The Old Testament is divided into five sections: the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the historical books (Joshua through Esther), the poetic books (Job through Song of Solomon), the Major Prophets (Isaiah through Daniel), and the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi). The Old Testament was written from approximately 1400 B.C. to approximately 400 B.C. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, with a few small sections written in Aramaic (essentially a variation of Hebrew).
The Old Testament deals primarily with the relationship between God and the nation of Israel. The Pentateuch deals with the creation of Israel and God establishing a covenant relationship with Israel. The historical books record Israel’s history, its victories and successes along with its defeats and failures. The poetic books give us a more intimate look at God’s relationship with Israel and His passion for Israel to worship and obey Him. The prophetic books are God’s call to Israel to repent from its idolatry and unfaithfulness and to return to a relationship of obedience and spiritual fidelity.
2. The Divisions of the Books of the Old Testament
a). The Pentateuch: 5 Books
Genesis ‘the Book of the Beginnings,’ is the introduction to the entire Bible, the foundation of all revealed truth. The book takes its name from the title given to it by the Septuagint (Greek) Version, derived from the heading of its ten parts he biblos geneseos (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11L10; 11:27; 25:19; 36:1; 37:2). The title of the book in the Hebrew is beeresit (‘In the beginning’).
In this book we read: First of all, the story of man (2:4-11:26) [His creation and Fall (2:4-3:24); his increasing numbers (4:1-6:8); the judgment of the Flood (6:9-9:29); the rise of nations (10:1-11:26). Second, the story of Abraham (11:27-23:20) [His entry into the promised land (11:27-14:24); the covenant and the promise (15:1-18:15); Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16-19:38); Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael (20:1-23:20). Third the story of Isaac (24:1-26:35); Fourth, the story of Jacob (27:1-36:43). Fifth, the story of Joseph (37:1-50:26).
The book of Genesis closes with the people of Israel already in Egypt. They were the elect family among all mankind for whom God purposed to display the mighty acts of redemption outlined in Exodus. Among this people the tribe of Judah has already emerged as of special significance (49:9-12).
2. Exodus: A Miraculous Escape
The word “exodus” means departure. In God's timing, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt marked the end of a period of oppression for Abraham's descendants (Genesis 15:13), and the beginning of the fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham that his descendants would not only live in the Promised Land, but would also multiply and become a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). The purpose of the book may be expressed as tracing the rapid growth of Jacob's descendants from Egypt to the establishment of the theocratic nation in their Promised Land.
3. Leviticus: Instruction for Holy Living.
Because the Israelites had been held captive in Egypt for 400 years, the concept of God had been distorted by the polytheistic, pagan Egyptians. The purpose of Leviticus is to provide instruction and laws to guide a sinful, yet redeemed people in their relationship with a holy God. There is an emphasis in Leviticus on the need for personal holiness in response to a holy God. Sin must be atoned for through the offering of proper sacrifices (chapters 8-10). Other topics covered in the book are diets (clean and unclean foods), childbirth, and diseases which are carefully regulated (chapters 11-15). Chapter 16 describes the Day of Atonement when an annual sacrifice is made for cumulative sin of the people. Furthermore, the people of God are to be circumspect in their personal, moral, and social living, in contrast to the then current practices of the heathen roundabout them (chapters 17-22).
4. Numbers: Failure in the Wilderness.
The message of the Book of Numbers, is universal and timeless. It reminds believers of the spiritual warfare in which they are engaged, for Numbers is the book of the service and walk of God's people. The Book of Numbers essentially bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law (Exodus and Leviticus) and preparing them to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy and Joshua).
Theme: The principle lesson of Numbers is that God’s people must walk by faith, trusting His promises, if they are to move forward. In reinforcing this theme, the book recounts the unbelief and discontent of the people in general (11:1) and of Miriam and Aaron (12:1), the refusal at Kadesh Barnea to enter the Promised Land (14:2), Moses’ own failure (20:12), and the idolatrous worship (25:3). Yet, in spite of repeated failure, the Israelites’ covenant-keeping God miraculously supported them during those years of rebellion and wandering and finally brought them to the Promised Land.
5. Deuteronomy: The re-giving of the Covenant
A new generation of Israelites was about to enter the Promised Land. This multitude had not experienced the miracle at the Red Sea or heard the law given at Sinai, and they were about to enter a new land with many dangers and temptations. The book of Deuteronomy was given to remind them of God’s law and God’s power.
b). The Historical Books: 12 Books
The Book of Joshua provides an overview of the military campaigns to conquer the land area that God had promised. Following the exodus from Egypt and the subsequent forty years of the wilderness wanderings, the newly-formed nation is now poised to enter the Promised Land, conquer the inhabitants, and occupy the territory. The overview that we have here gives abbreviated and selective details of many of the battles and the manner in which the land was not only conquered, but how it was divided into tribal areas.
