One of the greatest evangelical Old Testament scholars of the last century died in 2016. J. Alec Motyer was an Irish theologian, perhaps best known for his magisterial commentary The Prophecy of Isaiah (1993) and for editing The Bible Speaks Today commentary series. Though a world-renowned scholar, Motyer committed his life to teaching ordinary Christians to understand and love the Old Testament.
And we certainly need his help. With the exception of a select number of psalms, a few passages in Isaiah, and a general outline of famous hero stories, our grasp of the Old Testament can be quite weak. Some have even said recently that the Old Testament is dying in certain churches. Why is this so?
According to Motyer, we’ve lost the “voice” of the Old Testament. Knowing that most Christians find it more than a little daunting, Motyer’s newest book (published posthumously) distills the Old Testament’s message into several themes—history, religion, worship, prophecy, wisdom, and theology (the revelation of God). These six themes make up 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today, originally published as A Scenic Route through the Old Testament (1994).
To many of us, the Old Testament can seem distant, foreign, and confusing, with difficult language and events disconnected from our present-day lives. But with a little guidance, it is quickly evident that the Old Testament still speaks today.
In this engaging book, late pastor-theologian Alec Motyer leads us to discover the everyday significance of six key themes that resonate throughout the Old Testament. Clear, accessible, and warmly pastoral, this book will help you see what this collection of ancient texts from the past has to do with our day-to-day lives in the present.
The Old Testament Speaks
Each chapter is an overview of a particular “voice” of the Old Testament (The Voice of History, The Voice of Religion, and so on). Each is also accompanied by one week of Bible readings with brief notes, along with the original daily readings and notes from the first edition in an appendix. Thus readers get an introductory chapter on a core theme in the Old Testament, accompanied by five weeks of daily Bible readings and expositional notes. This structure is particularly useful for daily devotions.
The Voice of History is an overview of the narrative of the Old Testament with special attention to how God’s mighty acts and moral character ultimately makes the historical record reliable. The Voice of Religion focuses on the themes of presence and sacrifice, while the Voice of Worship emphasizes what it was like to be a believer in old-covenant times. The Voice of Prophecy is about the great foundational truths the prophets inherited and applied, and their forward-looking message. The Voice of Wisdom is “a tract for our times,” with observations of daily life that show Christians how to apply God’s wisdom in the world (112). Finally, the Voice of God is about God’s character—his holiness, justice, mercy, and love—which is a summation of the meaning of the divine name.
Surprise and delight awaits us when we take up the Old Testament and listen to God speak.
Although I enjoy reading overviews of the core message of the Old Testament, the real value of Motyer’s book is his expositional comments on the daily readings. This is where the “voice” of the Old Testament really shines. In addition, Motyer often uses beautiful and sometimes humorous word pictures and illustrations in these comments—anything from comparing the Psalms to English and Australian postage stamps (56) to associating the pleasure of reading the Bible with modern advertisements of Bisto gravy (11). Here’s one from the final chapter on the Voice of God:
Instead of Columbus “discovering America,” suppose the American Indians had journeyed east to tell us about themselves and about the marvelous land to the west where they lived. The Old Testament is like that: it is not the account of human voyage of discovery, searching for God, but of God coming to tell us about himself. (121)
This quote and many others like it are just one of the reasons why I recommend 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today. There are certain books I’ve read begrudgingly, thinking it might be a waste of time, only to be so edified I come away humbled and feeling a little ashamed. I admit that I approached this book with that attitude. But I’ve come away from reading it with a newfound appreciation for Motyer (a formidable Old Testament scholar), as well as a good book to recommend to other Christians.
Motyer writes, “the men and women of the Old Testament often put us to shame by the reality, the personal quality, the joy, the exuberance, and the knowledge of God that are so clear in their worship and song” (55). I think this is a good description of Motyer, too, who shares a contagious desire to know and understand the God of the Old Testament. Surprise and delight awaits us when we take up the Old Testament and listen to God speak.
The pages of the Old Testament were never intended to be left untouched like dust on an old barn floor. The Old Testament was meant to ransacked.
After all, a failure to understand the significance of the Old Testament is first and foremost a failure to understand God. As J. I. Packer wrote a quarter-century ago, we believers are often content to know about God without knowing God. And knowing the God of the Bible means grasping his full counsel in the Old and New Testaments, not being satisfied with bits and pieces or general outlines.
We believers need a relationship with the Old Testament. We need to slay our tendency to read only the stories and psalms that are most familiar to us. We need to dwell in the Old Testament for an extended time, struggling to understand each book. We need to wrestle with God’s message like Jacob wrestled God, even if it means we come away with a limp. The pages of the Old Testament were never intended to be left untouched like dust on an old barn floor. The Old Testament was meant to ransacked. There are hidden treasures, after all (Prov. 2:4), and only by ransacking the Bible for all its worth does one understand the fear of the Lord, and “find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5).