Four Principles for Reading the Old Testament

May 06, 2016

by Iain Duguid

The interpretation of the Old Testament is sometimes presented as a complex affair, a task only to be attempted by those with advanced degrees and a fluent understanding of Ancient Near Eastern culture, intertestamental literature, and ancient languages. To be sure, each of these areas of study can be a great asset to our understanding of the Word of God, but in this short post I want to suggest four basic principles for interpreting the Old Testament that can be grasped and applied thoughtfully by almost anyone who approaches this part of the Scriptures.

When we interpret the Old Testament correctly, the central message on every page is Christ.

1. The Center of the Old Testament Is Christ

The Old Testament is not primarily a book about ancient history or culture, though it contains many things that are historical and that describe ancient cultures. Centrally, the Old Testament is a book about Christ, and more specifically, about his sufferings and the glories that will follow—that is, it is a book about the promise of a coming Messiah through whose sufferings God will establish his glorious, eternal kingdom.

When we interpret the Old Testament correctly, without allegory or artificial manipulation but in accordance with Jesus’s own teaching (Luke 24:13-35), the central message on every page is Christ. That does not mean that every verse taken by itself contains a hidden allusion to Christ, but that the central thrust of every passage leads us in some way to the central message of the gospel.

2. The Old Testament Had a Message for its Original Hearers, Not Just for Us

This is an important complementary truth to the first principle. It is a mistake to read the Old Testament as if its Christ-centered message were only revealed to us, who read it through the lens of its fulfillment in him. Hebrews 1:1 tells us that God spoke in the past to his Old Testament people through his servants the prophets; he speaks now as well to us, climactically, through his Son. The Pentateuch spoke God’s Word of challenge and promise to those who were about to enter the Promised Land in the days of Moses.

Isaiah spoke to those who lived in Judah in the days of Ahaz and Hezekiah, not only to those who read his prophecies about the Babylonian exile and about Christ after their fulfillment. The Book of Kings addressed the spiritual needs of those who found themselves wrenched away from the Promised Land because of their sins and the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel and the Chronicler wrote to discouraged believers in their own times who wondered about the value of any attempt to serve God in the aftermath of the exile.

This is not to say that the prophets never spoke of the future. On the contrary, they repeatedly predicted the future, sometimes in extravagantly precise detail (for example, Isa 44:28; Dan 11). Part of the Lord’s claim to uniqueness among the gods of the Ancient Near East is the fact that he alone spoke the future accurately through his prophets (Isa 45:18–21; Amos 3:7). Indeed, one of the scriptural tests of a prophet’s authenticity is the fact that the words he speaks are fulfilled (Deut 18:22); such a test of course requires fulfilled predictions. Those predictions that came true in the short term were intended as encouragements to believe the promises of God that had not yet been fulfilled.

These first two principles lead us to make two further observations about interpreting the Old Testament.

3. The Old Testament Writers Did Not Fully Understand Everything about Which They Wrote

This reality is clear in a number of places in the Old Testament itself. Prophets like Daniel and Zechariah frequently did not completely grasp the visions that they were shown (see Dan 8:27; Zech 4:13). Indeed, it is hard to imagine how Daniel could have fully understood a prophecy like that in Daniel 11, which contains so many specific references to people and events during the period between Alexander the Great and Antiochus Epiphanes. As Numbers 12:6–8 reminds us, prophecy by its very nature is often dark and obscure, unlike the Lord’s clear word through Moses. In particular, some aspects of God’s purposes in Christ necessarily remained veiled throughout the Old Testament period, only to be clarified through the coming of the Son.

One way to think about this is to imagine attending a “prophecy conference” in the year 10 BC. By then, the participants would have had the entire Old Testament, as well as several centuries of reflection on it during the intertestamental period. Yet if someone had presented a paper anticipating the crucifixion of the Messiah on the basis of Psalm 22, or his resurrection on the basis of Psalm 16, or even the virgin birth on the basis of Isaiah 7, some vigorous debate might have ensued. It was not obvious ahead of time that these prophecies should be interpreted in that way.

The plain message of the gospel runs throughout every page of God’s Word.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, the New Testament authors rightly identified these texts as finding their anticipated fulfilment in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things” (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment. This is why Paul could argue from the Old Testament so convincingly in the context of Jewish evangelism.

4. The Old Testament Writers Truly Understood Some Things They Described

For that reason, it is important not to overstress the ignorance of the divinely inspired prophets, as well as the other writers of the Old Testament. No one was in doubt as to the signification of Micah’s prophecy of a coming ruler to be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2): when Herod asked the birthplace of the messiah the answer was unequivocal (Matt 2:5–6). When Jesus says that Abraham saw his day and rejoiced (John 8:58), he surely had in mind (at least) the events that transpired in Genesis 22. Abraham did not have a full understanding of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow, perhaps, but he had a true understanding that just as the Lord had provided the ram to die in place of his beloved son, Isaac, so too the Lord would provide a substitute for Abraham’s own sins.

Daniel may not have grasped the exact details of the coming conflict between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids as described in Daniel 11; he did, however, recognize that the broad philosophy of history presented in that chapter provided a clear rebuke to his overly optimistic hope that, with the completion of the seventy years of judgment prophesied in Jeremiah, the end would soon be nigh (see Dan 9:2). Instead, before the end would come, there would continue to be wars and rumors of wars, with empires rising and falling, but when the dust finally settled, the triumph would belong to the saints of the Most High.

Many things that were concealed during the Old Testament period have now been revealed in the light of Christ’s appearing. Some things will remain partially hidden from our eyes until the consummation. Nevertheless, the consistent and plain message of the gospel runs throughout every page of God’s Word, from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible’s message of the gospel repeatedly points the saints of all ages and generations back to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow.


This piece is adapted from Iain M. Duguid, “Old Testament Hermeneutics,” in Seeing Christ in All of Scripture (Philadelphia: WSP, 2016), 17–22. Click here to download the book for free.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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