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The Old Testament Scriptures: What They Are and Why We Read Them

What are the Old Testament scriptures, and why do Christians continue to study them? The Old Testament scriptures are a collection of 66 books written by and for ancient Jews. They include ancient law, historical narrative, wisdom literature, poetry, and prophecy. As for prophecy, the Old Testament promises eventual deliverance from a Messiah yet ends without a resolution. Christians continue to study the Old Testament scriptures because they view them, as Jesus did, as wise, true, and inspired.

You know how it can be common for your parents to get wiser the further along you get in your life’s journey? When you become a parent, you begin to realize that a lot of the advice they used to give and rules they used to set were actually really wise—instead of being old-fashioned and out-of-touch. And even though there might have been a time you took your parents for granted, you find yourself starting to really appreciate them being there—and miss when they’re not there.

In the same way, there are things older than we are which we forget to appreciate. Sometimes, we uproot the old without thinking about what will happen as a result…

The Unwisdom of Uprooting

Why was it the right time to move out West and take up farming? Well, how much time do you have? Because there was a long list of reasons why the early 1900s was the perfect time to move out West and become a farmer.

First of all, there were acres and acres of unplowed land in the American West just sitting there waiting to be plowed up and farmed. Add to that the bonus that the government promised to give you 160 acres for free just for moving out there. The price of wheat was at an all-time high. There had been lots of rain the past few years. Everybody you knew seemed to be taking the government up on this offer and moving out to the West to farm the land. It had been a decade of prosperity in America known as the Roaring Twenties. What could possibly go wrong?

So, they moved out West. The fields of grass (the American plains) were plowed up, and they planted the wheat and waited for the rain. But instead of rain, they got two words that start with D. The first D was depression—the Great Depression. That economic catastrophe made wheat prices drop. The second D word was, instead of rain, drought. First drought, then wind. And since they had uprooted the grass, without the grass holding the dirt in place, the wind uprooted the dirt.


“Without the grass holding the dirt in place, the wind uprooted the dirt.”


Dirt on the ground became dust in the air. And storms of dust blackened the sky as billows of dust rolled through town. And as people would run for the shelter of their houses, towers of dust over a mile high would mow over their homes, leaving behind dust drifts several feet high, dead cattle, and sick children, some of whom eventually died of what they called dust pneumonia.

There are quite a few lessons to come out of the 1930s Dust Bowl which affected regions from Texas to Nebraska. One important lesson was learned too late: the American plains which had long held down the dirt were a good thing, and it was foolish to uproot them so recklessly.

As it turns out, there are ancient things which we uproot at our own peril. One of the ancient things we uproot at our peril is the Old Testament.

The Old Testament Scriptures: Why Learn Them?

It is true that the “new covenant” is superior to the “old covenant.” As Jeremiah 31:31-33 says,

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33, NIV)

Yet it is also true that the New Testament—and most notably Jesus himself—treated the Old Testament as wise, true, and inspired. So, we should mature in our appreciation of this ancient collection of writings inspired by the Holy Spirit.


“We should mature in our appreciation of this ancient collection of writings inspired by the Holy Spirit.”


Learning from Old Testament Scriptures

Even though it just looks like a dot to us on earth, the sun is huge. If the earth were 2 inches in diameter, the sun would be 16 feet in diameter. Here are just a few things we can appreciate about the sun (besides the fact that the sun is one of the reasons we are able to live).

  • First, the sun helps us see where we’re going. For example, when the sun is out, we can tell which car in the parking lot is ours, and we can tell which direction we’re going.
  • Second, the sun helps things grow; flowers, trees, and grass all need the sun so they can grow.
  • Third, the sun helps us appreciate the beauty in things. For example, we couldn’t see the sun sparkling on the ocean without the sun. And we couldn’t see the moon at night without the sun reflecting off it.
  • Fourth, the sun helps us see when something is wrong. For example, if a middle school boy is hurrying to get to school, and he accidentally grabs his 2nd grade sister’s Barbie lunchbox, when he gets outside and looks down, he can see what he’s done. That’s all thanks to the sun because it helps us to see when something’s wrong. The sun can help us to see when the grass needs to be mowed or when the barn needs to be repainted.
  • Lastly, the sun seems to keep people from doing bad things. For example, when the sun is out, a thief is less likely to try to steal your bike.

“When the sun is out, a thief is less likely to try to steal your bike.”


