The first time I read any significant portion of the Bible was the night the Lord brought me out of darkness and into the light. I read the entire New Testament that night, and our Father used that means to open my eyes. I didn’t understand everything I read, but what I did understand was good news indeed. Although I didn’t understand why there were four separate stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I could follow the basic story line in all four Gospels. I could also follow the book of Acts. The Epistles were more difficult, but I knew what a letter was, so I had some level of familiarity with the genre. The book of Revelation posed some challenges. I’m still working on that one.
I loved the New Testament, but I wanted to read the rest of the Bible too, so I determined to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Let me simply say that by the time I finished, I was thoroughly confused. It didn’t start that way. As I began working through Genesis and Exodus, I thought I understood what was going on. It was a story, a story primarily focused on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Israel. Then I reached the middle of Exodus and began reading a lot of obscure laws and detailed instructions for the tabernacle. I finished the instructions, but then the construction of the tabernacle was described in words that seemed to repeat the instructions verbatim.
I finally finished Exodus only to turn to Leviticus where I became even more lost in laws about sacrifices, priests, and festivals. Numbers and Deuteronomy incorporated more of the storyline of Israel, so I made it through. After making it through the Pentateuch, reading Joshua through 2 Kings was relatively easy. We were back to the story of Israel, and I could follow it. There were an awful lot of kings with strange names, but that was okay. I thought I knew what I was reading again. Then I hit 1 Chronicles and chapter after chapter of genealogies. I made it through that, and then found myself re-reading the story of David and the history of Israel again in an abbreviated form. I persisted, however, and made it through Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. But then I turned the page. . .
Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a book unlike anything I had read so far. The book of Job was strange, to say the least. I did not understand what I was reading or why it followed the story of Esther. Then I encountered the Psalms. I loved reading them, but it was another curve ball. Why did we move from a story about Israel to all of these prayers and songs? I had the same reaction to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. They were interesting, but I had no idea how they fit into this thing called the “Old Testament.”
As puzzled and perplexed as I was up to this point, it was nothing compared to how I felt when I turned the page again and started reading Isaiah and the rest of the prophetic books. I had no idea what I was reading or what it meant. I kept reading only because I knew that Christians were supposed to read their Bibles, and I wanted to be a good Christian, but frankly I was a little discouraged by the time I finished the prophetic books. It left me completely confused.
I recount all of this because I suspect that my experience upon reading the Old Testament for the first time is not unique. It might be more extreme because I was reading these books without any real prior knowledge. I had read the New Testament, but even that did not prepare me for the strangeness of the Old Testament. It didn’t help matters that the first theology I encountered was dispensationalism. It taught me to read the Old Testament in a very disjointed way that kept everything in separate boxes. It didn’t allow me to see how everything fit together.
One of the greatest benefits of studying biblical theology was that I began to recognize the unity of Scripture. This was a unity that was always there, but one I had not been able to see. The recognition of that unity in turn began to help me to see the profound beauty of the Old Testament. During my first time reading through the Old Testament, I had recognized beauty here and there (in the Psalms, for example), but for the most part, I tended to miss the forest for the trees. Studying the many themes of the Old Testament and observing how they develop as they weave through the entire text and then reach fulfillment in the New Testament revealed a beauty that was deep and rich and often unexpected and overwhelming. What Jesus said on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) began to make sense.
The Old Testament is beautiful because it is the story of our God, and God is the very definition of beauty. The Old Testament is the story of the God who creates this absolutely astounding universe in which we live, a universe that reflects the beauty of its Creator in manifold ways. It is the story of the God who has abundant mercy on a rebellious mankind when we deserved nothing but death and who provides the means of redemption for us in order that we might fulfill the purposes for which He created us. It is the story of the God who enters into a binding personal covenantal relationship with us, His chosen people, and who remains steadfastly faithful to His covenant promises even though we rebel over and over and over again.
It is the story of the God who promises that He will deal with our sin in a way that will forever free us from it. He will send One who will be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, One on whom He will lay the iniquity of us all. It is the story of the God who will bring His redeemed children into His glorious presence where He will be a Father to them, and they will sin no more because He Himself will give them a new heart, a heart that hates what He hates and loves what He loves.
It is the story of the God who sings!
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:14–17).
The Old Testament is beautiful because it is the story of our Father and His divine love for us.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.