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Archive for the ‘Books of the bible: introductory notes’ Category

We’re reaching the end of our readings now with the last three minor prophets and the gospel of John (introduction to John’s gospel is found here).  Malcolm Green’s brief overview of the last 12 books of the old testament concludes here.

With the last three of the Twelve we are definitely in post-exilic territory, when the exiles, newly returned from Babylon, were struggling to re-establish a sense of religious, cultural and ethnic identity among the Jewish people in their homeland. Pre-eminent among their concerns was the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem as the unique focus of the people’s worship and spiritual loyalty. The last three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, all belong to this period. Both Haggai and Zechariah are mentioned in Ezra  (c 5 v 1 and c 6 v 14) as chiefly responsible for restarting the work and driving it towards completion.

Haggai’s two short chapters are part narrative, part prophecy and are eloquent testimony to the urgency with which he pursued his mission. It is the year 520, the death of the Persian king Cambyses has produced widespread revolt in the empire and Haggai seizes this opportunity to urge the people to recognise that a series of bad harvests are a mark of God’s displeasure that they have not pursued the rebuilding work and the current unrest is a sign to God’s people to ready themselves for a decisive intervention in history (c 2 vv 7-8).  It is not too much to claim that, without Haggai and Zechariah, the Temple might not have been rebuilt and the future of the Jewish people themselves would have been in doubt. Thank God that he raises up people of commitment and energy like Haggai and Zechariah at critical moments in human history!


Zechariah, whose fourteen chapters rival Hosea in length, was a younger contemporary of Haggai and chiefly concerned, like him, to see the Temple rebuilt. His prophecies, however, consist of visions, eight in number in the first six chapters, and in style and content we are reminded of Ezekiel. Furthermore, angels are now the intermediaries between God and humans, explaining to the recipient of the vision how it is to be understood. The dominant note of Zechariah’s prophecies is the restoration of prosperity and peace to Israel. Crucial for Christians is the promise of the Messiah, who will ensure the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which will embrace all nations. Chapter 9, verse 9, prefigures the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is this emphasis on the ultimate triumph of God’s goodness that makes Zechariah’s prophecies so relevant.


Malachi (the name means “my messenger”) is the last of the Twelve and his four chapters close the Old Testament. Though Hebrew Bible places The Writings after the Prophets, which means that I and II Chronicles conclude the Jewish Scriptures, Malachi is regarded as the last of the prophets and Jewish tradition declares that with him the Holy Spirit departed from Israel. The situation that called forth his prophecies is as follows. The Temple has been rebuilt, the generation of Haggai and Zechariah has passed away, but so also has their commitment and enthusiasm for the correct worship of the Living God. The priests were lax in their duties and the people careless in the payment of their dues. Belief wavered: “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge?”(c 3 v 14). Families were intermarrying with foreigners and losing their sense of religious identity. The book of Ezra is eloquent on this crisis. But though Malachi’s message is to recall the chosen people to their obligations towards Israel’s God, his concern is wider. He denounces vigorously the moral laxity of the time and pronounces a swift judgment on “sorcerers and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right and fear not Me” (c 3 v 5). Most strikingly, c 1 v 11 proclaims that even offerings made by the nations to their gods are in reality made to the only true God, since idols have no existence. This incipient universalism leads on to the promise of the Messiah (c 3 v 1), identified with Elijah (c 4 v 5-6), who will “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers”. And so the last of the Twelve gathers up the key messages of all his predecessors, as he proclaims the sovereign holiness of the God Who rules all nations and Who will in His good time execute judgment, rescue the oppressed, cleanse the people and “restore all things”, for “I have loved you, saith the Lord” (c1 v 2).

Malcolm Green

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from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastery_of_the_CrossOf Nahum we know nothing more than is contained in his three chapters, which are entirely focused on the certain destruction which Nineveh and the whole Assyrian empire will suffer because of their cruelty, rapacity and wickedness. Whereas other prophets had stressed Israel’s comparable sins or even regarded Assyria’s oppression as God instrument of punishment, there is nothing of that here. We may presume that he spoke these words of comfort (this is the root meaning of his name) to his fellow-countrymen when Assyria was trampling over everyone and seemed invincible. The message we can take from his graphic celebration of Assyria’s downfall is the assurance that God will ultimately put an end to injustice and oppression, though His timescale will often stretch human patience.


