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Over apply and die ::

In the last issue of Perspective, BRYSON SMITH dealt with the perils of sermons that lack down-to-earth application. But PHIl CAMPBELL warns there’s danger in going too far the other way – the danger of over application…

Source: Perspective Vol2 No3 ©Perspective 1999

The air was heavy with tension. It was Bible study – and it was hard work. Nehemiah was a part of the Old Testament most of them had never heard of, let alone read. Sure, in some ways it was a good yarn – “But where’s the moral?” cried Anne. “I want something relevant. Can’t we do a study on the fruits of the Spirit?
It’s a fair enough question, because all of us want the Bible to speak to us – we want to get to the “moral”, with as little hard work as possible. But sadly, life isn’t always that easy.
Typically, though, we massage the text, we squeeze it, we suck out every last drop of possible application. Nehemiah the wall builder becomes Nehemiah the archetypal leader, Nehemiah the hero of the faith who galvanised a nation, Nehemiah the man of prayer. The Jerusalem walls become our new church hall, or our church extension, or the new carpet in the manse. And Sanballat and Tobiah, Nehemiah’s arch enemies become – let’s be creative here – sin in the modern believer’s life. Better still, let’s make that “The sins that try to stop us reaching our full potential.” Mmmm… nice.
There’s only one problem. And that is, we’re not doing justice to the original intention of the text. We might be scratching where people are itching, but we’re missing the Author’s intention entirely – and ultimately, that’s a disaster.

Sure, a sermon or study with no practical application is dangerously dull, but the perils of over application are even worse. For when we over apply, we’re simply selling our own ideas, the products of our unbridled imagination, and packaging them with all the authority of the Word of God. And most people simply won’t notice the difference.
So what safeguards can we apply?
Let me make a few suggestions, with Nehemiah as a model.


Often, our application within a sermon or study tends to be localised, limited to the few verses we are dealing with. Sometimes that’s a danger – especially in a book like Nehemiah that has a clear narrative structure and direction.

Take, for example, the dramatic public repentance of the Israelites midway through story. It’s great stuff, and it’s tempting to milk it dry. Mind you, when you read a bit further, each of their three vows before God are broken. Their declaration of repentance isn’t worth the paper it’s written on! Fair enough, you can idealise their response on Sunday the 3rd, and by the time you get to the bad news on Sunday the 24th everyone will have conveniently forgotten. But surely, you’ll be doing more justice to the point of the book if you’re looking ahead at the wider narrative framework.
Likewise, the wall. Ideally, the new Jerusalem wall is going to keep Israel safe from the influence of the nations – a “sin barrier” to protect God’s covenant people and maintain their faithfulness. But before we get too excited about Nehemiah’s successful building project, we need to ask the question “Does it actually work?” And the short answer is NO!
By the end of the book, arch-enemies Sanballat and Tobiah have infiltrated the inner sanctums – worse still, they’re welcomed with open arms. In short, the walls are never going to solve the Israelites heart problem – and Nehemiah knows it. And significantly, nothing short of a new heart-changing covenant will ever make the slightest bit of difference.
Good application will watch the road ahead; good application will be sensitive to the overall thrust of the book – because the local narrative context is the single best measure of the values we’re meant to attach to significant features of the story.


If the local narrative framework is the framework of the individual book, sensitivity to the wider narrative will mean looking at the book itself within the overall story of the Bible. The Israel narrative in the Old Testament takes us from Genesis 12 through to the end of Nehemiah – the birth of the nation in God’s promises to Abraham, through exile, to the stumbling efforts to re-establish the nation and regain God’s blessing. Nehemiah fails. So what lies ahead? The wider narrative of the Bible leads us inexorably to Jesus, and the real restoration of Israel. What Nehemiah failed to do, Jesus does perfectly – and if our application doesn’t lead us to this point, then we’re ultimately failing to bring our audience into contact with a message that’s relevant to them, now. After all, it’s only because of our inclusion in the people of God through Jesus that the Old Testament has ANYTHING to say to us at all


Maybe most people will give at least grudging assent to what I’ve just said. But here’s the cutting edge – and let me restate it boldly. It may be that sometimes we need to apply LESS rather than MORE. Because if the key point of the passage isn’t apparent until later in the narrative, then it’s true to say “Good things come to those who wait”. Much will depend on the structuring of your individual sermons here. You might, for example, decide to preach through Nehemiah in a single slab, picking up the key issues and resolving them in the same week. And that’s probably a fine idea. In my case, though, I chose to break the book up in such a way as to create suspense – and hinting on the way through that some of the “good things” we observed were doomed to frustration.

In short, though, it meant that I was effectively bypassing all the “traditional” applications of the book of Nehemiah, because in context, they weren’t just unsupported – they were actually wrong. But now for the good news. The hard work is worth it – and in one church at least, there’s a bunch of Christians who grieved over the unfaithfulness of Israel, who shared in God’s frustration at their unrepentant hearts – and who rejoice at the fact that they’ve been included in the Israel of New-heartedness, through faith in Jesus Christ. Who cares about building projects anyway?

Phil Campbell

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