When people ask me what I teach at Puritan Reformed Seminary, they usually look deeply puzzled when I say, “Biblical Counseling, Hebrew Exegesis, Leadership, Ministry, and Preaching.”
“Biblical Counseling AND Old Testament exegesis?” is often the eye-brow raising question. It’s as if I’ve just said that I teach How to Knit AND Engineering.
There is a disadvantage in having such a wide teaching responsibility; I cannot specialize as much as I’d sometimes like to; I cannot hope to keep up with all the books that come out in these various fields.
However, that’s a sacrifice I and the Seminary have so far been prepared to make because of the advantage of cross-fertilization, and especially in the two areas of Biblical Counseling and biblical exegesis. Every time I teach my two counseling courses (Foundations of Biblical Counseling; Issues in Biblical Counseling), that’s followed in the next two semesters by my two Old Testament Exegesis courses (Pentateuch & Historical Books; Poets & Prophets).
But how do counseling and the Old Testament fit together?
First, when I choose which passages to focus on in my Old Testament exegesis classes, I gravitate towards the texts that will help my students pastor and counsel people. Take a sampling of some of the passages we exegete from the Poetic books:
- Job 19 equips us to counsel people struggling with assurance.
- Job 23 helps us minister to people in the fire of affliction.
- Psalm 8 encourages the young and the weak that God can use even them to silence His enemies.
- Psalm 16 gives hope of the resurrection and heaven to those who are dying.
- Psalm 42 argues the despairing along the path to trust and peace.
- Proverbs 1 points us to the source of all wisdom and the sufficiency of Scripture.
- Proverbs 8 assures us of the Lord’s eternal purposes and good will towards us.
- Ecclesiastes 1-2 demonstrates the emptiness of this world and yet also the value and significance of a simple God-centered life.
- Song of Solomon celebrates and commends the highest experiences of love, first in marriage, but calling ultimately to enjoy God’s love as the climactic love.
I could go on, but I hope that gives a flavor of how useful the Old Testament is in counseling.
I was recently speaking at a conference where I used Psalm 77 and Philippians 4 to teach people how to counsel themselves and others. Psalm 77 provides an especially helpful structure and pattern for helping people retrain their thinking patterns. Kind of like a pre-CBT CBT.
The Old Testament also provides the essential foundation for understanding what we once were (Genesis 1-2), what happened to us (Genesis 3:1-13), and God’s purposes of Gospel restoration (Genesis 3:14ff).
It’s almost impossible to know what we are aiming at in counseling without knowing what God first designed us to be. And it’s equally difficult to understand what’s wrong with us without knowing the impact and consequences of the fall into sin. But the early glimmer of Gospel hope, even in the midst of so much destruction and devastation is also hugely encouraging when we are facing the worst human scenarios in our own day.
God has provided us with countless individual Old Testament biographies as examples to follow or flee (Romans 15:4). And that’s not only true on a personal level; the whole history of Israel is full of examples to learn from and apply in counseling situations (1 Cor. 10:11).
Maybe we could say that the Old Testament prophets were the first biblical counselors. They took the texts of the past, especially Deuteronomy, and applied them powerfully to the culture and church of their own day. They are wonderful examples of courageously confronting sin, of incisively getting to heart issues, but also of giving Gospel hope, particularly towards the end of their books, and especially in their compassionate comforting of the true people of God.
Counseling God’s Character
One of the questions that I’m always urging students to ask Old Testament passages is: “What does this reveal about the character of God?” What attribute, what characteristic of God is highlighted here? What does this incident, event, experience tell us about God, especially the redemptive character of God?
Counseling His Story
Ultimately, though, perhaps the greatest benefit of studying the Old Testament for counseling is getting a bigger and better sense of the redemptive plan of God as revealed and advanced throughout redemptive history. Only in the light of this BIG picture do we begin to make sense of our little snapshot of life.
As the ancient Biblical story becomes more and more woven into our fabric, it strengthens, supports, and sustains us in ways that convey sometimes inexplicable but always incalculable blessing as we face the challenges of our 21st-century lives.