The Minor Prophets: an anthology of prose, poetry and promiseWritten by Subby Szterszky
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It’s fair to say that for many Christians, the Minor Prophets are an undiscovered country on the biblical landscape. Except for the story of Jonah, these books occupy an obscure corner of the Old Testament for a lot of modern believers. Even the name, Minor Prophets, might suggest they’re somehow less significant than, say, the Psalms or Genesis or Isaiah.
Such an assumption would be mistaken, however. These prophets are minor only in the sense that their books are much shorter than the so-called Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In the Hebrew Bible, they’re collected into a single book known as The Twelve – a rather less negative sounding name than Minor Prophets.
Despite their brevity, they’re quoted or alluded to quite often in the New Testament. They contain some of the most vivid messianic imagery and thrilling promises found anywhere in the Bible. Taken together, they form an anthology of striking variety and literary art, and any one of them can easily be read in a single sitting. In short, they deserve to be far better known by devoted readers of Scripture.
The Twelve in historical context
The twelve books of the Minor Prophets are arranged in roughly chronological order and span a period of about four centuries. In a broad sense, they cluster around three major events in the history of Israel: the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.; the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.; and Judah’s return from exile, beginning in 539 B.C. and ending after Ezra and Nehemiah’s reforms around 430 B.C.
The earliest of the Twelve, Jonah, Amos and Hosea, prophesied to the northern kingdom during the first half of the 8th century B.C., in the generation before Isaiah and overlapping the early years of his ministry. Micah was a closer contemporary of Isaiah and like him prophesied to the southern kingdom. Joel and Obadiah, both southern kingdom prophets, are difficult to date and may belong to either the early or middle period of the Twelve.
The three bona fide middle prophets, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, all ministered in the southern kingdom during the 7th century B.C., between the fall of Israel and Judah, roughly around the same time as Jeremiah. It’s possible that Obadiah’s brief prophecy belongs to this era as well.
The final three of the Twelve, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, all ministered to the people of Judah on their return from exile. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied at the beginning of this period, during the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest. Malachi’s prophecy, coming at the end of the post-exilic era, was God’s final word to the people of Israel for over four hundred years, until the coming of Christ.
A broad palette of literary colours
For anyone approaching the Minor Prophets for the first time, a quick read-through will yield a pleasant surprise: these twelve short books offer a stunning array of diverse literary styles and techniques.
Hosea opens the anthology with an account of his difficult marriage. God had called him to marry a prostitute who would be unfaithful to him, to have children with her, and then to redeem her from the man to whom she’d sold herself. He then uses this heartbreaking personal experience as a metaphor for God’s faithfulness and steadfast redeeming love toward his spiritually unfaithful people.
The book of Joel reads like a cross between nature writing and apocalyptic horror story. Most of it is a vivid description of a massive and unstoppable army of locusts, ravaging the land, destroying the crops, clambering over walls and swarming through buildings, devastating everything in their path. Yet if Israel repents, God will reverse the disaster and cause his people and their land to flourish once again.
Although Amos was a simple fig farmer, his writing is remarkably sophisticated, with an elegant blend of satire, parallel structure, rhetorical questions and memorable epithets. In a masterful display of parallelism, he indicts each of Israel’s neighbour’s, beginning with the formula “for three transgressions of (nation’s name) and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,” before turning the same formula against Israel, but in far greater detail. “Seek me and live,” he urges the people in God’s name.
At a lean 21 verses, Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament, a straightforward prophecy against Edom for siding with Judah’s oppressors and gloating over its destruction. At the same time, God will bless his people and bring them back from exile.
Unique among the Twelve, Jonah isn’t built around oracles but rather a series of events in the prophet’s life, his encounter with the giant fish making him the best known of the set. His book is a short masterpiece of historical narrative, arranged for dramatic and rhetorical power, interwoven with irony and humour at the prophet’s expense. Jonah’s lack of compassion for the people of Nineveh is sharply contrasted with God’s universal compassion for Jews, pagans, and even the livestock of the Ninevites.
Micah is a master poet. Except for the opening verse identify the author and period of composition, the entire book is in sustained Hebrew verse, filled with metaphors, similes, wordplay and symbolic imagery. Micah judiciously balances oracles of judgment and oracles of redemption, with a uniquely clear view of the sovereign grace of God, and of the origin and divine nature of the coming Messiah.
The prophecy of Nahum against Nineveh represents a flip side to Jonah, at whose preaching an earlier generation of Ninevites had repented. His style, however, is markedly different from Jonah. It’s an example of ancient war poetry, an extended victory taunt graphically portraying the military prowess of God’s armies, the devastation and horror of warfare, and the misery of the vanquished Ninevites.
Distinct from other prophets, Habakkuk doesn’t directly address either Israel or its enemies. Instead, he engages in a dialogue with God about why bad things happen to bad people at the hands of even worse people. Like Job, he comes to trust God’s wisdom and justice, concluding his highly personal, confessional book with a prayer that reads like one of the Psalms, complete with musical directions.
Among the Twelve, Zephaniah most closely parallels the literary style and structure of the Major Prophets, albeit in condensed form. He begins with oracles of judgment against Judah, followed by oracles against foreign nations, and finally oracles of hope as God redeems and restores his people.
Unusual in the prophetic literature, Haggai dispenses with poetry and records his message entirely in prose. Also lacking are the standard oracles of judgment. The brief, two-chapter book is a message of exhortation to a beleaguered post-exilic community and its leaders, encouraging them to keep working on the temple and trusting God, with a view to present and future blessing.
