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Bible Study Basics: How to Study the Old Testament
Do you ever have trouble getting into the Old Testament and studying? Have you ever tried reading the Books of Prophesy and found yourself a little lost? Do you get frustrated trying to figure out who Ephraim was or wonder why suddenly God's chosen people were called Judah instead of Israel? Do books like Isaiah leave you a little confused? Well, you are not alone, but I have good news. God wants us to understand His Word. The Bible is God's love letter to the world. The Old Testament tells the story of His chosen people. It is a look forward to Jesus Christ (the One the whole Book is truly about any way.) It is a living Word, just as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Unfortunately, most of us were never really taught how to study it.
We learned pertinent stories in Sunday School. Adam and Eve sinned. Noah built an ark. Abraham traveled to a new land and had a son in his old age. Joseph was a dreamer. Moses parted the Red Sea. Sampson picked a really lousy girlfriend, and Daniel spent the night with a bunch of lions. All of these stories were told in the Fall. From Christmas to Easter, we would hear stories about Jesus, and Summer was the rest of the New Testament then it was back to Adam. Honestly, it seems like most children's Sunday School curriculum is a little like shampoo. Lather, rinse, repeat. We kept hearing the same stories, but we needed to be taught how to study the Word for ourselves.
The Bible is a collection of 66 different books by different authors that was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It isn't written in chronological order. The Old Testament is set up in categories. It's set up with the Books of the Law first, History second, Poetry third, and finally the Major and Minor Prophets. We can read along for awhile without this knowledge being all that necessary, but if we want to understand the books of Prophesy then we need to look at history. I am no theologian, so I'm going to try and give a very basic break down on the history of Israel in the Old Testament. Hopefully, understanding Israel better will make the Bible a little easier to study.
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed
Gen 12:1-3 (KJV)
All the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt, which came out of his loins, besides Jacob's sons' wives, all the souls were threescore and six; 27 And the sons of Joseph, which were born him in Egypt, were two souls: all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, werethreescore and ten.
Gen 46:26-27 (KJV)
A Brief Oversimplified Version of Israel's History
God called Abraham out of Ur and led him to the land he intended to give him. He made an eternal covenant with him. He gave him a son, Isaac, through his barren wife Sarah in their old age. He protected them from famine while there were still only a 70 of them by moving them to Egypt. In Egypt, they went from the status of respected guest to slave labor. Still, they multiplied and God delivered them out of Egypt. They wandered the wilderness for forty years, because they did not have enough faith in God to take the promised land. They were still a very rebellious people, but because of the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He did not forsake them. Instead God provided food, manna from Heaven, for them daily. Their clothes never wore out (Deuteronomy 8:4), and God led them by a pillar of smoke in the daytime and fire at night.
When the first generation of Israelites died, He gave them the land of Canaan (the promised land) to build their nation. While He told them not to make any treaties with the other people who lived in the land, they didn't listen. Soon they fell into idolatry, worshiping the false gods of their neighbors. Israel didn't have a king in those days. God Himself wanted to lead them, but the people chose to do what was right in their own eyes. This meant, for the Israelites, frequent falls back into idol worship and never remaining faithful to God for long at a time. Whenever they would forget God, He would allow other nations to come in and attack. The people would call out to God for help, and He would raise up a judge from among them, like Sampson or Gideon, who would deliver them from their enemies and lead them for a season. Judges and Ruth were written about this time frame.
The Kingdom Years
Not surprisingly, eventually Israel decided they wanted to be like all the other nations and have a king of their own. God knew that their desire for an earthly king was another rejection of Him as their leader, but He gave them what they asked for and chose Saul to rule them. King Saul was everything the people thought they wanted, but he failed miserably and was eventually rejected by God. After Saul came David, and David was a wonderful king. While he made many mistakes, he always returned to God and led the people well. This is why the Bible calls David a man after God's own heart. God promised David's heir the throne. Eventually, the Messiah would come from David's own line and He rule forever.
1 And it came to pass, when Solomon had finished the building of the house of the LORD, and the king's house, and all Solomon's desire which he was pleased to do, 2 That the LORD appeared to Solomon the second time, as he had appeared unto him at Gibeon. 3 And the LORD said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually. 4 And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: 5 Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. 6 But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: 7 Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people.
1 Kings 9:1-7 (KJV)
David's son Solomon started out strong. God offered him anything he wanted and he chose wisdom. Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to God. Undfortunately, as Solomon aged and his fame and wealth increased, he started marrying foreign women and building altars to their false gods. Because he had violated God's commandments, God told him that the kingdom would be divided after his death.
Solomon's son Rehoboam kept Jerusalem and the southern portion of the kingdom, but it was no longer called Israel. It became Judah, named for the tribe to which he belonged. (This is the tribe that would bring forth the Messiah. Jesus is called the Lion of Judah.) A man named Jeroboam took the northern portion, which remained Israel but is sometimes called Ephraim after the tribe whose territory made up the largest portion of the northern kingdom. Jeroboam was not from the line of David, and he led Israel even further into idolatry by setting up false places of worship and making calves for the people to worship so that they would not return to Jerusalem and the temple (2 Chronicles 11). All of the faithful Levite priests and people who earnestly followed God moved to Judah, and Israel (now only the northern portion) became a wicked kingdom that never had another Godly king. Judah, on the other hand, had good kings and evil kings and went from periods of rebellion to revival and back again until they were carried away into captivity in Babylon (the time of Daniel and Esther). Eventually, they returned to the land again and remained there until New Testament days (Ezra and Nehemiah).
Do you ever get confused when reading the Books of Prophesy?
The Books of Prophesy
The key to studying the Books of Prophesy is to look at the time frame in which the prophet lived. Many of the prophets served during the kingdom years. God used them in both Israel and Judah to warn His people and their kings of coming judgement. Jeremiah warned that judgement was coming then had to continue to speak for God after it happened (Lamentations). Other times, God used these men to give His messages to the rest of the world. Sometimes they listened (Jonah) but often times they didn't listen at all. These are also the books that look forward to Jesus and even end times (Jude is a good example). Once you have an understanding of Israel's Old Testament history, the Books of Prophesy are actually kind of fun to study.
Poetry with Purpose
The Books of Poetry are often overlooked in study time, but they have a lot to offer. The Psalms show us a beautiful picture of worship and what it really means to have a heart like God's. They are also filled with prophetic glimpses of Jesus. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are full of wisdom that are just as practical today as when Solomon penned them, and Song of Solomon gives us a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride. Job, written before Moses penned the first five books of the Bible, shows an example of faith and perseverance that challenges believers today.