On Reading the Old Testament

I was listening to a lecture recently, and the speaker pointed out that as Christians we often read our Bibles backward. That is, we start in the New Testament and work our way backwards to the Old Testament. When I thought about this, I realized that I did not only read my Bible backwards, but my knowledge of the Bible was backwards too! I seem to know a lot about Jesus, salvation through grace by faith, justification, etc. On the other hand, I really don’t know a lot about covenants, God’s promises, and the other big ideas of the OT. But if I don’t know my OT well, can I really say I know the NT? Can I say I know the Bible?

If you’re like me, then you’ll admit that our knowledge of the OT could use some vast improvement. But it’s not like we haven’t tried reading the OT. It’s just that whenever we approach it, it seems dry, esoteric, sometimes even irrelevant and inapplicable. We just don’t get it.

The following are some of the issues I’ve run into while trying to become a better reader of the OT. If you’re an NT-heavy believer like me, you may find some of these beneficial to your study of the OT.

How do we read the Old Testament well? The following three tips (really just variations on the same theme) have helped me in my reading of the Bible, but they are especially helpful when it comes to the OT.

  • It’s not about You. Most of the Bible (and especially the OT) is not written to individuals, much less 21st-century individuals; instead, God’s Word is delivered to large communities, specifically His Chosen People, the Israelites. Yes, God cares about us as individuals, but if our approach to the OT is us-centered–that is, if our focus is on what we as individuals can get out of it, rather than on what God is trying to communicate–then we will be utterly disappointed with what the OT has to say.
  • Direct, Personal Applications are few and far between. Most of us have grown up believing that every single verse of the Bible contains a direct application to us. At the end of every sermon, we expect a three point application that tells us what to do or what to think. But because the Bible isn’t written directly to us (we aren’t the original audience), it’s simply unfair to put personal applications as a priority. This is especially true of the Old Testament, where you’d often be hard-pressed to find the kind of life-changing, personal applications we’ve been conditioned to expect. So, don’t focus on “getting something out” of your reading of the OT; rather, listen to what God is saying to the Israelites, who were the direct recipients of the OT message. Resist the urge to allegorize their situation onto our modern times. Instead, learn to think like an Israelite. Pay attention to the story that God is building between Him and His Chosen People.
  • Grasp the Whole before dissecting the Part. When we talk about reading the context in our Bible studies, we often mean reading the immediate context, maybe the 5 verses around our text, or if we’re feeling real cool, the entire chapter. To put it bluntly, that is insufficient for most of the OT. Exceptions I can think of are maybe (but not really!) the Psalms and Proverbs. If we are serious about getting context, then we have to get the context of the whole book. That means reading and thinking through the entire book as a whole before we get into verse-by-verse studies. What is the main message or argument of the book? What are the big issues it is concerned about? Where does it fit in Israel’s history? What are recurrent themes? Questions like these prime us to think like the original audience, preparing us to receive the message that God is concerned about, rather than the message that we want to hear. The benefit of having the whole in mind is that, once we do get to studying the parts, we know how everything fits together in light of the overall message.

What does it take to read the Old Testament well? In my experience, the following three things (none of which are particularly popular in our fast-food culture) are essential to getting a good grip on an OT book.

  • Time. Unfortunately for us, OT books are relatively long compared to NT books. Any study of an OT book is going to take a long time, especially if we want to understand the book as a whole. In some ways though, this is comforting, because it means that we don’t have to rush our time with the Word. That, of course, is no excuse for being lazy.
  • Patience. Ultimately, the message that God speaks to the Israelites in the OT is also a message that speaks to us. But getting from what God says to Israel to what God says to us is a hard and narrow path. Most times, our first run through an OT book won’t be a satisfying read. We won’t get the pay-off right away, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up and move on to the next book. Wrestling with the Word takes patience and courage.
  • Humility. If our reading of the Word is to be fruitful, then we must approach it with humility, recognizing that our understanding depends on the Spirit’s revelation. Again, it’s not about what we can get out of it, but it’s about what God is giving to us. We need to put our agendas on hold and be willing to submit to the Word that God has revealed in the OT Law, Prophets, and Writings.

What’s the pay-off for reading the Old Testament well? Of course, there are plenty of benefits for reading the OT well, but here are a couple that have been on my mind lately.

  • We come to a deeper knowledge of the Person and Work of Christ. When Jesus said that the Scriptures testify about Him, He was referring to the Old Testament. The OT is the framework under which the NT operates. All the technical terminology of the NT is sourced in the OT. If we want to understand the NT, then we must understand the OT to an equal degree. Finally, if Christ is God’s fulfillment of all His promises to Israel, then knowing Christ means we must be familiar with the history of God’s relationship with his Chosen People.
  • It enriches our worship of God. A deep understanding of the OT enriches our worship by teaching us to approach God in accordance with the way He has revealed Himself. In this sense, our worship isn’t arbitrary. Our idea of God isn’t just something we’ve pulled together from philosophy and world religions. Instead, our worship of Yahweh God is grounded historically, in the work that He has done and the word that He has revealed.

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 competent, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)