The Benefit of Old Testament Narrative

April 2, 2019


Recently, I have spent time listening through the Old Testament historical books using my audio Bible. In January, I had the blessing of attending a teaching workshop covering 1 Samuel. Every time I go through these books, I enjoy them more than I have previously. Yet, during the formative years of my faith, I heard little preaching and teaching on these books other than to use a piece of them to illustrate a point made from another text in a sermon. 


Reflecting upon this, I put together a short list of things we gather and glean from those parts of the Old Testament (Joshua–Esther, specifically). 


1. Ongoing struggle: As a child, I got the impression of Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho (Jericho, Jericho) and the people of Israel having a swell time afterward. Not so, the story continues with Achan’s sin, further conquest, and eventually Joshua reminding God’s people of their ultimate accountability before him. The narrative of the entrance and claiming of Canaan takes time to unfold with God working wonders among the nations, revealing himself as Almighty while simultaneously beckoning his people to strive for the task he set before them.


2. Theology in action: Ruth relates the story of a Moabite woman’s faithfulness in spite of a harsh life. While we might compile a good biblical list of the qualities of a faithful person, Ruth embodies all of those things putting an abstract idea into concrete implementation. In a wonderfully Scriptural reversal, the Moabitess outshines the Israelite in service and humility, serving to continue the family line which brings forth David and eventually, Jesus himself.


3. Complexity: Can we read 1 and 2 Samuel without our hearts breaking? We watch as David rises above so much around him. Would any of us fault him for slaying Saul? I certainly would not, yet he would not touch God’s anointed ruler. However, we all know David did not feel the same restriction from reaching out to take hold of God’s appointed wife for another man. The hero uses his power to act villainously. God reveals much to us in the life and deeds of David and many others from the pages of these narratives. No one stands as a faultless hero, and some villains perform praiseworthy actions.


4. Sinful patterns: In Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, God’s people repeatedly degenerate into the worship of false gods, especially Asherah and Baal. For whatever reason, they do not seem willing or able to shake breaking the first and second commandments given by God to Moses. Might we understand from these patterns that we ourselves are not so alone and unique in having our own pet sins? Do we see ourselves in Saul who failed to see himself in Achan?


5. God’s people seek to make much from a mess: I think most boys growing up in church like to see themselves as fighting Goliath like David or stalking the Midianite camp with Gideon and only a few others. We might imagine what the fire from heaven looked like when it consumed the altar to God as Elijah prayed. Perhaps ladies imagine taking a step of faith like Esther, walking into the king’s throne room, risking her life for her people. I know of no one who played Ezra and Nehemiah, seeking to restore godly order, right worship, and protection among the returnees from Exile. The accounts of these men and those who helped them nearly give me a headache from seeing the frustration these men must have felt.


6. Jesus alone finally delivers: The work of the Old Testament leaders never truly finished. While many of them proved faithful in executing God’s appointed task for them, they cannot change the stubborn hearts of the people. Ezra and Nehemiah bring reformation to Jerusalem, but Nehemiah 13 shows the hardness of the hearts of many and the corruption still present. The close of the Ezra-Nehemiah story repeats the transition between Joshua and the time of the Judges. Joshua leads the children of Israel into the Promised Land, and he admonishes the people to remain steadfast before God. Yet, as Joshua dies in Judges 2, the next generation lacks knowledge of God and chases after the Baals of the land. Hence Hebrews 4:1–13. Though the land had rest from war in Joshua, the rest did not last. Only Jesus Christ provides the true and eternal reprieve from labor and hardship. Only he brings all striving against sin to a conclusion. 


Let us take up and read for our profit, our correction, growing more deeply rooted into the Savior.


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