I have to confess, I have never read all of the Old Testament. Until this year.
The New Testament I have probably read through a number of times. Paul’s letters are my favourites, along with John’s gospel. The NT is much more relatable, with less focus on tradition, fewer moments of head scratching confusion, its contents simpler to swallow. I never had much of a problem reading the NT.
The Old Testament, however, is a different story.
Dense, full of unfamiliar traditions, laws and regulation, judgement, war and suffering, lists upon lists of names, the OT makes for less palatable reading for the 21st century christian living in a city like Singapore. My experience with OT was something like this.
I think I’ve read Genesis and Exodus, I skipped past Leviticus, Numbers & most of Deuteronomy, then I read Joshua (strong & courageous!). I never really could reconcile my NT mind with Judges, I kinda liked Ruth. I love 1 Samuel, but 2 Samuel was a bit of a stretch because I couldn’t understand David in his later life (young underdog shepherd-boy David was more reader friendly).
1 & 2 Kings were fun, and then it got repetitive and soon I skip past the many kings & only remember Josiah (the good one)(did you know there were a number of kings who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord? I probably skipped past those tbh). 1 & 2 Chronicles felt like a rehash of Kings, so I never really bothered.
Ezra, Nehemiah rebuilt the wall so that was nice to read, but also a lot of names. Esther was #femalepower so I read that many times. Job was difficult & hard to accept. Psalms is everyone’s favourite, Proverbs the lesser brother(or son, since written by Solomon). Ecclesiastes is cynical and I enjoyed it for that reason. Song of Solomon is the couples’ book so I excluded myself from the reading of that. Isaiah is long and full of prophesies I didn’t understand.
Jeremiah was long and confusing. Lamentations, as the name suggests, was despondent. Ezekiel had so many different visions I often just read it through quickly. Daniel was fun because #marketplace. Hosea was my life’s book so I read that a number of times, and then everything else (the minor prophets) were often just quickly skimmed through.
The OT often felt alien, and laborious to read, so I never had the motivation to work through some of the books. My church hardly ever referenced the OT, except in the occasional Jeremiah 29, Isaiah 53 and the stories of the greats. No one explained the chronology of the OT, or paid attention to the difficult passages because they were probably difficult to preach on.
Now, I am convinced that The Old Testament is part of the same story. God’s story.
It is the same story as the NT. If we only read the NT and not the OT, we miss out on the riches that the bible gives to us. We forfeit the depth to which we can know God and the profundity of the gospel.
The difficulty of the OT adds to the joy of the freedom of the gospel. It reminds us that Jesus was a revolution, He transformed thousands of years of relationship with God. He brought newness to the people of God, and extended this invitation to non-Jews. The prophesies of Christ’s eventual coming build up in suspense through the OT, with each layer of hope, frustration, helplessness, awe finally culminating in the opening chapters of Matthew, where finally ‘unto us, a child is born’.
The more I read the OT, the more I’m in awe of God’s faithfulness, His mercy and compassion towards His people. People often say that the OT God is a judgemental one (I was one of them!). I think they have not read the OT thoroughly enough (Truth!). In light of our understanding of grace in the NT, the OT God, is the SAME God, extending grace and mercy relentlessly toward a stiff-necked people who again and again, turn from Him towards wickedness until finally God, after hundreds of years, would bring judgement.
It’s so easy to read the ‘judgement’ in the OT, and forget that between the chapters and kings could be hundreds of years. As Donald Miller puts it, “it takes God hundreds of years to finally get angry enough to lay any sort of punishment on His enemies. He’s like France in that way”.
Despite their fervent betrayal and forgetfulness, God makes a way for all to come back to Him, so that He may dwell amongst His people again. Everything in the OT points to Jesus. And how marvellous is it, that we live on this side of history, to be able to read through the story from its beginnings, to see the fulfilment of prophesy of the Messiah, to live a life where God dwells IN us through the Holy Spirit. Wow.
So, how? How do we approach the OT in a way that would help us see it in a new light?
1. Read it chronologically
This was the most helpful for me, to see God’s story as it happens, and not reading it in sections. The OT is organised in a particular way when it was canonised around the 5th century, and hence it isn’t entirely chronological. In order to make sense of what is happening, the prophesies made by prophets in their time, it is extremely helpful to read it in the context of what is happening historically. For example, right now I’m reading Ezekiel, which happened around the time of and after Jeremiah, during the judgement of Judah where the Babylonians conquered them in 2 Chronicles 36. Without this historical context, it can be confusing when Ezekiel goes on and on about idols and judgement and about the remnant.
This is the bible in a year plan that has transformed my OT reading.
2. Read it in light of the NT
The good thing about the above reading plan, is that it also goes through the NT, and so sometimes there are wonderful parallels from what goes on in the NT and with the OT. Reading the OT in light of our understanding of what Jesus has done, and the good news of the gospel, would help us get through the tough passages of the OT. Especially the ones about the Law and judgement.
3. Grapple with it.
Some passages, especially in Judges and Kings, we find a lack of value judgement from the author. We don’t exactly know if what the king/judge did was right or wrong. It’s just narrated as it is. Those passages I found particularly difficult but I find that when I spend time in it, and try to make connections with what I know of the NT, I have a peace about them.
Grappling with difficult concepts (like judgement and the killing of women & children) can be uncomfortable, but it grows us deeply in our faith. Our faith is one of tension, of seeming dichotomy, so grappling and working through difficult passages in the OT can grow us in our faith and to be anchored. It’s like moving from a diet of milk to meat. It may be uncomfortable for a while and requires effort to chew, but entirely worth it.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways”
James 1:5 – 8
As you grapple with the OT, if anything confuses or is difficult, ask God to help you. He will reveal new revelations to you about His character, about His plan for humanity. You will grow rooted in the truth of God’s word, and anchored in His Word.
Now, reading the OT is more like an adventure through history, drama and poetry.
I love the pattern of redemption vividly portrayed in the Old Testament, beginning with the powerful story of God’s kindness towards Adam & Eve by dressing them even after they had broken His heart. He raised up judges who would save His people, despite their wickedness. He heard every single one of their cries for deliverance. They called for a king, and He gave them a righteous man after God’s heart, David, who foreshadows a king who would one day rule eternally in justice and righteousness. Again and again the people of God turned against Him, and yet prophets would be sent to the people to turn their hearts back towards repentance and to remember the Lord. They disobeyed repeatedly, and yet His heart was to preserve a remnant so that they may again rebuild the city of God. The promise to His people was there would be one day be this city, and it would be called “The Lord Is There” (Ezekiel 48). The city of Jerusalem is built finally, towards the end of the OT, but again the people turned against God and judgement befell them.
Until the cry of a baby boy from the manger, born of a virgin, echoed through the dark night. A new time had come where the patterns of sin and judgement would be broken. The reconciliation of God and man was completed on the cross. The city of God is no longer a place, but a people, in whom God dwells. And one day, when His patient waiting comes to an end, a new heavens and a new earth will be formed, and His people will dwell with Him eternally, where His presence shall be light for all life.
I pray that we will grow rooted in the word, to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) I pray that there will be new joy through the Holy Spirit, as we read the whole Bible and witness for ourselves the powerful redemptive narrative God has gifted to us. I ask for a revelation of God’s wondrous grace, His longsuffering patience, His sovereign and perfect plan.