How does the redemptive historical context of the prophets inform our understanding of their message? This essay answers this question and identifies an erroneous use of the prophets that results from taking their message out of context.
Like other authors whose books are contained in the Bible, the message of the prophets (those who wrote Scripture and those who preceded the writing prophets) must be understood in their redemptive historical context. This context includes their audiences (Israel and/or the Gentiles), their times (during the period from the giving of the Mosaic Law until the closing of the OT, and their messages (proclaiming old covenant blessings and curses, and preaching the coming salvation through the Abrahamic promise).
It is helpful to remember that a prophet’s primary function was not to foretell the future, but rather to “forth-tell” what the future would hold if his audience did not heed the prophet’s warnings. The difference is that prophets read Israel’s covenant stipulations, recognized that the people were not obeying the covenant, and therefore warned that the Lord of the covenant would exercise the curse sanctions of the covenant if they did not repent. In other words, they were primarily preachers of righteousness who urged the people to faithfulness, who occasionally uttered predictive prophecy which was either grounded in the revealed covenant law or the promise of salvation given to Abraham. That the prophets ministered to Israel in the land of Canaan during the period of the Mosaic-Davidic theocracy must control our interpretation of their messages today. They served as God’s emissaries to Israel and the nations during the redemptive epoch when God was demonstrating on the world-stage in typological (shadowy) form what the kingdom of God would look like at its inauguration and consummation in the new covenant. Goldsworthy says the prophets who preceded the writing prophets ministered during a time when Israel’s destiny was still in the balance—God’s people were forsaking the Lord and his law, but there was still time to repent and avoid nationwide exile. On the other hand, he says that the writing prophets threatened God’s kings and people with covenant curses sooner rather than later if they did not repent and seek the Lord. This might be oversimplifying the data a bit, but the general thrust of Goldsworthy’s case is sound. The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were careening headlong toward the certainty of judgment and exile, but the Lord of the Mosaic covenant is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The gospel promise of the seed, the land, and the blessing could not be frustrated by Israel’s wickedness and unbelief. And so God’s chosen prophets, who spoke his very words, delivered a time-conditioned message: the people governed under the old covenant would be judged and forsaken for breaking that covenant, but those same people could hope in the Lord of salvation to not ultimately forsake his people nor forget his promises to the patriarchs. Final judgment and salvation would in the eschatological kingdom of God, inaugurated at the humble coming of Jesus Christ (future to the prophets but past to us) and consummated at his exalted second coming (future to the prophets and us).
Understanding the prophets in their redemptive historical context is imperative if we are to avoid misinterpreting and misapplying their messages today. It is quite easy to ignore this context when we read the prophets lamenting social evils, confronting religious sins, or commanding the people to perform some action. For example, in Malachi 3:1-7 describes the Lord suddenly coming to his temple in swift judgment on what appears to be the Day of the Lord. If we miss the fact that Malachi was a post-exilic prophet preaching to an Israelite audience with a rebuilt temple looking for the coming of the kingdom, we may misinterpret the passage by looking for a still future fulfillment in the modern state of Israel with a still-future rebuilt temple. Understanding the context and flow of redemptive history during the post-exilic reestablishment of Israel’s cult and culture will alert us that this passage has already been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus (and his messenger John the Baptist) as we read in the NT (Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). Another example: Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most abused and misquoted passages in the whole Bible. The promise (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”) is almost never set in its proper historical (or literary) context. It is not a general promise for Christians to “name and claim” as their life verse. It is rather an example of God’s urging the exiled Israelites still living in Babylon to return to the promised land because the Lord is not finished working out his plan through them of accomplishing the redemption of Christ. The verse is part of Jeremiah’s letter to those exiles (see Jer 29:1-3), which had a specific audience, purpose, and goal. It cannot be lifted out of context and applied to Christians today without accounting for 2500 years of subsequent redemptive historical developments.