The Old Testament

A Voice from the Past and a Witness for the Lord Jesus Christ

Robert J. Matthews

Robert J. Matthews, "The Old Testament: A Voice From the Past and a Witness for the Lord Jesus Christ," in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2005), 35-47.

Robert J. Matthews, who has served as dean of Religious Education, is professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Many well-known phrases from the Old Testament have entered our current language: a good old age (Genesis 25:8); the apple of his eye (Psalm 17:8); a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7); a land of milk and honey (Joshua 5:6); the windows of heaven (Malachi 3:10); the valley of decision (Joel 3:14); a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12); precept upon precept, line upon line (Isaiah 28:10); a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15); in the hollow of his hand (Isaiah 40:12); trodden the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:3); the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley (Song of Solomon 2:1); can a leopard change its spots (Jeremiah 13:23); I was saved by the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20); my hair stood on end (Job 4:15); handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5:24); nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 6:1); a coat of many colors (Genesis 37:32); mantle of the prophet (2 Kings 2:13–14); a mess of pottage (Genesis 25:34); and God save the king (1 Samuel 10:24).

The Old Testament offers some help in rearing teenagers. The records say that when Jacob first met Rachel he kissed her. Seminary students are usually quick to point out that this was a first date.

The next verse says she brought her father to meet Jacob, whereupon Jacob also kissed him. The moral of the story: You can kiss the girl if you are also willing to kiss her father (see Genesis 29:10–14).

The purpose of the scripture is to bear witness of Jesus Christ, and that it does very well. You recall the statement of Jesus: “Search the scriptures, . . . for they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). The Old Testament testified of Jesus even better in its original condition.

The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings

The Old Testament is not a single book but a collection of books, covering events from the Creation of the world until just before the time of Jesus. In the present King James Version this consists of thirty-nine books. In the editions of the Bible used by the Catholic Church, there are forty-six Old Testament books, because they include seven books commonly called the Apocrypha. Early editions of the King James Version also contained the Apocrypha, but for the past one hundred years or so, the majority of the printings of the King James Version have not included the apocryphal books. The King James Old Testament Apocrypha consisted of fifteen books, but it is the same material as the seven in the Catholic Bible, just divided and distributed differently. The Old Testament Apocrypha are primarily books of history rather than doctrine and are not equal to such great works as Genesis, Deuteronomy, or Isaiah.

Hebrew editions of the Old Testament generally contain the same thirty-nine books as the King James Version but are sometimes given different titles.

The way in which these books are arranged, however, differs greatly in the Hebrew, King James, and Catholic Old Testament. For example, in the King James Version the arrangement of the thirty-nine books is according to literary style and content. First are the history books, then the poetical or “wisdom” books, then the prophetic books. Thus, Genesis is the first book, 2 Chronicles is about in the middle, and Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. In the introductory pages of the Bible, you will find a chart showing the names and order of all the books of the Old Testament. From Genesis through Esther are the history books. Job through Song of Solomon are the wisdom books. These also include Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Then from Isaiah through Malachi are the books of the prophets. This follows a somewhat chronological order, although it is not strictly chronological. The Catholic Bibles have the same literary arrangement as the King James but with the added apocryphal books inserted at various places.

If you examine a Hebrew Old Testament, you will find the books in a much different order, emphasizing the importance of the books; hence they are grouped as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Thus the five books of Moses are first, since they constitute the Torah, or Law. Next are the Prophets; those from Joshua to Kings being called “early prophets” and from Isaiah through Malachi being called the “later prophets.” In the third place are the Writings, being the wisdom books, and also Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Chronicles. Therefore, in the Hebrew editions of the Old Testament, Malachi is about in the middle, and the last book is 2 Chronicles. As Latter-day Saints, being so familiar with quoting Malachi about the coming of Elijah, we would have a little difficulty getting used to looking for Malachi in the middle instead of at the end of the Old Testament. Among the ancient rabbis and scholars, this order of the sacred books was zealously guarded and great deference was given to the Law, or as it was called, the Torah.

