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Hymn 272 “When All the World was Cursed”


God had not spoken to His people for 430 years.  More than four centuries had come and gone since Malachi had declared God’s final Old Testament promise, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”  (Malachi 4:5)

The prolonged silence was broken, and that final prophecy fulfilled, when an angel of the Lord appeared to the elderly priest Zacharias as he was burning incense in the temple.  The angel’s message was that Malachi’s prophesied forerunner of the Messiah would be born by Elisabeth, the barren wife of Zacharias.  “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear fell upon him.  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. . . .  He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.  He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:11-17)

We know that son of Zacharias and Elisabeth as John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.  Hymn 272 in The Lutheran Hymnal is the only hymn in the section designated “ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST.”  Verse 1 says, With true forerunner’s zeal/ The Greater One he named,/ And Him, as yet unknown,/ As Savior he proclaimed.” What?  “As yet unknown”?  Yes, John was preparing the way for the Messiah even before he knew Who that Messiah was.  That recognition would come later, when he saw the sign that God had given him. (see John 1:33).

Although it was not until Jesus’ baptism that John recognized Him as the Messiah, he had in fact met and recognized this same Messiah some thirty years earlier, when both John and Jesus were in their mothers’ wombs.  Did you notice that the angel told Zacharias that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”?  Read Luke 1:39-41 for the account.  Johann Olearius1 therefore writes of John, Before he yet was born,/ He leaped in joyful meeting,/ Confessing Him as Lord/ Whose mother he was greeting.” (v. 2)  Olearius then in the same verse connects this first meeting between the two with John’s later identification of Jesus as the Savior.  “By Jordan’s rolling stream,/ A new Elijah bold,/ He testified of Him/ Of whom the prophets told.”

Verse 3 sings the content of John’s proclamation: “Behold the Lamb of God/ That bears the world’s transgression,/ Whose sacrifice removes/ The Enemy’s oppression./ Behold the Lamb of God,/ Who beareth all our sin,/ Who for our peace and joy/ Will full atonement win.”

This hymn exemplifies the traditional Lutheran chorale: it is strictly Scriptural, teaching and applying the objective truth of God’s Word rather than appealing to shallow, subjective emotionalism.  Notice that the first three verses are exposition of Scriptural truth, then verse 4 is application (“Thrice blessed every one/ Who heeds the proclamation/ Which John the Baptist brought,/ Accepting Christ’s salvation”), and finally verse 5 is supplication (Oh, grant, Thou Lord of Love,/ That we receive, rejoicing,/ The word proclaimed by John,/ Our true repentance voicing;/ That gladly we may walk/ Upon our Savior’s way/ Until we live with Him/ In His eternal day).

May it be so with us also, now and always.  Amen.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.