Lecture 1: Introduction to Understanding the OT
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The unifying purpose of the Old Testament is to show how God saves human beings from sin, for his glory and for his service.
I. The Unity of the Old Testament
II. What is the Old Testament and Why Should We Study It?
A. Origins of the Old Testament
B. Authority of the Old Testament
C. Purpose of the Bible
D. Sufficiency of Scripture
E. Structure of the Old Testament
F. Unity of the Old Testament
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
Welcome to our course, ‘Introduction to the Old Testament.’ This will be a fairly basic course. It is for beginning students. It is for people who may know pieces of the Bible but who want to put the whole picture together. It’s for people who love the Bible and want to know more about it. I think it is fine for people of different ages. Young readers, old readers. new Christians, old Christians. All need to understand the wholeness of the Bible.
Our first lesson will help us begin our study. It is an introduction to what the Bible is and how we ought to respect it and how we may read it. So first a bit of introduction.
Unity of the Old Testament
For centuries, Christians and Jews alike considered the Old Testament a unified work. Jewish readers thought the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, were a thorough account of their own faith and history. Christians treated the Old Testament as the natural introduction into the New Testament. Neither group failed to acknowledge the many types of literature in the books. But both communities of faith found underlying themes and characters that bound the whole work together. But in the last two centuries the diversity of the Old Testament has been stressed. Children are taught that the Bible is not a book but many books. College and seminary students often analyze each biblical book in isolation from other Scriptures. Therefore many people have little sense of how the Bible holds together as a unity. They have little sense of its wholeness. Very few people can fit specific stories into a larger biblical picture. So lacking a grasp of the overall Old Testament story and purpose Bible students can struggle to understand particular passages.
This class attempts to chart some elements that unify the Old Testament. Its purpose is to serve as a companion to Bible reading. Hopefully it will serve as a stimulus to further biblical reading. So in the class we will stress characters, the plot, structure, themes, and historical settings so you can know what is happening in the Old Testament and what it means. Theology and critical studies are not completely absent but they play a secondary role. I’ll be referring you to more detailed studies as we go. And you can look those up as you wish. This class wants to help you appreciate the unity of the Old Testament. If you can master the introductory principles in this class I think you will then be prepared to move on to more in-depth study.
What is the Old Testament and why should we study it?
Let’s go over six items that I think are very important.
First let’s talk about the origins of the Old Testament. How did we come to have the Old Testament that we hold in our hands? Well it’s very important for us to go to the Bible to try to understand these things. And I’d like for you to consider with me a couple of New Testament passages. You recall that most of the New Testament early Christians were Jewish persons. Jesus’ disciples were certainly Jewish persons. And of course chief among those disciples was the apostle Peter. When you turn to 2 Peter 1:19 you will find him writing about the Scriptures. In fact if we go back to verse 16 talking about the faith he shares with his audience he writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we were eye witnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was born to Him by the Majestic Glory saying ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I’m well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice born from heaven for we were with Him on the Holy Mountain.”
And then Peter writes in verse 19, “And we have something more sure the prophetic word to which you would do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Knowing this first of all that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man but men spoke from God as were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Peter says some interesting things here. He reminds his audience that he and other disciples of Jesus were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, that they saw Christ change before them, that they heard God say “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” So Peter had had an extraordinary moment with Christ. And yet he says we have a more sure word, more sure than this experience than I had on the Mount of Transfiguration. We have the prophetic word. We have what we consider the Old Testament Scriptures.
And he says these Scriptures were produced not by the will of the men who wrote down the words. But they spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. So Peter’s testimony is that the Holy Spirit is the true author of Scripture and yet the Holy Spirit uses men to write down these words. But Scripture begins with God through the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, himself a Jewish believer but one who spent most of his ministry with Gentiles also writes about the Scripture. Look at 2 Timothy 3:14 or listen as I read it. Writing to his associate Timothy, whom he has entrusted with a great ministry in Ephesus encouraging Timothy to stay true to the doctrine that he has been taught, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:14, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.”
Paul agrees with Peter that Scripture originates with God. He says Scripture, which we would know as the Old Testament, is breathed out by God, it comes from Him. And, as Peter has already said, men born along by the Holy Spirit wrote down that which God wanted to be written down. Jesus Himself, speaking in John’s gospel chapter 10 verse 35 says that the Scriptures cannot be broken. He argues for the unity of the Bible in Matthew 5:17-20 when He tells His disciples that not one small letter of the Old Testament will pass away until all is fulfilled. Jesus lived His life obedient to the Father and obedient to the Scriptures. He knew what sort of savior He was supposed to be because He understood what the Bible taught about the Messiah. Clearly, the New Testament writers and Jesus Himself believed that the Old Testament, its original origins, are with God.
