The Bible, Part 2:

Old Testament vs. New Testament

 
 

It seems that most Christians spend most of their time in the New Testament, except perhaps for the Psalms.  But I much prefer the Old Testament.  Why?  The short answer is that the Old Testament is so much more emotional, heartfelt, passionate, and personal.  I feel God’s heart for us in the Old Testament.  The New Testament seems so dry and lifeless by comparison.  While it does have a few different formats--gospel, letter, apocalyptic--the vast majority of it is letters, which are mostly instructions on how to do things and explanations of theology.


That’s the short answer.  I’ll explain more later.  But first, let me tell you how I got here.


Discovering the Old Testament


My first introduction to the Old Testament was through a musical duo called Lamb, back in the 1970s.  At this time, contemporary Christian music was so new that there were only a handful of musicians, and the genre was still called Jesus Music, a name left over from its hippie (Jesus Freak) beginnings.  Big names at the time included Second Chapter Of Acts, Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, and Love Song.  My favorite artists were Larry Norman, JC Power Outlet, Petra, and Lamb. 


Lamb consisted of two guys, Joel Chernoff and Rick “Levi” Coghill, who were Messianic Jews from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Their first album came out in 1973; Lamb II came out in 1974, and Lamb III in 1976.  Each of these albums contained some songs sung partially in Hebrew, and many of the songs had Old Testament scripture references.  I would look up these references to learn more about the context from the surrounding verses.


But the album that really got me digging into the Old Testament was their third one.  Their first two albums had 9 or 10 songs, and only a couple of them had Bible verses from places unfamiliar to me (i.e. Psalms).  Their third album, however, had 12 songs and most of them where taken from somewhere in the Prophets.  Even more, though, was that on this third album, the songs were not as easy to understand.  I would read the lyrics and wonder, “Why did they make a song out of these Bible verses?  These do not seem like something to make a song about.  What does it mean to them?”  And as I would contemplate this while studying the Scriptures they came from, over time I began to understand what was going on.  I don’t mean this in an intellectual way; immediately I could understand what the Bible verses referred to.  I mean this in an emotional way.  Music is emotional; when you write a song, it’s rarely merely to perpetrate facts...a song is made to express feelings of the heart.  And it’s those feelings that became unveiled to me as I studied the lyrics of Lamb and the corresponding Bible verses.


I began to see the Old Testament with new eyes.  Ever since 12 years old, every night I would read one chapter of the Old Testament and one chapter of the New, but after listening to Lamb and studying these Bible verses, I began to see in the Old Testament God expressing his love and passion for his people, his longing to interact, the warmth of his heart.  The more I read with these new eyes, the more I began to love the Old Testament. 


I’ve included some specific examples from Lamb songs to the left of this column.  Now I’d like to go on to the second influence in discovering the Old Testament.


The Rise of the Scripture Song


I was raised in a church where they mostly sang hymns, which bored me to no end with their slow tempos and archaic language.  When I was 15, I went to a charismatic church for the first time (see my story about this experience in my Churches I’ve Visited section).  I was struck by the modern music, the beautiful worship, and was shown by my cousin (I was visiting her church) that the songs were taken from Scripture.


When I went to college, my first two years I attended a full-scale charismatic church, and in subsequent years attended a church that had charismatic influences.  Both of these churches featured Scripture songs, the majority of which came from the Old Testament.  Once again, I’d be curious about the context of the songs and read the surrounding verses.  This, along with my experience in my high school years of listening to Lamb, further brought me into an appreciation of the Old Testament, and cemented in my mind the association of songs of joy and other deeply felt emotions with the words found in the Old Testament.


So, starting with Lamb, and continuing with the Scripture songs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I learned to love the Old Testament through music.


What I See In The Old Testament Now


I love to read the Old Testament.  I usually read it in this manner:  I start with Genesis and read all the way through II Kings.  This is basically one continuous story, with a few detours in Leviticus and parts of Exodus and Numbers where instructions for worship or census figures are given.   (I read those too.)  By reading the Old Testament this way, you get the picture of God interacting with his people.  You see how we humans are...yes, it’s like looking in the mirror, all of our proud moments of spirituality mixed in with failures of sinning.  Abraham, Noah, and David are the most well-known examples, but there are many more.  In these stories, you see how God lets us be human, yet doesn’t give up on us.  I see this so much more clearly through these stories than through the explanatory theology of the New Testament--which is like the New Covenant version of Leviticus.