The Book of Judges can be divided into two sections: 1) Chapters 1-16 which gives an account of the wars of deliverance beginning with the Israelites defeat of the Canaanites and ending with the defeat of the Philistines and the death of Samson; 2) chapters 17-21 which is referred to as an appendix and does not relate to the previous chapters. These chapters are noted as a time “when there was no king in Israel (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).” The Book of Ruth was originally a part of The Book of Judges, but in A.D. 450 it was removed to become a book of its own.
Purpose: Historically, the book serves to link the conquest of Palestine and the monarchy. Theologically, it provides many examples of the principle that obedience to the law brings peace, whereas disobedience means oppression and death. Spiritually, the faithfulness of God in forgiving His penitent people is seen even in this period when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).
The Book of Ruth was written to the Israelites. It teaches that genuine love at times may require uncompromising sacrifice. Regardless of our lot in life, we can live according to the precepts of God. Genuine love and kindness will be rewarded. God abundantly blesses those who seek to live obedient lives. Obedient living does not allow for "accidents" in God's plan. God extends mercy to the merciful.
The historical purpose of Ruth: It supplies an important link in the ancestry of King David and shows how the birth of David into the messianic and monarchical line was providentially guided by God. As such it indicates the divine origin of the Davidic dynasty.
4. 1 Samuel
Originally, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel were one book. The translators of the Septuagint separated them, and we have retained that separation ever since. The events of 1 Samuel span approximately 100 years, from c. 1100 B.C. to c. 1000 B.C. The events of 2 Samuel cover another 40 years. The date of writing, then, would be sometime after 960 B.C.
First Samuel records the history of Israel in the land of Canaan as they move from the rule of judges to being a unified nation under kings. Samuel emerges as the last judge, and he anoints the first two kings, Saul and David.
5. 2 Samuel
2 Samuel is the record of King David’s reign. This book places the Davidic Covenant in its historical context.
Key Verse: 2 Samuel 7:16 “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
6. 1 Kings
This book is the sequel to 1 and 2 Samuel and begins by tracing Solomon's rise to kingship after the death of David. The story begins with a united kingdom, but ends in a nation divided into 2 kingdoms, known as Judah and Israel. 1 and 2 Kings are combined into one book in the Hebrew Bible.
7. 2 Kings
The Book of 2 Kings is a sequel to the Book of 1 Kings. It continues the story of the kings over the divided kingdom (Israel and Judah.) The Book of 2 Kings concludes with the final overthrow and deportation of the people of Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon, respectively.
8. 1 Chronicles
The Books of 1 & 2 Chronicles cover mostly the same information as 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. 1 & 2 Chronicles focus more on the priestly aspect of the time period. The Book of 1 Chronicles was written after the exile to help those returning to Israel understand how to worship God. The history focused on the Southern Kingdom, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. These tribes tended to be more faithful to God.
9. 2 Chronicles
The Books of 1 & 2 Chronicles cover mostly the same information as 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. The Books of 1 & 2 Chronicles focus more on the priestly aspect of the time period. The Book of 2 Chronicles is essentially an evaluation of the nation's religious history.
The Book of Ezra is devoted to events occurring in the land of Israel at the time of the return from the Babylonian captivity and subsequent years, covering a period of approximately one century, beginning in 538 B.C. The emphasis in Ezra is on the rebuilding of the Temple. The book contains extensive genealogical records, principally for the purpose of establishing the claims to the priesthood on the part of the descendants of Aaron.
The Book of Nehemiah, one of the history books of the Bible, continues the story of Israel’s return from the Babylonian captivity and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and the walls.
12. Esther (Key verse 4:14)
The purpose of the Book of Esther is to display the providence of God, especially in regard to His chose people, Israel. The Book of Esther records the institution of the Feast of Purim (Esther 9:20-32; 2 Macc 15:36) and the obligation of its perpetual observation. The Book of Esther was read at the Feast of Purim to commemorate the great deliverance of the Jewish nation brought about by God through Esther. Jews today still read Esther during Purim.
c). The Poetic Books: 5 Books
1. Job: Why the Righteous Suffer?
It treats a perplexing, profound subject. Why do righteous people suffer? How can their sufferings be consonant with a holy, loving God? Job’s three friends offered essentially the same answer, ch. 3-31. Suffering, they intimated, is the out-come of sin. In desperation Job was driven to the dilemma that God must be dealing unfairly with him. However, he struggled with confidence that he would eventually be vindicated. At this point Elihu appeared and declared the truth that afflictions are often a means of purifying the righteous, the testings or chastening of a loving father, in no sense the vindictive anger of an implacable God, ch. 32-37. By God’s speech out of the whirlwind, ch. 38-41, Job was humbly led to detest himself in relation to the divine majesty of God, 42:1-6. His self-renunciation and spiritual refining were the entrée to his restoration and blessing, 42:7-17).
