Culprits, Victims and Faithful Believers: Exegeting the Congregation

I’ve used this phrase a couple of times on so I want to take a little bit of time to talk about what I mean by it. I think it is so important for those of us who want to teach God’s Word faithfully. We want to get the content and the tone of our application right.

Let’s start with an example. 2 Samuel 11-18 tells the tragic tale of the unravelling of King David’s family life.

David takes advantage of his army being at war, seducing one of his general’s wife, he commits adultery and then when he cannot conceal his sin he has her husband murdered

David’s Son Amnon lusts after his half-sister Tamar. He pretends to be sic and asks for her to come to him. When she arrives he overpowers her and rapes her.

Tamar’s brother Absalom embittered by this raises up against David and takes the throne forcing his father into exile. He publicly shames his father by sleeping with the King’s concubines on the roof of the palace.

This tragic tale results in shame, civil war and death.  Theologically we will identify several strands of application

1.       As the King, David is meant to be a type, foreshadowing and pointing to Christ. However, here he is a type by contrast not by comparison. He falls short and so points us to Jesus as the only true, just and perfect king.

2.       We are told that David is righteous but we see in Romans 4 that this is through justification by faith.  David repents (Psalm 51) and finds cleansing and forgiveness by God’s grace and mercy.

3.       David, Amnon and Absalom act as warning examples. Their idolatry as they seek power and sexual gratification ends in disgrace and death. 

Now that’s one part of the picture but only one part of it.  The other half is the way that the congregation will identify and respond to this section of Scripture.

First of all, there will be those who should identify with David and Amnon. This will include those whose sin is very close to David’s. They have been those who have objectified women treating them as sexual objects, those who have enjoyed the lust for power and control. They may not have gone so far as to commit adultery or rape but through addiction to pornography or simply through the crude way that they speak about women, even their taking of their own wives for granted they are caught in similar sin. At a more wider level, there’s the challenge to pride. We may be tempted to think that we would never fall like David but nor would David have thought that he would fall like that.

Secondly, some will identify with Tamar. Sadly, we will be preaching to congregations where women have experienced serious sexual abuse. Others will go to work or read newspapers and magazines where women are objectivised on a daily basis.  What a frightening culture to live in.  Then there’s Bathsheba as well, to what extent was she complicit in adultery and to what extent was she a victim with very little choice but to say yes to a powerful King.  Some will be listening with mixed consciences bearing shame and guilt but also the sense of being controlled, abused and violated.

Thirdly, we have those who identify with Nathan the prophet called to stand firm for what is right, having to be brave and challenge others about their sin. We also have Uriah the Hittite, another innocent victim but also a man who acts with complete integrity throughout the whole sordid affair.

So, this narrative throws up three types of people

1.       The perpetrators of sin

2.       The victims of sin and evil

3.       Those living godly lives and witnessing to God’s goodness and righteousness.

Now by saying this, I’m not suggesting that the congregation includes those who are only ever to be addressed as victims or that Christians will always act righteously.   We want to emphasise that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” If we do not say this then we become liberal and endorse licence. Preachers can become so concerned to speak up for justice and to show compassion to the vulnerable that they forget that the first problem we all have is that sin separated us from God and brought death. Our greatest need is forgiveness through the Cross so that we can be reconciled to God. Similarly, we should not speak to those who are seeking to live faithfully in a way that puffs up their pride and encourages them to trust in their own works.

However, different Bible passages speak to us in different ways at different times. There is a sense in which all sin is the same, it is rebellion against God, it is idolatry it is pride.  At the same time, there is a sense in which each sin is different and varied.   There will be those who will be more immediately convicted as they hear about David’s specific sin here. There will be men who will need to be specifically challenged about their attitudes towards women, even if they have not committed adultery or rape, by their attitude to their wives, use of pornography and the nature of their humour they treat women as objects and sex as something that is there for instant gratification. We will bring this point home even as we talk about the underlying pride that comes before a fall, lust for power and distraction away from God that should speak to all our hearts.

Even as we are challenging some about their sin, we will know that there will be those in the congregation who need to be comforted as they face terrible evil. They need to hear about the God of love who heals the broken hearted and who will hold them fast bringing them safely through to the other side.  Indeed there is a pastoral dimension here because as we challenge sin, we will be stirring up memories and feelings in those who have been attacked, abused, manipulated and controlled. Our talk may open up deep emotional wounds causing distress and there are complex issues around shame and guilt where real guilt may be mixed in with false guilt.

There will be those who need to be encouraged as they persevere in Christ and seek to share the Gospel. They need to be encouraged to keep going and to be bold in the face of opposition.

The difficulty here is twofold. First of all, every sermon is time constrained. We do not have the space to cover every pastoral situation in detail. If we do, then we risk a scatter gun approach with every person getting a shallow soundbite. Secondly, our exegesis of the text will show us that it points us to a primary application. For example, I do believe that the focus in 2 Samuel 11-18 is on David’s sin and failure, Application is going to primarily arise out of the major themes of the flawed type who points us to the perfect Christ and the one who is declared righteous not through their own works but because of justification by faith.

However, doing the exegesis on the congregation helps us be sharper preachers because I think there are four practical things we can do here.

1. We can overtly recognise the different responses.  When preaching on  David or Amnon, we can explicitly acknowledge that there are those for whom this will bring up difficult emotions.

2. We can prepare for those reactions by having people available and primed to talk and pray with those affected by the sermon.  3. We can be looking ahead across the whole teaching programme – does it provide for a varied diet of application that speaks to different circumstances.

4. I think that there are times when it is right to state the primary application point of a passage and then explain that we are going to focus on a secondary application.  I think that this is best done when the congregation are likely to be already familiar with the passage and its primary teaching point.

When you teach God’s Word how will you make sure that everyone is hearing what God is saying to them in their circumstances?