Tag Archives: Douglas Stuart

Tools for Reading Old Testament Stories Well

(Old Facebook Post – Lightly Edited)

Old Testament stories can be confusing. What do they mean? What are they intended to teach us? How can we read them in a way that helps us hear the messages that God designed for us to hear?

In this post I’ll share two tools that can help us read OT stories well:

  1. A multi-purpose tool: Read each story on three levels.
  2. A more specialized tool: Distinguish between prophecy and typology.

I’ll illustrate these tools by discussing a couple stories from 2 Samuel—especially 1 Samuel 7, which tells the story of God promising David a “house.” (By the way, this chapter is so important that you should memorize the reference. Use the alliteration to help you: “Second Samuel Seven.”)

READING OLD TESTAMENT STORIES ON 3 LEVELS

feestuartIn Fee and Stuart’s book on biblical interpretation, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, they distinguish three different levels of Old Testament narrative (historical story). When interpreting any one passage, you can (and, if possible, should) consider all three levels at which the narrative functions. What are the three levels?

First, there is Level 1—the over-arching narrative of the Bible’s big story of how God is sending a Redeemer to rescue a people from sin and for himself. Second, there is Level 2—the individual books of Scripture, or perhaps major “cycles” within books. For example, 1 Samuel contains a series of stories (one “cycle”) featuring Samuel, a series of stories featuring Samuel and Saul, and then a series of stories featuring Saul and David. Third, there is Level 3—the individual stories, such as last week’s story about David bringing the ark into Jerusalem. (I’m paraphrasing Fee and Stuart’s terminology. I also would add that one could suggest more than three levels, but let’s keep it simple.)

Fee and Stuart emphasize that each individual story plays a role at all three levels. Not all stories function equally clearly at all levels, but all are connected somehow. We should consider all three levels when trying to interpret Old Testament stories.

For example, when we read the story of David bringing the ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) we often focus on Level 3—on what we can learn from the story itself. So we often discuss what we can learn about how we should act in the presence of a holy God. If we focus on level 2, we might notice how this story is part of a series of stories from 2 Samuel 1-6. This series of stories describes how David’s reign was firmly established, beginning with Saul’s death and ending with David reigning from his newly-conquered city Jerusalem—reigning in the presence of Israel’s true King, God himself. We might also notice how the episode in chapter 6 about Michel serves to eliminate Saul’s line from the throne forever, preventing the mingling of David’s and Saul’s dynasties. And if we focus on Level 1? I would have to think about that for a while. Perhaps on that level chapter 6 says something about how the priestly and kingly roles were starting to be united—a unity that would find its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

All the above is preamble for my comments about 2 Samuel 7. This chapter, unlike chapter 6, very obviously has great significance at Level 1. God’s promise to David that he (God) would build him a “house” (a dynasty) is interpreted by the rest of Scripture to find its ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, Jesus. So I’ll limit my comments here to Level 1 interpretation, even though this story also works (and suggests applications for faith and practice) at the other two levels.

PROPHECY AND TYPOLOGY

So here is my question: Is God’s promise to David a prophecy of Jesus? I’m thinking specifically of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (ESV):

12 “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”

When you start reading at verse 12, it indeed sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. You continue on through verses 13 and into 14, and it still sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. Especially when you read this: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” God only has one Son, right?

And then you hit 14b: “When he commits iniquity…” Wait a minute! The Messiah won’t sin! Suddenly we’re faced with the fact that this can’t be a direct prophecy about Jesus, but only a direct prophecy about Solomon.

Indeed, in the ancient world (both pagan and Israelite), it was common to think of the king as being a “son” of the gods/God. Being a son meant that you represented and mediated the authority of your “father.” So we should not be shocked to read that God calls Solomon his “son.”

So, if this is not a direct prophecy about Jesus, what is it? I would say, instead, that it is typology. It is prophecy about Solomon, and Solomon was a type of Jesus. Actually, there is some prophecy here that points directly to Christ, but let’s first define our terms.

