August 23, 2013

The Forest and the Trees: An Aid in OT Interpretation

by Mike Riccardi

Don't Miss the Forest for the TreesLast week 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. We looked at 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.


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

Well 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 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

Posts Facebook

Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Sound hermeneutics – a means to help us see the glory of God in the OT! Was thinking about how the Apostle Paul encapsulated your point in the NT text – 2 Cor. 2:7-18; particularly verse 14. Thanks for this very help perspective. Will try it as I read through the OT.

    • Thanks Dave. I’m guessing you mean 2 Cor 3:7-18, right?

      “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ.”

  • Great help, Mike. This is much better than the “the whole Bible was written to me” hermeneutic which so many have employed and avoids the pitfalls of the “every line written to God’s people Israel means all of God’s people everywhere at every time” problem we see so rampant today.

    I particularly like the questions you offered at the end we can ask ourselves.

    • Thanks Michael. Glad to help. Always appreciate your readership and your comments.

  • Our Pastor once called us to see the biblical narrative in terms of viewing the “forest” from 10,000 feet above, that was helpful too. I tend to think in terms of “forest” first, at the expense of missing some trees I’m sure…which is one reason I’m thankful for detailed articles to be read here..and read again..ha 🙂 I really appreciate the end questions too! Thanks again, Mike.

    • I think “forest first” is a great practice, Suzanne. In fact, I think that the best way to begin studying a book of the Bible, whether 2 John or Jeremiah, is to read it all in one sitting at first just to get the overview, keeping in mind what function its playing in the canon and in the story of redemption. We don’t want to ignore the parts (in fact, I may do a post on not overlooking the parts next week), but we also don’t want to so focus on the parts that we miss the whole.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • I’d look forward to such a post 🙂

  • busdriver4jesus

    As a covenant guy in a dispie church, I applaud your commitment to regularly preaching from the OT. But the naivete you show in your original post on the subject is dangerous; I have been at my present church for 3 years (a well-known one in the Master’s community) and I can count the number of sermons out of the OT on one hand. Usually, when the preaching elder is out of town, we might get to dip our toes in a quick survey of an OT book, but other than that, nada. The “We’re a New Covenant Church” reflex is, IMHO, a huge roadblock to a dispie commitment to preaching toto scriptura.

    • Hey Bus Driver. I’m wondering which original post of mine you’re referring to. The post of mine that I referenced in this post was, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Maybe you’re referring to Jesse’s post from Wednesday on Dispensationalism and the OT?

      Even if that’s the case, I don’t think it’s fair to cast that as naïveté just because your particular church may not preach the OT as regularly as you’d wish. Jesse’s point is just that there’s nothing inherent with Dispensationalism as a system that makes it averse to OT preaching. In fact, I think that NT priority and the covenantal hermeneutic are more apt to ignore the OT on its own terms, because what can tend to happen is preachers just preach the NT from an OT text (after all, it’s all types and shadows, right?). In that sense, the OT doesn’t really get preached for its own sake, but more gets used as a springboard to the NT.

      In any case, that’s probably a discussion best to be had on that thread, especially since its still open.

      • busdriver4jesus

        Yes, I was referring to Jesse’s post… sorry about my confusion about the author. So I’ve put you in a tough spot in defending someone else… my apologies. I did want to share my personal experience in dispie churches; but I wonder if the phrases you use (“the OT on its own terms”, “preach the NT from an OT text”) are helpful; Are you a classic dispie or do you (like my church) affirm that God has one ordo salutis for all people in history? So then looking at all the folks redeemed in Scripture, from Abel to John, through the lens of the Not-So-New Covenant isn’t obscurantist, but showing the applicability and profitability of all of Scripture for believers today. Without this, the OT, its prophecies, heck, even most of Revelation has little to no everyday use for Gentile saints, and was written for the one generation who will see Christ’s return.

        • K. One more round on the topic of the other post, and then back to just this one, which has very little to do with dispensationalism and much to do with how keeping the big picture in mind aids in understanding more seemingly-obscure parts of Scripture.

          Are you a classic dispie or do you (like my church) affirm that God has one ordo salutis for all people in history?

          That’s a false dichotomy. Not even the classic dispensationalists taught multiple ways of salvation. That’s a long-answered caricature that nondispensationalists just seem to want to refuse to accept.

