The Old Testament can be divided into historical books, poetic books, and prophetic books. This article explains the interpretation of the Old Testament in line with its genres.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2017. 3 pages.

How to Read the Old Testament

We believe that the Bible is God’s Word and that it is living and “powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). But notwithstanding that confession of faith, Chris­tians far too frequently read the Bible and get nothing from it. Apart from a few familiar stories or a few favorite verses, the majority of the Bible, even for believers, seems irrelevant.

This disconnection from the Scripture is nowhere more evident than with the Old Testament. For various reasons, the Old Testament is a closed book for many Christians today. There is something about it that corresponds to Peter’s assess­ment of Paul’s epistles: “in which are some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). From Genesis to Malachi, the reader encounters hard sayings, obscure details, unfamiliar and enigmatic expressions, forgotten customs, family trees with unpronounceable names, and detailed laws that have no imme­diately discernable application or relevance to modern life.

Much of the Old Testament seems to have no apparent value or purpose. Who has ever read Numbers 7 with its twelvefold repetition of the same list of gifts brought by the twelve princes of the tribes of Israel for the dedication of the altar without wondering why Moses did not simply say once that they all brought the same thing? Why should we bother wading through those detailed lists when we have no altar now and most of us have no idea where to get, among other things, a “silver bowl of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary”? It seems to have no value for Christian living.

Other passages seem to be outdated, both theologically and culturally. Leviticus is a good example. In light of the New Testament revelation, it would seem that Leviticus is something to be avoided rather than obeyed.

These examples illustrate the problem. Whereas in doctrine Christians affirm belief in the Old Testament, in practice their frustrations with the Old Testament drive them to more familiar and more obviously devotional texts. Famil­iar and devotional texts are good. But when believers ignore much of the Old Testament — he majority of the Bible — they miss the blessings of finding precious nuggets of truth that are just as vital for modern Christians as they were for Old Testament believers. From Genesis to Malachi to Revelation, the Word of God reveals changeless and eternal truth. Let us keep our Bibles open and not give up until we discover the truth, because we know that God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6).

Practical Reading of the Old Testament🔗

Since the Old Testament employs various literary genres, I offer some guidelines on how to read each style in a way to identify the meaning and intent of the “then” text so as to apply its relevance to “now.”

How to Read Law🔗

Although Law or Torah is the technical term designating the first division of the Old Testament canon (the five books of Moses or Pentateuch), I’m using the term to refer to leg­islation, the various commands and prohibitions that are scattered throughout the Old Testament but found particularly in the Pentateuch. How to read law is a natural place to start, because in some ways it provides the most obvious directives in terms of what holiness looks like. Two things are essential to holiness: doing what God commands and not doing what God prohibits. That sounds simple enough, until we encounter some commands that are so specific and foreign that they seem unnecessary for life in the twenty-first century. Confessedly, I have never been tempted to “seethe a kid in his mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19: Deut. 14:21). So what am I to think when God commands twice not to do it?

The Reformed tradition distinguishes three categories of law (moral, ceremonial, and civil), and each category must be read and understood differently. The moral law, summed up in the two great commandments to love God totally and to love neighbor as self, is delineated in the Decalogue and remains unchangeable. The ceremonial laws were picture prophecies of Christ and the gospel that have been fulfilled in the new dispensation and whose repetition, therefore, is strictly prohibited. The civil laws were specific applications of the moral law that were given to Israel as a visible and political entity.

Here is the overriding principle: truth is timeless and universal, but the application of truth varies and is conditioned by time, culture, and situation. Extracting the timeless truths from the temporal laws requires critical thinking, but the interpretation strategy is simple enough. As you read these “outdated” laws, keep in mind the four-tiered hierarchy of divine law: (1) the first great commandment to love God totally; (2) the second great commandment to love neighbor as self; (3) the Decalogue that develops the first two in ten parts; and (4) the civil laws that relate to one or more of the Ten Commandments. As far as the ceremonial laws, the key thing to remember is that they were designed to direct atten­tion to the spiritual realities.

How to Read History🔗

So much of the Old Testament traces the checkered history of Israel, beginning with its patriarchal ancestry to its birth as a nation freed from foreign domination all the way through to its national demise under foreign rule. The challenge lies in how to read this inspired history with a view to discovering what is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Some of the stories are exciting; other historical records are just tedious details. Yet both are equally inspired, authoritative, and profitable.