This impatience is in evidence right at the start of the eighth prophet, Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord, shall I cry, and You will not hear. I cry out to You of violence, and You will not save.” There follows a description of the advancing Babylonians (called Chaldeans) and the terrible destruction they left in their wake. Habakkuk takes his stand on his watchtower in the hope of receiving an answer. But God gives him a vision, which he is told will be fulfilled in God’s own good time. Retribution will indeed come, but not in accordance with our time-scale. “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him”. This verse introduces Chapter 3, which is a poetic description of the appearance of the Lord God in majesty, reminiscent of Psalm 104. The Lord God will come to punish iniquity (vv 13-14) and deliver His people. The devastation of warfare, even when it results in the overthrow of the enemy, can be hugely damaging, but in two magnificent verses the prophet voices his confidence that God will bring us through. These verses (c 3 vv 17-18) have been taken up into our hymn book in Cowper’s lines: “Though vine nor fig tree neither Their wonted fruit should bear, Though all the fields be withered, Nor flock nor herd be there, Yet, God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice, For, still in God confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”  The Christian’s hope, of course, extends beyond this life, but Habakkuk’s confidence reminds us that we are no less under God’s protection here and now.


A little earlier in date than Nahum and Habakkuk, Zephaniah, like them, proclaims the destruction of all those whose immoral conduct is incompatible with the sovereignty of God’s holiness: “All those who are settled on their lees, that say in their heart: the Lord will not do any good, neither will He do evil” (c 1 v 12). This includes Assyria, Moab, the Philistines, even Ethiopians (c 2), but also Jerusalem, whose princes, judges, prophets and priests have profaned what is holy and done violence to the law (c 2 vv 3-4). But a faithful remnant will return from all the lands to which they have been scattered and they and all nations will acknowledge God’s sovereignty: “I will make you to be a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth” (c 3 v 20).

(Malcolm Green)

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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, (more…)

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Listen up Israel,

You’re surrounded by evil people who commit great atrocities of war, greed and avarice. God’s fury is coming to them. Are you pleased to hear that news?
Now, your wayward brother, Judah…Those people have wandered away from what God explicitly taught them, just like their fathers. God is going to light a fire amongst them. Are you pleased to hear this?

Now…What about yourself?
You have experienced victories over your enemies recently. You have money and you prosper. But don’t be so quick to equate prosperity with blessing, or with divine approval.
Ask yourselves: how did we come by this wealth? Was it by obeying God’s laws of old? The sword of justice cuts both ways.
Don’t you know what God hates? He hates idolatry. He hates to see people flagrantly abusing the gift of sex. He hates injustice and self-satisfied iniquity. You witnessed God’s judgement on other nations for these things, but He saved you and showed you great patience. You have been a blessed people. But you have thrown that blessing in His face, and he will bring you low. Repent! Do you think He takes pleasure in seeing this happen to you?

You think that because of your name, the tides of invading empires have receded from you? Look farther out, you shortsighted fool, and see the tidal wave that is growing. God have given you ample warning. The tide? It obeys God! And it will sweep in and uproot you. Everything you enjoyed, everything you took pride in will be swept away. Everyone who thought they were secure will find themselves destroyed. Perhaps then you will see God for who he really is, in his holiness, standing beside His altar.

But look Israel, where the flood waters have receded, a verdant land will grow. God is a good God, and has a purpose which will not be upset by your failures.

Israel, be the people God intended you to be. Long for the day when your sins will be behind you, once and for all.

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Joel is a short prophetic book which evocatively describes the ravages of a “locust army”. Locust swarms represent a massive catastrophe for any agrarian society, and the prophet Joel uses this image to represent forthcoming judgement, on “the day of the LORD”.

The language is poetic, the text is difficult to date exactly, little is known about the author…It is no surprise that the exact interpretation of this book is the subject of some scholarly debate. For more on the interpretative challenges of Joel, the ESV study bible offers a more thorough overview here.

The prophetic ideas of judgement and salvation are central, and Joel expresses the idea that God will judge, but he will also protect and deliver His people in the midst of devastation and catastrophe.

How does a nation survive if the Holy God is in their midst? Where Holiness is, there is judgement and wrath at sin.  Joel uses powerful pictures to express the gravity and extent of the problems that sin creates for us.

But because God is one who keeps his covenants, He offers grace and hope for the repentant: He will be a “stronghold” and a “refuge” for His people. (3:16-17)

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painting of daniel in the den of lionsDaniel

What constitutes a betrayal? The book of Daniel begins as a historical narrative which wrestles with that question, and the issues of God’s judgement, and His saving power. It recounts the experience of the conquest of the Jewish people by the Babylonians – a temporary judgement, and a time of discipline through divine indignation – from the point of view of four princes of Israel. Chastened by the experience of exile, Daniel and his companions drew the line at disobedience. The dietary laws of the Jews were non-negotiable for them because they did not wish to be defiled in God’s sight. To modern eyes, this looks like hair-splitting. After all, their small country was enslaved in exile, and the Jews allowed their most noble sons to be assimilated into Babylonian culture through education. Why not just eat the food their new masters provided? Was it worth causing a fuss to preserve an identity that had already passed? Surely this was the end of Israel? Daniel is the story of why purity prevails. It is a tale of heaven and earth.