Bible scholars have frequently identified the prophets as major or minor prophets, this having reference to how large the book is, not how important the person is. Thus, Isaiah and Jeremiah would be “major” prophets, whereas Jonah and Joel would be “minor” prophets. It is a designation that could be easily misunderstood, and we generally do not use that terminology in the Church.

The Old Testament as a Witness for Jesus Christ

This threefold arrangement—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings—is reflected in the New Testament in the words of Jesus. Let us turn to Luke 24. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus, newly resurrected, walked a few miles with two disciples who were sad that their Master had been crucified. He asked them the cause of their sorrow. They, not recognizing Him, told Him that Jesus was crucified and that there was a rumor that He had risen from the dead but they were not so sure of it. Then Jesus opened the scriptures (the Old Testament) to them: “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27).

You see the order—Moses, then the Prophets. Later that day, reflecting on how they felt, they said one to another, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). The purpose of the scripture is to bear witness of Jesus Christ, and when we read it properly, and with understanding, our hearts are warmed and our soul is thrilled by it.

Later that same day, Jesus met with the Twelve and showed them His perfect, resurrected body of flesh and bone, and He ate with them and then “he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day” (Luke 24:44–46).

You notice how clearly the purpose of the Old Testament is explained as a witness for the Messiah. We see also the order of the books as they were in that day—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Note also the great spiritual effect the scriptures had upon their feelings.

The Old Testament truly is a witness for Jesus Christ. Because of latter-day revelation in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, we are able to see that all of the ancient prophets were Christian prophets, and every dispensation was a gospel dispensation. Thus, from Adam to John the Baptist, the so-called Old Testament prophets were acquainted with the gospel and with the plan of salvation, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior and Messiah of all mankind. Let us cite just a few examples:

In John 1:45 we read that when Philip first met Jesus he went to get his friend Nathanael and said to him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write.”

In John 5:45–47 we hear Jesus saying to the Jewish rulers: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?”

There are many more examples, such as 1 Corinthians 10:1–4; 2 Corinthians 3:12–16; Hebrews 4:2; 11:24–26. In the Book of Mormon we find Jacob saying at about 544 B.C.: “We knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves . . . but also all the holy prophets which were before us” (Jacob 4:4), and later Jacob declared, “None of the prophets have written, nor prophecied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 7:11).

And finally in Helaman 8:16–19:

And now behold, Moses did not only testify of these things, but also all the holy prophets, from his days even to the days of Abraham.

Yea, and behold, Abraham saw of his coming, and was filled with gladness and did rejoice.

Yea, and behold I say unto you, that Abraham not only knew of these things, but there were many before the days of Abraham who were called by the order of God; yea, even after the order of his Son; and this that it should be shown unto the people, a great many thousand years before his coming, that even redemption should come unto them.

And now I would that ye should know, that even since the days of Abraham there have been many prophets that have testified these things.

Time will not permit us to multiply evidences on this point, except one from the Doctrine and Covenants 20:25–26: “That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life.”

Latter-day Revelation Clarifies the Old Testament

In view of these declarations, it is evident that the Old Testament, as it has come to us today, is not as clear, not as complete, as it was anciently. Many plain and precious things have been taken from it, even entire books have been removed, and also many deletions have occurred in the books that we do have. Thus we need the benefit of latter-day revelation such as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Joseph Smith Translation, the Pearl of Great Price, and the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith to give us a perspective and understanding of the Old Testament. Without latter-day revelation, a correct and thorough viewpoint of the Old Testament cannot be achieved, and hence I am bold to declare that the Latter-day Saints can have a more correct understanding of the Old Testament than anyone else upon the face of the earth. We may not always have as much cultural and linguistic appreciation, but we have a clearer doctrinal and spiritual perception of the Old Testament than anyone else. Without these latter-day scriptures and the personal witness of the Holy Ghost, the Old Testament is a sealed book.