What did the Old Testament claim? Well, Psalm 19 gives us one of the clearest statements that I find in the Bible about Scripture. In Psalm 19:1-6 the writer gives God praise for revealing Himself through nature. And then he moves to the written word of God in verse 7, Psalm 19:7, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever. The rules of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honey comb. Moreover by them is Your servant warned in keeping them there is great reward.”
Notice how Psalm 19: 7-11 proceeds. In the first half of the verse it says something about God’s word, the law of the Lord. In other words the first five books of the Bible, is perfect. The testimonies of the Lord, the historical accounts are sure. The rules of God, the precepts and the commandments are right and they are pure. The fear of the Lord, which you find in wisdom literature, is clean, and so forth. But in the second half of the verse it gives us the value of the word of God. It revives the soul. It makes wise the simple. It rejoices the heart and so forth. The origins of the Old Testament, according to the testimony of New Testament writers and Old Testament writers alike, is that these words come from God. They are carried to the writers through the Holy Spirit.
A second point besides the origins of the Old Testament is the authority of the Old Testament. Now we have already seen in the passages we have read somethings about the authority of the Old Testament. According to Peter, and according to Jesus, and according to Paul and according to Psalm 19 these words are God’s words. Thus they carry the authority that God Himself carries. Let’s never forget that God is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He made us. He rules us. He saves us. Whatever He would say to us we are to bound to obey as His creatures and as His people. The Bible has complete authority because it is given to us as the word and the direction of the absolute authority of the universe.
And as we think of this authority and as we have already read about its purity let us remember that this authority is flawless. It is perfect. It is without error. The Bible does not contain error because God Himself does not contain error. He is pure and sinless as we will find in our study. His is true and He is right altogether as we will learn as we look through the books of the Old Testament. Because the Holy Spirit carried the writers along, because He worked with them, because He protected them, this authoritative word, whose origins, are in God is without error.
What is the purpose of the Bible, including the Old Testament? Well again we have already seen some of the purpose. According to Psalm 19 it is to revive our souls, to make us wise, to rejoice our hearts, to open our eyes to truth, to give us security and endurance forever. Similarly, Paul says in 2 Timothy 3: 16, 17, which we read just a moment ago, that the Scriptures are profitable for several things. They are profitable for teaching us how we should live, for reproof that is for showing us what is wrong. For correction: how we should change direction according to God’s will. And for training: ongoing, preserving, learning, growing and developing in righteousness, that we might be competent, equipped for every good work.
The purpose of Scripture is to help us come to know the Lord. To find out that we are sinners in need of grace. That our hearts need reviving, as Psalm 19 says. That we might come to faith in Christ Jesus, as 2 Timothy 3:15 says. And then we might be trained to live for Him. As we are going to find out in our study, God’s purpose in giving the Scriptures is so that we might be saved from sin, to live for Him, to serve Him in the world, so that others might find Him as well. It is an amazing thing that God has set forth this purpose of blessing us and revealing Himself to us.
The theologian John Murray says the following about how merciful God is in revealing Himself to us. He writes:
It is possible for us to develop a certain kind of familiarity with the Bible so that we fail to appreciate the marvel of God’s favor and mercy and wisdom in giving it to us. We need to stop and consider what hopeless, darkness, misery, and confusion would be ours if we did not posses the Bible. We would be without God and without hope in the world, endlessly stumbling over our own vain imaginings with respect to God, with respect to His will for us, and with respect to our own nature, origin and destiny. The Bible is the infallible revelation to us of the truth regarding God Himself, regarding the world in which we live and regarding ourselves. It reveals God’s mind and will for us. It declares the way of salvation. It discloses the knowledge that is eternal life: the secrets of God’s mind and purpose. Secrets which eye hath not seen nor ear heard have been laid open to us. The things that concern God’s glory and our highest interest against all the issues of life and death, of time and eternity.
The purpose of God in giving us the Scripture is that in His mercy we might know Him. We might be saved through Him. We might walk with Him and serve others for Him. This is the purpose of the Scriptures.
So far we have mentioned the origins of Scripture in God himself, the authority of Scripture, and the purpose of Scripture.
Now a fourth item. I want to stress in our study the sufficiency of Scripture. By that I mean that the Scriptures are enough for us to understand how to be saved, how to live for God, and how to walk for Him. Notice the scope that 2 Timothy 3:16 gives us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that we might be competent, equipped for every good work.”
We have lots of examples in the Scriptures that God gives us a sufficient word. He gives us a sufficient word to know how to be saved in multiple places but perhaps most clearly in Romans 1–8. He gives us a sufficient word of how to trust in Him in Genesis 12–17. He gives us an understanding of how to live with others in the book of Proverbs. He gives us an understanding in how to praise Him in the books of Psalms. He shows us what it means to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength in the book of Deuteronomy. He shows us how to live in family in Genesis 25 through 50. The list is nearly endless but I hope I have made my point: God’s word is sufficient. We need to find out what the Bible says and conform our lives to that word.
