This article is adapted from Bryan Murawski’s book, “Preaching Difficult Texts of the Old Testament” (Hendrickson, 2021).
Someone once said, “The devil is in the details.” This trite idiom encourages you not to underestimate the details in a certain task. What at first appears simple and straightforward may contain difficulties you never saw coming.
The saying may have derived from a similarly worded idiom: “God is in the details.” This saying points to the benefit of paying attention to the small things. Sometimes meaning is found in the most obscure fact.
So, which is it? Does the devil or God reside in the details?
Preachers would affirm the truth of both statements. The simplest of passages can sometimes present unforeseen trouble to the careful exegete. Once you begin studying a text, it’s hard to predict everything you’ll uncover or know all the paths your study will travel. On the other hand, you should study hard before preaching even familiar passages because sermons oftentimes turn on those previously unknown details.
These two sayings—the devil and God are in the details—come to a head in biblical texts that are detail-oriented. Some passages seem to have an overabundance of detail that should neither be underestimated nor ignored. Many exegetical or theological commentaries tend to treat long lists and data-dumps with less space than more narrative-oriented passages.
How do you balance the need to preach the details yet not get lost in them? Do you have to be an engineer to understand the architectural details of the tabernacle in Exodus 26, or an expert in Jerusalem topography to follow Nehemiah’s rebuilding efforts in Nehemiah 3? Or what about texts that seem to excel in tedious repetition, such as the offerings at the consecration of the tabernacle in Numbers 7? Thankfully, you can have assurance that the Spirit of God has written each detail in the Bible. Therefore, no detail is too obscure to be relevant, too complex to understand, or too abstruse to preach.
Why So Many Lists?
Couldn’t God have just said, “And Moses and the Israelites made the tabernacle and its furniture exactly as YHWH commanded”? Instead of five chapters of repetition in Exodus 36–40, there would be only one verse and you could then move on to Leviticus. The answer, of course, is: Yes, God could have done that. But the very fact that he didn’t tells us there is something to learn in all this meticulous repetition and detail.
(1) Lists and repetition were common literary devices in the ancient world. Archaeologists have uncovered many different examples from many different cultures of literary repetition for rhetorical effect, some of them quite close in time and location to Israel. There are examples from Babylon; there are examples from Ugarit. This isn’t just something you find in the Bible. Mesopotamia was familiar with this type of literature.
We see similar patterns in Scripture. God told the Israelites to build a Tabernacle. He gave them the meticulous details to do so (Exod 25–30). The Israelites built the Tabernacle, making sure they followed the instructions to every last detail. Exodus repeats God’s instructions, repeating the details verbatim to emphasize the Israelites’ obedience (Exod 35–40).
(2) Lists and repetition emphasize the importance of the subject. We invite detail when we care about the subject, or when the subject is critical to the matter at hand. When our family moved to Michigan, we bought a house. You know what my four-year-old daughter wanted? Details! “Where are we going to put my room? How far away is that from your room? Where will my bed go? What color will we paint my walls? Can I put stickers on my walls? Can I have a slide in my room?” When the subject is important, details are important. If someone is interested, then even the most boring list can grab their attention.
In Exodus 35–40, the subject is God’s tabernacle. Moses isn’t talking about laundry. He’s not talking about remodeling a house. He’s talking about building God a dwelling place. To the original Israelites, this was not dull! They weren’t checking their sundials to see when the service would end as Moses read from that section of the Law. Every detail is another detail for the house of God. When something is important to us, we don’t mind the detail. Although we might not jump out of bed to do our devotions in Exodus 37, for the Israelites, every last detail told the story of God’s grace and fulfillment of promise.
(3) Lists and repetition sometimes emphasize the meticulous obedience of God’s people. We’re more familiar with this third function than we probably realize. Meticulous repetition ensures the job is done the right way. If you ever experience the abject torture of building your own house, then you want an architect and builders who know the concept of meticulous repetition. They are given the blueprints, and they are to build the house according to the blueprints. Then it’s all inspected according to those blueprints. And so on.
Here’s the principle: Meticulous repetition means meticulous obedience.
Let me repeat it: Meticulous repetition means meticulous obedience. When God spends seven chapters saying, “Here’s how many hooks I want on the curtains, here’s what colors they should be, here’s what designs I want on them,” we want to see next that they made that many hooks, curtains with those colors, and put those exact designs on them.
Studying and Preaching the Details
The apostle Paul once wrote to Pastor Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Notice that first word: All. Every book, every chapter, every verse, every last word of Scripture. “All” leaves nothing out. All Scripture is God-breathed, profitable for sanctification.
That includes every last devilish detail.
It will take hard work and study, but the effort promises fruit. Every passage of Scripture is a gift from God, given to believers for their sanctification and growth. And if you preach it well, then your congregation will leave knowing that God, not the devil, is in the Bible’s details.
Bryan Murawski (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Belleville, MI. He and Dr. Timothy Miller are co-authoring a forthcoming commentary on 1 Peter for the Kerux Commentary Series.