In 2018, a megachurch pastor wrote, “When it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list.” This sentiment reflects one of the dangers of not understanding the Old Testament, which is to neglect 929 out of 1189 chapters in the Bible. Yet even for Christians who affirm that all of the Bible is God’s infallible Word, and therefore worthy of study, the Old Testament can seem daunting. Fortunately, Dr. Michael Barrett has written a helpful book containing fifty-two meditations on the Old Testament designed to assist the reader in understanding it. Barrett, a minister in the Heritage Reformed Congregations, is also Senior Research Professor of the Old Testament at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, specializing in ancient languages. With pastoral sensitivity and academic insight, Barrett draws the reader into texts of the Old Testament to show the riches of wisdom for the Christian life that exist there.
Personally, I am no stranger to feeling overwhelmed when trying to understand the Old Testament. In my teens, I heard almost no preaching from the Old Testament, and the stories I did hear were generally told in terms of moral-of-the-story type lessons. As a young Christian converted just after studying at university, I naturally gravitated toward the New Testament, and found the Old Testament components of Bible reading plans tedious. All of that was to change several years later when I first set foot on the sunny shores of Southern California in the summer of 2019. As a new seminary student at Westminster Seminary California, I had no idea what I was in for! Although I had interacted with some Reformed theology in the years leading up to seminary, at that time the Old Testament seemed more like a prelude to the New Testament than the glorious, eternal Word to God’s people I soon discovered it to be.
My love for the Old Testament was kindled not by classes on hermeneutics and exegesis (as important as those tools are), but by a class on biblical theology (tracing the broad sweep of redemptive history) and then classes on the various parts of the Old Testament (Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom Literature, and Prophetical Books). In these classes, professors carefully worked through various passages of Scripture, teaching us how to apprehend and appreciate the Old Testament on its own terms. We learned that the Old Testament does not obtain its significance and authority from the New Testament, but performs its own authorizing function to establish the key doctrines we confess: creation, providence, sin, redemption, faith, Trinity, Christology, worship, ecclesiology, eschatology, and so on. Since the Old Testament shapes the New Testament, and not the other way around, it is essential that we learn to understand and treasure the Old Testament.
What a gift Barrett has given the church, then, in Wisdom for Life. There are a great many books that teach Old Testament interpretation in a systematic fashion, beginning with methods and then providing examples. But Barrett offers a fresh way for Christians to learn to read the Old Testament. It is accessibly written, not requiring any prior knowledge of interpretive tools. This makes it suitable for personal study, family worship, discipleship groups, and most other informal teaching contexts. In Wisdom for Life, Barret guides the reader through individual texts in the Old Testament and demonstrates what they mean, how they communicate this meaning, and the manner in which they witness to Christ. In reading this book, I was reminded of the approach to learning I experienced at seminary. After reading through several passages, the reader might begin to notice they are able to anticipate some of the observations, and to find ways in which passages point to Christ. This is one of the book’s great strengths. Barrett’s approach to understanding the Old Testament is intuitive—more caught than directly taught.
In terms of content, Barrett’s choice of texts proves the point made earlier, that the Old Testament teaches a rich variety of doctrines. He begins with God’s redemptive promise in the garden after Adam and Eve sinned against God (meditation 1), and then traces the covenant of grace from Abraham’s life (2 and 3) to the Passover (4) and the Exodus (5). Following the Exodus, he surveys how God specifies the way in which Israel must worship him (6–9), including an insightful and edifying discussion on the meaning of the priestly garments (10).
In meditations 14–26, several psalms are surveyed with insight and illumination to help the reader appreciate the songbook of God’s people. Beginning with the theme of worship in the Psalms (14–17), Barrett proceeds to teach the reader how to understand the messianic themes present in the Psalms. An example of his high estimation of the Psalms can be found in meditation 15 (p. 74):
Although the Psalms do not speak of Christ in historical terms since the eternal Son had not yet become man, there is hardly a truth about Christ’s person, nature, or work that does not find expression—all of which have implications for worship. His humanity and deity, his death and resurrection, his mediatorial offices (prophet, priest, and king), and his first and second advents are all part of the messianic theology of the Psalms. The Israelites knew what it meant to sing of their Redeemer.
Clearly, this is a compelling case for us to understand, cherish, and sing the Psalms.
The prophetic texts begin with prophecies concerning the birth (p. 27), kingship (p. 28), and work (p. 29) of Immanuel. Yet, the prophetic texts also speak to other kinds of doctrines, an example of which is Barrett’s helpful excursus on keeping the Sabbath (p. 34). For some, the Sabbath is treated as an artifact of the Mosaic covenant with no relevance for today. But Barret offers a winsome argument from Isaiah 58:13–14 as to why we should delight in and obey the command to rest on God’s appointed day each week. In this meditation (p. 168), he rightly states, “Without such a day, that kind of worship is impossible, but he has set aside a time when giving full time and attention to him is possible. That is a demonstration of his goodness to us to aid us in both our work and our worship.”
In the minor prophets, Barrett treats the reader to an exposition of God’s loyal love in Hosea (p. 43) and demonstrates how this is ultimately expressed in Christ. In Joel, we see the promise of the Spirit (p. 44) who will empower all of God’s people to serve God as royal priests. And finally in Zechariah (p. 52), we see the necessity that the Great Shepherd must lay down his life to save the lives of his sheep. In Barrett’s profound closing words, “In Zechariah’s terms, it is only because God bade the sword awake against his shepherd that a cleansing fountain could be opened ‘for sin and for uncleanness’” (Zech 13:1).
As I began to read through Wisdom for Life, I struggled to find any areas to critique. However, as I completed the book, there were a few things I wish were different. First, because the Old Testament is a large corpus to cover, slightly better coverage of various types of texts could have been achieved by reducing the number of chapters on certain books such as Exodus, the Psalms, and Zechariah. That would make room for other historical books like Samuel, Kings, and Judges. Second is the lack of treatment for other wisdom literature texts, which is striking given the name and focus of the book. Texts from Ecclesiastes, Job, Proverbs, or Lamentations would be welcome as these are notoriously difficult books to understand, and Barrett’s approach to comprehending them would have been valuable. That said, both of these critiques are relatively minor in relation to the great treasure to be gleaned from this excellent book.
Overall, this is a wonderful volume of meditations that will open your eyes to the world of the Old Testament, stirring you to deeper love for and devotion to your Savior, Jesus Christ. Barrett has given a treasure to Christians in the church, who, in the space of a short few pages at a time, can learn to appreciate and understand the Old Testament. I highly recommend you read Wisdom for Life.
©Alex Hewitson. All Rights Reserved.
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