“Then spoke he to them in parables saying …” — sound familiar? Parables are a common occurrence in the New Testament. But parables — lifestyle stories used to communicate divine truth in a dynamic way — are also prominent in the Old Testament.
Swallowing a bit of my theological pride, I must admit that the idea of an Old Testament parable was new to me when I discovered them early in my ministry. Yet the old covenant is vividly enhanced by the lasting impression these stories preserve for us.
Much like Jesus’ parables, the Old Testament word Marshal means “similar to.” These stories portray truth by example, indicating that there is something behind the tradition of the story or illustration. As the concept of Old Testament parables developed, it moved beyond a mere comparison of ideas to supply a dynamic connection between the human and the divine.
Whether the form is of an ancient proverb or a prophetic expression, parabolic sayings in the Old Testament provoke personal reflection and reveal divine truth. Because of this flavor, Old Testament parables tend to be characterized by an element of mystery which accomplishes more than a simple illustration.
Parables offer a personal, and thus believable contact with the holy. With spellbinding force we personally become the characters of the text. Parables extend timeless truth in an attractive package. And while the interpretation expects concentrated study, the dynamic of its meaning is formed by the simplicity of the message. In our complex world biblical truth still offers an understandable and sufficient solution to all of life’s challenges.
Many Old Testament passages qualify as parabolic sayings. These story-illustrations of real life offer reflective glances that direct our attention to the critical issues of our Christian pilgrimage. Experience these three samples and feast on the glory of the old covenant, in parabolic form.
A Privilege Refused
(Judges 9:7-15)
God offers unique privileges that belong to His people alone, when they are obedient to Him. Jotham relates a sad story of a wrong choice. The parable records that God’s people refused a brilliant privilege that had been extended to them. Refusing God’s privilege is self destructive but reversible. Discover the horror of losing the privilege, and the brilliance of reversing the decision.
A refused privilege forfeits eruptive possibilities. God had chosen to enlarge the horizon of His people. Three times leadership was sought to fill the position of the throne. And three times the privilege was refused. The significance of their choice is interesting.
The olive tree represents a choice for healing and wholeness. The fig tree speaks of the sweetness of the presence of the Lord. And the vine suggests a network of fellowship, growth, and vitality. Together they represent the endless possibilities of God’s power and potential. The design was a cosmic touch by the divine on the mundane.
Jotham’s prophetic voice was a welcome sound for some. Others heard him with a bitter reluctance as he hinted for the first time of a remedy for their predicament. “If you want God to hear you,” he says, “hear me!” (vs. 7). God has always been in the enlarging business. Yet God’s people had become satisfied with a maintenance attitude.
Israel discovered that to refuse to allow the Lord to enlarge your life spiritually is to live on a dulled edge, miserably. Why?
A refused privilege extends haunting excuses. The olive tree refused a life of service, choosing rather his reluctance to leave or forsake his “honor.” The suggestion is that obedience to God’s call is a lower, lesser, style of life. The fig tree refused to leave his production. Though God sought to entrust a global kind of rule to this figure, there was no vision to accommodate the call to the extraordinary.
The vine wanted no leadership role, just a participatory assignment. Like Gideon — the man in hiding, threshing wheat at a wine press whom God addressed as a mighty man of valor — God was calling something out of the figure of the vine that he himself did not know existed.
A refused privilege reveals an unlikely successor. In verse 15 the briar accepts the opportunity to become the ruler. Ironically, and profoundly, this thorn bush offers his shadow as security, his thorns as credentials. While thorns are not a desired style of leadership, and the shadow is never an illustration of security (much less the shadow of a thorn bush), God often uses the willing and the unlikely in dynamic ways. Excuses are never accepted as valid when God approaches us with possibilities.
When you become the focus of divine privilege, refusal ensures a defeated position, while acceptance wins divine pleasure.
A Broken Trust
(1 Kings 20:39-43)
We live in a changing, complex world that moves so rapidly we are sometimes willing to believe just about anything. I read, for example, about the man who called the airport and asked how long it took to fly to New York. The airline clerk said, “Just a minute, sir,” to which the caller replied, “Thank you” and hung up. While that story seems amusing on the surface, it is an arresting thought when we listen spiritually to the voice of God with the same punctuating quickness.
Ahab, King of Israel, listened too quickly to the wrong voice and broke the trust God had placed in him. Parabolically, prophetically, the agent of the Lord entered the unfolding drama to highlight in bold living color the tragedy of believing a voice other than the voice of God. A broken trust can be avoided by discovering the horror of the results.
A broken trust manipulates an initial trust. The prelude to this scene tells of Benhadad’s destruction being committed to the care of king Ahab. Yet through a strange turn of events Benhadad, king of Syria, negotiated a deal with Ahab whereby Benhadad would restore all of the conquered land in return for his freedom.
It is interesting to note that the name Benhadad literally means, “man of my ban.” So convincing was his proposal that Ahab accepted the deal as an alternative to the command of God.
Often we assume the guilt of Ahab in defying a divine trust. The manipulation of our career demands, church leadership positions, social commitments, and academic pursuits all offer alternatives that God refuses to accept. Any time we yield to an alternative to God’s direction in our lives, sin has manipulated our allegiance to a lesser position.
Believers must always adhere to the work of the Spirit of God, and never manipulate what the Spirit is performing. Every act of manipulation is an act of brokenness which results in spiritual misery and tragedy.