By the time you finish II Kings, you get a sense of the long period of time that God endured repeated rejection by his people.  He’d help them, they’d be happy, but then soon they would go back to doing their own thing and ignoring him.  This went on for hundreds of years.  Once you get that perspective, then when you read the Prophets, they have an entirely different meaning than if you just dive into them from the New Testament with no context.


And that’s what I usually do--after finishing II Kings, then I go read the Prophets for awhile.  (My Bible has a timeline in the back so that I can see which prophet was around during which king, so that helps the understanding.)  Then when you read God’s prophecies of doom, you see that God is saying, “I don’t want to do this to you, I really want you to turn to me, but after hundreds of years of being continually rebuffed even though everything you have is because I’ve given it to you, I’m ready to say enough is enough.  But if you heed my words now and repent, we’ll start anew.”


In other words, what I see in God now through reading the Old Testament is his incredible patience, forgiveness, and longing to have fellowship with us.  I see in the narratives in how he interacted with some of the big names in history; I see it in the prophets in the way he opens his heart and pleads with his people, “Come to me...I love you!”


In addition to the narrative and the prophets, what I also like in the Old Testament are some other explorations that have no counterparts in the New Testament.  In Job, four friends contemplate  how God operates; in Ecclesiastes, the author contemplates the meaning of life...when he's quite depressed!  In many Psalms, and intensely in Lamentations, there is raw emotion of anguish.  In Song of Songs, there is powerful emotion of romantic passion.  You just don't get this stuff in the New Testament.  The New Testament is sorely lacking in emotion.  It is so dry.


What I See In The New Testament Now


Although I get much more out of the Old Testament, I don't ignore the New Testament.  It has its place.  For one thing, as a Christian, it's important for me to read the gospels to get an idea of what Jesus did and said, and to read the letters to understand the New Covenant.  I also like Revelation, which gives a sense of God's ultimate justice and salvation for us in a picturesque way.


So it's not like I ignore the New Testament.  As I've done since I was 12 years old, I read a chapter from each of the testaments every day.  In the Old Testament, I get the emotion and heart of God; in the New Testament I get the instructions on living.


Some Christians' Views Of The Testaments


I don't understand some Christians' views of the Old Testament.  Many people act like it's a different God in the Old Testament; in fact, I remember reading somewhere that early in church history there were some factions pondering (or perhaps they even determined) that the God of the Old Testament must be a different God altogether from the New Testament!  Whaa??? 


The more I read the Bible, the more I see the common theme throughout both testaments.  I don't see two different Gods.  Some people act like the God of the Old Testament is all about destruction and killing, while the God of the New Testament is all about love and forgiveness.  They must not be reading very closely.  I see the same God in both: as it says in one verse in the New Testament, "Behold the kindness and severity of our God." You get both aspects in both testaments.


Invitation


So I invite you, if you feel like the God of the Old Testament is too different from the God of the New, try my method of reading the Old Testament.  Get a picture of how God interacts with us where we are, as we are.  Get an understanding of how God emphasizes different aspects of himself in different times, but all aspects are there always.  Get a feel for how long God pleaded with his people to turn to him, but was rejected time after time before he finally said "Enough!" 


Conversely, I invite you to open your eyes to what you see in the New Testament too.  Don't gloss over those passages that highlight God's sharpness.  It’s in the New Testament, Hebrews 10:31, where it says, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”   "Be perfect and holy because I am perfect and holy" is in both testaments.  Pronouncements of destruction for people who reject God are found in both testaments.  People often remark that Jesus' only words of condemnation were to religious leaders.  If you think that way, read those gospels again and open your eyes.  There are plenty of hard words to swallow for the average person.


Conclusion


The Old Testament is a joy to me.  I love the poetic expression of the Old Testament, the stories, the raw emotion.  I get so much more out of it than I do the New Testament.  When I read the Old Testament, I feel God's love and heart for us much more than when I read the New Testament.  I've written about this on my website in hopes you will discover the joys of the Old Testament too.


(Written December 2008)

One of the songs on Lamb III that was a turning point for me was when I dug into their song “Ephraim” and pondered why Lamb wrote it.  Click below to listen to this song, taken from Hosea 11:1-9.

