Understanding the Old Testament

6 Bibles, Books and Study Guides for Understanding the Old Testament

In my last post, I offered seven free tools to help you understand the Old Testament. Here I’ll review Bibles, books, and study guides that help with that, too. Some are for those who are new to reading the Bible, and some are for seasoned Bible readers.

I end each review with an excerpt that shows how each explains Isaiah’s promise to King Ahaz to trust God to deliver him, and Ahaz’s refusal (Isaiah 7). That should let you know if the depth is what you’re looking for.


If you’ve read the New Testament before and are ready to dive into the Old Testament, these two Bibles will help you understand it.

Review: NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Edited by D. A. Carson

Audience: Thoughtful Christians wanting historical, archaeological, and theological insights

Reading level: college

If you want a Bible with articles, charts, timelines, color photos, book introductions, and notes, this five-pound beauty is the way to go. This is the third edition of the NIV Study Bible that I own, and it’s the best of the three. It includes two dozen articles covering overarching topics such as “The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central” and “Prophets and Prophecy.” The introductions to each book are fabulous. (The link above is for leather, but there are less expensive options. I don’t recommend the Kindle version–I purchased that for version 2 and regret it. The pictures are too small and the hyperlinks overlap, making some unworkable.)

This Bible would overwhelm a new Christian. But for the thoughtful Christian wanting depth, this is the Bible to invest in. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to Isaiah (1308):

In ch. 7 Isaiah issues King Ahaz a challenge to trust Yahweh, not Assyria’s power. Ahaz refuses the challenge, and much of Judah’s history between that point (734 BC) and the destruction of Sennacherib’s army in 701 BC revolves around the results of Ahaz’s refusal. A burning question unites chs. 7-39: Will Israel trust Yahweh or the surrounding nations? Chs. 7-12 not only give the answer (no) but also give the answer’s implications.

Review: The One Year Chronological Bible NIV

Edited by Steve Benson

Audience: Anyone wanting to read the Old Testament and New Testament chronologically

Reading level: high school

Old Testament in chronological order

The One Year Chronological Bible: New International Version

I read the Bible in chronological chunks fairly often, so I made things easier by buying a chronological Bible. In the table of contents, I color coded the prophets so I could see at a glance how they relate (see figure). I seldom read from this Bible, but I use its table of contents to guide my reading in other Bibles. The editors provide short italicized segues when switching between texts, but not a lot of historical notes. Here’s the transition from histories (2 Kings and 2 Chronicles) to Isaiah 7 (799):

Isaiah encouraged King Ahaz to trust in the Lord when Rezin and Pekah marched against Jerusalem. Through these prophecies of Isaiah, the Lord also gave Ahaz a sign of coming salvation—the coming of the Messiah.


Review: Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel

By Eugene H. Merrill

Audience: Thoughtful Christians wanting to understand Old Testament history

Reading level: graduate

This superb book is my number one recommendation for thoughtful Christians who have read and studied the entire Bible and aren’t put off by academic works. Merrill divides Old Testament history into 15 parts and examines each thoroughly, weaving in historical documents from surrounding nations and archaeological finds. He keeps the overarching purpose of God establishing a kingdom of priests clearly in mind. His analysis of the ministry of the prophets is illuminating.

This is an academic work that carefully examines dating problems and apparent contradictions. His goal for this second edition was “to take on the task of bringing the narrative up to date so that the message of the Old Testament as not only a theological but also a historical work can resonate more clearly and relevantly with a new generation of readers” (11).

The book contains numerous chronological tables and maps, as well as both Scripture and subject indexes. Here’s an excerpt (420):

Ahaz had paid a staggering price for survival not only in monetary terms but especially in the moral and spiritual compromises his bargaining had required. As the Chronicler notes, in the final analysis, Tiglath-pileser gave Ahaz trouble and not help (2 Chron. 28:21). Ahaz had had to loot the temple to pay the heavy protection fees that Tiglath demanded, and as an act of thanksgiving, Ahaz offered sacrifices to the gods of Assyria, whom he credited for his salvation. He also installed their shrines throughout the land. It is little wonder that Isaiah the prophet chastised Ahaz in the bitterest terms and predicted the day when Judah also would come to know the awful Assyrian scourge (Isa. 7:17).

