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Confessional History

  • Mark Dever Author
  • Updated Jun 21, 2011
Confessional History
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from What Does God Want of Us Anyway? A Quick Overview of the Whole Bible ,chapter nine "A Particular History," by Mark Dever (Crossway).

We will understand nothing about the Old Testament—or the God it reveals—if we do not understand that it is about a particular history. I know that I only have to say the word history and every other person will fall asleep. I know that history has a bad reputation as being quite boring. Perhaps in school you were taught to memorize long lists of dates and names. I am sorry about that. Not all of this chapter will be long lists of dates and names! Really, the story of the Old Testament is quite amazing. 

The Storyline 

Our text for this chapter begins, not surprisingly, on page 1 of your Bible: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). Notice, this amazing story begins with nothing. And then the most extraordinary thing happens: from nothing we get something. 

In that something, we see God's marvelous creative work. First, there is inanimate creation—water, earth, sun. Then God brings life—vegetation, fish, birds, animals. Perhaps you read in the newspapers about how excited scientists became when they thought they might have found water on the planet Mars, because where water exists, life exists. That might be exciting for secular people, but for Christians the most amazing thing is what God did next: he made people in his image, to reflect his character. All of this happens in the first two chapters of the Bible. 

In the third chapter, God's first humans disobey him, and the whole cosmos falls into ruin as a consequence. 

From chapters 4 to 6, we read a story of disintegration, beginning with the first son, Cain, who murders his brother, to the people of Noah's day, who are so bad that God decides to wipe out all the earth. You may think, "Maybe if we start over with just one righteous man and his family, human history will fare better." Of course, humanity did not fare better. 

Beginning in chapter 10, the world is repopulated and then disintegrates again, epitomized by chapter 11's story of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, proud man tries to strike out independently from God, to which God responds with more judgment. 

God then calls Abraham, in chapter 12, which marks yet another new beginning. 

Before we get any further, we should note the vast scale of history contained in the Bible. I personally think that most of the history of the world may have happened before the days of Noah as recorded in Genesis 6. In the apostle Peter's second letter, he refers to the world before the flood as the "ancient world" or "the age that then was" (2 Pet. 2:5, author's translation). It's possible that whole empires that we have not even dreamed of rose and fell in the time before Noah. Also, the time from Abraham to Jesus was as long as the time from Jesus to us today. 

Anyway, God calls Abraham to be the first of God's new people. He gives Abraham descendants. Through Abraham's grandson, Jacob (also called Israel), God's people begin to experience prosperity. After a series of providential twists, these people end up as slaves in Egypt, yet they also quickly reproduce to become a vast nation. 

Moses then brings the nation of Israel (named after Abraham's grandson) out of Egypt. God first gives Israel the law, which marks them off as his very special people. Second, he gives them the land he has promised, where this marked-off people are to live and display God's character to the nations. But instead of their displaying God's character, moral and political confusion follows during the rule of leaders called judges. 

After some centuries, the people of Israel ask for and receive a king in the person of Saul, and then David follows Saul. David's reign best represents the archetype of a kingdom in which God's chosen man and God's Word rule over his people. The kingdom then arguably reaches its peak in the time of prosperity and the building of the temple by David's son Solomon. Yet Solomon becomes ungodly in many ways; and under Solomon's son Rehoboam, the kingdom divides in two. Both parts of the now-divided nation fall into idolatry, until God finally destroys the northern half through the Assyrian empire. A little over a century later, he exiles the southern half to Babylon. Several generations pass in exile, and then the people return and rebuild the temple and Jerusalem's wall. This is where Old Testament history ends, with the people reduced to a position of utter desperation and dependence on God. 

This is the history recounted through the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is not just one book, you know, but thirty-nine smaller ones which, together, make up the whole. 