The Hebrew title for the Psalter is ‘Book of Praises’ (seper Tehillim). The Psalter was the hymnal of the Jewish people and is the prayer and praise manuel of the Christian church. Martin Luther called the Psalter ‘a Bible in miniature.’
Themes of the Psalms:
1. The spiritual conflicts and triumphs of saints under the old dispensation constitute the basic theme, but these reflect the conflicts of God’s people in every age.
2. Great prophetic themes run through the book, as NT quotations prove. These are: (a) The far-reaching predictions concerning Messiah (cf. LK 24:44), including His first advent in humiliation; His death, resurrection and exaltation; and His second advent in glory and triumph, Ps 2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 69, 72, 89, 110, 118, 132. (b) sorrows, trials and sufferings of a godly portion of Israel in the nation’s coming time of trouble eventuating in deliverance, restoration and glory, Ps 52, 58, 59, 69, 109, 140. (c) Future glories for redeemed Israel, the earth and all creation, Ps 72, 110).
Theme: Compendium [account] of moral and spiritual instruction.
Though the theme running throughout the book is wisdom for living, the specific teachings include instruction on folly, sin, goodness, wealth, poverty, the tongue, pride, humility, justice, vengeance, strife, gluttony, love, lust, laziness, friends, the family life, and death. Almost every facet of human relationships is mentioned, and the teaching of the book is applicable to all people everywhere.
Theme: The supreme emptiness of godless living.
The message of the book may be stated in the form of three propositions: (1) when you look at life with its seemingly aimless cycles (1:4ff.) and inexplicable paradoxes (4:1; 7:15; 8:8), you might conclude that all is futile, since it is impossible to discern any purpose in the ordering of events; (2) nevertheless, life is to be enjoyed to the fullest, realizing that it is the gift of God (3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9); (3) the wise man will live his life in obedience to God, recognizing that God will eventually judge all men (3:16-17; 12:14).
5. Song of Solomon:
Theme: Sanctity of wedded love.
In a general sense the purpose of this book is to honor marriage and the joys of wedded love. The key word is ‘lover’ (32 times), and the theme is the love of the bridegroom for the bride.
The Song of Solomon traditionally, has been interpreted as a poem set with two characters, the Shulammite maiden and the beloved (Solomon).
The background of the story is best explained as H.A. Ironside’s present it. King Solomon had a vineyard in the hill country of Ephraim, about 50 miles N of Jerusalem, (8:11). He let it out to keepers, (8:11), consisting of a mother, two sons, (8:16), and two daughters – the Shulammite (6:13), and a little sister (8:8). The Shulammite was ‘the Cinderella’ of the family (8:15), naturally beautiful but unnoticed. Her brothers were likely half brothers (8:16). They made her work very hard tending the vineyards, so that she had little opportunity to care for her personal appearance (8:16). She pruned the vines and set traps for the little foxes (2:15). She also kept the flocks (2:18). Being out in the open so much, she became sunburned (1:5).
One day a handsome stranger came to the vineyard. It was Solomon disguised. He showed an interest in her, and she became embarrassed concerning her personal appearance (1:6). She took him for a shepherd and asked about his flocks (1:7). He answered evasively (1:8), but also spoke loving words to her (1:8-10), and promised rich gifts for the future (1:11). He won her heart and left with the promise that some day he would return. She dreamed of him at night and sometimes thought he was near (3:1). Finally he did return in all his kingly splendor to make her his bride (3:6-7). This prefigures Christ, who came first a Shepherd and won His Bride. Later He will return as King, and then will be consummated the marriage of the Lamb.
d). The Prophets: 17 Books
1). The Major Prophets: 5 Books
1. Isaiah: “Jehovah has saved”.
Theme: Prophecy of the coming Saviour and Israel’s king.”
Isaiah has often been called “the evangelical prophet” because he says so much about the redemptive work of Messiah. More about the person and work of Christ is found here than in any other book of the OT. Consequently there are many important and favorite passages in the book, some of which are 1:18; 2:4; 6:3, 8; 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:9; 26:3; 35:1; 40:3; 48:16; chap. 53; 55:1; 57:15; 59:1; 61:1-3.
