Studying the Old Testament

Six simple suggestions

Did you love hearing stories from the Old Testament as a child? Of course you did. Stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, and King David enthralled us as children. So do you love studying the Old Testament today? I hope so, but I’m also realistic. Somewhere along the line, many of us lost our love for the Old Testament. We grew up, started to realize that there was something more than just some interesting stories, and we got discouraged. But it doesn’t need to be that way! Our study of the Old Testament can be rich and enjoyable, if only we remember some simple suggestions.

Start with the basics

We must not start our study of the Old Testament as if it were something completely new to us. Certainly, it is somewhat different than the New Testament. But the same basic rules of interpretation apply: consider the context, compare Scripture with Scripture, look for repeated words and themes, consult several reliable translations, and, after doing your own study, consult several good commentaries. Yes, these are the basics. But they apply to our study of the Old Testament as much as to our study of the New Testament.

Consider the genre

It has been said that we should be not read every book in the Bible as if Paul wrote it. The Bible is filled with a number of different literary genres. There are gospels, doctrinal epistles, and apocalyptic literature in the New Testament. The Old Testament contains historical accounts (e.g. Kings and Chronicles), major poetic passages (e.g. Psalms), Law (e.g. Leviticus), wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs), many books of prophecy, and, of course, the category-defying book of Genesis.

If we recognize the genre of the book we are studying, we’ll have a proper foundation for understanding it. On the other hand, if we don’t know anything about genre, we’ll find ourselves hopelessly confused. To read apocalyptic literature as if it were a poem is to ignore the reality of coming events. To read a poem as if it were an epistle is to invest every word with a technical meaning when the author intended to convey feelings. Yes, there is doctrine in the poems, and the words have meaning, but the genre makes it clear that God is presenting great concepts in poems rather than all the details we would expect in an epistle. Identify the genre when you start your study.

Know your history

The events of the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, cannot be properly understood apart from their historical background. That is not to say that we need to spend years studying secular historical accounts. But the Bible itself presents historical background. What was happening in Israel at the time that this prophet wrote? Which prophets were contemporaries of each other? What does the rest of the Bible say about the historical context of the passage you are studying? These are the types of questions we need to ask ourselves when studying the Bible.

We live in a post-historical society. History is ignored, even demeaned, by people who proudly believe they have nothing to learn from the past. But Christians are a historical people. We understand the benefits of history. While a post-historical society sneers that history is unreliable because it is written by the victors, we know that not only is history important, but that we have a Book which speaks infallibly on the subject of history. By rejecting a secular philosophy that rejects history, we will have a setting for our study of the Old Testament.

Watch for themes

The New Testament epistles are rich with meaning. Each sentence and word has deep theological significance. But the Old Testament deals more with the vast sweep of themes. Rather than a concentrated explanation of doctrine, the doctrine is spread through whole chapters and books. Needless to say, this requires a different type of study. Yes, in-depth study is still useful, but the student of the Old Testament must do survey reading in order to gain familiarity with the bigger picture.

The great themes of the Old Testament center on the character of God and His interactions with sinful man. In the Old Testament, we learn that Jehovah is God and that He is not like the gods of the nations. We learn that God is holy and that mankind is sinful. We learn that God hates sin and that the forgiveness of sin requires a blood sacrifice.

Yes, individual verses are still important. For example, we read of the holiness of God in Hosea 11:9, “for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee.” But even more than a single verse, the holiness of God is a major theme which sweeps through page after page and book after book. So it is with all the great themes. As you study the Old Testament, watch for these themes and you will find yourself thoroughly enjoying them.

Remember the dispensation

If we assume a standard seven dispensation model, then six of the dispensations are found in the Old Testament. In fact, four of the dispensations are found in Genesis! But even more importantly, whether we acknowledge seven dispensations or not, it is clear that the Old Testament presents only the occasional clue concerning the then-future dispensation of grace. Indeed, the Old Testament says much more about the millennium than it does about the dispensation of grace.

But does this mean that grace is not found in the Old Testament? Of course not! God’s grace is demonstrated right from the beginning, in Genesis 3:21 when He fashioned garments of skins for the fallen Adam and Eve. But, just as clearly, law was more prominent in God’s dealings with man in the Old Testament (Jn. 1:17). Yes, grace was demonstrated in the Old Testament, but a fuller demonstration of grace was to come in the dispensation of grace, inaugurated by the Lord Jesus Christ.

As another example, we know that during Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit ministered in some special way (Ps. 51:11) but was not yet given in fuller measure (Jn. 16:7).

So leaving aside simplistic objections based on the title of the current dispensation, all believers must acknowledge that something was very different about God’s dealings with mankind in the Old Testament. If we read the current dispensation back into the Old Testament, we will confuse ourselves. If we recognize each dispensation as a unique aspect of God’s self-revelation, our study will be moving in the right direction.

Suggestions on word studies

Word studies are more difficult in Old Testament Hebrew than in New Testament Greek. In the first place, Hebrew has inseparable prepositions. For example, the first word in the Bible is the word “beginning” with the inseparable preposition “in” tacked on the front. In the Hebrew Bible, it looks like one word, but you need to ignore the preposition “in” and look up the word “beginning” in your Bible. Yes, this is more technical than most people need to worry about, but it is something to look for.

A second tip for Old Testament word studies is to recognize that Hebrew has a smaller vocabulary than Greek, and so the meaning of many words is context driven. One cannot take every possible meaning that a Hebrew word could have and impose each one on a passage until you find a meaning you like!

Final suggestions

Read the Old Testament through from beginning to end to get a feel for the whole scope of the book. Understand the major characters, the timeline, and the historical context. When you have recognized the genre, read the book to try to get an impression of the overall message. And then study the book for the pure joy of understanding God’s truth in the Old Testament!