After 242 posts, and 252 days (so I have some catching up to do) I’m at the end of the Old Testament – with a a bit of a sigh of relief! And what a way to end – with Malachi looking ahead to the messenger like Elijah who will be sent to prepare Messiah’s way, for the Messiah himself to come to his Temple as a refiner’s fire.
And behind this, as 39 books and a thousand years come to their climax, is the clear statement that Israel’s continuing existence depends on the fact that ‘I the LORD do not change.’
I know that to be true. But I also know that over the last few months I’ve seen changes that can’t be denied in how the LORD is revealed through the Bible – and I know that from tomorrow there will be new changes to come. Israel’s vision of God has broadened out to recognise that he is sovereign over all things, while being rooted in the certainty that, while it’s not always comfortable, she will always be his chosen nation.
Looking back on the Old Testament as a whole, a few things stand out that I have seen as big themes.
- God is faithful. He doesn’t give up on those people who have heard his call and promise, even when they’re frankly pretty hopeless in remembering their side of the Covenant. Every now and then he has to give them (us?) a mighty kick up the backside to remind us that he’s there, but he never has given up on his people and he never will.
- God is passionate. His love for his people isn’t abstract. It comes out through his prophets in the language of new lover and of betrayed husband. God cares – and when we speak of his jealousy it comes from the fire of his love.
- The whole of the Old Testament, whether it’s the books of Law, the Psalms or the wisdom writing, makes sense and reveals God to us only in the setting of the story of God’s faithfulness to his world and his people. The books of Law, in particular, don’t give us codes of law in the setting of a story. They give us the founding stories of our spiritual ancestors, and the laws they record are part of that story.
- In that setting, it’s clear that the distinction between ‘ceremonial’ and ‘moral’ law isn’t there in the text. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful or valid idea, but we need to recognise that the distinction between laws on shellfish, money-lending and sexuality is obvious to us only in hindsight. Aaron and Moses, let alone those who wrote down what we now have as the books of the Law, wouldn’t necessarily have divided laws along the same lines that we see so clearly, if at all. That in turn should perhaps make us cautious about insisting on some laws as God’s eternal and literal word while others are of historical interest only. As the story continues, we need to look for how the unchanging God calls us to live in a changing world with attention, humility and courage.
- Wisdom can never be reduced to a set of aphorisms, habits or practices. True wisdom is to know and to be shaped by the knowledge of the LORD.
- Prophecy is the consistent voice of God calling his people back to real faithful living, in deed and in every bit of life. By coming from God’s promises and faithfulness, the patterns of one prophet’s time and so words anticipate and also shape how the future unfolds. Because so much of God’s redeeming work will centre on Jesus, it’s no wonder that the prophets seem again and again to see him in the distance. But what they saw was the glimmer of his light in their own darkness.
- There’s not a lot of speculative theology here, or even discussion of life beyond this world – while the writers often take for granted a rich vision of the heavenly realm invisible to us but surrounding us. Old Testament faith is about how we live in this world, supported by a secure hope in the God who is faithful to his promises.
- If it took me 8 months to get through the Old Testament, and occasionally tried my endurance (1 & 2 Chronicles spring to mind) I can remind myself that God came the long way round. Eternity, then 13.7 billion years before getting to Abraham; then about 1500 years to get to Malachi. 1500 years of patience, of unchanging love and faithfulness.
- God is faithful. And that’s not just about the Old Testament. He has not changed and will not change.