A common dismissal that even makes it into “The Simpson’s”. And it’s true. The Bible does cover a lot of ground and seems say some very contradictory things. How do we handle that?
I have been reading Psalms as part of my “Philippian Jailer” project. That is reading the OT, (the only scriptures available at the time) as if I were the Greek convert of Acts 16… with little Old Testament background and no access to the explanations of the not-yet-existent New Testament. The big questions my imaginary self is asking of the Old are,
“Who is this new God I’m following… what is he like… and what does he require of me?”
It is equally illuminating and disturbing. Illuminating because I am looking at God afresh, the “Jailer” persona allowing me to use new eyes, from a new angle, seeing things I’ve missed … disturbing as my biases are exposed. Reading the Old Testament through the grid of my 20th/21st century American evangelical lens blinds me to things that don’t fit my theology. I read and ignore, passively ingesting passages that my jailer friend may have at least interacted with. I am as much a slave to my historical/cultural context as any first century pagan. But…
There’s always a “but”…
A remarkable number of these Hebrew poems, include sentiments like,
“The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” Ps 58:10
‘Not very Christian, not very humble really. Not very Jesus-like at all. In fact the complete opposite of,
“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matt 5:43
Even Psalm 139, where we New Testament types find the sanctity of life and so much more to identify with, concludes with,
“O that you would kill the wicked, O God… I hate them with a perfect hatred. I count them my enemies.” Ps 139:19-22
Followed immediately by the jaw dropping,
“Search me O God, and know my heart, test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me.”
Are you kidding? I am terrified to pray that last one, especially after asking God to kill someone! Actually, it doesn’t take a ton of self awareness to be wary of saying something like that. And I’m pretty sure praying for someone to die is bad, so what do I do with the Old Testament? Reading the Psalms makes me wonder if a more distant perspective or developed theology isn’t what’s called for. I need to guard against absorbing part of world views that no longer apply or that at least need a new target. There are a couple of strategies.
The first is very common… a surface approach. Skip along across the waves and dive in only when forced by gravity or the sudden appearance of a verse we saw on a poster. This exposure without reflection allows common beliefs, right or wrong, to remain unchallenged. It also misses some gems buried deep in the text.
A second is to take everything personally. This is hardly better. The motive may be fidelity to God and the scriptures, but like the pharisees, with a “zeal not based on knowledge.” (Rom 10:1) Some of that OT discipline’s kinda harsh. If that was all we needed God would have stopped there.
A third is to read the Old Testament in its own cultural/historical/theological context and also in light of the change vectors of the New. This is where I start to sound like my Dispensational past. It is a new era… a new time, different from the past. Not all of this applies to me exactly, or if it does, at least not in the same way. I can, I should hate sin, but I start with mine… and when the logs in my own eyes have been cleared I can start worrying about yours. Realistically, if I start with my sins, the odds are I won’t get around to yours for a while… or ever.
David understood God could forgive, but he didn’t understand the Cross. He believed a son of his would sit on an eternal throne, but he didn’t grasp that He would also be God-the-Son. David said things I shouldn’t say, especially if I feel them. I love reading the Old Testament, but I need to see it through Jesus’ eyes… and that changes everything.