How to Understand the Old Testament

Christian books fly off the press a mile a minute. Bloggers inform the believing world the moment some “Christian” event happens. Commentaries inform every passage in the Bible and are legion in number. Pastors have advanced degrees and spend their lives studying and delivering the word to the flock.

But you are neither a pastor nor a son of pastor. You are not a Christian writer, blogger or commentator. You and simply a Christian, and you feel like you cannot understand the Bible. And who could blame you with so many skilled writers and pastors digitalized across the globe. Compounding your distress, the Scriptures seem weird, odd even. In fact, why does the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) mention that one should never boil a young goat with its mother’s milk (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21)? This seeming oddballness makes understanding the Old Testament, especially, seem like a near impossible task for believers.

Hope is not lost, however, because God has told us how to understand his instruction to us. And of all places, he has revealed this in the very words of Scripture. While avoiding the Old Testament because of its seemingly ambiguity and weirdness, you’ve actually missed it tell you how to understand it. I would guess that most Christians have fallen into this trap—I confess that I had fallen into this trap too!

A note of caution before going further is needed. We should know that grasping the Bible’s instruction means not just what it says but how it says it will open up the Scriptures. This distinction becomes pretty important and is sometimes overlooked.

Without further ado, the way to understand the Scripture is to read it and meditate on it day and night. While this might not seem like rocket science, remember that this only “what the Bible says.” The “how it says it” brings us deeper into the mind of God, but it will take a little more explanation.

THE BIBLE’S TABLE OF CONTENTS

We first need to start with the order of the Bible as we have it (Adler has always said to check the table of contents before reading a book!). The order of the Bible as we have today is chronological. That is, the order of the Bible book move through time in a straight forward manner (i.e. 1 Kings follows 2 Samuel because it is later). While this is a totally legitimate way to order the Bible, it may not be the order that the Jesus and the Apostles used.

One reason I say that Jesus might have ordered his Old Testament different is that when he spoke to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, he said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). What is fascinating about this verse is that Jesus explained himself from three sections of the Old Testament—the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. This threefold division seems to parallel the Hebrew Bible book order.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Torah composes the first five books of the Bible (Gen–Deut), while the Prophets begins with Joshua and ends with Malachi. Finally, the Writings begin with the Psalms and end with Chronicles. This seems to match Jesus’ threefold category of the Bible.

MEDITATING DAY AND NIGHT

All of this significant because of how the Prophets (Joshua–Malachi) and the Writings (Psalms–Chronicles) begin. Take a look:

Joshua 1:8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

Psalm 1:2, 3: “but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night . . . In all that he does, he prospers.”

In the two sections following the Pentateuch, the Prophets and Writings, the same message appears. Mediate on the Law (i.e. Torah, or instruction of God contained in Gen–Deut) day and night.

Unlike Moses who was a prophet and spoke with God face to face (Deut 34:10), Joshua had to mediate day and night on God’s word to prosper from it. The psalmist likewise exhorts readers to meditate day to gain wisdom from it. In short, God’s word reveals that to understand his instruction, individuals need to mediate on his word day and night.

HOW THIS WORKS

I think this indicates at least two things. First, the prophets (starting with Joshua) are a theological mediation on God’s instruction (law) through the prophetic history of Israel, while the Writings are theological medication on God’s law through the lens of wisdom for life. This gives us a pretty big hint about how to read the Prophets and Writings.

Second, this tell us that mediating day and night on God’s instruction alone is the way to prosper from it. This is huge. While we often jump straight into the commentaries or theological blogs to understand something in God’s word, we often  forsake mediating on God’s word day and night to understand it.

God revealed himself in the Old Testament and he tells us to meditate on his instruction day and night, while at the same time giving us a guide in the strategic places he places his guide to understanding his revelation (cf. Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2).

It is a crying shame that we turn to the “experts” without first meditating on God’s word day and night. After all, this is the way God has told us to understand his instruction.

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