Genesis Introduces the Work of God on the Earth

Each book of the Old Testament has a unique and special contribution, and offers something valuable to our understanding. For example, the name Genesis means the beginning, or “beginnings” (plural). I used to think it meant only the beginning of the earth, since the Creation is outlined there. However, as I became more familiar with it, I came to realize that Genesis is an indispensable book for understanding all the scriptures. Elder Bruce R. McConkie called Genesis a “book of books.” [1] Since we now have the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis, we have a very good concept of what the book of Genesis originally contained. It really is a book of several “beginnings.” It tells of the beginning of this earth on which we live. It says that God deliberately and intentionally created it. It tells of the beginning of life on the earth; the beginning of man; the beginning of sin, introduced by Satan, and the Fall of Adam introducing mortality; and the beginning of death, both physical and spiritual death. It tells of the beginning of the gospel being taught on the earth to the first man and the first woman. It describes the beginning of the tribes and families and nations of mankind. Among the many beginnings is mentioned the beginning of a covenant people—the beginning of the house of Israel.

It is interesting how the book of Genesis allots various space to each of its topics. The Creation is covered in two chapters. The early years of man are also covered rather quickly. The time from Adam’s Fall to Abraham is recorded in only eight chapters. The story of Abraham, who lived 175 years, requires at least a dozen chapters alone, (that ought to tell us something of his importance), and the story of Jacob and Joseph and the founding of the house of Israel (totaling probably two hundred years) requires all the way from Genesis chapters 27 to 50—twenty-four chapters for only two hundred years. You can see that the purpose of Genesis is to get the idea clearly before us of the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, the house of Israel, and the prominence of Joseph.

Latter-day Israel

A majority of Church members are descendants of Abraham through Joseph and Ephraim. Brothers and sisters, the Old Testament is your book! The book of Genesis, which tells of all these beginnings, tells of your beginnings. When we read the Old Testament, we rejoice in the promises and the covenants of the Lord and reflect on our beginnings. The book of Genesis is the indispensable introduction to the rest of the Old Testament and to the New Testament and to all of the standard works.

The Book of Mormon speaks of the Old Testament in these terms:

And the angel said unto me: Knowest thou the meaning of the book?

And I said unto him: I know not.

And he said: Behold it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles. (1 Nephi 13:21–23)

If we will listen, read, study, and pray, we can gain a greater understanding and a stronger commitment as to who we are and what God wants us to do than we have ever before had in our lives. The Old Testament teaches emphatically the law of obedience, the law of sacrifice, the law of retribution, and the law of compensation. It is a book about faith and the consequences of right and wrongdoing. It teaches that God fulfills His promises and keeps His covenants.

God’s Purposes and Plans

The following is an excerpt from an editorial in the Deseret News for February 7, 1852. Although it is unsigned, it sounds very much like President Brigham Young:

Some have supposed that it would make but little difference with them whether they learned much or little, whether they attained to all the intelligence within their reach or not while they tarry in this world, believing that if they paid their tithing, went to meetings, said their prayers, and performed those duties which were especially commanded, that . . . as soon as they lay off this mortal body all would be well with them. But this is a mistaken idea and will cause every soul to mourn who embraces and practices upon it. When they arrive in the world of resurrected bodies, they will realize, to their sorrow that God required of them in this world not only obedience to His revealed will, but a searching after His purposes and plans. (Emphasis added)

You note the phrase “searching after His purposes and plans.” I am reminded of a statement by Elder Sterling W. Sill, who said, “It isn’t enough just to obey the Lord; we ought to agree with Him.”[2] Agreeing with God has something to do with having a knowledge of His purposes and plans for the earth and the people on this earth. Isaiah was a master at this, and that is one reason his book is so valuable. When we read the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, we begin to get a feeling for the work of God on this earth and for our own individual destiny. There is not anything else in the world like that feeling! What does it mean to be a child of God? What does it mean to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? What does it mean to bear the holy priesthood? What does it mean to be part of the covenant of Abraham? What does it mean to be of the house of Israel? These are all answered in the holy scriptures.

