Sectional Context & “If My People . . .”


I once opined, “If I were stuck on an island and could have only two books, give me (1) the Bible and (2) Walt Kaiser’s, Toward an Exegetical Theology. The latter, to me, is the most complete and exquisite treatment of expository preaching ever published. In it, Kaiser discusses the importance of “sectional context.” I have written elsewhere of canonical context (“What is the controlling theme of the entire Bible?”) and book context (“What is the controlling theme of the book we are studying?”). Now, we must narrow the focus to the specific “section” in which our passage falls. 

Sectional Context

Sectional context is concerned with determining “why the author arranged the material of the book” the way he did.[1] In our “book context” analysis, we sought the unifying theme of the entire biblical book. That unifying theme will arise from the text only when we inspect the individual sections that comprise the whole.

Sectional context is concerned with determining “why the author arranged the material of the book” the way he did.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Kaiser likens it to an auto mechanic. If you disassemble a car, and put all the parts together again, then you know how all the parts contribute to the whole. The same is true for the expositor. Disassemble a book, put it back together again, and you will know how each part contributes to the whole.

Section Markers

Kaiser mentions several helpful section markers. 

  1. A repeated term, phrase, clause, or sentence. Genesis often repeats, “the generations of . . .” (Gen 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:27).
  2. A series of rhetorical questions. Romans 6:1: What shall we say then? Romans 6:15: What then? Romans 7:7: What then shall we say?
  3. A (vocative) shift of attention from one group to another. Micah 1:2 addresses people in general. Micah 3:1 addresses rulers of Israel. Micah 6:1 addresses mountains of the earth.
  4. A transitional conjunction: then, therefore, but, etc.
  5. A change in time, location, or setting.
  6. A change in tense or mood of the verb.

A Good Example

The controlling theme of John’s Gospel is found in John 20:30-31: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.

That word, “signs,” provides the key clue in seeing how John organized his Gospel. Seven signs are recorded to show Jesus is the promised Messiah. Always keep the “canonical context” in the back of your mind: God promised to form a nation for Himself (through Abraham) and out of that nation bring the One Who through Whom salvation would come to all the nations. John’s aim, then, is to prove Jesus is that promised One. What is his proof? These seven signs.

  1. Only Messiah could turn water to wine (John 2:11): This, the first of His “signs,” Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory.  
  2. Only Messiah could heal the noble man’s son (John 4:54): This was now the second “sign” that Jesus did when He had come from Judea to Galilee.
  3. Only Messiah could heal an invalid from birth (John 5:16).
  4. Only Messiah could feed the 5000 with five loaves and two fish (John 6:14): When the people saw the “sign” that He had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet Who is to come into the world!”
  5. Only Messiah could walk on water (John 6:16-21).
  6. Only Messiah could heal the blind man (John 9:16): But others said, “How can a man Who is a sinner do such ‘signs?’”
  7. Only Messiah could raise Lazarus from death (John 11:47): For this man performs many “signs?”

Of course, John then spends chapters 12-21 developing that final, glorious sign: the resurrection.

A Poor Example

I happened to be at the beach for vacation during the 4th of July holiday. I attended a worship service. Naturally, the preaching-text was 2 Chronicles 7:14: [I]f My people who are called by My Name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

As often happens, the pastor applied this to the society-at-large. He wagged his finger, calling down the hell-fire on politicians, the media, Hollywood, prostitutes, gays, and pro-choice advocates. He commanded them to repent so God would restore our nation to glory. We applaud the pastor for his lion-hearted courage in boldly confronting the world’s sins. He was genuine in his desire for repentance and godliness.

While we admire him for those endearing qualities, we must at the same time ask this question: Is this the aim of the writer of Chronicles?

John MacArthur opines, “First and Second Chronicles . . . recreate an OT history in miniature, with particular emphasis on the Davidic Covenant and temple worship.”[2] The pastor’s preaching-text, 2 Chronicles 7, fell within a larger section of the glory years of God’s people during Solomon’s peaceful reign (chs. 1-9). The remainder of the book documents God’s people and their infamous moral and spiritual tailspin under succeeding kings (chs. 10-36). In chapter 7, specifically, Solomon had just dedicated the temple when Yahweh appeared to him by night, saying, “If My people . . .”

2 Chronicles 7:14 is addressed to God’s people, not the American people; to His saints, not the pagans; to His Church, not Hollywood; to believers, not the intellectual elites in politics, the media, and entertainment.

When pastors are commanding pagans to repent from a text in which God is commanding His people to repent, something is terribly wrong. 

Nothing our faithful but misguided pastor proclaimed was untrue. He merely placed his finger upon the wrong text. He proclaimed in the Name of God the exact opposite of what God said from that text

When pastors are commanding pagans to repent from a text in which God is commanding His people to repent, something is terribly wrong.  

A Final Word

This is precisely the type of preaching that breeds dangerous movements like the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). They seize on this type of emotional finger-pointing at society, never realizing judgment begins with the house of God. A simple study of sectional context will keep us from these types of embarrassments.  

[1]Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker Book, 1981), 75. 

[2]The MacArthur Study Bible

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Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.