Twelve days of Christmas with the Minor ProphetsWritten by Subby Szterszky
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For many of us, the Twelve Days of Christmas conjures an image of a partridge in a pear tree and creates an ear worm we’d rather be rid of. In the same way, the Minor Prophets may suggest a portion of Scripture we can safely skirt as being of secondary importance.
However, in some traditions, the Twelve Days are celebrated as part of the Christmas season, stretching from Christmas Day until January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. As for the Minor Prophets, they’re only minor in the sense of being short. In the Hebrew Bible, they’re known by the more dignified title of the Twelve. They’re also chock full of messianic prophecies and are among the most quoted Old Testament books in the New Testament.
Twelve days and twelve short books filled with prophecies about the coming Messiah, each of which can be read in a single sitting. It seems an ideal match for some daily devotions to extend the Christmas season. Here’s a brief guide with a few suggested readings and reflections on each book.
First day: Hosea
“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 2:23; 1:10 as quoted in Romans 9:25-26)
God called Hosea to marry a prostitute who would be unfaithful to him, to have children with her, and to name their daughter Lo-Ruhamah, which means “Not Beloved,” and their son Lo-Ammi, which means “Not My People.”
But then the Lord told Hosea to redeem his wife from the man to whom she’d sold herself and turned the prophet’s heartbreaking experience into a picture of God’s own steadfast love toward his spiritually unfaithful people. In his letter to the Romans, Paul applied Hosea’s prophecy to everyone, Jew or Gentile, whom God adopts to be among his beloved people through faith in his Son.
Second day: Joel
“And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. I will even pour out my Spirit on my servants in those days, both men and women and they will prophesy. I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:28-32 as quoted in Acts 2:17-21)
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. In fact, God promised to pour out his Spirit on all people from every background, and those who would call on him would be saved. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter told his massive and diverse audience that they’d just witnessed this prophecy fulfilled and urged them to call on the name of the Lord Jesus.
Third day: Amos
“After these things I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. I will rebuild its ruins and set it up again, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles who are called by my name – declares the Lord who makes these things known from long ago.” (Amos 9:11-12 as quoted in Acts 15:16-18)
Although Amos was a 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 “I will not relent from punishing (nation’s name) for three crimes, even four,” before turning the same formula against Israel, but in greater detail.
Even so, he follows these indictments with promises of mercy, climaxing in a messianic prophecy that would include all nations. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, James quoted this prophecy to emphasize that Gentiles who came to Jesus didn’t need to observe the Mosaic Law to become genuine Christians.
Fourth day: Obadiah
“Saviours shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” (Obadiah 1:21)
At a lean 21 verses, Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament. It’s a straightforward prophecy against Edom for siding with Judah’s oppressors and gloating over its destruction, while also promising that God will bless his people and bring them back from exile.
Although Obadiah isn’t quoted in the New Testament, the little book shows God’s deep concern for his people and his righteous anger at those who would harm them. Most of all, it expresses God’s sovereign rule, to be ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
Fifth day: Jonah
“And the Lord said, ‘You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. So may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?’” (Jonah 4:10-11)
“An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look – something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the south will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and look – something greater than Solomon is here.” (Elements of Jonah’s story referenced in Matthew 12:39-41; compare Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29-32)
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 group. 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, children and even animals.
In the Gospels, Jesus used the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish as a metaphor of his coming death and resurrection. He also contrasted the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of an unsympathetic prophet with the people of Jesus’ day who rejected him, their Messiah, someone much greater than Jonah.
Sixth day: Micah
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2 quoted in Matthew 2:6)
“Who is a God like you, forgiving iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love. He will again have compassion on us; he will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)
Micah is a master poet. Except for the opening verse identifying the author and period of composition, the entire book is in Hebrew verse, filled with metaphors, similes, wordplay and symbolic imagery. Micah balances oracles of judgment and oracles of redemption, along with a clear view of the sovereign grace of God, and of the birthplace and divine nature of the coming Messiah.
After the birth of Jesus, the Jewish leaders told Herod about the Bethlehem prophecy, leaving out the parts about Messiah coming forth from God and having existed from eternity. Micah also foreshadowed the effects of Messiah’s mission: through him, God would remove our sins far from us, because he delights in faithful love.
Seventh day: Nahum
“Look to the mountains – the feet of one bringing good news and proclaiming peace! Celebrate your festivals, Judah; fulfill your vows. For the wicked one will never again march through you; he will be entirely wiped out.” (Nahum 1:15; compare Isaiah 52:7; quoted in Romans 10:15)
The prophecy of Nahum against Nineveh represents a flip side to Jonah, at whose preaching an earlier generation of Ninevites had repented. Nahum’s style, however, is markedly different from Jonah. It’s an example of ancient war poetry, a victory taunt portraying the military prowess of God’s armies, the devastation and horror of warfare, and the misery of the vanquished Ninevites.