2. Jeremiah: “whom Jehovah has appointed”.
Theme: Death of a corrupt (depraved) nation.
The message of Jeremiah was principally a message of stern warning against the inevitable doom of the Babylonian Captivity (25:1-14), if the people did not repent of idolatry and sin. The menacing gloom of an iconoclastic message (1:10) was highlighted, however, by bright messianic flashes (23:5-8; 30:4-11; 31:31-34; 33:15-18). Final restoration of Israel was to be accomplished after a period of unparalleled suffering (30:10), through the manifestation of David’s righteous Branch, the Lord (23:6; 33:15).
Theme: Lament over Jerusalem’s desolation.
‘The Lord is afflicted when His people die (Ex 3;7), He suffers when they suffer,’ is the theme of this book. It is because of his loving-kindness that His own are not ‘consumed’ (3:22-23).
4. Ezekiel: “God strengthens”.
Theme: Divine Punishment and Restoration.
While Jeremiah in Palestine was prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel, his younger contemporary in Babylon, was declaring the same fate for the apostate city (ch. 1-24). Unlike Jeremiah, however, Ezekiel, ministering prophetically to the exiles, had a large note of consolation in his messages. He showed his suffering colleagues that the Lord was justified in sending His people into captivity (cf. 18:25, 29; 33:17, 20). His ministry centered in showing the preventive and corrective nature of God’s chastening that His people might ‘know that I am the Lord’ (an expression occurring more than 30 times in the book, form 6:7 to 39:28). To this end Ezekiel showed that the Lord’s people had been at fault, not the Lord (18:25). The Lord would punish the nations jubilant over Israel’s fall (ch. 25:32), and eventually restore Israel to kingdom blessing.
5. Daniel: “God is my judge.”
Theme: God’s Sovereign Control over the Nations and in the Restoration of His Kingdom (cf. 2:46-47; 3:28-29; 4:34-35; 6:21-22; 7:13-14, 27).
Daniel was a princely extraction (1:3), a circumstance itself remarkably foretold by Isaiah (Isa 39:7; cf. 2 Kgs 20:18). He was contemporaneous with Jeremiah, Ezekiel a fellow exile (Ezk 14:20), and Joshua and Zerubbabel of the restoration. His long career extended from Nebuchadnezzar (605 B.C.) to Cyrus (530 B.C.).
The book is the key to all biblical prophecy. Apart from an understanding of the great eschatological disclosures of this book, the entire prophetic program of the Word of God remains sealed.
2). The Minor Prophets: 12 Books
1. Hosea: “salvation.”
Theme: The love of God for His erring people.”
Hosea began his ministry toward the latter part of the prosperous and morally declining era of Jeroboam II of Israel (782-753 B.C.) and continued on after the fall of Samaria (722 B.C.) into the troubled reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (1:1). His ministry followed closely upon that of Amos. The latter thundered forth his scathing prophecies as a southerner to a prosperous, dissolute Israel, while Hosea spoke with the heart passion of a native son.
2. Joel: “Yahweh is God.”
Theme: The great day of the Lord.
Joel wrote during the days of young king Joash (835-796 B.C.), who was under the regency of priests when he ascended the throne of Judah at the age of seven (2 Kings 11:21).
The Day of the Lord, the major theme of this prophecy, involves God’s special intervention in the affairs of human history.
3. Amos: “burden”.
Theme: Impending Judgment.
Amos’ ministry occurred in the latter part of the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.) when this prosperous and idolatrous sovereign ruled contemporaneously with Azariah (Uzziah) of Judah (792-740 B.C.). Therefore 765-750 B.C. would be approximately the time of Amos. It was an age of economic prosperity with luxurious living, moral corruption and extensive idolatry. Amos directed his fiery public speeches against these sins.
Amos was a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamore fruit (7:14) from Tekoa, a hill country town about 10 miles S of Jerusalem. He was called to be prophet to the whole house of Jacob (3:1, 13) but chiefly to the northern kingdom (7:14-15) at the main sanctuary at Bethel (7:10). He met the opposition of the high priest Amaziah, who reported the fearless preacher to jeroboam II. Amos doubtless reduced his prophecies to writing shortly after his return to Tekoa.
4. Obadiah: “The servant of the Lord.”
Theme: God’s retributive justice.
This is the shortest prophecy and the smallest book of the OT. Its author was Obadiah, whose name means ‘the servant of the Lord.’ The prophecy is wholly taken up with the condemnation of Edom for its treachery toward Judah, with a prophecy of its utter destruction and Judah’s salvation in the Day of the Lord.
5. Jonah: “dove.”
Theme: Israel’s mission to the nations.