Prophecy is easy: it is direct prediction. Often this is the only category we think of when we think of how the OT points to Christ. We find individual predictions (a king riding on a donkey, a king born in Bethlehem) and note their explicit fulfillment in the life of Jesus.

franceTypology is a little harder. Here I’ll rely on a favorite author, R.T. France. In his classic book Jesus and the Old Testament he distinguishes typology from both prediction and allegory. I’ll omit the discussion of allegory to keep it simple:

A type… represents a pattern of the dealings of God with men that is followed in the antitype, when, in the coming of Jesus Christ and the setting up of His kingdom, those dealings of God are repeated, though with a fulness and finality that they did not exhibit before… A type is not a prediction; in itself it is simply a person, event, etc. recorded as historical fact, with no intrinsic reference to the future. Nor is the antitype the fulfilment of a prediction; it is rather the re-embodiment of a principle which has been previously exemplified in the type. A prediction looks forward to, and demands, an event which is to be its fulfilment; typology, however, consists essentially in looking back and discerning previous examples of a pattern now reaching its culmination…. The idea of fulfilment inherent in New Testament typology derives not from a belief that the events so understood were explicitly predicted, but from the conviction that in the coming and work of Jesus the principles of God’s working, already imperfectly embodied in the Old Testament, were more perfectly em-bodied, and thus brought to completion. In that sense, the Old Testament history [all of it, not just isolated prophetic predictions!] pointed forward to Jesus.” [emphasis added]

Whew! Are you still with me?

To summarize: Prophecy directly predicts, but typology sets a pattern that only later is seen as being more perfectly fulfilled (or “filled full”) in Christ.

So, which do we have in 2 Samuel 6? Clearly, both. Again, I would say that we have prophecy about Solomon, and, from the perspective of the NT, we can now see that Solomon was a type of Christ. Solomon was a king of peace; Christ is the King of peace. Solomon’s throne was established; Jesus’ throne is established. Most directly for our text: Solomon built a temple; Christ is building the true temple where God will forever dwell—the gathered people of God.

Distinguishing between prophecy and typology helps me to understand how to read this chapter. Clearly, it points to Christ. Equally clearly, it is not all direct prophecy about him. But that doesn’t matter; it still points to him. Solomon was Israel’s grandest king. But he still sinned, as predicted in this chapter. A greater-than-Solomon (sound familiar? see Matt 12:42) was coming in Christ. He fulfilled God’s promise to build David a dynasty better than Solomon ever did. And we can be part of his kingdom!

Finally, I promised I’d explain how this passage does also directly prophecy of Christ. I think it does this when God says “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” Solomon did not live “forever.” And, although this prophecy could have initially been understood as referring to David’s later kingly descendants, later history has proven that David’s merely earthly descendants have not always been established on a throne. Only in Christ has David’s throne been established forever.

(It might be observed that the Hebrew word translated “forever” in the OT does not always literally mean “forever.” In some cases it apparently means ” a very long time.” But “forever” might be the best translation here, given what I’m about to observe next.)

Most amazingly, David seemed to understand something of this prophesy about Christ! In Acts 2:31 Peter says that the “prophet” David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ” based on the promise given here in 2 Samuel 7! If that intrigues you, here’s some further reading: Ponder Acts 2:25-36, then go back to Psalms 16 (vv. 8-11) and 110. It’s amazing what David understood.

And it’s amazing how the story of 2 Samuel 7 (when interpreted at Level 1) is our story! Truly, “O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true” (2 Sam 7:28).


These tools have helped me to read Old Testament stories more productively. Hopefully they will help you, too. Do you have other tools that help you make proper sense of Old Testament stories? Please share them in the comments below.


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What’s this bit about “sinful nature”?

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Two questions:

  • Does a Christian still have a sinful nature?
  • Did Adam’s sin cause everyone to be born with a sinful nature?

A definition: I’m understanding sinful nature to mean: an inner identity that naturally tends toward sin.

