Salvation in the Old Testament

Today’s post is a lecture that I gave recently at a congregation in Oklahoma City.  I hope you find it interesting and encouraging!

Introduction

The word “saved” (or “salvation” or any of their various forms) is used in different ways in the Bible.  For example, the same word translated “saved” in the New Testament is also translated “healed,” “made whole,” “do well,” and “preserve.”  The basic idea is taking someone from a bad state and placing them in a better state.  Taking someone from sickness to health, from slavery to freedom, from sinner to saint, from earthly life to heavenly life—the Bible uses the Greek word sozo to describe each of these transitions.

The topic for this lesson is salvation in the Old Testament, but I wanted you to understand before we get there that the word “saved” in the Bible doesn’t always mean salvation from sin (though it is also used in that way).  In fact, most of the time that we see that word in the Old Testament, it doesn’t specifically describe salvation from sin.

The Main Meaning of “Salvation” in the Old Testament

God sent Isaiah to King Hezekiah, to tell him to “Set your house in order: for you shall die and not live” (Isaiah 38:1).  But Hezekiah went to God in tears, pleading for more time.  And after God granted him another 15 years, Hezekiah wrote the words “The LORD was ready to save me” (Isaiah 38:20).  This is salvation from sickness.  But this isn’t how it is normally used.

Hannah was horribly depressed.  She was one of two wives to her husband Elkanah.  His other wife had given him children, but Hannah was barren, and the other wife missed no opportunity to rub that in her face.  We all know the story about how the family went to Shiloh, and Hannah went off by herself to pray, mouthing the words, but making no sound.  She was praying for a son, and said that in return, she would dedicate him to God.  After her prayer was answered, and she fulfilled her vow to God, she prayed again, this time with the words, “My heart rejoices in the LORD, my horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over my enemies, because I rejoice in Thy salvation” (1 Samuel 2:1).  This is salvation from the mocking of her husband’s other wide, salvation from her barrenness.  But this isn’t how it is normally used.

Read these passages, which are just a sampling, and see for yourself what the primary type of salvation was in the Old Testament.

When the Israelites were standing on the shores of the Red Sea, the Egyptians hot on their heels, scared that they were going to be killed, Moses said:

Moses said to the people, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will show to you today: for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you shall see them again no more forever!” (Exodus 14:13).

After Moses raise his rod, the Red Sea split, and the Israelites walked across on dry ground.  When the Egyptians tried to follow them, God brought the walls of water crashing down on them, drowning Pharaoh’s entire army.  The inspired record then says:

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore (Exodus 14:30).

Forty years later, the Israelites are at the side of another body of water, the Jordan River, and Moses is giving a series of sermons, delivering to this new generation the laws and commands of God, as well as the promises.  Hear what he says to them:

It shall be, when you are come night unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, you approach this day unto the battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; for the LORD your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4).

This is the same thread that runs throughout the books of history.  Judges 6 and 7 uses the word several times to describe the salvation that God would bring to Israel by the hands of Gideon and his 300 men.  Salvation from the Philistines is mentioned several times in the books of Samuel.  Here’s just one of those passages:

By the mouth of my servant David I will save my people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies (2 Samuel 3:18).

In the books of Kings and Chronicles, there are instances of the people going to God in prayer, crying “Save us!”  But these are all asking for physical salvation from their enemies.

Now therefore, O LORD our God, I beseech Thee, save Thou us out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that Thou art the LORD God, even Thou only (2 Kings 19:19).

What we need to recognize in all of these is that they weren’t asking for salvation from sin; they were asking for physical deliverance from their enemies.  But make no mistake about it, there was a spiritual component to this as well, as we will see.

Old Testament Salvation Based on their Attitudes and Actions

In the book of Judges, we see over and over the rollercoaster of the Israelites—they go from faithful to fallen, then God sends a nation to conquer them.  Eventually, they cry out to the Lord in repentance, and God sends a deliverer, a judge, to save them from their enemies.  In short, God didn’t save them when they continually rejected Him.  This is a constant theme throughout the entire Bible (Old Testament and New Testament).  If you doubt it, just read Hebrews 10:26-31.  Moses, soon before his death, told the Israelites that they needed to learn the lesson of faithfulness:

It shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I comman thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee and overtake thee. … And thou shalt grope at noonday as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways: and thou shalt be only oppressed and spoiled evermore, and no man [literally, “no one”] shall save thee (Deuteronomy 28:15, 29).

Obedience was required if they wanted physical salvation.  But so was humility.  After David had been saved from Saul (The king of God’s people, the Israelites), he was inspired to write:

“The afflicted people [“humble people,” NKJV] thou wilt save, but Your eyes are upon the haughty, that You may bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28).

Here is a contrast being made between two people who are in a covenant with God.  On one hand, you’ve got the mighty King Saul, the haughty, high-minded King Saul.  On the other hand, you’ve got the humble servant of God, David.  Being saved physically in the Old Testament was based on one’s attitude towards God.  And brethren, our salvation today is based on our attitude of humility as well—Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up (James 4:10).

He will save the humble person (Job 22:29).