The Thirty-nine Books 

And these thirty-nine books are quite different. If you look at the table of contents in your Bible, you can distinguish the main categories. The first five books (Genesis to Deuteronomy) make up the Pentateuch, or the Law. The next twelve books (Joshua to Esther) are referred to as the Histories. Taken together, these first seventeen books form the narrative from creation to the return of the exiles from Babylon about four hundred years before Christ. The next five books (Job to Song of Solomon) are called the Writings. Then the last seventeen books are the Prophecies (Isaiah to Malachi). One way to divide the Christian canon of the Old Testament, then, would be to say there are seventeen books in the first group, five in the middle group, and seventeen in the last group. We will follow that division here. 


The first seventeen books of historical narrative (from Genesis to Esther) are fairly chronological. Yet the history of these books is not the dry history scholars write today that purports to be objective and balanced. No, it is confessional history. It is history written by people who know who God is and that they are his people. 

Genesis, as we have already said, describes how the world and the first humans were made. The garden of Eden presents the model of God and man living in perfect peace, which we will not see again until the final heavenly city in the New Testament book of Revelation. This peace is devastated by the fall, of course. God then initiates his plan of salvation through Abraham and his descendants. At the end of Genesis, God's people—the nation of Israel—are bound in slavery in Egypt. 

Exodus follows the history of God's pe9ople from the death of Joseph in Egypt through the exodus to the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, a building that symbolizes God's presence with his people. God uses Moses both to deliver the law and to deliver his people in the exodus. 

Leviticus presents a digest of God's laws given to his people in the wilderness. These laws highlight the problem of how sinful humans can approach a holy God. Holiness is the theme of the book of Leviticus. 

Numbers mostly tells the story of the people of Israel traveling to the Promised Land. It describes several dramatic instances of the people's unfaithfulness, together with God's persevering faithfulness. 

Deuteronomy is called Deuteronomy because it presents the second giving of the law (deutero = second; nomos = law). The people have reached the end of their forty-year wandering. The older generation has died off. So now God repeats the law for this new generation as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. 

Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land and its apportionment among the twelve tribes. The people were ruled by Moses' successor, Joshua. 

Judges comes next with the story of the fourteen judges who ruled over Israel (or regions of Israel) after Joshua. The people continually reverted to lawlessness, and the times were well summed up by the phrase, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judg. 21:25). 

Ruth is a little story set during the days of the judges. It functions as an Old Testament annunciation story, preparing the way for the birth of David. 

1 and 2 Samuel are about the last judge, Samuel; a "false-start" king, Saul; and the first real king, David. 

1 and 2 Kings turn the focus to the reign of David's son Solomon, followed by the fall of both Solomon and his line. The kingdom divides into two parts during the time of Solomon's son Rehoboam, and it's mostly downhill from there. Apart from several noteworthy revivals, both the northern and southern kingdoms gradually dissolve amid immorality and idolatry. 

1 and 2 Chronicles present a kind of interesting summation of everything from Adam through the beginning of the exile. Their focus is on David, Solomon, the role of the temple, and then the kings of the southern kingdom leading up to the exile. 

The last three books of history are about the exile and the return from exile: 

Ezra describes the return of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple. 

Nehemiah continues the story by describing the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls, a partial fulfillment of God's promises of restoration to his people. 

Esther is the last book of history. It is a story of God's providential deliverance of the Jewish community inside the Persian Empire late in the exile. 


The Old Testament's middle five books are known as the Writings, and they focus on some of the more personal experiences of the people of God. They are largely collections of wisdom literature, devotional poems, and ceremonial literature from the temple. 

Job is a story of a righteous man who is tried by God. We don't know when Job was written. 

The Psalms are poetic prayers of praise, confession, and lament to God. Almost half of them appear to have been written by David. The collection was written over a wide span of time. 

Proverbs presents the wisdom of Solomon and others concerning the practical issues of life. 

Ecclesiastes, again probably by Solomon, recounts one man's search for the path to happiness and meaning in this world. It reads like the account of a man walking down the street at night, shining his flashlight down a number of dead-end alleys and saying, "This is no good; this is no good; this is no good . . ." 