Often times people speak of applying the Bible to life. A few years ago I heard a sermon by Christopher Wright. He is also a great missionary spokesperson and a great author. And in this Chris Wright asserted we need to flip flop our thinking. We need to stop saying “Does the Bible apply to my life?” We need to ask, rather, “Does my life conform to the Bible?” My life is not the horizon of reality. The Bible is. We need to see that as we conform our lives to the Bible it is sufficient to teach us how to become a Christian, how to walk with God, how to live for Him, how to serve others. We don’t need to construct some worldview and then fit the Bible into it. The Bible declares what reality is and we need to conform to that reality. The Bible is sufficient for all of our needs.
Next, I want to say a few words about the structure of the Old Testament so we might understand how this course will proceed. There are, of course, a lot of different ways you can structure a course like ours. Every Old Testament survey course has to choose a way to approach its subject. So some teachers stress the theological contents of the books and we will do some of that. Others describe in detail the historical background of the Old Testament and we will do some of that. Beyond these concerns many classes explain the books according to the order in which they appear in the English Bible. Still others assemble the text in historical order and study them that way.
It seems to me logical to study the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the way the New Testament writers did. Now recall that their only Scripture was the Old Testament. Remember they were in the process of writing the New Testament. And remember that they believed the Old Testament was breathed out by God and was their guide for faith and action. The first Christians, who again were Jewish, the first Bible they inherited had three specific parts. These parts are the Law, which are the books of Moses, the Prophets, which begin with Joshua and end with Malachi, and the Writings begin with Psalms and end with First and Second Chronicles - the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
This order is reflected in a couple of places in the New Testament. You recall in Luke 24:44 Jesus had met with some disciples on the road to Emmaus and He taught them the things that were about Him in the law, the prophets and the psalms. This passage reflects the three fold pattern of law, prophets and writings. Also, in Matthew’s gospel in chapter 23, Jesus is describing the failures of the people of His day, and He says that unbelievers have always murdered the prophets and the followers of the Lord. And He mentions two murders: the murder of Able by Cain and then the murder of a man named Zechariah in Matthew 23:35. Of course, the murder of Abel occurs in the book of Genesis. The murder of Zechariah occurs in Second Chronicles. In the Bible Jesus knew of law, prophets and writings, the first murder occurred in Genesis, the first book of His Bible and the last murder occurred in Second Chronicles, the last book of Jesus’ Bible. So Matthew 23 gives us another example of how New Testament characters conceived of the Old Testament as Law, Prophets, and Writings.
It is certainly fine to study the Old Testament in other ways. It is fine to divide the Old Testament into its historical order and study it that way. It is fine to pick particular themes and to divide the Old Testament and to study it that way. There are lots of good ways to study the Old Testament. But we are going to divide our study into these three parts: Law, Prophets, and Writings. For this is how the early church conceived of the Bible.
Let me give you an idea of the contents. The Law is pretty much what you would expect from your English Bible. That is: it contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. As we will be speaking about in a moment, the word ‘law’ means ‘instruction.’ This is God’s instruction, His loving and kind instruction to all of us today.
The second section is the Prophets. This is interesting because the prophetic section of the Old Testament includes the following books: Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings. We consider those historical books and they are, but the early Christians would have seen the strong prophetic influence of people like Samuel and Elisha and Elijah. The next books after First and Second Kings: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets or as Jewish tradition calls them ‘The Book of the Twelve.’ Interestingly enough, they treat those twelve books as one prophetic book.
The third section is the Writings. And here is the order: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and First and Second Chronicles. Now most of you probably realize that all the books of the Old Testament that you are used to are included. But they are in a bit different order after Judges. You are used to finding Ruth after Judges, and yet Ruth is in the Writings after Proverbs and before Song of Solomon. You are used to having First and Second Chronicles follow First and Second Kings. And yet First and Second Chronicles are at the end of the list of the books.
What is some of the logic of this ordering? Well we are not certain exactly what the logic of those who collected the books this way was. But we can see some of the following: if you will study the Law and the first four books of the prophets, that is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua Judges, Samuel, and Kings you will know virtually all of what happened in the history of Israel. You will study from creation through the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and a few years beyond.
And then in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets you find out why these things happened. Having been told what happened, you now learn why they happened. Why it was that God worked with the people for so long. Why it is that the Lord allowed them to be conquered. Why it is the Lord is sending a Messiah. Why it is that the Lord will judge the heavens and earth at the end of time. So having been told what happens and why it happens when we get to the writings we find out how people lived in the midst of all this history.
