By Doug Redford
The term Old Testament is not one that seems user-friendly. It contains two words that would appear to guarantee immediate dismissal: old (which to many implies useless and irrelevant) and testament (which suggests someone has died). And yet this same Old Testament is part of what Paul had in mind when he told a young preacher named Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
How does the process of inspiration (the “God-breathed” quality of Scripture) work in the Old Testament, especially considering the wide spectrum of types of writing within it? Consider: there are genealogies (which take up the first nine chapters in 1 Chronicles), laws that can easily put one to sleep (think Leviticus), prophecies of judgment that dampen the spirit, psalms of joy that lift the spirit, and narratives of people, places, and events. Some of the history is unforgettable (remembered from childhood and Sunday school); some of it is warm and heart-touching; other parts are excessively violent and bloody. Both heroes and heroines of faith are on display, along with their failures.
How inspiration works within such a vast array of material may be explained by thinking about the following categories of material from the Old Testament—in each case the Spirit of God “carried along” the biblical writers (2 Peter 1:21) in order to provide what he deemed necessary to accomplish the goals listed by Paul to Timothy: “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
Certain information provided for us in the Old Testament had to be given by means of direct revelation from God. The best example of this is the account of how God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Since no human being was present until the sixth day, the complete record of God’s creative activity had to be communicated through direct revelation. No human being could have researched or investigated to discover this; it had to come from the creator himself.
Another example of the need for revelation is the conversations between the Lord and Satan that are found in Job 1 and 2. These occurred with no human beings present; in fact Job himself was never told anywhere in that book about these discussions that center on him. We know them only because God revealed their contents to the inspired author of Job.
The Old Testament prophets also give evidence of this kind of revelation as the source of their messages. Again, as 2 Peter 1:21 noted, their messages did not stem from their own creativity or cleverness; they were “carried along” by God’s Spirit. It is noteworthy that the phrase often translated “the word of the Lord came” to a prophet is more literally from the Hebrew “the word of the Lord was” to a prophet. The language is strikingly similar to the language of creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). The prophets did not create or design their message; it simply “was” to them from the great I Am.
Records of History
Another area in which the Old Testament writers were “carried along” in their writing involves the historical records and narratives which comprise a major part of the Old Testament. The Old Testament has subjected itself to the most rigid kind of scrutiny because it dares to mention specific places, individuals, and nations. And thanks to areas of study such as archaeology and apologetics, our confidence in the reliability of the Old Testament has been validated on numerous occasions.
With historical accounts, the inspiration of the Old Testament goes a step further. Inspiration impacts not only the accuracy of the historical details but also the proper interpretation of those details.
For example, we understand from the Old Testament that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC and destroyed Solomon’s temple, this did not happen because of the superiority and strength of the Babylonian army. That would be the “natural” way to understand this series of events. The supernatural perspective is to recognize that the Lord allowed the Babylonians to enter Jerusalem and do what they did in carrying out his judgment against a rebellious people (2 Chronicles 36:17; Daniel 1:1, 2).
The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar were simply tools in the true King’s hands to accomplish his sovereign plan. Thus the Lord refers to Nebuchadnezzar by the rather distinguished term “my servant” (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10)—this phrase is usually reserved for those with a more “spiritual” heritage, such as Abraham (Genesis 26:24), Moses (Joshua 1:1, 2; Malachi 4:4), and the chosen nation of Israel (Isaiah 41:8).
Another example is King Cyrus of Persia, known in history as “Cyrus the Great.” In Isaiah 45:1 this ruler is labeled as the Lord’s “anointed,” using the Hebrew term from which we get the word “Messiah.” History tells us that both Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were great and mighty kings in their own right; inspiration tells us that they were used to carry out a much higher purpose than their own.
Note that one cannot prove by archaeology that the Lord destroyed Jerusalem (or any other city mentioned in the Old Testament). This is where faith must enter the discussion. Faith will always be the required response to the interpretation of history provided by the Old Testament. Faith is required in order to accept the revealed record of creation (Hebrews 11:3), and it is necessary in order to accept the revealed interpretation of the history recorded thereafter. Faith reverently and confidently acknowledges that history is ultimately “his story.”
We now come to those sections of the Old Testament where man’s words to God are the focus rather than God’s words to man. This includes the books of poetry and wisdom in the Old Testament, especially Psalms. How does inspiration work with a book like Psalms, which is comprised mainly of the words individuals (such as David) directed to God?
Here the thought of the writers being “carried along” may be viewed as a kind of superintendence on the part of the Spirit, with the result being those expressions of faith (or, in some cases, the absence of it) that he determined should be a part of the Old Testament record. The Spirit allowed the wide range of human emotion (including joy, despair, fear, frustration, and anger) to be demonstrated within Psalms, much as he allowed each biblical writer’s style and personality to manifest itself in the contents of what each wrote.
Why is this kind of material included in the Old Testament? It is important that we who read the Bible understand not only what God has to say to us but also how others made in his image respond to him. We are given the opportunity to see how someone like David, a man after God’s own heart, responded to life in a broken world, even when he himself was broken (Psalm 51). Yes, Scripture is a perfect book; but it has been given to imperfect people in an imperfect world.
In portions of Scripture like Psalms, God allowed struggling, hurting people to speak to him so that, in time, they might learn that as broken as this sin-cursed world can be, his Word still speaks and he still reigns. Without such reflections as these, we would be missing out on part of the endurance, encouragement, and hope that the Scriptures are intended to provide (Romans 15:4).
There is also, it seems, a prophetic element to this point. The human side of the Old Testament, as seen in Psalms, becomes a vehicle by which we are able to appreciate the way in which Jesus as “God with us” came to our world to identify with our pain and our brokenness. For example, we do not know the circumstances that moved David to cry as he did in Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But we do know the circumstances that moved Jesus to utter those same words—a death by crucifixion when he carried upon himself the sins of humanity and died to reverse the curse brought on by sin.
There is a human and divine element in the Old Testament (and in the New) that parallels the humanity and divinity found within Jesus, the living Word. He was still God’s Son when he ate, drank, slept, wept, and died. And Scripture is still inspired—even when it records the spiritual hunger and thirst and the tears and the sorrows of God’s people. In a dark world it remains, as the psalmist put it so beautifully, our lamp and our light (Psalm 119:105).
Doug Redford teaches at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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