This list of things we appreciate about the sun can apply to the Old Testament scriptures as well. Let’s go back through the list:

  • First, the Old Testament helps us see where we’re going. In other words, it helps us make the right decisions and go the right directions in life. The book of Proverbs provides numerous spoiler alerts that tell us what decision we make leads to what result.
  • Second, the Old Testament helps us grow. When we study its ethical teachings, we mature in our ability to make wise and good decisions. Consider the foundational ethical instruction in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the real-world navigation we glean from studying the Old Testament’s Wisdom Literature and learning from its historical narratives.
  • Third, the Old Testament helps us appreciate the beauty in things. For example, it helps us appreciate God more, and it helps us see life as a gift from Him. Upon creating our world and us, God observed that it and we were very good (Genesis 1:31). From the Old Testament, we learn to delight in the goodness of God’s gifts.
  • Fourth, the Old Testament helps us see when something is wrong. When we read the Bible with a humble heart, the Bible can point out where we are messing up so that we can keep from messing up again. As the apostle Paul said, referring to the Old Testament law, “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Romans 7:7, NIV).
  • Lastly, the Old Testament helps deter us from doing bad things. As Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (NIV).

“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”


The Bible itself makes the connection between its teachings and light. The psalmist said this about the Old Testament law:

  • Psalm 119:105 – “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
  • Psalm 119:130 – “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

The New Testament adds additional reasons to study the Old Testament. Its writers quote the Old Testament throughout its pages and explains its usefulness in passages such as Romans 15:4 (NIV): “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”

In addition, consider this:

  • When tempted by the devil, how did Jesus fight back? By quoting the Old Testament (see Matthew 4:1-11).
  • When asked about topics such as marriage and divorce, the end of the world, and the afterlife, where did Jesus get his answers? Every time, Jesus quoted from the Old Testament scriptures (see Mark 10:6-8/Genesis 2:24; Luke 17:26-27/Genesis 6:5-8; Matthew 22:32/Exodus 3:6).
  • When asked what were the most important tasks we could be doing with our lives, where did Jesus get his answer? From the Old Testament (see Mark 12:28-30; Deuteronomy 6:4-5; and Leviticus 19:18).
  • When explaining his own purpose, how did Jesus answer? From the Old Testament (see Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2).

“When explaining his own purpose, how did Jesus answer? From the Old Testament.”


If Jesus relied so regularly upon the Old Testament scriptures, there’s no good reason for us to assume we can get along just fine when ignoring them.

Loving the Old Testament Scriptures

But we know how it goes, right? Giving someone a list of all the reasons they ought to do something doesn’t have to budge anybody—if their heart remains unmoved. Interestingly, the Old Testament isn’t just something people have felt they should study; it’s also a collection of books that many people of God can honestly say that they love.

When a guy writes a love song, he usually writes it about his girlfriend or wife. We have trouble imagining a guy writing a love song about a book. But the guy who wrote Psalm 119 is a different story. He wrote Psalm 119 about the collection of books we now call the Old Testament (specifically the law books within the Old Testament). He uses different words for it—God’s Word, God’s testimonies, God’s law, God’s commandments. They all refer to parts of the Old Testament.

The writer of Psalm 119 tells us that his most prized possession, worth far more than physical treasure, is the Word of God, referring to the Old Testament. For example, in verse 97, he writes, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119:97, NIV).


“The writer of Psalm 119 tells us that his most prized possession, worth far more than physical treasure, is the Word of God, referring to the Old Testament.”


The prophet Isaiah was referring to God’s messages throughout the Old Testament scriptures when he wrote, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8, NIV). In other words, after all your money is spent and your house grows old, after your car breaks down and your money is eaten up by inflation or hospital bills, one thing will remain as valuable and secure as ever—and that is the Word of God. It’s a priceless treasure.

The Old Testament Scriptures: What Are They?

The first Christian killed for preaching about Jesus was the early Christian leader Stephen. His last opportunity to speak publicly about Jesus was during his trial in Jerusalem, the day he was stoned to death. During his speech, recorded in Acts 7, he gave an overview of the Old Testament and showed how it connected to the coming of Jesus. Taking our cue from Stephen, we can summarize the Old Testament scriptures by telling the stories of six Jewish people:

  1. Abraham – the father of the Jewish nation, husband of Sarah and father of Isaac
  2. Joseph – Abraham’s great grandson who ended up in Egypt and, through his ability to interpret dreams, prepared Egypt for a famine and ended up saving his family who came down to Egypt to escape the famine
  3. Moses – leader with both Jewish ancestry and Egyptian royal connections whom God used to lead the Jewish people out of slavery when the Egyptians had oppressed them in Egypt
  4. Joshua – disciple of Moses who led the newly-freed Jewish people into the promised land
  5. David – the first of a dynasty of Israelite kings in the promised land; a psalmist and warrior
  6. Solomon – David’s son and king after David; built the Jewish temple in Jerusalem

