Q&A: The Inward Dimensions of the Old Testament

The Inward Dimensions of the Old Testament

In what ways did the Old Testament require inward devotion to God as well as outward obedience?

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Answer

It's easy to think that, in New Testament times, we get so much about really understanding God internally, and the Holy Spirit in us and an internal devotion to God, and in Old Testament times they just did rituals. They didn't really have too much to think about or pay attention to inwardly; it's just going through the motions, offering the sacrifices and so on. That's really a misunderstanding. The Old Testament wants us, and wanted the people of Israel in the first place, to appreciate that following God is an outward and an inward thing.

So, first of all, the Israelites had to show their faith by the elaborate requirements of worship that were placed upon them. It wasn't easy three times a year for families to travel from their homes, sometimes hundreds of miles, to go to one central place, which for most of that period was Jerusalem, and encamp there somewhere out, often, in the outdoors and to spend time there for the festivals. They had to do that three times a year for Passover, and for Pentecost, and also for the Feast of Tabernacles. That takes a lot of devotion. That takes a resolve. That takes arranging for things back on the farm to be taken care of. It takes a resolve to commit a lot of days out of one's year. And when they got there, or whenever anybody was worshiping, they had to spend a lot of time learning Scripture. The text tells us that the priests taught Scripture by the hour in those temples, and people sat there and listened. Furthermore, after they made the offering, they would eat the sacrificial meal, which represented their relationship to God. A meal is an indication, in a lot of cultures, of friendship; we eat together, we must know each other, we must like each other, we must somehow be connected. Otherwise, you wouldn't sit down and have a meal with somebody. So sitting down to have a meal with God at God's house, wow, that's a recognition inwardly that you belong to him, that he really is your Father and your Savior and the one who is your Lord.

Likewise, the Psalms show us lots of inward devotion. The psalms are sometimes about sacrifices or worship practices, but an awful lot is about how do you love God? do you care about him? can you trust him? There are seventy psalms devoted to nothing other than having the awareness, internally, to know that no matter how much you are suffering, God will be faithful. We call those lament psalms. And there are psalms of thanksgiving when God has been merciful; you're praying to him and you're saying, "You did this for me, I know it, I know it in my being that I can trust you." Then there are the trust psalms, themselves. There are the law psalms, the Torah psalms, that indicate how it is that we know God internally, how he is a part of our lives. The Holy Spirit was there, and people, internally, still were supposed to sink themselves into God's goodness, his truth, his love, and obedience to him and his purposes for their lives.

Answer by Dr. Douglas Stuart

Dr. Stuart serves as Professor of Old Testament and Chair of Biblical Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.