The Old Testament in the Bible is a little weird and difficult to read, so why is it included alongside more important seeming books like the gospels and Romans?
Let’s be honest now. The books in the first half of the Bible, with the possible exception of Psalms and some of the iconic Sunday school stories, aren’t much fun to read.
What are we supposed to do with the rampant murder spree that is pretty much the entirety of Judges or the depressing nihilism of Ecclesiastes? Who really wants to plow through all 52 chapters of Jeremiah weeping and prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem? Any takers for Song of Solomon’s awkwardly erotic love poetry or Nahum pronouncing doom over Nineveh for an entire book?
This is to say nothing of some of the problematic characters we find featured there. Are we supposed to cheer for Sampson who’s a rampant womanizer? What do we make of Jehu, the genocidal executioner? Is it okay to squirm when God commands Jeremiah to use a dirty loincloth as part of a sermon demonstration?
The majority of believers have probably never read more than half of the Old Testament. They hit the highlights — Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, Esther, Ruth, David in his youth and the Psalms — and then move right along to the more comfortable New Testament.
Isn’t all of this historical stuff kept mostly for the sake of tradition? How valuable to modern life are all of those Levitical laws and prophesies about Israel’s fall?
Do we really need to read the Old Testament?
Uncovering the Full Picture
David Wilkerson’s answer to this question would be an emphatic ‘yes.’ He urgently wrote, “Some believers — even ministers — believe the Old Testament is not relevant to our times so there’s no need to study it anymore. How wrong they are! The Old Testament explains the New Testament in clear, simple terms. Its stories are full of types and shadows of eternal truths, played out in the practical lives of real people.”
The lives of Old Testament people are messy and filled with mistakes because our lives aren’t always clean or straightforward either. The history of Israel provides a roadmap of warnings against following our own wandering feet as we are torn between our selfish desires and God’s call to a higher way of living.
“Indeed,” David notes, “scripture makes it clear that all of Israel’s physical battles mirror our spiritual battles today: ‘All these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come’ (1 Corinthians 10:11). Even the tabernacle and its furniture are examples of heavenly things: ‘Who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For [God] said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’” (Hebrews 8:5).
“All these Old Testament examples are meant to keep us from falling into unbelief, as Israel did. The author of Hebrews writes, ‘Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience’ (4:11). In other words, ‘Study the Old Testament and learn from Israel’s example. Don’t make the same mistakes they did!’”
As we study the rights and wrongs of the Israelites’ relationship with God, we also learn important lessons about who God is.
In his discussion about the Bible’s earlier books, Pastor Josh Philpot determined, “…a failure to understand the significance of the Old Testament is first and foremost a failure to understand God. As J. I. Packer wrote a quarter-century ago, we believers are often content to know about God without knowing God. And knowing the God of the Bible means grasping his full counsel in the Old and New Testaments, not being satisfied with bits and pieces or general outlines.
“We believers need a relationship with the Old Testament. We need to slay our tendency to read only the stories and psalms that are most familiar to us.”
If we miss out on the Old Testament, we miss out on a full picture of God. The only problem may be this common question: Isn’t God kind of angry, judgmental and distant in those early Bible books?
A God of Wrath and Love
Jorden B. Peterson, renowned professor of psychology, has earnestly wrestled with Christianity and the Bible. While he still is unresolved on whether or not he believes in some aspects of Christ’s divinity and the Bible, his insights into the truths of scripture are very interesting.
In his book 12 Rules for Life, he wrote, “The Old Testament Israelites and their forebearers knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real. Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we might realize the same thing.
“New Testament God is often presented as a different character…. He is more the kindly Geppetto, master craftsman and benevolent father. He wants nothing for us but the best. He is all-loving and all-forgiving. Sure, He’ll send you to Hell, if you misbehave badly enough. Fundamentally, however, he’s the God of Love.
“That seems more optimistic, more naively welcoming, but (in precise proportion to that) less believable. In a world such as this — this hothouse of doom — who could buy such a story?”
A truly good God does not turn a blind eye to the oppression of others, the pain of innocents or the ongoing sin of societies.
As podcast guest Sam Storms pointed out, “Well, if God isn't wrathful, I don't want him. I don't want anything to do with a God who doesn't get mad at sin. I don't want anything to do with a God who is of such a nature that he's not enraged at child abuse and rape and idolatry and murder and racism and all the other things that we could cite.”
The idea of God’s justice will frighten us at least a little, if we’re honestly considering it, but this same justice is also meant to comfort us because it means that our heavenly Father will set all of the world’s wrongs to right. The God of justice and wrath is present in the New Testament — if he weren’t, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to die in the first place — as much as he is in the Old Testament, but perhaps those aspects of him are easier to see in Isaiah and Hosea.
God’s grief and anger at sin as well as his judgment is vital to feeling the true impact of his love and really understanding what Christ’s sacrifice meant.
Living in the Age of Promises
Reading the Old Testament is essential to having a full picture of God’s nature and how he interacts not only with broken individuals but also dysfunctional societies.
There’s one more fundamental thing we gain from the Bible’s oldest books.
John Piper illuminated this while answering one follower’s question, “My limited, but I hope significant and helpful, suggestion for Sarah is that two glorious uses of the Old Testament today are these. First, meeting God for who he really is so that we can know him and worship him since his character was revealed as truly in the Old Testament as in the New Testament.
“Second, letting the hundreds of promises in the Old Testament wash over you as your blood-bought birthright in Christ Jesus so that every day, you set yourself free from sin by the superior pleasures of the promises of God.”
The entirety of the Bible is woven with God’s guarantees and words about the future, which found their fulfillment in his son’s birth on earth (or will be fulfilled when Christ comes again). Seeing the hope that Old Testament prophets looking forward to but didn’t live to see in those promises should fill us with joy and gratitude. We are living as beneficiaries of Christ’s first coming with the eager anticipation of his second coming.
That’s worth celebrating, but the joy is amplified if we’re able to grasp what those who went before us were anticipating.