Things to Know When Studying the Old Testament

The books of the Old Testament (except for Genesis and Job) are the accounts of people living under the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. It is important to keep that background and context in mind when studying them. So, here are some simple things to know when studying the Old Testament. These will help you to understand the truth revealed about God and His way of approaching life for you.

Word meanings can be different.

Here are some examples of word meanings and concepts that are different between the Old and New Testaments.

  • “Salvation” (especially in the Psalms) usually refers to a temporal deliverance from trouble or danger. It does not usually refer to eternal life.
  • “Judge” usually refers to God or God’s representative acting as a hero or knight in shining armor to defend justice and the cause of the poor and defenseless. It does not usually refer to a courtroom setting.
  •  “The Holy Spirit” came upon certain individuals temporarily to empower them for special service (such as artisans, prophets or kings).. The Spirit then left when that service was completed.
  • “Forgiveness of sins” under the Law was accomplished through atonement, which means a “covering” for sin. A gracious God offered forgiveness to those who trusted in His lovingkindness, but it was at best temporary and up-to-date. The sacrifices in the Law of Moses did not provide someone forgiveness for tomorrow’s sins.

People were saved by faith in the Old Testament.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s grace accepted any person who came to Him by faith. They received eternal salvation by their faith alone. That is consistent with what the New Testament teaches.

God’s method of managing His people, however, was different, so how one’s faith was expressed and lived out differed as well. The Tabernacle and the Temple represented the presence of God dwelling among His chosen people, Israel. There, the priests represented the people to God, and sacrificial offerings were the prime way to publicly express worship, repentance, and thanksgiving.

God wanted the worshiper’s heart first. Where one’s heart was right, sacrifices could be acceptable to God as an expression of inner faith. While we no longer express worship to God through animal sacrifices, He still desires the hearts of His people above all else.

People are saved by faith in the New Testament.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, He brought to a close the age of the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. He simultaneously inaugurated the New Covenant in which we live. Salvation is obtained by faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross. Every believer receives forgiveness for all sin—past, present, and future. Salvation is also secure and never taken away.

God continues to deliver His people from some things but not all dangers as He uses some challenges to teach us to rely on Him more than on ourselves. And, New Testament believers have a permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit who gives us eternal life and His daily empowering presence.

Clarify “descriptive” versus “prescriptive” in the narratives.

Much of the Old Testament is written in narrative form. For example, Genesis through Esther are mostly historical books. Yet, even parts of the books of prophecy are narrative (as in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). Narrative means the text describes what happened. It is descriptive, not usually prescriptive. It is important to clarify the difference.

  • Descriptive means the observation of what actually happened, how people lived and made choices on how to do life at the time. For example, “David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets” (1 Chronicles 13:8). This is not a restriction on the types of instruments that can be used in worship.
  • Prescriptive means a command from God about how to live or do something that applies to all believers, all people groups, and all time periods. For example, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This applies to every human who is alive or has ever lived.

Unless it is prescriptive, you cannot take passages from Old Testament narratives and create a formula for doing things a certain way to guarantee God’s blessing on the result.

Read for accuracy then apply New Testament truth.

When you are studying the Old Testament books, read first to obtain accurate understanding of what the author(s) meant. Then, use New Testament teachings to apply truth about God to your everyday life in Jesus Christ.

Most of the Old Testament studies for women on Bible.org have you follow this process. See the list of studies available below.

First, read for accuracy and observe what is in the text. The studies help you understand what the author’s original intent was based on language studies and translation comparisons plus any historical information about the time period. Then, you may be directed to what is taught in the New Testament about our life with Christ that applies to current situations similar to what is found in the Old Testament passages you study.

Check out these Old Testament studies on Bible.org:

Other Old Testament studies on melanienewton.com:

Melanie Newton is the founder of Joyful Walk Ministries, an online ministry that helps women learn to study the Bible for themselves and grow their Bible-teaching skills to lead others on a joyful walk with Jesus. Melanie has written many Bible study guides (available on Bible.org and her website) and presented insightful messages to large groups of women. All of her BIble Studies are available as books on Amazon.com. Melanie is wife to Ron Newton (“Integrity at Work” ministry), loves to be outside in her garden, and enjoys her yearly fix of boiled crawfish.

Leave a Reply