Zechariah is the Old Testament equivalent of the book of Revelation, brimming with apocalyptic visions – horsemen, horns, two olive trees and a lampstand, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, among others – as well as oracles about the suffering and victory of the coming Messiah. Although its imagery can be difficult to interpret, it’s quoted more often in the New Testament than any other book of the Twelve.
Malachi brings the anthology of the Twelve – as well as the Old Testament – to a close by following Haggai’s lead and dispensing with poetry in favour of prose. In addition, his book avoids any standard prophetic oracles and reads instead like a satirical court case, a mock cross-examination between God and his people. It ends by anticipating the Messiah and his forerunner, who would appear four centuries later.
Justice, mercy and the coming Messiah
Like all the prophets, the Twelve had an abiding concern to address the sin of God’s people in its various forms. Hosea compared Israel to an adulterous wife, whoring after Baal and other pagan gods. Amos challenged the complacency and shallow religion of an affluent nation, sarcastically urging them to keep on with their empty sacrifices while ignoring the plight of the poor. Micah decried the lack of justice and kindness in the land due to corrupt and ineffectual leadership, both civic and religious. Haggai and Malachi upbraided the post-exilic community for their half-hearted efforts to obey God. Jonah displayed via his own example the bigoted, ethnocentric assumption that God’s mercy is for “us” and not for “them.” Habakkuk wrestled in his own heart with the very modern problem of evil.
At the same time, while warning about God’s judgment against sin, these prophets also held out hope to the people, urging them to return to God in light of his mercy. They reminded Israel and Judah of God’s sovereignty, goodness and wisdom. Although God would punish the sin of his people by sending them into exile, he would not abandon them to it. If they turned back to him with their whole heart, he would welcome them, forgive their sin, restore their fortunes, return them to their land, and repair his relationship with them in love.
To that end, the writings of the Twelve are sprinkled with some of the most familiar and hope-soaked words found anywhere in Scripture:
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” (Joel 2:12-13)
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.” (Joel 2:25)
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” (Micah 7:18)
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
Ultimately, most if not all of the Twelve looked beyond the immediate concerns of Israel and Judah to a time when God would extend salvation to all nations, uniting Jews and gentiles under his universal reign. He would accomplish this through a coming Messiah from the line of David, a shepherd king who would atone for sin, redeem his people, and institute peace and justice throughout the entire world.
The Twelve in the New Testament
This wealth of messianic vision would be picked up and quoted at length by the authors of the New Testament. In fact, the Twelve hit well above their weight in this regard, when compared with longer and better-known books of the Old Testament.
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (Hosea 1:10; 2:23 quoted in Romans 9:25-26)
“Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1 quoted in Matthew 2:15)
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Joel 2:28-32 quoted in Acts 2:17-21)
“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.” (Amos 9:11-12 quoted in Acts 15:16-18)
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Elements of Jonah’s story referenced in Matthew 12:39-41; compare Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-32)
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Micah 5:2 quoted in Matthew 2:6)
“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4 quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38)
“Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” (Haggai 2:6-7;21 quoted in Hebrews 12:26)
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Zechariah 9:9 quoted in Matthew 21:5; John 12:15)
“And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Zechariah 11:12-13 quoted in Matthew 27:9-10)
“They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10 quoted in John 19:37; alluded to in Revelation 1:7)
“I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” (Zechariah 13:7 quoted in Matthew 26:31; Mark 14:27)
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” (Malachi 3:1 quoted in Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27)
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.” (Malachi 4:5-6, alluded to in Luke 1:16-17; compare Matthew 11:14, 17:11-12; Mark 6:15)
According to the Apostle Peter, there are things in Scripture that are hard to understand, and the Minor Prophets are no exception. Just like the Major Prophets, they contain obscure references and forms of expression that are alien to the modern reader, as well as harsh words of judgment that may seem shocking to contemporary minds.
But reading through the book of the Twelve offers some pleasant shocks, as well: the shock of beauty and variety, of elegant literary structures and memorable turns of phrase, of promises and words of hope that are shocking in their depth and scope, sounding almost too good to be true. Most of all, there’s the shock of messianic anticipation, repeated and concentrated in a way rarely found in the Old Testament outside of Isaiah and the Psalms.
Far from being a dry or dull corner of the Scriptures, the book of the Twelve does indeed read a lot like a small literary anthology, an eclectic collection of narrative and verse that offers aesthetic pleasure as well as spiritual challenge and uplift. Modern believers do themselves and their souls a service (and their God honour) by getting to know it better.
Sources and further reading
Lane T. Dennis, Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer et al, editors, The ESV Study Bible, Crossway, 2008.
Chara Donahue, “Who are the Minor Prophets and why are they important?” iBelieve.com, accessed February 25, 2019.
Matthew S. Harmon, “How the Minor Prophets help us enjoy Jesus,” Desiring God, September 10, 2017.
Matthew S. Harmon, “The gospel according to the Minor Prophets,” Bible Study Tools, accessed February 25, 2019.
Jean E. Jones, “6 things every Christian should know about the Minor Prophets,” Crosswalk.com, January 19, 2017.
Andy Rau, “Tour of the Bible, part 5: the Minor Prophets,” Bible Gateway, July 6, 2011.
Rich Robinson, “Overview of the Minor Prophets: How well do you know the Jewish Bible?” Jews for Jesus, March 6, 2011.
“The Minor Prophets,” Bible.org, accessed February 25, 2019.
“The Book of the Twelve, or the Minor Prophets,” Biblica: The International Bible Society, accessed February 25, 2019.
“Activity of the writing prophets during the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah,” ESV.org, accessed February 25, 2019.
“Who were the Minor Prophets?” Zondervan Academic, November 30, 2017.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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