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Occasional Letters: Handling History

D Newell, Glasgow

When I was engaged in what was euphemistically termed 'gainful employment', I always found it difficult to interest my students in Shakespeare's history plays. They dutifully chuckled at the comedies and wept over the tragedies, but tended (alas) to sleep through the histories. I suppose they had the common preconception that history is dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us who are reading systematically through the Bible eventually stumble on the historical record of Israel's monarchy. The 500-year period from Saul to Zedekiah is packed with stirring stories (who can fail to be moved by David's trials and triumphs, or the great, if brief, revivals under Hezekiah and Josiah?), but its present-day relevance is not always immediately obvious. A while ago a friend asked for some guidance on how to approach such books, with a view to teaching them in an assembly ministry meeting. I drafted some very rough notes which may be of interest to others facing the challenge of mining spiritual applications from historical narrative. The book in question was 1 Chronicles, but the general principles apply to everything from 1 Samuel to Nehemiah. My jottings are neither exhaustive nor prescriptive, but merely suggestive.

Two verses from Paul form an essential starting point. Here's the first: "Now these things happened unto them by way of example; and they were written for our admonition" (1 Cor 10.11, RV1). The key word is "happened"; we are not reading mythology or legend but sober, trustworthy history. Here's the second: "as many things as have been written before have been written for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom 15.4, JND2). The vital words here are "instruction … endurance … encouragement … hope", which outline the hearteningly practical benefits of studying the infallible record of Israel's past.


The first thing to do is to place the book in its Biblical setting to see its precise location in the flow of divine history. The establishment of the Davidic monarchy is a critical moment in God's dealings with the elect nation of Israel, and with mankind as a whole (the extensive 1 Chronicles genealogy from Adam proves that), looking onward to the coming of Messiah. 1 Chronicles cannot properly be understood until we see how the earlier part of the Old Testament, recording Israel's calling and predicted Kingdom, leads up to it.


Since our God is orderly both in the world He made and the Word He wrote, it is always worth charting a book's architectural design according to its main aims, the organisation of its material, and the presence of literary patterns. 1 Kings, for example, divides neatly into two halves; the first recording the history of Solomon's united kingdom, a period of tranquillity (chapters 1-11), and the second the splintered kingdom (chapters 12-22), an era of turmoil. I find Jensen's Old Testament Survey a good starting point for structural ideas.


Old Testament historical narrative is generally expressed in Hebrew prose but, like the Gospels, incorporates other modes of writing (genealogy, poetry, architectural plans, dialogue, letters, predictive prophecy, prayer). List how many genres and their functions you can detect in the book. Remember that prose narrative moves in broad paragraph rather than single verse units. Treating 1 Chronicles like one of Paul's doctrinal epistles, to be analysed laboriously word by word, will only lead to disappointment.


Israel's national history, as documented in Scripture, focuses on particular individuals, just as God's programme for the universe centres on the Person of Christ. As well as kings, the history books include significant prophets, priests, Levites, and warriors. In 1 Chronicles the key people are Saul (if only in passing), David, and Solomon. The key places to note are Jerusalem (God's chosen city, eventually to become the centre of the future Millennial administration) and the Temple (built by David's son in 2 Chronicles). The key principle is Jehovah's gracious covenant with David and his descendants, summarised in 1 Chronicles 17.11-14. The key person, of course, is Jehovah Himself, the God whose promises cannot fail, however much His people may.


Sorting out the basic sense of the Biblical text involves hard work. With the help of good, literal translations and non-devotional expositions it is possible to uncover the plain meaning of the words on the page. I have found the following aids useful:

     • Young's Literal Translation (included in e-Sword).

     • RV, ASV3, JND, ESV4 (all included in e-Sword).

     • Edersheim's Old Testament History (and his other excellent studies of Jewish background).

     • Keil and Delitzsch Old Testament commentaries (included in e-Sword).

     • The Bible Knowledge Commentary (reliable exegesis by Dallas Theological Seminary professors).

     • Thomas Constable's online commentaries (http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm).

     • Introductory material in some Study Bibles (Scofield, MacArthur, Ryrie, Nelson's NKJV5).

     • Compact commentaries by Dale Ralph Davis (unobtrusively amillennial, but highly readable in his explanation of the text and its practical applications), and Cyril Barber.

Contrasts and Comparisons

Like the Gospels, Old Testament historical books often repeat material with subtle variations of emphasis and detail. It is therefore fascinating to compare 1 Chronicles with (for example) the genealogies in Genesis, or the equivalent narratives from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. The chronicler, for instance, suppresses the record of David's sin with Bathsheba (compare 2 Samuel 11 and 1 Chronicles 20). It is useful to ask "Why?" Another fruitful line of exploration is to link up moments in David's life with the individual Psalms they inspired.

Curriculum for Teaching

The following areas are a rich source of spiritual instruction:

     • Biblical biography (Saul, David, Solomon) – always full of practical lessons, which may often be viewed as pictorial examples of New Testament truths.

     • Moral principles of God's ways with His people (discipline) and His enemies (destruction).

     • The crucial importance of God's house and the worship associated with it may be used to illustrate some of the features of the New Testament local church, which constitutes God's house today (1 Tim 3.15).

     • The centrality of the Davidic covenant in relation to other Old Testament covenants and Israel's future.

     • Foreviews of a coming glorious Kingdom for Israel (to be fulfilled in the Millennium).

     • Foreviews of the promised Messiah in His ancestors David and Solomon (remembering that these fall far short of the reality in Christ).

When reading a Bible passage I find it useful to ask three questions:

     • What is on the page? - Observation (getting the historical and literary data correct).

     • What does it mean? - Interpretation (the face-value significance as far as the original readers were concerned).

     • What is its practical value for believers today? - Application (how the above may be legitimately related to Christians).

This last can be the most difficult. We have to bear in mind dispensational differences (we are not under Old Testament law) and national distinctions (we are not Israelites). The prime value of the history books is to explicate God's past dealings with Israel (history), to anticipate aspects of His future programme (prophecy), and to illustrate His general ways with men (morality). Concentrating on moral and spiritual principles avoids the pitfalls associated with fanciful allegorical exegesis. Lessons should be clearly drawn out from the text, to which the congregation should constantly be pointed, so that they can check it out for themselves both on the spot and when they get home. All instructors should constantly bear in mind the principle of Acts 17.11; what the teacher says must be testable.

The end product of all this hard work will be the pleasing, but not unexpected, discovery that Scriptural history – unlike Shakespeare – is able to keep us spiritually awake, and make us better equipped to live for God.

1 Revised Version.

2 J N Darby, The Holy Scriptures - A New Translation from the Original Languages.

3 American Standard Version.

4 English Standard Version.

5 New King James Version.


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