Click the button above to play “Ephraim” by Lamb

Sometimes in my high school years I got to sing solos in church, and I remember choosing Lamb songs a couple of times.  One was “Eli, Eli” from Lamb III.  Another was “Comfort Ye My People” from Lamb II, which is taken from Hosea 14:2-7.  Here are the lyrics from that song:


No more will you turn

To another for help

Nor will you turn to yourself,

    to yourself

Nor will you say

“Our God” to some other

For in me you find mercy


I will heal your wrong ways

I will love you so freely

You will dwell beneath my shadow

I will be

As the dew to my people

They will blossom as the lily


Your beauty

Will be like the olive tree

Your fragrance like Lebanon

You will live

Like a well watered garden

And you will flourish like the vine


I will heal your wrongs ways

I will love you so freely

You will dwell beneath my shadow

I will be

As the dew to my people

They will blossom as the lily


Comfort ye my people

Comfort ye my people


Here is the original Scripture passage from Hosea 14:1-8:


Return to the Lord your God, people of Israel.  Your sin has made you stumble and fall.  Return to the Lord, and let this prayer be your offering to him:  “Forgive all our sins and accept our prayer, and we will praise you as we have promised.  Assyria can never save us, and war horses cannot protect us.  We will never again say to our idols that they are our God.  O Lord, you show mercy to those who have no one else to turn to.”


The Lord says, “I will bring my people

    back to me.

I will love them with all my heart;

    no longer am I angry with them.

I will be to the people of Israel like

    rain in a dry land.

They will blossom like flowers;

    they will be firmly rooted

    like the trees of Lebanon.

They will be alive with new growth,

    and beautiful like olive trees.

They will be fragrant

    like the cedars of Lebanon.

Once again they will live under my

    protection.

They will grow crops of grain and be

    fruitful like a vineyard.

They will be as famous as the wine of

    Lebanon.

The people of Israel will have nothing

    more to do with idols;

I will answer their prayers and take

    care of them.

Like an evergreen tree I will shelter

     them;

I am the source of all their blessings.”

One of my favorite songs at a church I went to during my college years was taken from Zephaniah 3:17-18:


The Lord your God is with you;

    his power gives you victory.

The Lord will take delight in you,

    and in his love he will give you

    new life.

He will sing and be joyful over you,

    as joyful as people at a festival.

Have you ever done the random Scripture bit where you ask God to speak to you and let your Bible fall open to a page and see what God has to say in response?


When my wife & I were going through a very difficult time while living in Taiwan, one day we received news that piled on the misery:  We were informed that we owed a tremendous amount of money--it was past due, something we had had no idea about due to language and cultural misunderstandings.  We had no idea how we would pay for any of it.  It was crushing to us.


We prayed, and did the random Bible-opening bit. It was amazing how the Bible fell open to this passage, Habakkuk 3:17-19:


Even though the fig trees have

        no fruit

    and no grapes grow on the

        vines,

Even though the olive tree crop   

        fails

    and the fields produce

        no grain,

Even though the sheep all die

    and the cattle stalls are

        empty,

I will still be joyful and glad,

    because the Lord my God is

        my savior.

The Sovereign Lord gives me

        strength.

He makes me sure-footed as a

        deer

    and keeps me safe on the

        mountains.


That passage was exactly what we needed.  It was incredible.


And it was true.  I can’t even remember what happened in regard to the money; God worked it out.  What I remember clear as day, though, is his answer to us from the Old Testament in a very desperate hour.

A Suggested Path For Reading The Old Testament


  1. 1) Genesis through II Kings

  2. 2) Prophets: Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea

  3. 3) I & II Chronicles

  4. 4) Prophets: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

  5. 5) Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

  6. 6) Prophets:  Daniel, Haggai, Obadiah, Jonah, Zechariah, Joel, Malachi

  7. 7) Job

  8. 8) Ecclesiastes

  9. 9) Song Of Songs

  10. 10) Proverbs (or read this between Job and Ecclesiastes if you need a break from the depressing stuff)

  11. 11) And of course, Psalms can fit anywhere, but Christians tend to read them already


I tend to read the Old Testament in this basic pattern and find it a good path to get the picture of things.

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