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).