The overall purpose is to encourage God’s people in the face of overwhelming enemies; God will be victorious, and his people will celebrate this good news of peace. Paul applies this passage, along with a similar one from Isaiah, to illustrate the joy of the Gospel, the ultimate good news of peace through Jesus Christ.
Eighth day: Habakkuk
“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4 as quoted in Romans 1:17; compare Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38)
“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)
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, acknowledging that the righteous person will live by faith.
This brief axiom is quoted three times in the New Testament to illustrate the proper response to the Gospel of grace. Habakkuk concludes his personal, confessional book with a prayer that reads like one of the Psalms (complete with musical directions) to express his determined trust and joy in God, regardless of the worst circumstances life can bring.
Ninth day: Zephaniah
“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)
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.
Perhaps due to these similarities, Zephaniah is never quoted in the New Testament. Nevertheless, his prophecy includes this unique and wonderful insight into the heart of God, expressing the depth of his joyful delight in his people, whom he has redeemed through his Son Jesus.
Tenth day: Haggai
“For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:6-7 quoted in Hebrews 12:26)
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.
The future portion looks ahead to the coming of the Messiah, and especially his return at the end of the age. He will complete the work he began at the Cross by shaking and remaking his redeemed creation. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on this prophecy to instill in his readers a reverential awe toward God.
Eleventh day: Zechariah
“Tell Daughter Zion, ‘See, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Zechariah 9:9 as quoted in Matthew 21:5; compare John 12:15)
“They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him whose price was set by the Israelites, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Zechariah 11:12-13 as quoted in Matthew 27:9-10)
“They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10 as 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 as quoted in Matthew 26:31; compare Mark 14:27)
Zechariah is the Old Testament equivalent to 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.
Among its messianic imagery, the book anticipates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; Judas betraying him for thirty pieces of silver; the disciples abandoning Jesus and fleeing after his arrest in the Garden; Judas throwing the silver into the temple and the chief priests buying the potter’s field with it; and the Roman soldier piercing Jesus’s side with a spear. Fittingly, Revelation also mentions Zechariah’s piercing prophecy in connection with Jesus’ Second Coming.
Twelfth day: Malachi
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” (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)
Malachi brings the Old Testament to a close and dispenses with the customary poetry used by most of the prophets in favour of prose. In addition, his book avoids any standard prophetic oracles and instead reads like a satirical court case, a cross-examination between God and his people. It ends by anticipating the Messiah and his forerunner, who would appear four centuries later.
Jesus in the Gospels identified John the Baptist as Malachi’s messenger who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord. In so doing, Jesus asserted that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Lord himself who would suddenly come to his temple, proclaiming a New Covenant. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel quotes the final words of Malachi to announce the birth of John the Baptist, thus ending 400 years of prophetic silence and pointing to the imminent birth of Jesus the Messiah.
Some concluding thoughts
It’s strange and a bit sad that our Christmas celebrations seem to start earlier and earlier every year, but then skid to an abrupt halt right after Christmas Day. It’s as if the spirit of Christmas builds for weeks (even months) as we ramp up to the holidays, but then it doesn’t survive past December 25. Instead, we’re on to the next thing: post-Christmas sales, New Year’s Eve parties, then back to the regular grind in January, complete with our latest batch of bills and resolutions.
For followers of Jesus, the New Year can be a time for beginning or recommitting to a Bible reading plan. But the Twelve Days of Christmas (or Christmastide, as it’s called in some traditions) might be an ideal season to prepare for reading the Word in the coming year, much like Advent allows us to prepare our hearts for Christmas. With the messianic echoes of the Minor Prophets as our guide, it can also be a wonderful opportunity to extend our Christmas season and celebrate a bit longer the coming of our Saviour, Jesus the Messiah.
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, May 4, 2018.
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, January 24, 2023.
Andrew Hill and John Walton, “Who were the Minor Prophets?” Zondervan Academic, November 30, 2017.
Jean E. Jones, “6 things every Christian should know about the Minor Prophets,” Crosswalk.com, January 19, 2017.
J. Hampton Keathley III, “The Minor Prophets,” Bible.org, February 21, 2006.
Andy Rau, “Tour of the Bible, part 5: The Minor Prophets,” Bible Gateway, July 6, 2011.
Rich Robinson, “Overview of the Minor Prophets,” Jews for Jesus, March 6, 2011.
“Activity of the writing prophets during the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah,” ESV.org, accessed December 4, 2023.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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