A look at the qualifications for pastoral ministry shows that one of the roles of the pastor is to teach God’s truth to God’s people. So what do we find about teaching in the Old Testament and how does this help us understand the teaching ministry of the pastor? Below, we will trace the concept of teaching through the Old Testament, highlighting some significant aspects of teaching in the Old Testament.
God Taught His People His Commands
The first fundamental truth related to teaching in the Old Testament is that God taught his people. In Deuteronomy 4:1, God, through Moses, taught the people his statutes and rules. And as the people prepared to enter the land, they learned that obedience to God’s commands would lead to life in the land (4:14). In the Old Testament, God is the ultimate teacher, so that the Psalmist says, “Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” (119:12). Eight times in Psalm 119 alone, the Psalmist asks God to teach him God’s statutes or God’s rules. Not only was God the source of the Law, but as the prophets prophesied, they were proclaiming the Word of God to God’s people. So when we think of teaching in the Old Testament, we begin by recognizing that God is the source of true teaching, and he was ultimately the one who taught his people.
God Appointed Teachers over His People
Though God is the ultimate teacher in the Old Testament, we also see numerous ways in which God entrusted a teaching ministry to specific groups of people. In Deuteronomy, Moses taught the people God’s commands, and the people in turn were to teach these commands to their children (11:19). In Proverbs, the father teaches his son wisdom and leads his son in the path’s of uprightness (4:11), just as we saw that parents were to teach their children God’s Law in Deuteronomy. Both king and priest in the Old Testament had responsibilities to know and live by God’s Law. The king was to write a copy of Deuteronomy for himself in front of the priests so that he could read from God’s Law all the days of his life (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). The priests also had a teaching ministry in the Old Testament. God told Aaron that his descendants were to teach the Israelites all of God commands that God gave through Moses (Leviticus 10:11; see also Deuteronomy 33:10), and at a minimum, the entire law was to be read to the whole people every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:9-11). So not only did God give his people his commands, but he entrusted these commands to the king, to priests, and to parents to pass these commands on to future generations.
God’s Teaching Set against False Teaching
In the Old Testament, we also see the true teaching that comes from God set against false teaching. As the people prepared to enter the Promised Land, they were commanded to destroy the pagan cities in the land so that these pagan people might “not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God” (20:18, ESV). The people would either learn and obey God’s commands, or they would be instructed and led astray by the wicked influence of the people in the land. In Isaiah 29:13, Isaiah spoke of the people’s false piety before God, and he referred to their fear of God as a commandment taught by men. Jesus would quote from this passage in Mark 7:6-7 to demonstrate the tendency for people to follow human commands instead of God’s commands. In Jeremiah 9:14, Jeremiah rebuked the people for going after false Gods in ways which they had learned from their ancestors. So God is the ultimate teacher, and he appoints teachers over his people to teach them his truth, but the Old Testament also warns of the corruption of this teaching and that false teaching can creep in among God’s people with disastrous effects.
God’s People Neglect and Break God’s Commands
The Old Testament is largely a story of the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of his people. Certainly there are shining examples of faith in the Old Testament, but the historical books of the Old Testament clearly demonstrate that the people tended to disobey and even forget God’s commands. In Judges, everyone did what was right in their own eyes (17:6, 21:25). During the days of David and Solomon, there was a resurgence in obedience to God’s commands, but soon afterward the land was plagued by idolatry and immorality. Throughout 1 and 2 Kings, commitment to God’s Law was the exception and not the rule. The book of the Law had been so neglected in Josiah’s day that Hilkiah found the book of the Law while repairing the temple (2 Kings 22:8). In Nehemiah’s day, even after the people were exiled from the land for their disobedience to God’s commands, they had once more neglected the Law to the point that when the Law was read to them, they realized that they were at that time neglecting to observe the Festival of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:13-14). So in the Old Testament, we see the tendency of God’s people not only to disobey God’s commands, but to drift away from even the hearing of God’s commands.
Times of Renewal Connected to the Hearing of God’s Word
In the midst of the wide-scale disobedience in the Old Testament, we also see times of renewal that are focused on the “rediscovery” of or recommitment to God’s commands. The examples of Josiah and Nehemiah given above show the people’s tendency to neglect God’s commands, but they also demonstrate times of renewal associated with a recommitment to God’s teaching. Josiah, when he heard the book of the Law read, realized that God’s wrath was coming against his people because of their disobedience (2 Kings 22:11-13). But Josiah’s repentance and sensitivity to the word of God meant that God’s judgment on the people would not come until after Josiah’s death (22:15-20). Josiah read the book of the Law to all the people, from the youngest to the oldest (23:2), which led to at time of renewal (23:4-27). We see a similar pattern in Nehemiah. Ezra read the book of the Law to the people and some of the Levites helped explain what was read (Nehemiah 8:1-8). This reading and explanation of God’s Law led to a time of renewal and recommitment to God, including the celebration of the Festival of Tabernacles (8:13-18) and the confession of the sins of the people (9:1-37). Further examples could be given here, but these two stories show the effect of the word of God being read and explained to the people of God.
Looking forward to a Day When Teaching Would Be No More
As with most themes in the Old Testament, the Old Testament leaves the believer longing for something more. The Old Testament teaches us that God’s Law is holy and good, but we see disobedience and neglect of God’s good Law all through the pages of the Old Testament. Even these times of renewal were short-lived as God ultimately brought judgment on his people because they disobeyed his commands. Though not as prominent as some of the other themes we see in the Old Testament, there is a pointing forward to a day when teaching would no longer be necessary, There would be a day when “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and yI will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34, ESV).
So in the Old Testament, we find God as the ultimate teacher, who teaches his people his statutes and commands, but we also see God calling people to pass on that teaching to future generations. In spite of the great disobedience of God’s people and their neglect of his teaching, the Old Testament gives us hope that one day all would be set right. One day God’s people would fully known his teaching, and one day all of their sins and disobedience would be no more.