Stephen’s sermon can function as a six-stage history of ancient Israel, leading up to the creation of the Jewish temple:

  • Acts 7:2-8 – Abraham: from Chaldea to Canaan
  • Acts 7:9-16 – Joseph: from Canaan to Egypt
  • Acts 7:17-44 – Moses: from slavery to freedom
  • Acts 7:45 – Joshua: from wandering to settling
  • Acts 7:46 – David: from warfare to kingdom
  • Acts 7:47 – Solomon: from tabernacle to temple

“Taking our cue from Stephen, we can summarize the Old Testament scriptures by telling the stories of six Jewish people.”


Interestingly, all six of these Jewish men remind us of Jesus in their own unique ways:

  1. Abraham – Just as Abraham was told to sacrifice his beloved son (although God provided a substitute at the last second), God sacrificed his beloved Son Jesus on the cross.
  2. Joseph – Just as Joseph’s sufferings in slavery led to the saving of many lives, Jesus’ sufferings on the cross led to the saving of countless lives for eternity.
  3. Moses – Just as Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus leads his people out of the slavery of sin.
  4. Joshua – Just as Joshua led his people into the promised land, Jesus leads the children of God into God’s promised rest.
  5. David – Just as David was a king who conquered territory for Israel, Jesus, a descendant of David, came as a king to expand the kingdom of God all over the world.
  6. Solomon – Whereas Solomon built the temple for God, Jesus came as the true temple, the true way of connecting people with God.

At root, the Old Testament is a story, a history, of a people whom God specially chose in order to eventually bring deliverance for the whole world. Thus, the Old Testament led up to—and continually pointed to—the Messiah we meet in person in the New Testament.

The Sections of the Old Testament Scriptures

Another way of explaining the Old Testament is by explaining its sections:

Most Christian versions of the Bible categorize the Old Testament into the following four sections:

  • Law – Genesis to Deuteronomy
  • History – Joshua to Esther
  • Poetry – Job to Song of Solomon
  • Prophecy – Isaiah to Malachi (both the longer ones called Major Prophets and the shorter ones called Minor Prophets)

Most Hebrew versions of the Bible utilize three sections:

  • The Law (Torah) – Genesis to Deuteronomy
  • Prophets (Nev’im) – Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Twelve Minor Prophets)
  • Writings (Ketuvim) – Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

The Painful Ending to the Old Testament Scriptures

Let’s return to Stephen and his summary of the Old Testament in Acts 7. There are multiple layers of pain in how Stephen’s story ends:

  • Although Stephen’s summary of the Old Testament ends with the Jewish temple, the Old Testament doesn’t actually end with the building of Solomon’s temple. After Solomon’s reign, his unpopular, tyrannical son comes to power, and it splits the kingdom. After rebelling against God, both kingdoms are conquered, the North by Assyria and the South by Babylon. Abraham had originally come from Chaldea, and now a Chaldean / Babylonian emperor named Nebuchadnezzar has destroyed their city and carried them into exile.
  • Although the Jews are allowed to return to their homeland under Persia and rebuild, the Old Testament ends without resolution. It ends unfinished with hundreds of hopeful prophecies unfulfilled.
  • Stephen ends his summary of the Old Testament with a reminder of how, throughout their history, their Jewish ancestors had resisted the Holy Spirit and persecuted God’s prophets. When the Messiah finally came, they killed him (Acts 7:48-53). Stephen’s audience responds to Stephen’s speech by killing him (Acts 7:54-58).
  • Yet Acts 7 ends with glimmers of hope: We are reminded of Stephen’s faithfulness even in death (7:59-60) and are introduced to an unlikely future Christian named Saul (7:58).

“Although the Jews are allowed to return to their homeland under Persia and rebuild, the Old Testament ends without resolution.”


The Old Testament Scriptures and You

There can be a threshold to cross for young people wanting to connect with old people. To young people, older people can sometimes seem out of touch and difficult to connect with. Yet, if young people take the time and effort to cross that threshold, there is incredible value and wisdom that come from learning from older people. The same goes for connecting with the Old Testament. If you have let your appreciation for the Old Testament fade, recommit to treating the Old Testament like Jesus did, seeing it as wise, true, and inspired.

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