          But no, I would not agree with the classic dispensationalist interpretation of the various issues (two eternally distinct peoples, Israel on earth / church in heaven, two new covenants, etc.). And I do believe that all people have always been saved by grace through faith on the basis of the work of Christ (though that’s not really an ordo salutis issue).

          So then looking at all the folks redeemed in Scripture … through the lens of the Not-So-New Covenant…

          That’s a bit of a leap there. Affirming that the agency (grace), instrument (faith), and ground (Christ and His work) of salvation have always been the same is not the same as saying that OT saints were saved through the New Covenant. That’s sort of importing the covenant of grace idea into Scripture and just calling it the New Covenant. I actually do believe the New Covenant is, well, new.

          So in rejecting that premise, I reject this conclusion:

          … showing the applicability and profitability of all of Scripture for believers today.

          Those are two very different things that you conflate there, not giving due attention to the difference between interpretation and application, as I outline in my reply to Nate Williams below. Interpreting the OT through the lens of the New is doing much more than merely showing “applicability” and “profitability.”

          Without this, the OT, its prophecies, heck, even most of Revelation has little to no everyday use for Gentile saints, and was written for the one generation who will see Christ’s return.

          That’s merely an assumption that isn’t actually true. There’s a difference between the OT being binding (which it’s not) and it being applicable (which it is). To say that because we won’t personally experience many of the events of Revelation unfold, that it has no everyday use for us, is just false. Paul’s whole point in 1 Thess 4:13-18 is that believers (dead and alive) will be preserved from the Day of the Lord judgments, and it is for that very reason that they should be comforted. Knowing the end of the story — being told about how the glory and justice of God will be vindicated on the earth — loses none of its relevance to us just because we’ll be at the marriage supper during the tribulation. And the same is true for the Old Testament. I’m not an Israelite; I wasn’t in the wilderness; and I’m not under the Mosaic Law. But I still learn an amazing amount about my God, His character, His dealings with sinners like me, and, in keeping the big picture in mind, His plan of salvation — even if the OT isn’t written to me, because it is written for me.

          In fact, I think it’s the covenantal scheme that treats the OT as of little “everyday use,” as evidenced by the fact that we have to reinterpret it to mean something other than it would have meant to the original audience for it to have any value in our eyes. The actual original meaning (according both to the original author and the original audience) is obscured in favor of an almost forced-Christianization, if I can put it that way, of something that we should already see, for its own sake and on its own terms, as Christian Scripture.

  • Nate

    Mike, quick question. If you see these individual stories in light of the whole plan of redemption, isn’t there some sense in which you are reading your NT back into your OT?

    • Excellent question, Nate. I think the answer gets to the crux of the matter.

      I don’t like owning the phrasing, “reading the NT back into the OT,” because of the obvious eisegetical implications (though I do think that’s what the NT priority method actually does). I think the difference between that and what I’m suggesting has to do with the difference between interpretation and application, or between meaning and significance.

      I think where those who espouse NT priority go wrong is that they want to read the OT in light of the NT on the level of interpretation or meaning. And so the NT “reinterprets” the OT. Matthew 2:15 becomes the meaning of Hosea 11:1, such that the proper interpretation of Hosea 11:1 is unavailable until Matthew records his “interpretation” of it hundreds of years later. To me, that does serious damage to the principle of authorial intent and the perspicuity of the OT.

      But what I’m advocating is that we locate meaning in the intent of the author of a text as determined by its own context, by a consistent application of grammatical-historical interpretation. In other words, we interpret a text on its own merits and for its own sake. But, because of the principle of progressive revelation — i.e., that later revelation adds to, builds upon, and clarifies, but does not change or reinterpret, earlier revelation — we as New Covenant believers in full possession of the completed canon of God’s revelation have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. So we may be able to see a different application, or greater significance, of a text than the original audience did. And that helps us worship as we see the different stages of God’s plan finding their climax and fulfillment. But it in no way tampers with the original interpretation, or meaning, of the original text.

      I really think the distinction between interpretation and application, and between meaning and significance, gets at the heart of the issue here. I’ve written a bit more about that in this post. The cross / the Gospel / Jesus is not in every text, but they should be in every sermon — not because we read them into the interpretation of the text, but because we make faithful application to them via the benefit of progressive revelation.

      I hope that’s helpful.

  • Pingback: The Greatest Story Ever Told | the Cripplegate()