How to Study the Old Testament

by Jim on 24 January 2012

This past Sunday I preached from Nehemiah 3.  But actually, I used it as an excuse to talk about studying the Old Testament in general.

Questions about how to interpret the OT – particularly in light of the New – are not always easy, to say the least.  In 2000 years, the church has taken a number of approaches, from the wild to the wonderful.  So my post title is a tad presumptuous.

Studying the Old Testament

But I thought it would be useful to at least talk about a few basics.  I decided to share them here, because you might find them useful, and because you might want to add – improve upon – correct – my thoughts. 🙂 This is a very brief summary…


If you listened to my sermon on Luke 24 here, you know what the theme of the OT is – Jesus Himself.  The Messiah redeeming His people.  I used that as a starting point.

Studying the OT: Two Dangerous Errors

Christians have taken two common approaches since the days of the Early Church.

One is allegorizing.  This is where everything in the passage has a hidden, secret, spiritual meaning.  Maybe in the story of David and Goliath, the 5 smooth stones are the 4 Gospels and Paul.  Or in Nehemiah 3:1 the High Priest is actually Jesus.  Or your pastor.  Or you.

Regarding other passages, maybe you have your own "promised land" to reach, or your own "giants to kill".

This approach says: The most important thing to do is find the deeper spiritual and hidden meaning of the passage.  What does this all mean to me?

The problem is, of course, that this is highly subjective.  It ignores what the author may have intended, and puts the passage in the power of the preacher – or you.  It can really mean almost anything.

The other error is moralizing.  This is the Aesop’s Fables approach – every passage has a moral for me.  These morals may be biblical, but again they ignore what the passage is actually saying plainly and assumes that it has a direct application for me.

Of course, according to 1Timothy 3:16-17 all the Bible is useful for me – but is it all about me?  Of course not.

The moralizer says that the most important thing is to find the moral of the passage for me.

No, I’m not actually the main character of the Bible.

Put the Passage in its Place

God didn’t leave the Bible to be interpreted however we want.  Why not do something crazy, and actually read things in context?

This means we need to put the passage in its place.  First, in the context of the book it’s in.  How does it fit with the flow of the book?  Why did the author include this part?  How does it fit with the overall message?

Then, put the passage in the context of the entire Bible.  How does it fit with God’s overall plan?

5 Questions to Ask

Here are five questions – or at least five types of questions, to ask about a passage you’re reading.  Ask them in order – that’s important.

  1. What actually happened?  What does this passage literally and simply mean?  I know it’s crazy, but do you know what’s actually happening in Nehemiah 3:1?  That’s right, some priests are working on the wall in Jerusalem.  There’s no reason to think this didn’t happen literally in history.
  2. What did the author write this?  What did he want his first readers to understand?  Give the author a little credit – maybe he actually had a reason for writing what he did.  What was he trying to say?  This can be tricky – we can’t read anyone’s mind – but we can get a pretty good idea by reading the book carefully.
  3. In the context of the book, where is God?  What is God doing?  What can we learn about God and His character and plan?  God isn’t actually mentioned in Nehemiah 3, but we can still learn some things about God.  For example, this is part of an answer to a prayer earlier in the book.
  4. In the context of the whole Bible, where is Jesus?  How does this passage relate to the Messiah and His Gospel?  Of course, some passages are direct prophecies.  But others (like Nehemiah 3) are an important part of God’s plan to bring the Messiah and the Gospel to the world (ie the Gospel was to go out from Jerusalem, Jesus would be born of the tribe of Judah…).  Other times we can see how Jesus is greater and more perfect than something, like how his death on the cross was complete when animal sacrifices were not.  Or Jesus was faithful like Moses but greater than Moses.  The book of Hebrews has some great examples, including these ones.*
  5. What does this passage say about the people of God?  What are they doing?  What are they like?  One of the big differences of this approach is that we’re not starting with God’s people – and even here we’re not assuming that God’s people in the passage are a direct equivalent to ME.  Starting with the plain meaning of the passage the context and with God makes a HUGE difference.  However, in that context, the Bible has a lot to say about God’s people – and from that we can learn how we should live.

Even though every passage (strange as it may seem) is not directly about YOU (or ME), after answering these questions you’ll see how every passage is useful to you.  You can see the Gospel, God’s unchanging eternal plan, His perfect character, the beautiful Messiah, His grace, and depending on the passage you may even learn what it looks like to be a faithful follower of God – or what it looks like to be unfaithful.

I mentioned the example of Jeremiah 29:11 (read more in I’ve Been Conned), and at the end said that if anyone wanted to give this an initial try they could head over to 1Samuel 17.  A classic place to start.

There’s much more that could be said, but I hope that’s a useful starting point when you’re studying a passage in the OT.

* Here it’s useful to find out if there are any direct links to the NT in your passage.  Does the NT quote any of this passage?  Or allude to it?  Or mention the same people or place names?

Useful tools may be a Bible or software program with cross references, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, some Greek NTs which include a list of quotes from the OT, and other books such as Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jungle Mom January 24, 2012 at 9:49 am

Thank you for your comment on my blog today. My husband has family in Queretaro and we hope to be able to get back and visit one day.

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