To supplement my original questions:

  • Is it correct to consider Adam our federal head–that he is our representative and, since he as our representative died, we also died “in” him? (Similar to how we say Christ is our representative and that we participated in his death and resurrection.)
  • If so, are we being punished for Adam’s sin? Or are we only judged for our own sins (into which we have been led, thanks to Adam’s influence)?
  • Would it be more accurate to say (with Rom. 5) that Adam’s trespass brought sin into the world (rather than that it gave us a sinful nature) and that sin overpowers us and reigns over us? If so, then when we die with Christ in conversion, what dies is not so much a sinful nature that by its very nature was guilty, but a powerless self that was ruled by sin. This seems to better fit the vocabulary of Romans (sin reigning over the Spirit-less man and taking up residence in our flesh, contaminating it–but no mention of a sinful nature) and also seems to make better sense of the idea of children not being accountable for their sins.

gift-from-adam1

Sinful nature is, arguably, not a biblical term. The phrase is never found in the KJV, nor in two of my favorite modern translations, the NASB and the ESV. Even the latest version of the NIV now only contains that phrase twice (both in Romans 7, where the actual word is sarx–“flesh”). So if we want to affirm the concept of a sinful nature, we will need to deduce it from other terms, much as we deduce the concept of the Trinity from various texts that describe the unity and divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the closest Paul comes to directly mentioning a sinful nature is when he says that we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). But in the same context he describes our sinfulness as a combination of outward realities and of the flesh–no mention of a sinful nature. He says we are “dead” Ephesians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) Buy on Amazon (“alienation from the one who gives life,” a relational problem), “under the control of the age of this world” and “under the control of the ruler of the realm of the air”1 So our outward sin problem is that we are separated from God and under the control of the world and the devil. The inner aspect of sin Paul locates in our flesh, not in some sinful nature: “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body [literally, flesh] and of the mind.” We were “children of wrath” when the world, our flesh, and the devil met apart from Christ’s saving presence. In this context, sin ruled us, leaving us “dead” under God’s wrath. Notice also that this passage speaks only in the past tense: Paul does not say that Christians are still “by nature children of wrath,” let alone that they still have a sinful nature.

It seems to me that sinful nature tends to blend together what Paul carefully separates when he says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20). Sinful nature, though usually phrased as something we have, is sometimes treated as an identity, as if sinful nature = I. But Paul says sin = an it inside of I.

Another way of getting at my central question here is to ask these questions:

* Do we sin because we are sinners?
* Or are we sinners because we sin?


Perhaps neither, ultimately? Perhaps we sin because, apart from God’s Spirit, we are powerless in this post-Adamic world where sin and death reign. Then secondarily, because we sin, we are sinners.

Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) Buy on Amazon Another factor that got me thinking along these lines was reading a brief essay summarizing what the Bible says about the Book of Life. Perhaps all initially are written in Book of Life and only removed later by God when they have filled up the measure of their sins. From that essay:

“Everyone starts out in the Book of Life. It is a book of the living, and all who are born originally appear in it…. All who come into the world have the potential for eternal life… but most ignore, reject, disdain, put off, or otherwise forfeit that potential—and so their names are eventually blotted out of the Book of Life…. Their rejection of [God] eventually earns them rejection from being listed among the living.” Note: “One could argue that the time of blotting out would be when they died, once they no longer had any opportunity to retain their names in the Book by trusting Christ for their eternal life, but the Bible does not speak to the question of when blotting out occurs” (Douglas Stuart, “Excursus: The Book of Life,” Exodus, pg. 688).

Mennonite Confession of Faith Buy on Amazon The 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith tries to get around the problem of guilty-because-we-have-a-sinful-nature by saying:

“Although men are sinners by nature because of Adam’s fall, they are not guilty of his sin. Those who perish eternally do so only because of their own sin…. We believe that children are born with a nature which will manifest itself as sinful as they mature. When they come to know themselves to be responsible to God, they must repent and believe in Christ in order to be saved.”