The key to reading Old Testament history is to remember that there is more to it than simple facts, whether exciting or dull. When Paul was making application to the Corinthians, he focused particularly on Israel’s behavior in the wilderness and said, “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Biblical history records reliable facts about real people, places, and events, but its purpose is to communicate spiritual lessons and to call for a spiritual response.

When reading history, therefore, we must discern that spiritual purpose which requires keeping the overall redemptive purpose of Scripture in perspective. Too often, many Bible readers tend to atomize the historical narratives, that is, to reduce them to distinct units without reference to the broader redemptive context. Consequently, stories become the springboard for quick application, usually in the form of character imitation or moral instruction. Imitating Bible heroes or not imitating villains may be a worthy objective, but it can degenerate into a man-centered rather than God/Christ-centered focus if not set within the gospel context. Old Testament history is conclusive proof that God’s purpose and plan of redemption is certain. History illustrates man’s fallen condition that can only be remedied by the gospel. It also illustrates how the gospel transforms fallen men into new creatures who are able to walk before God with wholehearted consecration.

How to Read Prophecy🔗

Reading the Old Testament prophets is like sitting in a pew listening to a sermon. The prophets were preachers whose calling was to proclaim and apply the word of God. Essen­tially, the prophets were gospel preachers who were not shy about announcing the whole counsel of God.

It is helpful when reading the prophets to place them in their holistic context. They were not just religious theorists; they were realists who applied God’s word to the current issues of their day. The prophets remind us that God’s Word applies to the real situations of life — then as well as now.

Reading the prophets is mostly straightforward. They did not mince words; they addressed issues head on. Like most preachers, however, they often included illustrations to reinforce or clarify their points. Many of these illustrations involved object lessons or symbolic acts.

Another component of prophetic preaching involved predictions. Overall, in terms of the percentage of the messages, predictions played a minor yet important part. This compo­nent often draws the most attention and requires the most caution when reading. A proper use of predictive prophecy always brings the future to bear on the present. Keeping in mind the nature of predictive prophecy and its purpose is important. First, there is an intentional ambiguity in proph­ecy. Realizing this must temper our interpretation and cause us to focus on and emphasize the points revealed, resisting the temptation to speculate about what God did not choose to reveal. Second, there is a tendency to use symbolic language that must be interpreted figuratively. There is also a tendency to use the language of imminence. This means that regardless of how distant the actual prophecy from its fulfillment, the prediction is made as though its fulfillment were impending, about to occur.

How to Read Poetry🔗

Of all the Old Testament, at least some of the books in this category receive significant attention from Christians today, notably Psalms and Proverbs. The literary techniques evidenced in the Poetical books differ significantly, but the redemptive message is the same. So here is the bottom line up front: read the Poetical books with an eye for Christ and the gospel.

The Poetical books can be classified in two broad catego­ries: the Psalms and the Wisdom books. The Psalms constitute a primer of worship, detailing what it is to serve the Lord. Not all psalms are the same. Some are communal; others are individual. Some are joyful; others are doleful. Some confess sin; others claim righteousness. Any regular reading of the Psalms draws attention to this diversity. Together they make it unmistakably clear that true and biblical religion pervades life. Significantly, standing over the entire Psalter is the contrast between the two ways: the way of the righteous and the way of the ungodly (Ps. 1).

The Wisdom books include Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. In the context of the Wisdom books, “wisdom” designates the skill or ability to perform the biblical ethic, and the inspired Books give instructions as to how to develop that skill. The focus of the Wisdom books is on the individual, providing practical instructions dealing with the issues, problems, and perplexities of life.

It is helpful to group the Wisdom books into two categories. Proverbs is didactic, with all of its aphorisms touching on virtually every situation of life. The other books are more reflective, concerning some of the perplexities of life that may generate improper thoughts about God and thus hindrances to holiness.

In reading the Old Testament, it helps, as it does with any book, to know its central theme and primary purpose. On the authority of the words of Christ (Luke 24:25-27), He is the central theme and message of the Old Testament. Therefore, as you read the Old Testament, do so through the lens of the gospel and Christ. Seeing Christ and the gospel in the Old Testament is finding the life of the Old Testament; it is what gives life to what otherwise seems to be dry and outdated. Finding Christ is the key that both unlocks and locks in the message of the whole Word of God, including the Old Testament. Read it for all its worth.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.