Understanding The Old Testament

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All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV) From these verses we can see that all parts of Scripture are profitable for:

  • Doctrine or teaching on what we should believe and how we should believe.
  • Reproof or exposing errors in what we believe or how we should live.
  • Correcting the errors exposed.
  • Instruction on how to live a Christ honoring life.
  • Leading us to maturity as Christians.
  • Equipping us for every good work.

If all means all, then the Old Testament must be considered a part of this. Our task then is to, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 (NKJV) As we study Scripture we need to understand that every text has a meaning and significance. The simplest way to define these two terms is that meaning is what it means, and significance is what impact should this have on my life, or the application. We must first find the correct meaning of a text before we can properly apply it to our lives.

Finding the proper meaning and application of Biblical texts can be a complicated process, especially when dealing with the Old Testament. It is for this reason that many seek to avoid this by saying things like, “That is the Old Testament, it has no relevance for us today.” This is a false statement but one that is heard often. Our task is to come to a proper understanding of Scripture, then properly apply that truth to our lives.

The Old Testament can be broken down into four different types of writings.

  • Law. Genesis-Deuteronomy is considered to be the books of the Law.
  • Historical. Joshua-Esther are considered to be the books of history.
  • Wisdom & Poetry. Job-Ecclesiastes are considered to be the books of wisdom and poetry.
  • Prophecy. Isaiah-Malachi are considered to be the prophetic books.

It is important to remember that most books contain many of the above listed types in them. This blog post isn’t going to be an exhaustive guide to Old Testament interpretation, rather we are going to look at some principles we can use to help us get more out of reading the Old Testament.

The Law

The Old Testament contains over six hundred commandments, which the Israelites were expected to keep as evidence of their loyalty to God. Only four of the thirty-nine Old Testament books contain these laws: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These laws could be summed up into three very broad categories.

  • Moral Laws. These taught standards of right and wrong in behavior.
  • Sacrificial Laws. These taught the proper way to offer sacrifices to God.
  • Ceremonial Laws. These taught the proper way that worship and service to the Lord was to be conducted.

As we read these books and the laws contained in them, it becomes obvious that some of them don’t have the same application for us today as it did for the Old Testament Jews. For example, “He shall kill the bull before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting.” Leviticus 1:5 (NKJV)  Or, “…You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy 14:21 (NKJV) In both instances the meaning is fairly clear, but what is the significance for us today?

As we study the books of the Law here are some questions we should ask ourselves to find the proper meaning and significance.

  • Is this commandment ­­repeated­ in the New Testament as something that should be obeyed today? For example, nine of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament in various places.
  • Does any part of the New Testament limit the application of this text? Take a look at Hebrews 9:1-10:1-14. In this passage we find that Christ is the fulfillment of the ceremonial and sacrificial laws therefore believers today do not offer the physical sacrifices of bulls and goats.
  • Is the commandment’s application rooted in God’s character? “For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Leviticus 11:45 (NKJV) God stated two reasons they were to be holy, because He had brought them out of Egypt and because He is Holy. How does this apply to us today? Well God is still the one that has saved us and He is still holy today. Therefore the need for holiness in our lives still applies today.
  • How does this text show me Jesus? The New Testament tells us, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24 (NKJV) Therefore the laws should show us Jesus in one way or another. Look for things that, show us our need for a redeemer, typifies Jesus, or shows us the love and care of God for His people.

The Historical Books

The historical books contain incredible battles, heroic acts by men and women of God and large amounts of the history of the rise and fall of the Nation of Israel. While keeping in mind that almost every book contains a historical record of some sort here are some principles for getting the proper meaning and significance of the historical narratives.

  • Historical narratives rarely explicitly teach a doctrine that is not taught somewhere else.
  • Historical narratives record what happened, not necessarily what should have happened. Therefore what people do in the narratives is not necessarily the example we should follow; in fact often it is just the opposite.
  • When reading a narrative look for actions that God blessed, and actions God condemned. Just because something is recorded in the historical books does not mean that it has God’s endorsement as something that should be done.
  • We are not always told in the narratives where what happened was good or bad, we are expected to judge that off of what God has explicitly taught us elsewhere in Scripture.
  • When reading a historical narrative understand the difference between what is affirmed to be true, and what is affirmed to have happened.
  • Many narratives are selective and incomplete. Not every detail is given. What is given is what God and His inspired author thought important for us to have. “Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he made war and how he reigned, indeed they are written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel.” 1 Kings 14:19 (NKJV We see this formula repeated many times in the Old Testament.

