Why You Should Read the Old Testament History Books

Why You Should Read the Old Testament History Books October 14, 2015

photo credit: Palestine_Jerusalem_al-Walaja_NK27716 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Palestine_Jerusalem_al-Walaja_NK27716 via photopin (license)

Our church worked through the first half of David’s life during our Sunday morning sermons over the last few months. I found I had been guilty of neglecting the Old Testament historical books in my preaching and devotional reading. In sermons I had only covered the book of Ruth since our church started in 2010 and in devotional reading I usually read these books at a faster pace. By approaching Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther in this was I deprived both myself and my church of beautiful portraits of who God is and how he is at work in our world.

I highly doubt my experience is different from that of most Christians, pastors, and churches. We are at home in Paul’s letters and some portions of the Gospels. When we turn to the Old Testament it is usually to the better known ground of the Psalms and Proverbs. (Though we tend to only traverse through familiar Psalms and skip the harder ones.) In this post I want to encourage you devote attention in your Bible reading to the Old Testament historical books. (And if you are a pastor to preach them.)

Gripping Narratives
When we sit down and read the historical books we begin to realize what gripping narratives they are. In these narratives we encounter men and women trapped in difficult and extraordinary circumstances and see how they faced them. We see stories of love, betrayal, cowardice, courage, and outright evil. In our Christian culture where we are always looking for a practical “takeaway,” we should learn to sit and enjoy these narratives of God’s work among his people.

Wisdom for Practical Living
When you think of the characteristics of wisdom and godly living listed in Proverbs and the Epistles, we see what they look like fleshed out in the historical books. In James 1 we read, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Think about this passage in light of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the murder he arranged to cover up his sin. David’s adultery with Bathsheba began when he entertained his lusts and gave into them. Then the full blossom of his sin led to death and tragedy. We read this principle in James and can understand it, but David gives us a vivid picture from which we can learn.

Reveal the character of God
Often we read the narratives in the history books and focus on the human characters to the exclusion of the ultimate main character. In some way shape are form, God in his trinitarian glory is the focus of every biblical narrative. Near the beginning of our church’s series on the life of David we looked at the Philistines capturing the ark of the covenant. In this passage the Philistines put the ark of the covenant in the temple of their god Dagon. The next morning they went into the room and Dagon had fallen over in front of the ark. They put him back into his place. (What kind of “god” needs to be picked up by human beings?) The next morning they discovered Dagon lying before the ark with his head chopped off and his limbs displaced. He was nothing but an impotent stump lying before the ark of the covenant. This incident reveals the incomparability of God. There is no one like him, and we know this because of what happened when this pagan deity encountered the emblem of the one true God’s presence among his people Israel. The Old Testament history books are littered with other encounters like this which reveal the character of God to us.

Point to the Work of Christ
The history books lead us to faith in the finished work of Christ in diverse ways. The one long story running through the history books continues the story of God’s work among his people leading up to and through the Exodus. This story helps us to further understand the Messiah who is to come and only reaches its true climax in the life, death, resurrection, reign, and return of Christ. David serves as the central human character in these narratives. Everything in Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel sets the table for his reign over Israel and all of the events after find their significance in light of his life and the promises God made to him. At the same time the life of David obviously pointed beyond him because neither he nor his immediate offspring fulfilled the promises made to him. Then when Jesus appears on the scene the writers of the Gospels present him as the one who fulfills the promises made to David. His work as the heavenly king and humble servant are best understood in light of the Old Testament’s witness to him.

Where to Start
If you have never read the historical books, I would start with 1 and 2 Samuel. While you will miss some of the background from Joshua and Judges, these are the best two books for diving into the heart of the historical books. As you read, note who the main characters are in the narrative and what challenges they are facing. Look and see if any of the Psalms were based on this passage. Look to see if any of the verses in your chapter are quoted in the New Testament. How did the New Testament writers understand this event? Are there any themes in this passage which point to what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection? Meditate on the actions on the people in the narrative. Do they display character traits which teach you about the Christian life or warn to of sin to avoid? Does God make any promises in this passage you need to mark and remember?

If you read one chapter a day in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Christmas you will have made significant progress in understanding the great story of how God has worked to bring redemption to his people.

Related Posts:
Why You Should Read the Psalms
Why You Should Read the Bible

For Further Reading:
Handbook on the Historical Books by Victor Hamilton

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