5 Reasons to Study Old Testament History
Shakespeare said that history is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Christian view of history is quite a contrast; we believe God ordained it, organizes it, and moves it towards a meaningful, definite, and certain purpose.
However many Christians entertain a negative view of Old Testament History, of its usefulness and even of its accuracy. It is often regarded as “far away” and “distant” chronologically, geographically, socially, and theologically. “What can it do for me?” and “Why study it?” are common questions. Here are five reasons to study it and benefit from it.
1. OT History is True History
Israel’s neighbors expressed their beliefs through fantastic, elaborate, “out-of-this-world” myths In contrast, Old Testament narratives about Israel describe real events in real time involving real people and a real God. The reality of Israel’s faith rested on the reality of Israel’s history.
Similarly, if we lose or give up the truthfulness of the Biblical record, we lose and give up the Truth. We also lose our Christian faith because it is founded not on detached philosophical speculations but on God’s acts in human history.
Approaching Old Testament narratives with unshakeable confidence in their accuracy and truthfulness will build up unshakeable faith.
2. OT History is Selective History
No matter how much they deny it, every historian has an agenda. Though often unspoken, that agenda can often be deduced by analyzing his selection, arrangement, and editing of events. Old Testament writers also had an agenda that guided the selection, arrangement, and editing of their accounts. The only difference, and it’s a major difference, is that their selectivity was divinely inspired and, therefore, in no ways diminishes their truthfulness.
Therefore, when reading Old Testament history, ask yourself why the author selected these events and that particular angle on them. It will get you much closer to the message he intended to convey to his original audience.
3. OT History is Relevant History
Old Testament preaching often faces the charge of seeming irrelevance. There are vast differences between the world of the Old Testament and the modern world. However, this “relevance gap” cannot be bridged by forgetting Old Testament history. Attempting this may make the sermon relevant but it makes the Scriptures irrelevant.
Rather, a right understanding of Old Testament history enables us to understand the original message to the original audience at the original time and place; and that having done this, the bridge to the present message is far easier and safer to construct.
4. OT History is Purposeful History
Many history books simply relate the what, when, where, and how of each event. Not many attempt to answer the “Why?” question, and those that do usually prove laughably unreliable.
In contrast, biblical history has a clear purpose: it is a progressive revelation of the mind and heart of God for the benefit of needy sinners. God is the subject and the hero of the Bible. Therefore, when we read an Old Testament narrative, we ask three questions:
- What does this story reveal about God?
- How is this intended to help needy sinners?
- What role does this story play in the larger and longer biblical story?
The last question will help prevent us reading the chapters as disconnected dots and unrelated atoms.
5. OT History is Redemptive History
The Old Testament is redemptive history. God actively directs human history for the purpose of redeeming sinners to Himself. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Old Testament to record what would graciously reveal that redemptive purpose, and even the Redeemer Himself (Luke 24:27). The Biblical history, then, is not just facts to teach us theology. These historical facts serve to bring in God’s elect. What greater motive do we need to study it than that these Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and chairman of HeadHeartHand. He blogs at Leadership For Servants and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray.