November 13, 2015

The Forest and the Trees: An Aid in OT Interpretation

by Mike Riccardi

Don't Miss the Forest for the TreesSome time ago I wrote an as-condensed-as-possible version of the great story of redemption, tracing God’s gracious promise to provide the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent through the Old Testament. I examined how that promise narrowed from the seed of the woman, to the seed of Abraham, to the nation of Israel, and to the line of David. We saw how Israel’s repeated failure to be faithful to the covenants Yahweh established with them all pointed to the One who would exemplify covenant faithfulness and fulfill all righteousness on behalf of His people. To put it another way, contrary to what some believe about dispensationalists and the Old Testament, we observed how the whole of the Old Testament finds its climax and fulfillment in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Israelite par-excellence, and the Son of David. If you’ve not read that post, I’d encourage you to do so.

I mentioned in that post that a great help for interpreting the Bible properly consists in keeping that big picture in the front of our mind so that we can interpret the parts in light of the whole. We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. This is especially helpful in the Old Testament, where the increased historical, cultural, geographical, literary, and even covenantal gaps can make us raise our eyebrows at not a few passages, which just seem wholly unfamiliar.

Now, we need to be sure that we interpret each passage on its own terms, according to its context, always in search of the intent of the original author. But keeping this grand narrative of redemptive history in mind and locating at what point in the story of redemption that a particular passage finds itself, can often help us understand why some more obscure (or at least, seemingly-removed) passages are in the Bible. Passages that look like road blocks or obstacles in our Bible-reading plans can be transformed (at least in our perception, anyway) by relating them to the larger story of redemptive history.

Today I’d like to just share a few examples.

Levitical Sacrifices

It can be laborious to wade through the various prescriptions related to the Levitical sacrifices, especially since we are no longer under the Levitical law. It’s been said that many well-meaning Christians, intending to read through the Bible in a year, “die” in Leviticus. We wonder, “Can this portion of Scripture truly be said to be ‘profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:16)?”

But remembering the larger story of redemption helps us see the repetitive nature of these sacrifices as a reminder to Israel of their incessant sinfulness and their inability to live righteously. If we put ourselves in Israel’s shoes in those days, that repetitiveness causes us to ask the question, Levitical Sacrifices“Are we going to have to do this forever?!” God’s answer to that question would ultimately be, “No.” All the laws of the sacrifices point us forward to the atoning work of Christ, by which He offers one perfect sacrifice for all time: Himself (Heb 10:14–18).

Also, the minutia of the Levitical laws show us how seriously God takes sin. Time had to be sacrificed, care had to be taken, and animals had to die because of the sin of man against a holy God. And it all had to be done in such a particular manner! From this we learn that sin is a serious breach in relationship between God and His people—that it is no small feat to restore such a relationship when it’s been broken. And, looking forward, we learn how marvelously sufficient the sacrifice of Christ is—that He could fulfill all these laws by the single offering of Himself as a perfect sacrifice in the work of the Gospel!

The Kings

The refrain of the unrighteous kings in the books of the Kings can almost get annoying! Twenty-three times we see the refrain that such-and-such king “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” And even when there’s a righteous king every once and while, before you turn around you’re reading about how his son didn’t walk in his ways and did evil in the sight of the Lord. It almost gets tiresome, and we scoff at the repetition of the sinfulness of these kings. What spiritual lessons can I learn from these stories that all seem to say the same thing over and over again?

Well, aside from being reminded to remain faithful to the end, we need to consider the stories of the kings in the context of the Davidic Covenant—the promise that the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, and the Israelite par excellence would also be the Son of David who rules as king. At least one effect of the repetition of the account of the sinful kings is the emphasis that a merely-human king would never fulfill God’s promise to His people. Israel needed to look to God Himself to provide that righteous King. And of course He has done just that in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Genealogies

Asleep on BibleIt can also be difficult to read through list after list of genealogies, such as we find in 1 Chronicles 1–9 or Ezra 2. Why are they in Scripture? What spiritual benefit are they supposed to impart to me during my morning devotions? Is there something spiritual about memorizing all those Hebrew names? Am I supposed to look them up so that I know what they mean? Am I supposed to memorize the genealogies and who begat whom?

Well, we need to think about the place that the books of Ezra and Chronicles have in the story of redemption. They’re post-exilic books, books written after God has given His people over to the chastening of the Babylonian exile, after God has suffered His temple—the place where His name dwells (2 Kgs 23:27) —and His city—called by His name (Dan 9:19)—to be razed to the ground by the Babylonians. But even after all this disaster that Yahweh will bring upon His chosen people, He promises that in proportionate manner He will do them good (Jer 32:42). He will keep a remnant, return them to their land, rebuild the temple where He’ll receive their sacrifices offered from pure, renewed hearts, and will raise up a king to rule over them in righteousness.

And so after Yahweh destroys the sinful kingdom (cf. Amos 9:8), He will rebuild the fallen booth of David. He will remember His people whom He foreknew, and remember the covenant He swore to their fathers, and bless them in just the same way He had chastened them.

Therefore, books like Ezra and Chronicles, written after Judah had been returned to her land, include genealogies to highlight the faithfulness of God in bringing His people back from exile according to His covenant promise. Yes, He had abandoned the nation (2 Kgs 21:14). But Ezra and the Chronicler are telling us: He’s brought them back. The genealogies should teach us to marvel at the covenant faithfulness of our God.

Ask Key Questions

I hope these few examples serve as an encouragement not to give up on what might seem tough wading in your Bible reading, especially in the Old Testament. Without ignoring the context, the structure, and the authorial intent of the passage itself, we can also gain valuable insight by locating each passage in the overall story of redemption and asking ourselves how it fits into that big picture.

And as I do that, I’ve always found it helpful to keep these kinds of questions in mind: What do these stories teach about God? What do they teach about man and his (my) sinful nature? How does this text point me to my need for redemption? How does this text present the character and works of God to me, such that I might see Him clearly, be amazed, and worship Him?

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Mr. Mike

    Very well done. Outstanding insights. Wonderful guidelines.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    I liken the Bible to a masterfully written mystery whereby the author, knowing the end from the beginning, carefully wove in clues throughout the story. And as with any great mystery, when you finally get to the end and are given the big “reveal” you are awestruck at how it all makes sense now. And you want to read it again through different eyes because you so appreciate the skill of the author.

    Yes, Jesus is the climax and fulfillment of this great mystery and how amazing it is that we are part of the story!

  • Machel

    Excellent work. Some of the best teaching opportunities are on these types of passages, where you’re wondering why we should even bother reading them. It’s extremely rewarding having the lights come on and see how things like leprosy regulations fit into the big picture.

    What resources would you recommend to help people understand the big picture and how these things fit? I’ve been a big fan of Jim Hamilton’s “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment”, but that might be a bit intimidating for many.

  • tovlogos

    Good advice, Mike. As I course through it I see Elohim, the Jews, the Gentiles, the Messianic Scarlet thread that courses through the narrative. Seeing the big picture seems to take away the support from the theory of “replacement theology”; and the blessings also include judgement before the blessings can be realized, which replacement theology doesn’t seem to consider.