Song of Solomon is the collection of love songs between a bridegroom and his bride. It emphasizes the importance of loving relationships. 


The final collection of books in the Old Testament is the Prophets. If the first seventeen books present historical narrative, while the middle five books present the reflections of various individuals, this last group of seventeen presents God's commentary on Israel's history, particularly Israel's disobedience. 

The first five books are called the Major Prophets because of their size; some of them are very long. 

Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom, called Judah. The first thirty-nine chapters are composed of prophecies leading up to the captivity. Chapters 40 to 66 then point to a future restoration and redemption. 

Jeremiah uttered his prophecies in Jerusalem during the years the city was besieged, a siege that ended in the city's fall in 586 BC. He then continued to prophesy for seven years after the city's fall. 

Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah's lament over Jerusalem's siege and destruction. 

Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during this same time. He had actually been carried off from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. along with a number of other Jews. Trained as a priest, Ezekiel prophesied against Judah up to the fall of Jerusalem, and then he turned to promising God's judgment on the nations and the restoration of God's people. 

Daniel, part prophecy and part history, chronicles the story of a Jewish captive in Babylon and how God used him in that place. 

Following the five books of the Major Prophets are the twelve books of the Minor Prophets. They are called the Minor Prophets not because they lack importance but merely because they lack length. 

Hosea prophesied to the northern kingdom (generally called "Israel") at the same time that Isaiah prophesied to the southern kingdom. Hosea spoke of Israel's unfaithfulness, while God used Hosea's adulterous wife as a living example of how Israel had been unfaithful to God. 

Joel preached about the coming judgment of God on the southern kingdom. Then he promised that God's blessing would follow their repentance. (That's really the main theme for most of these prophets.) 

Amos predicted the judgment and restoration of Israel, the northern kingdom, while Isaiah was prophesying in the south. 

Obadiah uttered his very short prophecy of judgment against one of Judah's neighbors, Edom. He also promised restoration to the shattered Israelites. 

Jonah, when called to prophesy to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, fled and was swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, he prayed, repented, was delivered, and obeyed. 

Micah prophesied at the same time as Isaiah and Hosea. He spoke to both Israel and Judah concerning judgment and deliverance. 

Nahum, who lived about a century after Jonah, spoke out against Nineveh concerning the coming judgment of God. He also promised a future deliverance for Judah. 

Habakkuk reminded God's people living in a time of evil that God's judgment is certain, and that they can put their trust in his promise of restoration and ultimate protection. 

Zephaniah promised the judgment would come upon Judah. He also called them to repent, and he promised future blessing. 

The last three prophets prophesied during the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah. 

Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah. He may have been born in captivity in Babylon, but he returned to Jerusalem and prodded the people to get on with rebuilding the temple. 

Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, prophesied two months after Haggai and presented a series of wild dreams that attacked the religious lethargy of the people and foresaw the messianic age. 

Malachi, perhaps a contemporary of Nehemiah in post-exilic Jerusalem, also attacked the religious apathy of the people and promised a coming Messiah. He was the last Old Testament prophet. 

What History Teaches 

All this history teaches that God picked a very specific people for himself. Some people feel that it is unfair for God to pick whom he wants. But let me remind you, God made the world. He can do as he pleases. He picked a people specifically to teach them who he is as God, what it means for him to be holy, and what it means for his people to be sinful and therefore dependent upon him and his mercy. 

As we step back and look at the whole broad sweep, we find that we do not have some disembodied theology about the Lord; we have a very clear and specific earthy revelation of him. We observe God actually working with his people. We see what God is like, how people respond to him, and how he deals with them in turn.  

[Taken from What Does God Want of Us Anyway? Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dever]

Crossway Books 
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Mark Dever leads 9Marks Ministries, which exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision for displaying God's glory through healthy churches.


Pastor Dever (Ph.D. Cambridge) is the Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and has authored several books including Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Mark also serves as one of the principles of Together for the Gospel.



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