I think that is essentially accurate, depending on how you understand nature. Perhaps it would be more clear and accurate (and more helpful for understanding the biblical perspective that children are not accountable for their sins) to say:

“Because of Adam’s sin, children are born into a world ruled by sin. They are powerless against sin and fall under its rule. As they mature they become aware of good and evil (see Is. 7:16). They also become aware of God’s Law (Rom. 5:13, “sin is not counted where there is no law”; Rom. 7:9 “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died”; etc.). As this awareness grows, they become accountable for their sins. If they refuse to repent and trust in Jesus throughout their lives, eventually God in his own time will remove them from his Book of Life.”

In summary: I wonder if it might be more biblical to say we are ruled by sin (as an external force that takes up residency in our flesh) rather than saying we are born with a sinful nature.

The above way of thinking about sin reigning (a powerless old man instead of a sinful nature) and the accountability of children would also have repercussions for evangelism of older children. The “sinful nature paradigm” I have grown up with suggests that children go from saved to damned to born again. The “sin reigning paradigm” would allow for this progression: saved to awareness of danger of losing that security but not yet damned to born again. Thus in coaching children to trust in Christ we would not be so much waiting until they gain consciousness of sin and then telling them “You are sinners who are currently worthy of hell” but rather, when that consciousness of sin begins to arise, we might say: “Do you know why you sin? Sin is a powerful force within you that drives you to do what you don’t want to do. If you place your trust in Jesus and turn away from sin, your old powerless self will die and you will be born again with the powerful Spirit of God inside of you, giving you victory over sin. That way you never need fear the wrath of God. However, if you refuse to trust in Christ, God will eventually–we don’t know when–judge you worthy of eternal death.” Explaining all that (beginning with the basic awareness of why they sin, gradually explaining the hope of the gospel) would be more of a process than a single child-evangelism event. And, if the child responds in faith throughout, it might be right to say they never were “lost.”

Hmm… That’s called thinking aloud.

  1. Definitions and translations by Clinton Arnold, in Ephesians (Zondervan, 2010, pages 129-30).

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Old Testament holy war and Christian nonresistance

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

I learned another reason why I, as a Christian, cannot serve in any military. Here is the teaching of the Old Testament regarding Israel’s participation in war, as summarized by Douglas Stuart in his Exodus commentary:

“Old Testament holy war… may be summarized by twelve propositions:
1. No standing army was allowed…
2. No pay for soldiers was permitted…
3. No personal spoil/plunder could be taken…
4. Holy war could only be fought for the conquest or defense of the promised land. Israel had no right to any other land or to warfare for any other purpose…
Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) Buy on Amazon 5. Only at Yahweh’s call could holy war be launched…
6. Solely through a prophet could that divine call come…
7. Yahweh did the real fighting in holy war because the war was always his…
8. Holy was was a religious undertaking, involving fasting, abstinence from sex, and/or other forms of self denial…
9. A goal of holy war was the total annihilation of an evil culture…
10. The violator of the rules of holy war became an enemy…
11. Exceptions and mutations were possible, especially in the case of combat with those who were not original inhabitants of the promised land…
12. Decisive, rapid victory characterized holy war…”

Proposition 4 suggests Christians are left without any legitimate right to physical warfare. In the New Testament, the promised land is now no longer physical territory in the Middle East, but spiritual realities (Christ, his Kingdom, and the new creation coming at the end of this age). Therefore, the only warfare for the Christian is spiritual warfare (as in Ephesians 6:10-20). Since the US military (and that of any other nation, including modern Israel) is not defending the land God has promised to his people, any killing I would do under its orders would be murder, contrary to the 10 Commandments and contrary to Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to love, pray for, and do good to my enemies.

(Sadly, Stuart misses the implications of his own findings when commenting on “Thou shalt not murder.” There he intentionally tries to leave room for military service with the equivocating statement, “No unauthorized ‘private’ person or group has the right to end a human life.”)

Propositions 5 and 6 also pretty well eliminate Christian participation in the military–and none of the other propositions match modern warfare, either.

Of course, none of the above contradicts the NT teaching (see Rom. 13:1-5) that God uses the sword of the government to punish evil (although that teaching is given in the context of capital punishment, not war).


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