A broken trust also magnifies the potency of God’s word. Twice in this story the power and importance of God’s word is displayed. In verse 35 the prophet enacts the authority of a divine mandate. The refusal to slay the prophet at the command of God results in the refuser’s death. In verses 39-40 the prophet brings the intention of God into exact focus with the actions of Ahab being called into question. The oracle of God was non-negotiable.
Ahab learned the importance of knowing and doing the command of God regardless of the alternatives that appeared legitimate.
A broken trust mandates a personal responsibility. Along with Old Testament counterparts like David and Nathan, Ahab realized his sin had pointed him out. His actions pronounced his own self-incriminating judgment. No one else would be questioned. By his actions he assumed the punishment that God had reserved for Benhadad.
So significant is this event in the life of Ahab that the Bible says he went away displeased and heavy. Like you, Ahab had the choice to give the story a different ending. You would think he would have learned his lesson. But notice the opening events of chapter 21, Ahab is manipulating the word of the Lord again.
You are no doubt guilty, even as I am, of a broken trust. But the grace of God allows us the opportunity to change the ending of the story. Ahab refused to change the story. But with a new dedication, your personal obligation can reverse the tragedy.
An Assumed Superiority
(2 Kings 14:8-14)
Throughout the time of the divided kingdom, regional and national conflict plagued Israel and Judah. A case in point is Amaziah’s declaration of war on King Jehoash and Israel. Following his victory over Edom, Amaziah assumed a position of military superiority which led to his embarrassment.
Though Amaziah’s predicament is sometimes repeated in our lives, understanding of the parable of the thistle and the cedar gives a prescription for a redeemable future.
An assumed superiority often erupts from a godly victory. Amaziah’s victory was certainly noteworthy. Judah had become a world power to be dealt with. Yet upon his return, Amaziah became a slave to his pride. His challenge to Jehoash was bold: “come, let us look one another in the face” (verse 8). Jehoash’s response was just as bold: “thine heart hath lifted thee up: glory of this, and tarry at home: for why shouldest thou meddle to thy hurt, that thou shouldest fall, even thou, and Judah with thee?” (verse 10).
Amaziah’s challenge was a measure of swords to put Israel in her place for being aligned with Edom against Judah. Literally, Jehoash’s keen understanding declared, “thy heart has lifted up thy mind.” Pulsating across the ages is one episode after another where spiritual victories evoke a sense of pride which cause us not to think clearly.
An assumed superiority also assumes the authority of God. If you follow the story closely, Amaziah blatantly and intentionally usurped God’s authority. First, he refused to recognize God as the author of that military victory. Further, he installed Edom’s idols as objects of worship in Jehovah’s Jerusalem temple. In effect Amaziah stepped into God’s shoes, assuming a sort of divine authority and responsibility for the victory.
A prayerless life always assumes the needlessness of God’s contact. The result was Jehoash’s parable. In Lebanon there was a thistle and a cedar. The thistle said that the cedar’s daughter should be given to his son as a wife. But a wild beast passed by and trod down the thistle.
Even in a divided state, Israel and Judah were still one people. Two further statements are even more revealing. Not only did the thistle claim equality with the cedar in the eyes of the people, but the thistle seems to claim a superiority by insisting the cedar’s daughter should be given to his son as a wife. At that moment, a wild beast appears suddenly, to set forth the possibility, if not the inevitability, of the unexpected destruction of the proud man.
In spite of the warning, Israel and Judah went to war. Israel was victorious and Jehoash rendered the city of Jerusalem defenseless by tearing down a large section of the protective wall.
The sad result of a proud man’s determination has yet another side.
An assumed superiority is also redeemable. Beaten, exposed, taken captive, and militarily humiliated, Amaziah was chastened. Verse 15 tells us that in time Amaziah returned to reign fifteen years in Judah after the death of Jehoash. The attitude that plummeted Amaziah to his humilation, once corrected, established an even greater potential value and usefulness for the Lord.
Pride often results in the wake of a spiritual victory. Any time that pride forsakes the direction and will of God — assuming a false superiority — there is a wild beast waiting to cause you ruin. Yet the situation is redeemable.
Many other texts offer exciting Old Testament parabolic messages. Consider the following outlines as seed thoughts for a possible series on Old Testament parables.
The UnSecret (2 Samuel 12:1-7)
1. A Hidden Taste Test (1-4)
2. A Self-Incriminating Sentence (5-7)
3. A Personal Pardon Pronounced (13)
Avenging Grace (2 Samuel 14:4ff)
1. Diagnoses the Disease (5)
2. Deploys the Defendant (9)
3. Diverts the Dilemma (21)
A Faulty Graft (Isaiah 5:1ff)
1. An Un-natural Substance (2)
2. An Un-natural Growth (4)
3. An Un-natural Alternative (5-6)
The Crippled Christian Spirit (Jeremiah 13:1ff)
1. The Sickness (10)
2. The Symptoms (10)
3. The Standard (11)
4. The Solution (15-16)
An Invaded Heart (Ezekiel 17:1ff)
1. The Invasion of an Extraordinary Covenant (22ff)
2. The Invasion of an Ordinary Corruption (11ff)
A Deceptive Alliance (Ezekiel 19:1ff)
1. A Synthetic Consecration (13)
2. A Fabricated Confession (11-12)
3. An Internal Concession (14)
Beyond the Horizon (Ezekiel 24:1ff)
1. Failure of the Past (11-14)
2. Success of the Present (1-3)

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