In Psalms we find out how they worshipped. And in Job, how they endured terrible suffering. And in Proverbs, how they lived wisely. And following Proverbs 31, which is about a wise woman, you have the book of Ruth, certainly an example of a wise woman. And Ruth ends with a marriage and a love story. And then follows into Song of Solomon, one of the great love songs of all time. But then the writings move from how to love into Ecclesiastes, to how to find meaning. To Lamentations: how to endure terrible national tragedy. And Esther and Daniel. Esther, a woman, living outside her homeland in exile, in Persia. And Daniel, a man, living outside his homeland in exile, in Babylon.
And then how to rebuild the nation. Ezra-Nehemiah talk about people who long after the destruction of Jerusalem, long after the nation fell, the Lord allowed some to return to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the land. And finally, First and Second Chronicles gives us a panoramic scope of history beginning with genealogies from Genesis and ending with 539 B.C. in the rebuilding of the temple. So this ordering of the books tells us what happened, tells us why it happened, and it tells us how people lived. This is the structure of the Old Testament. And this will provide structure for our study.
So far the origins of the Old Testament, the authority of the Old Testament, the purpose of the Old Testament, the sufficiency of the Old Testament, and the structure Old Testament have been introduced. Finally, a sixth point of introduction. That is the unity of the Old Testament.
As I stated in the beginning, we are prone to think that the Old Testament is a collection of books and it is that. But it is a unified collection with a single purpose: that is to show how God saves human beings from sin for His glory, for His service. And this unity unfolds over hundreds of years of history. But throughout the Scriptures, the writers of the Bible see this as a unified story. For example, in Deuteronomy 1–4, Moses tells his people the one story of how God has redeemed them and brought them to Himself. His associate Joshua at the end of his career, in Joshua 23 and 24, tells the same story and then adds his lifetime to it.
In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel, living decades and decades after Joshua, does the same. He tells what God has done for the people. How He has redeemed them to be a blessing to the world. And has brought them to the land and how He has been dealing with them since the time of Joshua. Just a few other examples: read Psalm 78, Psalm 89, Psalms 104 to 106 and you see the same pattern. The Scriptures talk about how God created the world. The world fell into sin. God chose Abraham’s family to be a blessing to the nations. God made promises to David. God continues His work. And He will redeem persons from all nations.
Acts 7, where Steven gives his account of what God’s been doing in history, in Acts 13, where Paul gives an account of what he says God has been doing in history, are very much like these Old Testament passages I just cited. All these passages show God has created the world. God will redeem people from sin. God will teach them how to serve Him. God will send them on mission to the ends of the earth. And God will redeem people from all nations.
There is a great unity to these Scriptures. I want to read you a quotation from a great Christian John Newton. He is best known as the author of the treasured hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ He was also a great pastor and a great writer and he said the following in a letter to a friend about the unity of the Bible, “The doctrines, histories, prophecies, promises, precepts, exhortations, examples and warnings contained in the Bible form a perfect whole. A complete summary of the will of God concerning us in which nothing is wanting, nothing is superfluous.” The Bible is a unified story about a God who is one, about a God who is true, about a God who in His mercy revealed Himself to us so that we might know Him.
There are many other things we can say by way of introduction. But I hope these things will help you understand where I’ll be coming from as I teach. For I believe the origins of the Old Testament are in God Himself. I believe the authority of the Old Testament is the same as God speaking to us audibly today. His word carries His authority and I believe the purpose of the Old Testament is the same as the purpose of the New Testament, which is to teach us to know God, to have our sins forgiven, and how to live for Him. I believe the sufficiency of the Old Testament is the same as the sufficiency of the New. The Old Testament teaches us what we need to know to live for God in this world. I believe the structure of the Old Testament is best explained by studying the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. This order will tell us what happened, why it happened and how God’s people lived through the centuries.
And I will teach that the Bible is a unity and the Old Testament is part of that unity. It is part of a whole story that as William J. Dumbrell says “takes us from creation to new creation.” From the words “God created the heavens and the earth” to the end of the Bible in Revelation 21 which says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” So as we study together let us keep some of these introductory things in mind and let us go forth to study the Bible as law, prophets, and writings given by Almighty God for our good for everything that we need.
- In your own words, explain why studying the Old Testament is important. How should this affect the way that you read the Old Testament? What is something that you can do this week to help someone else understand why the Old Testament is important?
- How do you see the Old Testament’s relationship to the New Testament? How do both Testaments have the same purpose? Where do you see Christ in the Old Testament? How is the New Testament the fulfillment of the Old?
- What are the implications of the sufficiency of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament? How should the words of Scripture guide our lives? What are some appropriate ways to use Scripture? What are some inappropriate ways?
- How does the structure of the Old Testament affect the way we interpret it? What is different about the way we should interpret a portion of the Law versus a book in the Writings?
- Memorize the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, the Law, Prophets, and Writings.
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