The Bible can be an intimidating book. It contains 66 individual parts, almost 1200 chapters, and spans at least 1,400 years. The Old Testament has 39 books and the New Testament has 27. Some books are long, some are short. Although some sections are arranged chronologically, others are not. What’s a reader to do?
Please allow me to assume that you have no familiarity with the Bible whatsoever and that you’re picking it up for the very first time. I’d like you to imagine walking up to two bookcases. The first bookcase is called “The Old Testament” and the second is called “The New Testament” (this article will focus on the Old Testament; we’ll cover the New Testament in Part 3). The bookcase entitled “Old Testament” has four shelves. Let’s look at each shelf in order.
Top Shelf: Pentateuch
On the top shelf are five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These were authored by Moses and often are referred to as “the Law.” They contain the early history of the world from creation to 1406 BC when the children of Israel entered Canaan to receive it as their inheritance. There is a lot of “legal” material here because God is revealing His nature by what He requires. God is also informing them of how they properly worship Himself, and thus the sacrificial regulations and Tabernacle arrangement and Festival calendar.
Second Shelf: History
There are twelve Historical Books on the second shelf, from Joshua to Esther, relating the outworking of God’s dealing with His people from 1406 BC to about 430 BC. This narrative can be like riding a roller coaster: conquering the land under Joshua and then the incredible evil during the judges; the strengthening of the Kingdom under David and Solomon and then its split after their deaths; from godly kings who followed the Lord to kings who sold themselves to false gods!
Ultimately the Divided Kingdom (Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom) would fall in 722 BC to the Assyrians and in 586 BC to the Babylonians. God would punish His people with a seventy year captivity just as He had warned through Moses, but would restore them again just as He had promised through Solomon.
Third Shelf: Wisdom
The Wisdom Literature, sometimes called the “Poetic Books,” is on our third shelf: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. In general terms they deal more with philosophic issues, such as suffering, principles for wise (redeemed) living, and the meaning of life. Of course, the Book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook, which includes history, praise, lament, and forward-looking Messianic hope. The Psalms touch on all parts of the soul as we share the experiences of these divinely inspired hymn writers.
Fourth Shelf: Prophecy
The fourth shelf is divided into two parts: Major Prophets and Minor Prophets. The five Major prophetic Books — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel — are so-called because their authors are well-known and the Books are generally longer than the twelve Minor Prophets (but never think that the content is of any lesser value).
The seventeen prophetic books pack a real “gut punch” (if you will) because a prophet was a spokesman for Deity. Prophets served as the “pastors” to the nation, applying what God had revealed to the daily lives of the people. So, the contents of the prophetic Books were delivered to God’s people during the historical timeframe of the Historical Books. “Prophecy” had both a forthtelling and foretelling aspect, but even when the prophets spoke of the future the message was almost always rooted in the contemporary situation. The more the reader grasps the history and politics and culture of their time the more he will understand the “punchline” of each prophet.
If we think of the Old and New Testament as bookcases, it’s important to think of them as side-by-side. The Old Testament bookcase is preparatory — God’s justice, Israel’s failure, and the promise of salvation prepare us to meet God’s ultimate salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ, we’re told, is the place where God’s justice and God’s mercy meet. We cannot appreciate the marvel of the New Testament without first taking in the message of the Old.