Jonah’s ministry shortly preceded that of Amos under Jeroboam II (782-753 B.C.) and predicted victory over the Syrians and the largest extension of Israelite border control (2 Kgs 14:25).
The book is more than biographical history. It is predictive typical history, written by a prophet and possessing a prophetic motif. As such it prefigures Christ as the Sent One, suffering death, being buried, and after being raised, ministering salvation to the Gentiles (Mt 12:39-41; Lk 11:29-32).
6. Micah: “who is like God.”
Theme: Personal and social righteousness.
Micah’s prophecy is a beautiful and moving example of classical Hebrews poetry. Like his contemporary, Isaiah, Micah possessed great literary power. While Isaiah was a court poet, Micah was a rustic from an obscure village. Isaiah was a statesman; Micah, an evangelist and social reformer. Isaiah was a voice to kings; Micah, a herald for God to common people. Isaiah addressed himself to political questions; Micah dealt almost entirely with personal religion and social morality.
7. Nahum: “comfort”
Theme: God’s holiness vindicated in Judgment.
The prophet has one theme, judgment upon Nineveh, the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, and hence on Assyria, the ‘giant among the Semites.’ Its tyrannical cruelty scourged the ancient world periodically from 850 B.C. Nahum’s ministry was exercised between the conquest of No-amon (Thebes) in Egypt (3:8) in 661 B.C. and Nineveh’s fall in 612 B.C. The book is a classic of Hebrew poetry, exceedingly fine and vivid in its descriptions. Critical attempts to deny part of the poem to Nahum have not been very successful.
8. Habakkuk: “embrace.”
Theme: The just shall live by faith.
Habakkuk the prophet may lived in the period of the rise of the neo-Babylonian empire (c. 625 B.C.), for the Chaldean invasion of Judah was threatening (1”5-6) and the iniquity of Judah was mounting. Habakkuk’s theme centers in the theological question of how God’s patience with evil can square with His holiness. The answer the prophet received is valid for all time. A sovereign God has the unquestionable right of dealing with the wicked in His own time and way. ‘But the righteous will live by his faith’ (2:4).
9. Zephaniah: “Jehovah has treasured”.
Theme: A warning of judgment
Zephaniah, a contemporary of Jeremiah, exercised his ministry during the reign of Josiah (641-609 B.C.). He was doubtless instrumental in Josiah’s revival (2 Kgs 22-23; 2 Chr 34-35), but the spiritual movement proved superficial considering the impending captivity (cf. Jer 2:11-13). Zephaniah had access to the royal court and had an influence on King Josiah’s policies.
10. Haggai: “festive”- first prophet to prophecy after the captivity.
Theme: Call to complete the unfinished temple.
Cyrus’ decree (538 B.C.) permitted the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple at Jerusalem (Ezr 1:1-4). The monuments give clear evidence of this Nobel spirit of Cyrus. The remnant laid the foundation (Ezr 3:1-3, 8-10), but from c. 535 B.C. to 520 B.C. failed to go on to complete the construction. Through Haggai’s and Zechariah’s combined ministry (520 B.C.), the temple was completed (520-515 B.C.). The circumstances of the construction of the temple gave rise to panoramic messianic predictions by the two prophets, especially Zechariah.
11. Zechariah: “Jehovah remembers”
Theme: Israel, the nation God remembers
This book is unique in its messianic emphasis among the Minor Prophets and in its unfolding of events connected with the first and second advents of Christ. It has been called the most messianic, the most truly apocalyptic and eschatological of all the writings of the OT. These predictions include: the Lord’s Servant, the Branch (3:8); the Man, the Branch (6:13); the True Shepherd (11;4-11); the True Shepherd vs. the false shepherd – the Antichrist (11:15-17; 13:7); the betrayal of the Good Shepherd (11:12-13); His crucifixion (12:10); His sufferings (13:7); His second advent in glory (14:4).
12. Malachi: meaning “My messenger” (cf. 3:1)
Theme: The Lord’s love for His sinning people.
Malachi came later than Haggai and Zechariah. The temple had long ago been completed and the priesthood and worship had been in operation for a number of years. A date about 433-425 B.C. is perhaps not far afield.
Malachi is the last prophetic voice of the OT rings out over the years intervening till the coming of the forerunner, John the Baptist, and the King at His first advent. But Malachi’s prophetic emphasis is on the Day of the Lord with its judgment of the wicked and the deliverance of a righteous remnant. These vast themes connect Malachi with the great stream of Hebrew prophecy. His immediate message deals with the sins of the priests and the people of his day. These sins form the background for his prophecies of judgment certain to fall in the future.