A Need for Scripture Study

Sometimes we get so burdened and weary with the problems of every day that we momentarily lose sight of our beginnings and our eternal destiny. We forget to study, and we lose perspective. I will share a few words from some of the Brethren.

President Spencer W. Kimball:

I hope that you teachers will involve students heavily in scripture reading. I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice speaking, that I am far, far away. If I immerse myself in the scriptures, the distance narrows and the spirituality returns. I find myself loving more intensely those whom I must love with all my heart and might and mind and strength. And loving them more, I find it easier to abide their counsel. We learn the lessons of life more readily and surely if we see the results of wickedness and righteousness in the lives of others. . . . All through the scriptures every weakness and strength of man has been portrayed, and rewards and punishments have been recorded. One would surely be blind who could not learn to live properly by such reading.[3]

And from Elder Orson Pratt:

We are commanded over and over again to treasure up wisdom in our hearts continually—to treasure up the words of eternal life continually, and make ourselves acquainted not only with the ancient revelation, but with the modern; to make ourselves acquainted not only with things pertaining to time, but with things pertaining to eternity. . . . [The faithful and diligent Saint] is not the ill-instructed scribe, . . . not the person who does not study, . . . not the person who suffers his time to run to idleness, but . . . that man that instructs himself in all things within his reach, so far as his circumstances and abilities will allow.[4]

While reflecting upon the constant effort and diligence required to learn great truths, Elder Pratt concluded:

We need not be discouraged upon this subject; for if we do the best we can according to the position in which we are placed, and the opportunities which we have, we do all that the Lord requires; and by and by we shall be placed in a condition in which we can learn much faster than we can now. . . . Perhaps the man who, under a sense of discouragement, gives up and does not make the best of his present limited opportunities, will be limited hereafter in the life to come, and will not be allowed to progress very fast, because of his laziness and his want of desire, courage and fortitude to pursue certain channels of knowledge that were opened up to him here in this life. But when we see individuals not only willing to receive some few of the simple principles of the Gospel of Christ, but are willing to press onward towards perfection as far as opportunities present themselves, we may rest satisfied that they will be honored of the Lord according to their diligence, perseverance, fortitude and patience in striving to understand the laws which he has given to all things.[5]

And once again from Elder Orson Pratt: “[In the scripture we find] information, expressed so simply that a common mind can, in some degree, grasp it, and yet so sublime and so great that when we come to investigate its depths, it requires greater powers and greater understanding than what man naturally possesses.”[6]

Elder John A. Widtsoe: “It is a paradox that men will gladly devote time every day for many years to learn a science or an art; yet will expect to win a knowledge of the gospel, which comprehends all sciences and arts, through perfunctory glances at books or occasional listening to sermons. The gospel should be studied more intensively than any school or college subject.” [7]

The Jewish rabbis, ancient and modern, study the Torah—the Law. They say everyone should study Torah. The question may be asked, “Why?” “Because God studies Torah.” That is, “Learning is a sacred and divine activity.” As we progress in the things of God, our status changes. At first we are strangers and foreigners, but when we accept the gospel and are baptized and commit ourselves to Christ, we are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:19–20). We then become servants of God and of Christ. Continued faithfulness leads to even greater privileges and joys. Jesus said, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth, but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:14–15). In other words, friends are made privy to God’s purposes and plans.

You see, our responsibility is not simply to go to a lot of tiring meetings and just stay out of trouble. We have the privilege and the invitation from the Savior to learn of His purposes and to share in His plans. That is what He wants us to do.