Wisdom

One of the best ways to define Biblical wisdom is “the practical use of the knowledge that God gives.” Central to theme of wisdom is the concept of the “wise man”; not as one who escapes the world but as one who learns to live in the world with God’s guidance and help. Primarily Biblical wisdom is a God centered pattern of thinking that applies the wisdom of God to practical issues of life.

The books commonly referred to as wisdom in the Old Testament are Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Characteristics of Wisdom writings that should help us understand and apply them properly.

  1. A practical orientation. A practical orientation is a basic characteristic of wisdom thinking. The wisdom of the past generations was handed down to the younger generation to help them take their proper place in society. In order to accomplish this wisdom is filled with admonitions on:
  • Proper etiquette and Speech. Proverbs 29:20
  • Self-control. Proverbs 25:28
  • Family relationships. Proverbs 10:1
  • Material wealth. Proverbs 11:4
  • God and man. Proverbs 10:27-32
  • Wisdom & the wise. Proverbs 9:10
  • Foolishness and fools. Proverbs 1:7
  • Laziness. Proverbs 6:9
  • Friends. Proverbs 18:24
  • Life and death. Ecclesiastes 8:8

These are a few of the topics spoken on in wisdom writings, from these we can see the value of these writings for the Christian today.

  1. Dependence on God. One theme that is the most common in all of wisdom literature is mans dependence on God. There are three aspects of this characteristic of wisdom writings that are important to remember.
  • Wisdom links daily experiences with the centrality of God’s relationship with man. Proverbs 18:22
  • God’s presence is felt in the daily life of God’s people. Proverbs 3:5-6
  • The tendency to personify wisdom as an extension of God Himself. Proverbs 1:20-23

Poetry

The books of the Bible that make up the poetic books are Psalms and Song of Solomon. Probably no portion of Scripture is read and loved quite as much as the Psalms.

The problem with interpreting the Psalms comes primarily from their nature—what they are. Because the Bible is God’s Word, many Christians automatically assume that all it contains are words from God to people. Because of this many fail to recognize that the Bible also contains words spoken to God and about God, and that these words too, are God’s Word.

Many of the Psalms are just such words. Because the Psalms are basically prayers and hymns, by their very nature they are addressed to God or express truth about God in song. Here are some things for us to remember to get the most out of reading the Psalms.

  • The Psalms show us how to express ourselves to God. Since many of the Psalms are prayers and praise to God we can learn from them ways to express ourselves to God in different circumstances in our lives. Psalm 19:12-14, Psalm 96
  • The Psalms can teach us about the ways of the Lord. Psalm 34:15-18
  • The Psalms are rich in metaphorical language, and while such language can teach us much about God, it must not be taken literally. Psalm 18:1-2 David uses many descriptive words to tell us what God is to him.

The Prophets

More individual books of the Bible come under the heading of prophecy than any other heading. Four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and twelve minor prophets (the last twelve books of the Old Testament). All were written in ancient Israel between 760 and 460 B.C., and contain a vast array of messages from God. Here are some things that will help us get the most out of our reading of the prophets.

  1. Understand the meaning of prophecy. When we read the books of prophecy our minds go immediately to this definition of prophesy, “a prediction of something to come.” When this happens we look to the prophets only for predictions of the first or Second Coming of Christ. Gordon Fee gives some things to remember about the meaning of prophecy.
  • Less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy is directly Messianic. Less than 5% specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less than 1% specifically refers to events yet to come.
  • While the prophets did announce the future, these announcements primarily concerned the immediate future of Israel, Judah and other nations that surrounded them, not our future.
  1. Remember that the prophets were primarily spokespersons for God.  When we see the prophets primarily as predictors of the future we miss their true primary function, which was to speak for God.
  • There were hundreds of prophets in Old Testament times, only sixteen were chosen to speak messages from God that would be collected into prophetic books. In 1 and 2 Kings two prophets were very influential but never wrote what we call prophetic books.
  • The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators. God’s Law was a covenant with Israel, this covenant contained both “blessings” for obedience and “curses” for disobedience. The prophets were called upon to rebuke Israel for their disobedience, remind them of God’s promised blessings, and warn them of the coming judgement. As you read the prophets look for this pattern; An identification of Israel’s sin or of God’s love for Israel. A prediction of a curse or a blessing depending on the circumstances.
  • The prophets message was not his own, but God’s. It was God who raised up prophets and gave them the words to say. We often find the message prefaced with, “Thus says the LORD” showing that the prophet was simply saying what had been revealed by God.
  1. Be careful of newspaper interpretation of the prophecies. It is all too popular today to seek to apply apocalyptic prophecies to our current events. This can lead to a marginalization of the accuracy of Scripture.
  2. Be both careful and humble when giving your interpretation and application of prophetic vision and symbolism, especially when relating them to our current world.
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