Eighth Century BC Prophets for Twenty-First Century AD Believers

I heard a disparaging comment regarding Lutherans. “They are too hung up on the sixteenth century.” Further conversation with the commenter made it clear that he thought too much time was invested in the study of the Reformation, especially the background for the Lutheran Confessions. I was a bit taken aback because he happened to be an active member of a congregation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. So, I engaged him in conversation about the benefit of a robust understanding of the confessional writings not only because members of Synod (both clergy and congregations) pledge themselves to those confessions but also because our confessional documents are eminently practical. From teaching the faith to pastoral care for those with burdened consciences, the Lutheran Confessions are a treasure for the daily life of the church.

He did not find my words convincing. Yet his reservations about our investment in the study of the sixteenth century prompted me to think about how much time I invest in studying the eighth century BC, nearly two and a half millennia prior to the Reformation. The great prophets of that century—Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, Jonah—have long grabbed my attention and still do. And in order to best understand their message, I give heed to the historical-cultural setting of their day. The better I understand their setting, the better I understand their message.

But am I “too hung up on the eighth century BC”? While my colleagues in the Department of Historical Theology could articulate this far more winsomely and while there is far more to be said, I offer two basic observations regarding not only the benefit, but even the necessity, of getting “hung up on the eighth century BC.” First, that the historical-cultural setting of the eighth-century BC prophets is different than our own is inescapable. How they speak (not just that they speak Hebrew, but what concerns them), the events swirling about them, and so much more can keep the prophets at an arm’s length. I cannot rightly understand them if I don’t get “hung up on the eighth century BC” (its cultural values/norms, its historical events, etc.).

Traversing nearly three millennia along with the significant difference between western and semitic culture requires no small investment. Is it worth it? The answer is a resounding yes because of my second observation. Though the historical-cultural divide is formidable, human beings do not change. Once the prophets are understood in their historical-cultural context, it is apparent that they are confronting the same challenges that have beset humanity in every age including our own. The sinful nature remains addicted to the same sins. And in every age the Creator’s order stands as his goodness for us. Even more, the grace of Yahweh is present in every age. The eighth-century prophets pointed forward to the coming of Christ; we rejoice that he has come even as we look forward to his coming again on the last day.

Why get hung up on the eighth century BC (or the sixteenth century, for that matter)? Because there you will find Christ at work for his beloved creation.

Kevin Golden is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.





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