Saturday, June 10, 2023

Mining the Minors: The Halftime Show

Back in September of 2020, we began our journey through the twelve Minor Prophets. Slightly less than three years later, we are roughly halfway complete, having covered Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum and Habakkuk. It’s been an interesting experiment so far, and one I intend to complete, Lord willing, but it is starting to look like at least a five year project at this point.

I especially dread Zechariah. In a good way.

So then, this is as good a time as any to stop and take stock, and maybe make a few more general observations about the nature of Old Testament prophecy and the benefits of studying it.

A Massive Success?

Metrics like pageviews and total readers via email help us assess the reader interest level in the various subjects about which we post. By that standard, I won’t say this series is exactly a massive success. Bob Deffinbaugh refers to Zephaniah as “the least known book of the entire Bible”. I’ll wager that if you made a list of the least read books of scripture, the Minor Prophets would occupy most of the Top Ten spots. It is hardly surprising to discover that multi-part expositions of books Christians don’t read will themselves go largely unread. Our Mining the Minors post in any given week is frequently our least-viewed feature, and I don’t expect that to change as we work our way through the final six Minor Prophets.

That’s okay. I didn’t start this project to generate pageviews. There are better ways to do that. But the online world has no pressing need of another commentary or sequential exposition of Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews or John. The good ones have all been written and are out there waiting to be enjoyed. I’ve heard endless sermons on the New Testament, and will undoubtedly hear endless more if the Lord leaves me here a couple more decades. I’m happy to leave that to people who have the interest, spiritual drive and expertise to find new and helpful ways of treading the same ground.

Stanley, I Presume?

Actually, I started this project because of a guy named Andy Stanley. Andy is a well-known pastor and writer who takes the position that Christians should “unhitch” our message from the Old Testament, and stick to the New, both in gospel preaching and in discipling. My disagreements with Andy’s ideas are well documented in five posts accessible from our Book Reviews page, so I won’t rehearse them here. But the fact that a major evangelical media figure disparages the reading of the Old Testament (something the apostle Paul actually commanded) inspired me to make it the primary focus of my personal study for the next few years.

For me, it just wasn’t enough to do a “flyover” type post on each Minor Prophet, or to pick a well-known verse here or there to exposit. I wanted to get granular with these books. If anyone else enjoys it, I’m deeply grateful. But that’s a bonus. This is primarily for me.

Patterns and Trends

Six books into a verse by verse study, it is impossible for even the dullest mind to avoid noticing certain patterns or trends. Despite differences in style, amount of historical content, method by which God communicated his truth, target audience, prophetic trajectory and so on, it should be obvious that the prophets are all saying fundamentally the same thing: You’re sinning, and God wants to you stop. It might be idolatry. It might be injustice. It might be greed, or hypocrisy, or bad leadership, or oppression, or mimicking the nations. But God was not happy with the way certain people were behaving, and he was determined to bring their misconduct to an end and to give them their just reward in due time.

To be brutally honest, the reader doing a verse by verse study is bound to find this thematic repetition a bit tedious. How many times did God need to tell the same people the same things?

Well, he didn’t. Not really. Some prophets addressed Judah. Some addressed Israel. Some addressed Edom, Moab, Ammon, Philistia, Assyria or Babylon. It wasn’t always the same message to the same people. Moreover, the messages of the prophets span a period of 400 years, from approximately 800-400 BC. For the most part, they addressed different generations of Israelites and Judeans.

The Need for Repetition

Think about your own church: that ten-part series on Christian Parenting the elders sponsored back in 1995 is not producing much fruit today in the lives of the believers who currently attend it. Your church membership has probably turned over at least twice since that series. Among those families who were present for the original messages, the ones who need that teaching most today were probably gurgling away in the nursery in 1995, or perhaps not yet conceived. Even those who heard it back then have probably forgotten most of it by now.

And if it is necessary for Christians to repeat the same teaching over and over again in each new generation, how much more was it necessary for God to send his word repeatedly to the generations of Israelites and Judeans in need of reform, repentance, instruction and sometimes a little comfort too. Most did not have the Word in written form like we do.

Taking It for Granted

What seems repetitive to us is only that way because we have all the prophets in one place at one time. Israel and Judah did not. The word of the Lord was far too easily forgotten, as Josiah discovered. Knowledge of his will was not a thing to be taken for granted, as we do so often today.

Furthermore, the endless (apparent) repetition of the message over the centuries tells us something very important about the character of God. Peter sums it up perfectly when he says the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”. The proof of that verse is the Old Testament prophets. Four hundred years of preaching, patience and grace. God does not give up on his people. He does not write them off. He will not give up on you, and he will not give up on me. When he disciplines, it is with restoration and fellowship in view. Even diabolically wicked Nineveh got 100 years before the Lord finally destroyed it. That’s grace.

The Supersessionist Stranglehold

I believe one of the major reasons supersessionism has got such a stranglehold on evangelicals in our present moment is a failure to regularly read the prophets, Minor and Major. If you really read and study these books, it is absolutely impossible to believe the Church is the only thing God cares about, and that Israel as a nation has been consigned to the dustbin of history. The sheer volume of ministry directed at God’s people over the centuries, and the precious promises contained side by side with threats of judgment, renders the notion of Israel as a failed experiment on the way to a glorious, successful recovery of God’s plans and purposes in the Church Age so improbable as to not merit serious consideration.

If you don’t read these books, you don’t know that. One of my Reformed friends online bluntly confesses that the biggest hurdle he has to overcome in his Replacement Theology is the final few chapters of Ezekiel. He just can’t bring himself to say God didn’t mean it, and that he changed his mind. Those passages are too detailed, too specific, and too glorious to discard with any intellectual or spiritual ease.

How does he handle the cognitive dissonance? He tries not to think about it too much.

These Things Happened

Finally, I read the Old Testament because it is the best possible set of illustrations of the truths we have laid out for us in the New. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Sure, we could make up our own personal illustrations of New Testament truth if we wished, but they would not be anywhere near as universal or relevant. More importantly, they wouldn’t be God’s illustrations.

I don’t want to fall. To be fair, I don’t think Andy Stanley does either. One day maybe he will come around and figure out where he needs to plant his feet. The New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old. We need the whole counsel of God, including the bits that appear more antiquated, harder to understand, and less directly applicable to our own lives.

They are more applicable than we know.

On to Zephaniah next week in this space.

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