Why You Should Read the Old Testament History Books

October 14, 2015

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

Scott Slayton

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Scott Slayton is the Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL. He and Beth have been married since 2003 and have four children.

3 responses to Why You Should Read the Old Testament History Books

  1. Knowing the Old Testament makes the whole bible so much richer. I love to find both Jesus and grace “hidden” on the OT pages.

  2. As Jesus said, the Old Testament and the New Testament are both to be followed. So we get one where God is the angry god of war, and the new testament attempts to see god as loving. I may be a Christian, but things are getting out of hand for me to continue believing now that I have read both from cover to cover. If there is ever a solid course to atheism, it’s that very strange duality of Bibles.

    Also that opt out card for sinners. Simply repent your sins before dying and you will be saved. HUH? I have to call bullshit on that too. If you are a lair and a thief, and many, many Christians are, Jesus otta pitch you in the clink for half of eternity when you show up. I have had three Christians put big scrapes my car with me watching–one was a huge truck that just pushed my legally parked car out of his way! All denied everything. One atheist dinged my car just a tiny bit with me looking out the office window at him. It took him a while, but he found me to report it, and he gave me a card that was listing the damage he caused and the phone number of his and his insurance.

    I have seen many moral atheists and more lying Christians than I can stand. Fix that and I’ll stay a Christian. If it continues, I’m going to learn from it and switch sides. I don’t like being on the side of the losers.

    • Franklin,
      I appreciate your comment. You bring up a few issues Christians have been wrestling with for centuries. In the Old Testament, many people stumble with the conquest of Canaan. These wars show the justice of God on those who have rejected him. Your second paragraph shows that you understand the need for this kind of justice when you say “Jesus otta pitch you in the clink for half of eternity when you show up.” We recognize there must be justice in this world, but tend to be angry when God exercises justice in a way we either don’t like or don’t understand.

      At the same time, you’re right that we see the love of God in the New Testament, but we see it in the Old Testament too. God shows favor to Abraham and Sarah by giving them a son in their old age. He delivers his people from bondage in Egypt. Even when Israel whines constantly in the wilderness, he still provides food they don’t have to work for every single day. The Psalmists consistently praise God for his “steadfast love.”

      These two seemingly divergent themes converge in one dramatic event- the cross of Jesus. The justice we believe everyone deserves was fully absorbed by Jesus when he substituted himself for us on the cross. The reason liars, thieves, and guys like you and me get to go free is because Jesus paid our debt in the ultimate act of both love and justice.

      Our salvation in Christ is free, but it’s not cheap. The guys you mention damaging your property and not taking responsibility walk inconsistently with what it means to know Jesus. When we know Jesus it should change us, and honesty is part of that change.

      If there’s anything we learn from reading the Bible, it’s that Jesus wins in the end. No one who trusts in him will be disappointed or will be on the side of the losers.