The way that God gave Daniel and his schoolboy companions victory in this seemingly small area is the precursor to a greater story: the faithfulness of men faced with death. The most memorable parts of Daniel are its great set-pieces. The account of the fiery furnace is a great example of faith which does not count the cost, as is the similar narrative of how Daniel faced the den of lions. Both incidents point to God’s faithfulness, and remind us of Jesus, who not only faced the prospect of harm, but died so that he could rescue his people from their faithlessness. Jesus features in the prophetic part of the book too, as

“ one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”

There are many highlights in the parts of the story which take place on earth. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the historical part of the book records the response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to Nebuchadnezzar. The king asks a rhetorical question: who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands? But he receives one of the great answers in all the bible:

“…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

The words “but if not” are truly amazing. Our God is able, but even if he does not save us… These men have grasped the value of God, and have placed it above their own lives. They are in the hands of the Ancient of Days, described by Daniel later in the book:

“As I looked,
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.”

The intervention of God in Nebuchadnezzar’s life, through dreams and interpretation brings the king to this pass:

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

Besides these dramatic vignettes, and strange role reversals, Daniel narrates the fall of empires through his account of the handwriting on the wall, and the accession of Darius and Cyrus. The first section of the book ends with the words “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” This prosperity is explained with in the context of the experience of his repentance and faith. The cataclysm of history is a metaphor for the deeper reality of faith and faithlessness.

The prophecies which make up the remainder of the book are hard to understand. Indeed they are so hard, that at several points Daniel himself is unaware of their meaning. This, by the way, is a great reason to suppose that they are trustworthy. The first and second visions are explained, but Daniel even says: “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”

Whether or not the prophecies are clear, their thematic drift is intelligible, and the interpretation given within the book is coherent and straightforward. The important thing about them is that they have been given. That is, they explain what they explain.(Who knows what we will one day understand of them?)

The ninth chapter is a prayer of repentance and faith, which is tremendously encouraging, as, in the next chapter, Daniel is called: “man greatly loved” and is told not to be afraid. Why should he be unafraid? The context is visions of God in judgement, and the Son of Man with all authority. Fear is absolutely reasonable: if anyone has offended that great goodness, how can they stand? The reason given is that “from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” This is a good word, and worth taking note of. God our Savior, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

If you get into the prophetic section, then like as not, with Daniel you will say “I heard, but I did not understand.” Daniel asked: “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He was told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.” Bits of the affairs of heaven spilled over into the earth.

Edgar de Blieck

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ezekiel introduction dry bones becoming fleshEzekiel is a tough read.

If you tell people that you wake up every morning and have a “quiet time” for bible reading, they probably imagine you with a kind of ready-brek glow, reading words of wisdom and tranquility, with a saintly half-smile on your lips. Ezekiel takes that “thought for the day” portrait and rips it up.

“Behold, I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust, and they shall deal with you in hatred…and the nakedness of your whoring will be uncovered…A cup of horror and desolation…you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards, and tear your breasts…” (Ezekiel 23)

We almost have no frame of reference for this kind of language. It is vulgar to our western sensibilities. What can be the purpose of it? Do we treat it as the ravings of a lunatic…like those straggly guys wearing “end is nigh” signs? Is Ezekiel just a shocking performance artist, a kind of twisted entertainer whose message is essentially impotent?

The book of Ezekiel fundamentally challenges you if your purpose in reading the bible is simply to have a spiritual cupcake for an enhanced sense of wellbeing.

Ezekiel forces us to consider: how does God get through to people who repeatedly brazenly ignore him? Have you any idea of the magnitude of the sin when a person intentionally defies God in this way? What experiences do we have to which this might compare? Ezekiel goes to great pains to show us. Ezekiel is even called to go beyond using mere words, and has to act out his prophecies, in order that his listeners might see, taste, smell and touch the message which God has for his rebellious people. God, though angry with these people, wants to ensure they have every possible chance to contextualise and understand his message to them.

God suddenly kills Ezekiel’s wife: not to punish Ezekiel, but to use the very language of death to communicate his message. Ezekiel is told not to mourn her loss, that the people might see how they themselves are acting this way towards God. They risk losing their glorious God, just as Ezekiel lost his wife. Why do they not mourn?

God has a serious and profound message to communicate to mankind. It is the message of the gospel: it is ultimately a message of the greatest hope. But we cannot ignore that a significant part of that message is about sin, rebellion and unfaithfulness, and these things must somehow be confronted and dealt with.

Ezekiel is like God using an expletive to get his people’s attention. To what lengths will God have to go to get yours?

“As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I take no delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezekiel 33:11

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