Review: The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People

Selections from the New International Version

Audience: Churches desiring to teach the entire congregation the main story of the Bible and willing to use supplemental supporting material

Reading level: youth and adult versions are available

The Story divides selections of text from the NIV Bible into 31 chapters arranged mostly chronologically. Short italicized segues summarize skipped material and add a few historical notes. Simple timelines begin the book; some use increments of thousands of years, others decades. The back material includes discussion questions and a character list.

Zondervan intended for churches to use The Story as part of Sunday sermons, adult small group studies, youth studies, and children’s materials. They provide DVDs, curriculum to go with the DVDs, and other support materials, including a church resource library. I offer a companion study guide (see below).

The Story highlights a dozen or so kings and includes only five excerpts from Isaiah. It skips King Ahaz and Isaiah 7, so here’s the first transition between histories and Isaiah (224):

The greatest of the writing prophets, Isaiah, began his work in Jerusalem (capital of Judah, the southern kingdom) in 740 BC, shortly before King Uzziah died. Isaiah achieved prominence during Hezekiah’s reign, helping the king to stand-down the Assyrian threat by relying on God alone. Such a strategy must be founded on rock solid faith, and this kind of faith Isaiah clearly practiced and developed. His call to service came in a powerful vision—an apt start to a prophetic vocation that would span nearly 60 years.

Study Guides

The first of these is ideal for new Christians; the second is good for those who have read a bit of the Bible already and are willing to put in 31 weeks of daily study.

Review: Seamless: Understanding the Bible as One Complete Story

By Angie Smith

Audience: Women’s Bible study groups with a mix of new and mature Christians wanting to understand how the Old Testament and New Testament relate

Reading level: high school

The women at my church just finished going through Seamless: Understanding the Bible as One Complete Story, by Angie Smith. It’s terrific, funny, and touching. Those who had never read the Old Testament before felt it made sense of the Bible. Those who have read the Bible many times loved the clarifying way Smith laid out the stories. I had a brand new Christian in my group who had never gone to church until a few months ago, and she kept up fine.

Icons that represent major events adorn the footer and make the story easy to follow and review. The back cover folds out with the icons in order and linked by a thread. My group loved turning to the back cover to review the icons together. In the margins, Smith provides a dozen-word summary of every book of the Bible.

The women loved the book and videos, and they had tons of questions every week (which shows how engaging they found the material, but also shows the need to have someone around to answer questions). Some had trouble following the chronology of Week 4: The Kingdoms & the Prophets, so I recommend supplying a few timelines (feel free to use the ones I provide in 7 Free Tools for Understanding the Old Testament).

Covering the entire Bible in six chapters, Smith broadly summarizes Israel’s history. In this excerpt, she introduces some of the prophets, including Isaiah (104):

Several prophets preached in Judah before and during its destruction: Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Isaiah and Micah overlapped our division of times. They lived and preached in Judah both during the Divided Kingdom—the same time as Hosea and Amos—and after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. See how this all fits together?

Review: The Story Personal Journal and Discovery Guide

By Jean E. Jones

Audience: Thoughtful Christians with some Old Testament understanding who want an in-depth Bible study guide to accompany The Story

Reading level: high school; languages: English & Korean

Free Download here

Picture of 'The Story: Personal Journal & Discussion Guide'

The Story: Personal Journal & Discussion Guide

I wrote this companion to The Story for my church and later updated it for Zondervan’s church resource library. It explains historical details and has ten timelines to keep the events in perspective. Practical application questions apply the Bible’s message to the reader’s life. It’s written so that people can read a chapter in The Story, and then answer questions from their Bible. Headings summarize what’s happening, and there are plenty of footnotes with additional details for those who want them. You can get it free from my website (see the link above) or Zondervan’s church resource library.

This excerpt is on Isaiah approaching King Ahaz:

God sent the prophet Isaiah to encourage Ahaz king of Judah not to be afraid, for he wouldn’t let [the kings of Israel and Aram] overthrow him. He told Ahaz to ask for any sign as proof. But Ahaz refused and instead sought Assyria’s help. He voluntarily became a vassal to Assyria’s king, paid him a large tribute, and set up shrines to Assyria’s gods in Jerusalem.

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