentile stood separated while religion melded with government. In the New Testament, Jew and Gentile unite while Christianity stands separate from human government.
This administrative filter addresses, for example, the issue of war in the Old and New Testaments. Because Israel was both a religious and national body, it fulfilled its God-ordained purposes at times through military means. Yahweh commanded the conquest of Canaan as part of the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Joshua 1:2-9). Israel also often called to arms to defend its territory. Nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God command the Church to militarily defend a physical land. In fact, Paul states that the Church’s enemies are not human, but spiritual in nature (Eph 6:12).
Certain elements of Old Testament narrative constitute a significant pattern or theme which might support authoritative application, but are qualified in some way by direct New Testament statements. These aspects stand outside the covenantal and administrative elements discussed above, but nevertheless meet modification in later revelation.
Leviticus 19:12 commands honest oaths that honor Yahweh. David provides a worthy example when he swears an oath of kindness to Jonathan’s family (1 Samuel 20:12-17) and then faithfully adheres to his promise (2 Samuel 9:1-7). Christ, however, raises this ethic to a new level. A believer’s speech is to be marked by such integrity and honesty that swearing an oath becomes unnecessary (Matthew 5:33-37).
Therefore, the reality of discontinuity between the testaments requires application filters. The process of validation unavoidably requires evaluation and sometimes elimination of potential application principles based upon revelational differences.
As Bible teachers and preachers, it is vital that we recognize the foundational, traditional exegetical goal of determining the central idea of the text in the original context. Yet it is also important to realize that elements of the interpretive process (contextual study for example) may serve not only to clarify the main idea, but also to suggest and support additional legitimate applications.
The five models discussed in this article call for a raised awareness of the interpretive process and its potential for producing application. They—along with the covenantal, administrative and revelational filters—serve as tools to assess applications, and sometimes eliminate the invalid, even if they seem insightful and acceptable to audiences. In proclaiming Old Testament narrative, as with all of Scripture, we must be diligent to insure that applications bear the weight of biblical authority.
Copyright © 2012 Corban University School of Ministry. Originally published in Corban’s e-journal, Dedicated. As long as you include this copyright credit line (and hyperlinks), you may reprint this article in its entirety.
 Daniel Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” in Giving the Sense (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), p. 409.
 See the discussion of the power of stories and on narrative preaching (which is different than preaching from narrative) in Calvin Miller, “Narrative Preaching,” Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), pp. 103-116.
 For discussion, see Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp. 66-70. Steven Mathewson (Art of Preaching the Old Testament Narrative, Baker, 2002, pp. 98-103) also follows this basic approach to application.
 Robinson breaks this step of the process down into formulating the homiletical idea and determining the sermon purpose. Biblical Preaching, pp 103-112.
 See for example, David Howard, Introduction to the Historical Books (Chicago: Moody, 1993), pp. 146-7; Ronald Youngblood, “1 Samuel,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) p. 558; William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush Old Testament Survey, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 176-7.
 Charles R. Swindoll, David: Man of Passion and Purity (Nashville: Word, 2000), pp. 62-3.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997), p. 40, 42.
 Swindoll, David, pp. 70-1.
 Warren Wiersbe, Expository Outlines of the Old Testament (Wheaton: Victor, 1993), accessed electronically through Libronix Digital Library.
 Peterson, Leap, p. 42.
 John R. Bisagno, Principle Preaching (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), p. 87.
 Swindoll, David, p. 79.
 Ibid, p. 80.
 Haddon Robinson calls the principlizing process “a ladder of abstraction.” “Heresy of Application,” Leadership (Fall 1997), p 23. Cf. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 166.
 Mathewson’s work (Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative) contains 260 pages of text, yet spends only pages 98-103 on developing application. Two of those pages decry poor application development. Also, recent chapters on preaching narrative focus on interpretive technique much more than application (Block and Kaiser in Giving the Sense. 409-454; Keneth Mathews, “Preaching Historical Narrative,” Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle, ed. by George L. Klein [Nashville: Broadman, 1992], pp. 19-50).
 Principle Preaching by Bisagno best exemplifies this approach. He stresses that exegesis is important, but does not show how it drives the choosing of applications.
 Many books exist on basic exegesis. Good sources include Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton: Victor, 1991); Grant Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991); and Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980).
 See Steven Mathewson, “Guidelines for OT Narratives” Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (Oct-Dec 1997): 410-435; V. Philip Long, The Art of Biblical History (Zondervan, 1994); Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Indiana University Press, 1987); Walter Kaiser, “Narrative,” Cracking Old Testament Codes (Broadman & Holman, 1995), 69-88. Other good resources include Robert Alter Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981); Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 1993); and Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Belknap Press, 1987).
 The Hebrew term here translated “youngest” (קָטָן), may also be translated “smallest,” providing a contrast to the physically larger brothers and more subtly to the failed king Saul. See “קָטָן” NIDOTTE 3:910-912.
 The basis of this application is significantly strengthened by the fact that Yahweh voices this principle to Samuel at the choosing of David (1 Sam 16:7).
 Correlation to broader biblical revelation and other qualifiers will be discussed under “Application Filters.”
 Compare David Deuel’s comments in “Suggestions for Expositional Preaching of Old Testament Narrative” (Master’s Seminary Journal vol. 2 no. 1, Spring 1991), pp. 45-60.
 For elaboration, see Everett Harrison, “I Corinthians,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 152 and Gordon Fee, I Corinthians New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 199-200.
 Some scholars see the meaning of tuvpoi as referring to more than examples or analogies, understanding instead that the OT events typologically prefigured the believers at Corinth. See John Murray, Romans, NICNT, pp. 451-453 for discussion.
 For further discussion, see Elliott Johnson Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 245-254; John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), pp. 34-40; and John Feinberg, ed. Continuity and Discontinuity (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988).
 Related issues such as theonomy are discussed in the works cited for discontinuity in the previous endnote.