Time for a Chronological Bible
Over the last two years, I read a Chronological Study Bible for my personal devotions.
A chronological study Bible puts every passage in the historical order of the events that it narrates. This is different from our regular Bibles, whose books are grouped roughly according to genre.
For instance, all the wisdom writings are put together, as are the prophets (major, then minor), and the New Testament letters (first Paul, then everyone else). The result is that books written at widely separated times in history might be placed right next to each other, despite historical contexts being so different. A chronological study Bible tries to remedy this with its sequential approach.
So what is it like to read such a Bible? The first few books unfold in the expected order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus… until suddenly one encounters Psalm 90, buried deep within Deuteronomy. Why there? Because it is a “Psalm of Moses,” one he apparently wrote near the end of his life. His poignant reflections on human sin and God’s faithfulness offer a fascinating perspective on the long story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.
The books of Joshua and Judges proceed without interruption, but coming into 1 Samuel, some of David’s early Psalms are included. They are interspersed in the narratives of his flight from Saul and his battles with the Philistines. These add delightful colour to the portrait of the godly young man, shepherd, and musician whom we meet in 1 Samuel.
The chronological approach is applied to the New Testament, too. For example, the book of Acts is punctuated by Paul’s letters, written on his missionary journeys or during his various imprisonments. Reading these epistles alongside Acts adds insight and depth to Luke’s description of life in the early Church, complete with its heresies, divisions, and growth.
Accustomed to reading Scripture in its familiar order, this kind of Bible is jarring at first. Passages are sometimes placed in a very different order than normal, such as in Jeremiah. This book’s chronology is notoriously difficult; for instance, Jeremiah 47 is included long before Jeremiah 13!
It can also seem unnatural to jump from one book to another in certain places, like from Zechariah 8 to Ezra 5 and then to Daniel 6. But it’s the historical sequence that determines the order of these passages.
I was surprised by the order in which some events are assumed to have happened. For instance, I expected to read Job sometime during the time of the patriarchs, but his book is included much later in the Old Testament. Extensive footnotes acknowledge when the Biblical chronology is uncertain and when the editors have had to make an informed judgment—which is fair enough.
Any doubled historical accounts (or in the case of the Gospels, even tripled or quadrupled accounts!) are placed together. So there can be an obvious sense of repetition when reading, for instance, about King Hezekiah: first in 2 Kings, then in 2 Chronicles, and also in Isaiah.
But reading these accounts with an eye for the subtle differences between Kings and Chronicles or between Matthew and Luke provides edifying material for reflection.
While reading the Chronological Study Bible felt disjointed at times, I found
many benefits. For example, it was fascinating how God slowly turns up the volume of revelation throughout the centuries. He reveals himself to mankind very early in Scripture, of course, then a while later establishes his covenant with Abraham, yet his spoken words are still few and sparing. As the years go by, God says more and more, like when addressing Moses on the mountain or when speaking through the prophets.
This Bible helpfully highlights the distinct periods of Israel’s history. There was the time of judges, the age of the kings, then the decline of Israel and Judah, the exile, the post-exile period, and then onwards into the New Testament. When we open our Bibles to read a random passage, I wonder if we appreciate these different times and contexts. It is good to reflect on what was unique or challenging about each age, and how God was speaking into the particular situation of his people.
I was also struck by how many prophets appeared in the closing few centuries of Judah, leading up to the exile. Over this relatively short span, I counted some 320 pages of prophecies (Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, and more). Warning after warning, promise after promise, yet God’s people persisted in sin. It is also striking how this loud chorus of prophetic voices suddenly falls silent for 400 years before Christ appears.
And then when Jesus is born in 5 or 6 BC (a curiosity of Biblical chronology that is another story altogether!), the drama of what is happening is spectacular. Jesus speaks so powerfully, so clearly, and reveals God’s glory so vividly (Heb 1:1-2). After such a long period of preparation, reading about the Christ really is an astonishing culmination.
Whenever you read the Scriptures systematically, like in a one or two-year Bible reading plan, you soon notice the repetition of certain themes. Reading Scripture chronologically too, God’s repeated calls ring clear: Do not fear. Trust me.
Obey me. Return to me. You learn that what God wants from his people is unchanging, no matter the time or place.
Reading Scripture on this timeline of thousands of years, I often stood amazed by God’s faithfulness. The LORD started his loving dealings with mankind already in Paradise, whenever that was: 4000 BC? 6000 BC? And then God stayed busy with his people for century after century, in the slow build-up to the “fullness of time” and the appearance of Jesus (Gal 4:4).
We’re generally ready to give up on difficult people after a couple years—or a couple weeks!
But throughout these thousands of years of messy history and shocking rebellion, God stays faithful. He calls his Church to repentance, but always holds out the message of his grace.
A Suggestion for 2023
Perhaps you’ve been in the habit of reading through Scripture on a regular basis for years now, trying to complete the Bible according to one plan or another. Maybe you are keen to try something different? Let me commend to you a Chronological Study Bible, which is available in the NIV, NKJV, NLT, among other versions. Begin in Genesis 1, and read all the way through (and yes, this Bible still ends at Revelation 22!).
I am confident that you will gain a rich new perspective on the story of the Scriptures, the unfolding account of God’s gracious dealings with sinners.