The sixth Psalm shows the heart of a humble person before God, including these words:

Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak: O LORD, heal me, for my bones are vexed.  My soul is also sore vexed: but Thou, O LORD, how long?  Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: of save me for Thy mercies’ sake (Psalm 6:2-4).

When David’s son Solomon went before the people after the completion of the magnificent temple in Jerusalem, he preached to them and offered a public prayer to God.  In it, he showed the connection between their physical deliverance and their spiritual condition.  Hear his words:

If they sin against Thee (for there is no man which sinneth not), and Thou be angry with them, and deliver them over before their enemies, and they carry them away captives unto a land far off or near.  Yet if they bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captive, and turn and pray to thee in the land of their captivity, saying, “We have sinned, we have done amiss, and have dealt wickedly”; if they return to thee with all their heart and all their soul in the land of their captivity wither they have carried them captives, and pray toward their land which thou hast given to their fathers, and toward the city which thou hast chose, and toward the house which I have built for thy name; then hear thou from the heavens, even from thy dwelling place, their prayer and their supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive thy people which have sinned against thee (2 Chronicles 6:36-39).

Without any doubt, the lost people of God, in order to expect salvation, had to repent of their sins against God.  It was a requirement for their salvation.  But I want you to notice something very specific from this passage, and that is:

Forgiveness (and therefore Salvation from Sin) Existed Under the Old Testament.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that the people under the Old Testament weren’t forgiven, their sins were just “rolled forward” until the cross.  I wish someone would give me book, chapter, and verse for that, because I’ve never seen it.  Now, I will readily agree that the forgiveness, and thus salvation from sin, under the Old Testament was on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:15 makes that pretty clear), but that doesn’t mean forgiveness somehow didn’t exist under the Old Testament.

The Law of Moses is filled with all the various sacrifices which had to be offered in order for someone to receive forgiveness of their sins (see the book of Leviticus).  When you knew you had sinned in a certain area, it was off to the priest so you could offer a sacrifice.  You might wonder why God commanded these sacrifices to be offered, and there are some very good reasons for it: (1) to show that sin deserves death.  Have you ever considered that it was God’s amazing grace that allowed people to offer animal sacrifices to atone for their sins?  Since sin deserves death (Romans 1:28-32, 6:23), God could have required the death of the sinner—but in most cases He didn’t.  (2) To make people think about the cost of sin.  Animals weren’t cheap, and the animals that God required for sacrifices weren’t the cheap ones (unless the person was extremely poor and couldn’t afford one of the other animals).  Imagine you’re a farmer, and you’ve sinned.  Your sin just cost you one of your best cows.  Do you know how much a cow sells for today?  Do you think you could easily lose that much money each time you wanted forgiveness from God?  It would act as a deterrent of sorts, because someone might think twice before sinning when they realize what it is going to cost them.

But even more than sacrifice, what was really required for forgiveness of a child of God under the Old Testament was (1) confession of sin, (2) repentance, and (3) a humble spirit.  People could offer sacrifices all day long, but if their heart wasn’t right, it didn’t matter.  Psalm 51 is David begging God for forgiveness for what he did with Bathsheba and to her husband Uriah.  In verse 3 he confesses: “I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.”  In verse 13 (among other places) he shows his repentance: “I will teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.”  He shows his humble spirit in verses 16-17: “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else I would give it.  Thou delightest not in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

To add to the reality of salvation from sin under the Old Testament, let’s look at Ezekiel 3:17-21:

Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning for me.  When I say to the wicked, “Thou shalt surely die;” and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.  Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling-block before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.  Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou has delivered thy soul.

Not a bit of this statement from God is about salvation from something physical.  This is completely about being saved from their sin.  If they die in their iniquity, they are lost eternally; but if they repent, their soul is saved.  This was written to Ezekiel, who was preaching to people in Babylonian captivity—people who, for the most part, would never return to their home of Judah.  There was no physical salvation for the majority of the people Ezekiel preached to.  My friends, this is speaking of spiritual salvation, salvation from sin!

It all pointed to Jesus Christ

Later on in Ezekiel, the prophet spoke on behalf of God and foretold that God would:

save them out of all of their dwelling-places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God.  And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one Shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them (Ezekiel 37:23b-24)

David had been dead and gone for hundreds of years when this was written, but the Jews knew that God had foretold a descendant of David would rule over His people.  This descendant was known as the Messiah in Hebrew, or in Greek, Christ.

The apostle Paul helps us to see that the physical salvation that the Israelites experienced in coming out of Egypt and through the Red Sea was a type, a picture of what salvation would be in the New Testament:

I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).

Just as they were baptized, leaving slavery behind, being made free in crossing the Red Sea (a baptism into Moses), we are baptized, leaving slavery to sin behind, being made free in being baptized into Christ.

The physical salvations of the Old Testament point forward to the spiritual salvation in Jesus Christ!

Conclusion

If you take nothing else from this lesson, remember this one thing: Though salvation in the Old Testament was usually a reference to a physical deliverance from enemies, it was still based on the obedience and repentance of the people; and ultimately gives us a picture of salvation in the New Testament.

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament of God’s children losing their salvation, and we’ve already looked at passages that showed what was required for them to get it back: confession, repentance, and a humble spirit.

If you’re a child of God who has gone astray, take this lesson to heart and come back to God.

 

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