Latter-day Revelation Explains Why

I mentioned earlier that the Old Testament, because of its present imperfect state, glorious as it is, must be supplemented by latter-day revelation. I will give one quick example. I have found that by and large, the Bible tells what but not always why. The plain and precious parts taken away have omitted many of the whys. For example, Genesis plainly says that “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). That tells what. But Genesis does not elaborate on why. If we turn to Abraham 3:24–25, we read that God created the earth as a place whereon His spirit children could come and dwell and be proved. In 1 Nephi 17:36 we find Nephi saying that the Lord “created the earth that it should be inhabited.” These are statements of purpose. They tell why. Then in D&C 49:16–18 we read that marriage is ordained of God and that the bearing of children is a divine accomplishment, so that “the earth might answer the end [purpose] of its creation.” Then in D&C 88:17–20, we read that this earth was made as a home for people not only in mortality, but forever as a celestial home. Thus, from latter-day revelation we learn not only what God did but also why.

Teaching Aids

With this point in mind, as to how latter-day revelation clarifies and supplements the Old Testament, I call your attention to the teaching aids in the Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible. The chapter headings are the commentary; the footnotes help us to find their related scriptures and explain Hebrew terms and idioms. The Joseph Smith Translation gives us much additional information. The Topical Guide makes it possible to look up 3,495 gospel subjects and find many scriptures from each of the standard works that bear upon each topic. The scriptures in the Topical Guide are always arranged in the order of Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price for each subject. Having them arranged this way permits them to bear a forceful and repeated witness that there is unity in the scriptures. When you can look up a single subject and find passages from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price that all bear upon that single subject, and then do that on thousands of subjects, you come to realize that there is a great harmony in the word of the Lord. It also soon becomes apparent that latter-day revelation generally says it better than does the Bible, due to the faulty biblical transmission.

The Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible contains the following study aids: (1) the text of the King James Version; (2) cross-references to latter-day scriptures such as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price; (3) excerpts from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible; (4) explanatory footnotes showing alternate readings from Hebrew; (5) clarifications of obsolete words and idioms in the English language; (6) all-new interpretive chapter headings; (7) a Topical Guide, and (8) a Bible Dictionary. The Latter-day Saint edition was not to make of a bad edition a good one but to make of a good one an even better one. Thus is brought together the best of three worlds. It combines source material available today through (1) secular scholarship and (2) through latter-day revelation. Furthermore, (3) this edition was made possible only through modern technology such as improved printing presses and computers and high-quality paper and ink. Today thousands of sheets can be printed in one hour. Compare that with Mr. Gutenberg’s experience when it took seven years to print just one Bible. The modern computer made the cross-referencing and footnoting possible.

Doctrinal Restoration and Technological Improvements

The increase of technical know-how in the past century is tremendous. And at the same time there has come an equally great increase of spiritual learning and doctrinal clarification. With the Restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, there was as much improvement in spiritual and doctrinal knowledge compared to the dark ages as there was in the technical improvement of printing presses and industrial equipment compared to Gutenberg’s day. Thus, we can understand the Old Testament better today than ever before because of the insights from latter-day revelation, and we can make source materials about it more readily available because of improved industrial processes.

In religious circles, prophets supersede scholars, and divine revelation has greatly enlarged our fund of source material over the limited knowledge secular scholarship provided in the days before the Restoration of the gospel. And it is not an either-or situation. We have the knowledge of divine revelation and also the benefit of secular scholarship and industrial technology. We could not have had the Latter-day Saint edition if it had not been for the Protestant Reformation, the invention of printing, the Restoration of the gospel, and modern technology such as the computer, Xerox machine, printing press, the telephone, and photography.


[1] Bruce R. McConkie, New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 392.

[2] Sterling W. Sill, in Robert Matthews, Selected Writings of Robert J. Matthews (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 110.

[3] Spencer W. Kimball, address to seminary and institute personnel at Brigham Young University, July 11, 1966.

[4] Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855–56), 7:74–75.

[5] Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 17:329.

[6] Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 17:324.

[7] John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 16–17.