Making Sense of the Old Testament | A Book Review

I recently finished reading Tremper Longman’s “Making Sense of the Old Testament.” I recommend it to any Christian who feels unfamiliar with and distant from the Old Testament. This book is accessible to any adult reader and helpful for any Christian who wants to begin discovering the riches found only in the Old Testament.

Introduction

Making Sense of the Old Testament” is a great introduction to the Old Testament generally and a wonderful guide to equip modern readers for entry into the foreign landscape so characteristic of the Old Testament. The author keeps a fast pace and covers quite a lot of content in an effort to raise the reader’s gratitude for and acquaintance with the Old Testament. Longman states his these in the preface, “My argument in this volume is that it is vitally important for us to work at our appreciation and understanding of the Old Testament” (11).

Summary

Below I have provided a brief summary and overview of the book. It is broken down into three sections, each with its own contribution to author’s overall stated task.

Section One

Opening with several reasons the Old Testament is really quite attractive to Bible students who spend much time and effort there, Longman paints with broad strokes to begin forming a picture that will entice the reader rather than repel him. He says the Old Testament is full of “gripping stories,” “heart-wrenching poems,” “images of God,” “and guidance for life” (13-17). One of the most important and appealing attributes, among those Longman lists, is that of providing background to the New Testament (17).

Quickly after this inviting depiction, Longman admits and points out a few difficulties that the reader is bound to face when he begins his journey through the Old Testament text. It is long and diverse, it is very old (no pun intended), and it is culturally alien to most any modern reader (18-21). Indeed, these do inhibit an easy immersion, but these may also add to the joy of discovery. As Longman mentioned the last of his distancing difficulties, he gets to the heart of the matter when he says that many readers simply do not know what to think about the time in redemptive history that predates the Cross of Christ (22).

His book is intended to stimulate (not discourage) Old Testament readership, so the author spends the remainder of the book attempting to equip and encourage the reader for the task. Longman notes nine principles for proper biblical interpretation to help the reader navigate his way across this unfamiliar terrain: discover the author’s intended meaning; read Scripture in its context; identify the genre of the book and the passage; consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible; consider the grammar and structure within the passage; interpret experience in light of Scripture, not Scripture in light of experience; always seek the full counsel of Scripture; discover how the Scripture passage presents Christ; and be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations (23-54).

Section Two

The next two sections deal with the matter of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Any reader of the Bible will inevitably have to come to some perspective on this issue. The second section of Longman’s work focuses primarily upon the continuity of divine character and work. In fact, it is the very nature of God as “Yahweh” that unifies both Testaments under one theme. Longman said that he does not allow any single theme to “totally subsume” the Bible, but he then went on to explain that God as covenantal self-revealer is just that kind of singularly unifying theme. Longman says, “I do not believe the Bible can be totally subsumed under any single theme… However, there is a unifying theme, and that is God himself. To the question ‘What is the Bible about?’ the obvious answer is that the Bible is about God” (59).

Further explaining the reality that God communicates through the use of concrete images and metaphors, Longman then went on to introduce the reader to some of the more prominent metaphors in Scripture. God is “Covenant King” (59-71), “Divine Warrior” (71-85), and “Immanuel” (86-102). Each of these are powerful and profound depictions of God’s character and nature, and each reveals God in real time and in real relationship with humanity. Furthermore, each of these are metaphors that God uses to reveal Himself in both the Old and New Testaments. This denotes significant continuity.

Section Three

The last section continues to address the continuity and discontinuity between the two Testaments, but here the author also attempts to tackle a particular difficulty. Most New Testament Christians (to say nothing of modern unbelievers) will likely have a very tough time saying anything consistent about the law of God in the Old and New Testaments. The author presents the spectrum of ideas from within the Christian community in the form of two polar opposites – C. I. Scofield and Rouses Rushdoony. Longman quotes Scofield (a dispensationalist), who wrote,

“The most obvious and striking division of the word of truth is that between Law and Grace. Indeed, these contrasting principles characterize the two most important dispensations—Jewish and Christian… Scripture never, in any dispensation, mingles these two principles” (p. 105).

On the other end of the spectrum, Longman describes the theonomist position (of which Rushdoony was a proponent). Longman said that those who hold the theonomic view “argue that the Old Testament laws and penalties are still in effect today” (105). As was mentioned, each of these views oppose each another, but the author’s point was to draw a stark contrast in order to provide a third option.

Dividing the law of God into three categories (moral, civil, and ceremonial), Longman went on to skim the surface of how modern Christians might understand these laws and apply the Old Testament generally to life today. The Old Testament exposes the reader to him or herself as the characters of the narrative illustrate real thoughts, words, and deeds. In these historical accounts, the reader may gain insight and learn lessons. In the poetic portions of Scripture, the reader may let his or her soul run free among the sweeping emotional highs and lows found there. In the wisdom literature, the reader may understand precepts for living life well before God; and in the prophetic portions, the reader may heed the warnings and cling to the hopeful promises.

Marc’s Review

This book was accessible, helpful, and full of good reasons for the reader to take up and read the Old Testament. In my estimation, Longman achieved his goal of making a case for working at an appreciation and understanding of the Old Testament. It will certainly take work, but the author has argued well that the effort is well worth it.

The great benefits of this book are many, but the introduction to some critical Scriptural concepts was fantastic. Continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments, God as Covenant King and Divine Warrior, God’s presence among humanity, Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament types, and the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law were all essential concepts that the Bible student will have to address if he or she is to progress in understanding the biblical text. Longman’s book does a great job of providing an introduction to these concepts and others.

Additionally, the nine interpretive principles will be a marvelous help to any new Bible reader. The average Christian does not need to know what “Biblical Hermeneutics” means, but he or she needs to have them when interpretative work is being done. Longman’s principles serve as exactly that, and even the most elementary of readers can pick up and use these simple principles.

Still more impressive about Longman’s book was the accessibility of it. As a pastor, I have been discouraged to learn just how infrequent many Christians read anything of real value. The likelihood that many Christians will read a book on biblical interpretation and understanding is slim (at best), and that statistic only goes down if the book they open is slow or difficult to follow. This work was very fast-paced. There were several times I was forced to move on to the next topic before I was completely satisfied with Longman’s address of the previous one. However, the average reader will likely appreciate the quick bursts and introductory-level content.

Conclusion

I am glad to have read this book, and glad to review it. It has been a fresh reminder of many wonderful and challenging things. I will recommend this book to those in my congregation (as well as other Christians) who are interested in reading the Old Testament with greater understanding and higher appreciation. In this book, Longman has succeeded in helping his readers make sense of the Old Testament.

 

Longman, Tremper, III. Making Sense of the Old Testament: 3 Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

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