Why read big books of the Old Testament?

Over the the last year and one month, I have spent an hour or so of each and every Monday working my way through the Bible book of Jeremiah. This morning, I am on the last chapter and it feels like I’m coming to the end of a long road trip with a good friend, or like saying goodbye to your favourite teacher on the last day of school. I felt a teeny pang of sadness when I read the phrase, ‘the words of Jeremiah end here.’

*Sigh*

So long, Jezza, it’s been fun. See you in the New Creation!

However, when I remember back to that first Monday morning and I thought to myself, ‘which book of the Bible shall I look at next?’, I’ll admit that Jeremiah was not my first choice. In fact, I actually decided not to choose Jeremiah under the pretence that it would be good to read something in the New Testament (despite the fact that I had just read through Colossians!). A good friend of mine had just preached on Jeremiah and wholeheartedly recommended it to me but I shrugged off the recommendation and looked for something a bit more… ‘relevant’ (that is, ‘easy’).

Then I checked myself. Did I truly believe that the whole Bible was God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? Did I really think that every book of the Bible speaks of Jesus and, therefore, is relevant for those who want to know him and follow him?

I had taught young people and preached to people at church how God leads us to know him better and trust Jesus more through every book of the Bible… yet I wasn’t prepared to put my money where my mouth was.

I was being a hypocrite.

I was avoiding Jeremiah because it was big, long, and seemed too much like hard work.

Rebuked and humbled, I took a deep breath, turned to Jeremiah, and asked the LORD to help me know him better through reading it… and took the first step on what would be a truly worthwhile journey with this amazing prophet.

Why it is good to read the big books of the Old Testament

So, for your encouragement and to help you get stuck into those big (and seemingly daunting) books, here are three reasons why it is good to take time to read through the big books of the Bible in the Old Testament.

#1 They help shape your big picture view of salvation history

The whole Bible is about Jesus (Luke 24:44-47). It is one big story of how a holy God can both deal justly with the problem of our sin while keeping his promises to rescue and restore a people to be his very own treasured possession. The big books of the Bible often describe in nitty-gritty detail some of these aspects of this big picture plan of salvation. The foretell and foreshadow Jesus in real-life terms, not in a theoretical bubble. Jeremiah, for instance, covers the life and times of God’s people as the Babylonians threaten, lay siege to and eventually destroy Jerusalem. Through Jeremiah’s warnings of these events we see how there is a point where it is too late for unfaithful and rebellious people to turn back to God… and yet the LORD has a plan to keep a faithful people safe, even through his judgement.

#2 They are the history of God’s dealings with his people, which means it is our history

There is one thread that connects the people of the Old Testament with believers in the New Testament and on through to modern-day Christians: faith in Jesus. The Old Testament people of Israel, the Kingdom of Judah and the exiles in Babylon are our forefathers who charted the way – and sometimes what was not the way – of faith in the LORD. Just as we trust in Jesus, so did they (they just didn’t know that would be his earthly name). It is because of them that we know who God is, what we are like and why we need Jesus. The faithful people of Israel are our great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) and our ancestors in faith (Galatians 3:6-7). We rightly value and treasure our own earthly heritage and family history, so how much more our ancestry of faith in the LORD?

#3 Through them the LORD will speak his Word into your life and your situation

The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and, through the whole of Scripture, God speaks to us (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, no matter what bit of the Bible we read, we are hearing God speak to us. Or, putting it negatively, if we choose not to read a portion of the Bible, we are choosing not to listen to something that God would want to say to us and considers it important for us to hear.

How to go about reading big books of the Bible

So how do you actually read these behemoths of biblical brilliance?

These big books of the Old Testament are, well… big. They are daunting, often seemingly repetitive or full of words or language that seems alien to us, despite the efforts of translators to put them into English in a way that both makes sense and is faithful to the original language.

Well, remember that often hard work yields a great reward. Don’t be put off from reading them just because you might need to get your brain going.  The rewards for sticking with these books of the Bible and hearing God’s voice in them are worth the effort.

To that end, here are three things that I have found helpful to do that have really helped me as I have worked my way through Jeremiah.

Use commentaries to know break up the book into readable chunks

By definition, big books of the Old Testament are big! You could read them chapter by chapter but some chapters are huge! Plus, sometimes what you need to look at spans more than one chapter. This is where commentaries come in really handy. Invest in a whole-Bible commentary (I use the New Bible Commentary for this) and use how the commentary divides up the book to determine which chapters/verses to read together (but don’t just read the commentary – it is not a replacement for God’s Word!) .

Make notes

Whether you use an online tool (such as Evernote) or good ol’ pen and paper, making notes is a great way to clarify what God is saying in a way that helps you think on it and understand it. You might want to keep these notes for future use, or simply use them as a thinking tool and throw them away afterwards. For me, I write two or three paragraphs of notes on what the passage is saying and then, for each paragraph, write down how this shapes my faith in Jesus and what it means to follow him. Remember, faith in Jesus comes first and then obedience to him. So think first how Jesus fulfils or obeys what is being said, and only then think about how it shapes how you trust and follow him.

Ask the LORD to speak to you and help you know him and follow him more as you read it

The preschool Bible notes ‘Beginning with God’ has an simple but no-less-excellent prayer that I have adopted for my own every time I sit down with my Bible: ‘LORD God, thank you for the Bible. Please help me to know you better as I read it.’ This is the heart of what we do when we read the Bible: we get to know Jesus (and who we are in him) better. Like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, we put on hold the stuff of life, open our hearts and minds and say, ‘Okay, LORD, what do you want to tell me? What do I need to know, and how do you want to change me to be like you?’

Get stuck in

The big books of the Old Testament are no-less part of God’s Word to us. Yes, they are big. Yes, they take time to work through… but through them, the LORD God of heaven and earth speaks to our hearts and lives, challenges and deals with sin in us, strengthens our faith in Jesus, and equips us to live for him and like him more.

So, what are you waiting for?

Which big book of the Old Testament are you going to take time to read?