The books of the Old Testament that are usually thought of under the heading “Historical Books” are those from Joshua to Esther in our English Bibles. They are not assigned a section of their own in the Hebrew Bible which comprises the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. This distribution indicates that historical records have close connections with the other kinds of biblical material—prophetic, wisdom and legal. They do not contain “brute facts” (are there ever such?), and the history that they record is not “bunk.” They contain events whose meanings are illuminated by the rest of the Old Testament. They are part of the self-revelation of God to his people. They record the history of Israel from her entry into the Promised Land to her reoccupation of it after the Exile in Babylon. If these narratives have anything to say about Christ, it is in what is said about the history of Israel.
The Historical Books: Israel and Covenant
The books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther all fold back on the deliverance from Egypt and her constitution as the people of God under his rule and care. This was brought about first by way of the covenant made at Sinai through Moses (Exod 19:4-6) and then with David as their king (2 Sam 7:12-17).
The historical books provide a succession of snapshots that show how Israel as the people of God lived in relation to the terms of that covenant relationship, whether enjoying its blessings or enduring its curses climaxing in exile.
High points therefore mark the history of Israel, for example prosperity and safety, and so also do low points, in terms of invasion and devastation. But this undulating history has a common thread—how the Lord perseveres with his people and remains faithful to his commitment to them through not only good, but bad times, too. It is this living and varied interaction between God and his people that the historical literature unfolds over a period of some thousand years.
These books are crafted on the loom of covenant relationship, established at Sinai and with David’s house. On the one hand, God’s faithfulness anticipates the sending/coming of the Messiah, and on the other, the people’s failure necessitates it. That is the general perspective on seeing Christ in these records.
The Historical Books: Israel and Christ
Christ is therefore seen in the Historical Books through the covenant people and their king. After all is said and done, history is made up of “stuff” and is not just a grand scheme. Where and how can “Christ” be found in the records themselves? In all of these books there are abundant references to prophets, priests and kings (judges) on the one hand and to the “laity” on the other—and also to their foes. These selected facts are important because they compose the “snapshot” that depicts how the kingdom of God, promised in Eden (see Gen 3:15), provisionally set up at Sinai (see Exod 19:5-6) and established with King David (2 Sam 7:11-16), was faring at the time. Was it being advanced or not? If not, why not? Was it even being threatened? And was that happening from without or from within? Were those who should have led the people to God in fact leading them away from him?
We will now take two sample events, positive and negative, from the Old Testament and see how these principles are found in the text and point forward to Christ and the new covenant era.
I. Decline: 1 Kings 12:25-33
The most noteworthy example of this kind is the whole history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that lasted some two hundred years and was brought to an end in 722 BC. It is documented mainly in the Books of Kings. The portion selected above (1Kgs 12:25-33) shows how Jeroboam the son of Nebat consolidated his rule. While it was in God’s purpose for him to rule certain tribes, he was to govern them as David had done (1Kgs 11:38-39). Instead, he erected an alternative theocracy. He built cities for defense instead of trusting God, and religious centers where non-Aaronic priests functioned, where idols reminiscent of the golden calves incident at Sinai were set up and self-determined feasts were established.
In this passage we have an example of how not to rule God’s people. But it also presents a contrasting picture of what David’s greater Son will do in building a house for God, that is, the New Testament church. He will not lead his people into sin, but to paths of righteousness for God’s glory.
II. Recovery: Ezra 8:21-23
Here is a very different event. Exile in Babylon has come to an end. A group of Jews has returned with Zerubbabel (see Ezra 1:5-2:70), erected the altar, offered sacrifices, and laid the foundation of the temple on its previous site. All was done in accord with the prescriptions of the Law of Moses (Ezra 3:2-3), in telling contrast to what Jeroboam had done! Opposition came from the Samaritans but their protest was overruled by Darius; indolence on the part of the Jews was overcome by the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah. The temple was finished, and the Passover was observed. Here is the resumption of the covenant theocracy.
Some fifty years later, Ezra resolved to return to Jerusalem from Babylon and to take others with him ( Ezra 7:1-6). A priest-scribe, his plan was to teach the law of God in Israel and so take this restoration further (v.10). In addition, he was provided with gifts to furnish and supply the temple with what was needed and authority to appoint officials in Israel. He then gathered Levites for temple service.
The section chosen above (Ezra 8:21 –23) shows him gathering the returnees and their children to seek from the Lord a safe passage to Jerusalem. A testimony to the Lord’s protecting power had been borne and now earnest prayer for his presence is made. Here is a mini-church in a foreign land about to make its pilgrimage to the earthly Jerusalem.
This may remind some readers of Pastor John Robinson and the Pilgrims who left Leyden for the New World in the 17th century. But there is a greater scene to call to mind. As a teaching priest, Ezra is a type of the Messiah, and here is a glimpse in advance of what happens every Lord’s Day. The Lord Jesus Christ gathers his pilgrim people by the river that gladdens their hearts, praises God with them, prays for them and with them that nothing in this wilderness of a world may prevent any one of them from reaching the heavenly Zion.
From a Christian standpoint it has often been said that history is ‘His’ story. By his providence, God accomplishes salvation and works out his saving purpose in and through the web of times, places and people that make up human history. This is seen particularly in the New Testament Gospels which record that the eternal God himself stepped decisively into time and place in the person and work of his incarnate Son and in the history of the Christian church in the world as a consequence of that miraculous event. The book of the Acts of the Apostles is a paradigm of that continuing activity — divine and human, good and bad, divine and satanic. It is exactly the same in the Old Testament with regard to Israel, except that it is there recorded by way of anticipation of the coming Messiah and not consequence.
Old Testament History is therefore not a disparate or purposeless succession of events. It is the outworking of the covenant justice and mercy of God as he builds the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4, Issue 4.
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