Malcolm Green has been especially supportive over the last two years with his contributions to the B2Y blog, and has helped me out once again (thanks Malcolm!) with the following overviews of the 12 “minor” prophets. I will schedule the remaining 6 for the coming month.
It’s easy to lose perspective when reading the prophets one chapter a day, so I strongly recommend using this post to refresh your memory for what you’ve (hopefully) just finished reading…
The Twelve Prophets that conclude our Old Testament scripture are regarded as one book in Jewish tradition. They had come to be regarded as a single volume during the centuries that followed the downfall of the Babylonian empire and the return of leading Jews to rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship.
These twelve prophets (sometimes called Minor Prophets in Christian tradition, by contrast with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose collected prophecies are much longer) span a time-scale of some four hundred years, from the reigns of Jeroboam II in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Uzziah in Judah (the Southern kingdom) in the eighth century to the Persian period in the fourth.
The series begins with Hosea, whose fourteen chapters make him the longest of the Twelve. Roughly contemporary with Amos and Micah, he lived at a time when the two Jewish kingdoms were enjoying a period of prosperity, which led to a concentration of ostentatious wealth in the hands of the upper class and a desire to imitate the culture and worship of the elites of the nations round about. Recurring themes in all the prophets are a denunciation of wealth and the oppression which the power of wealth permits and the abandonment of the pure worship of Israel’s God. The oracles of the prophets were repeated orally by their successors, written down and finally collected, though clearly not in chronological order. Indeed, the nature of biblical prophecy is not that it foretells the future in the manner of a fortune-teller but that it points to the underlying inevitability of weal or woe arising from God’s control of history.
Hosea’s prophecies fall into two divisions. The first three chapters are autobiographical, explaining how Hosea’s personal experience convinced him of the need to denounce the unfaithfulness of Israel towards their God. The next ten chapters predict the unavoidable consequences of Israel’s sin, the death and destruction which God will allow the nations to inflict upon her. But God will not allow His wrath to overcome His compassion (c 11 v 8): “ How shall I give thee up, Ephraim……….My heart is turned within Me…………I will not execute the fierceness of My anger.” He will bring good out of evil (c 14 vv 5-10): “I will heal their back-sliding, I will love them freely”. Israel shall once again “blossom as the vine” (c 14 v 8).
We shall find these themes again and again in the oracles of the Twelve. We can apply them to ourselves, as we meditate on how our sins have distressed God’s heart and how He uses the problems our sin inflicts upon us to bring us to repentance. Of this we can be sure: God’s love never fails and as Lord of history He will never allow evil to have the last word.
We move on to Joel, about whom much less is known, since no dates are given in his oracles. He is best known for the graphic description of the plague of locusts in c 2 and for the prophecy of the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts c 2). The locust plague may be a metaphor for foreign invasion, but whether or not this is so, the main point is that true repentance is called fro (“Rend your heart and not your garments”, c 2 v 12) and then the Lord will have pity on His people (c 2 v 18), will pass judgment on their oppressors and “the mountains shall drop down sweet wine and the hill shall flow with milk” and “Judah will be inhabited for ever and Jerusalem from generation to generation” (c 4 vv 18,20).
Amos’ nine chapters are some of the most powerful in the whole of Scripture in their denunciation of the idle rich and their oppression of the poor. They fall naturally into three divisions: the fact that other nations were just as bad as Israel will not be an excuse (cc 1-2); prosperity is no evidence of righteousness or divine favour (cc 3-6); and the visions of disasters to come if the people do not repent (cc 7-9). But confident hope is always present and Amos ends with a magnificent picture of bliss to come: “Behold the days come, says the Lord, that the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed and the mountains shall drop sweet wine and all the hills shall melt and I will turn the captivity of my people Israel and they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them” (c 9 vv 13-14).
Obadiah (his name means “Serving the Lord) gives us the shortest book in the Old Testament. It is a single chapter with a single theme: a prolonged curse against Edom. Why Edom (many other nations had wrought destruction on Israel)? The answer is that as descendants of Esau (Genesis c 36) the Edomites were related to the Jews and yet had assisted the Babylonians during the siege of Jerusalem which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Jewish kingdom (vv 11-14). The epilogue, forecasting peace and prosperity for Israel, is couched in terms of their recovery of the land they had lost to Assyria and to Babylon. Edom shall suffer for their ill-fated plunder of the Holy City (v 13) and Jerusalem shall once again he holy (v 17). As we read Obadiah, we should concentrate not so much on the destruction of Edom as the promise that under God’s dispensation, wrongs will be righted and His promises cannot fail.
Jonah is the best known of all the Twelve on account of his adventure with the great fish. His story, for that is what it is, rather than a prophecy, is nowadays generally thought to be a post-exilic composition, loosely attached to the name of a prophet from the eighth century, Jonah son of Amittai (2 Kings, c 14 v 25). Jonah is bidden by God to go and preach repentance to Nineveh, capital of Assyria. He refuses to co-operate and takes a ship to Tarshish at the other end of the Mediterranean world. But God pursues him, raises a storm and prompts the crew to throw Jonah overboard. From the inside of the fish Jonah repeats a devotional psalm, which implies that he is ready now to do what God asks. The fish vomits Jonah on to dry land and he sets off for Nineveh. There his prophecy of destruction has a remarkable effect, the Ninevites repent and God stayed His hand. Jonah, though, was not pleased. He addresses God in indignation: I know You are a compassionate God and wouldn’t destroy Nineveh, wasn’t I right to try to refuse to have any part in it? So he sat and sulked under a tree. But God caused the tree to wither in the night, so that the next day Jonah had no shade. Jonah now realises that destruction can have unpleasant consequences and God has the last word, pointing to the innocence of many of the Ninevites and justifying His compassion towards their city. The themes of repentance and divine mercy we have met before, but Jonah illustrates man’s frequent dislike of God’s compassion (at least, for other people) and the contrast with God’s otherness (see Isaiah c 55 v 8)
Micah of Moresheth, a town near the Philistine border, was a younger contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah, prophesying during that period of material prosperity which led to so much social and economic oppression. Particularly noteworthy are the promise of universal peace in Chapter 4 vv 1-4 (“to ploughshares they shall beat their swords and study war no more”); the Messianic prophecy in Chapter 5 (the Son of David is to come from Bethlehem); and what is perhaps the most magnificent of all prophetic utterances, God’s controversy with Israel. This last passage (c 6, vv 1-8) pictures God as Plaintiff and Israel as defendant. How often have we been ungrateful for what God has done for us? Like Israel in this passage, when we come to repentance, we ask “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord” With gifts or costly sacrifices? No, says God, you know what I desire: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God”. Micah’s prophecies close with a re-affirmation of faith in the pardoning God, who retains not His anger for ever but drowns our sins in the depths of the sea. We need this assurance that our sins are forgiven, gone, never to be seen or talked of again. This is the God we trust, “Who has shown faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham, as He promised our forefathers in days of old”.