Biblical Context | How to read the Old Testament
One of our biggest mistakes when reading the Old Testament is that we try to directly apply the words of God in the Old Testament into our lives today. Even though God has not changed, context has. We no longer live under the Old Testament covenant of law, we now live under the New Testament covenant of grace, and so God’s dealings with his people then are different to what they are now.
When we do this, we are guilty of cherry picking from scripture because lets face it, we don’t see anyone trying to directly apply the bits they don’t like, you know, the ones about curses and judgement!
Instead of trying to directly apply them into our lives, we need to build a bridge from the Bible’s Old Testament world into our world now. This is what I call a ‘hermeneutic bridge’ (hermeneutic meaning interpretation, especially of the Bible).
We need to first of all ask; what does it say/show? Then what does it mean? Why is it important? and lastly; how do I apply it?
By asking these questions we build a bridge from the Bible’s world into our world, and develop a timeless truth which spans context and culture. By doing this we get to see how the particular bit of the Bible fits into the whole Bible story.
Let’s take a look at a very popular and often quoted verse from the Old Testament, Jeremiah 29:11. I have highlighted this verse in bold below but read it within context.
“This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”Jeremiah 29:10-12
What we can see from reading the verse in context is that this passage is very specifically written to the Israelites during their seventy year exile in Babylon. Yet despite their disobedience and discipline, God is extending compassion and mercy towards them. He will let not let their disobedience end in destruction, but will surely bring them back to their land and restore them to himself. For he says “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
What this shows about God is that he is infinitely compassionate and forgiving towards his people who were continually disobedient. It shows that God is not willing to give up on his people. It means that despite our sin and disobedience God is willing to show compassion and mercy and restore us to himself, where our future with him holds prosperity, blessing and hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a revelation of God’s gracious character and a foretaste of the gospel, not a promise that God is going to bless us with prosperity and a rosy future in this life now.