This is part ten of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
The last part of the Hebrew Old Testament consists of nearly twenty books collecting the works of various Prophets from the ancient kingdom of Israel. Due to their respective lengths, the last twelve used to be recorded on one scroll and the longer ones before them would each be on their own scroll. This arrangement gave way to the terms used to this day, Major (or Greater) Prophets and Minor (or Lesser) Prophets. These labels refer to their length, not their importance or significance. The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
This standard ordering of the Minor Prophets reflects a late Jewish (and early Christian) estimation of the chronological order of their respective authors, but scholarship over the past two millennia has posited a different chronological ordering: Amos, Jonah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel, Obadiah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi. Along with the shorter lengths of these books comes significantly less personal information for many of these prophets, compared to the Greater Prophets, so it is not always clear from the text of their writings exactly who they were, when they lived, and with whom they interacted – some disclose more than others. Precise estimations of their chronology, as a result, is not entirely of unified opinion to this day.
The four earliest of the Minor Prophets lived during the time of the divided kingdom: Israel to the North and Judah to the South. For the most part these prophets operated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Amos preached a great deal about morality and justice. He identified both personal and social sins that were rampant among God’s people, rendering them morally the same as the Gentiles around them, and warning them of God’s coming judgment. After these warnings, Amos delivers a series of visions, offering a little biographical information on the way, and concludes his book with a divine promise of restoration following judgment.
Hosea preached against corruption, especially idolatry, rampant in the Israelite elite. God directed him to display the gravity of the people’s idolatry in his own marriage and even in the names of his children! The bulk of his book deals with the coming divine judgment for their sins, though it, too, ends with a promise of future mercy for the penitent.
Micah also preached against the rampant sin among Israel’s leaders, especially social injustices. His book follows a more tight-knit literary form, going through three cycles of “woe and weal” – bad news and good news (chapters 1-2, 3-5, and 6-7). Micah also points ahead to a needed Messiah as the source of the eventual blessing and purification of God’s people.
Jonah, perhaps the earliest of the prophets, or perhaps in the middle of the first group, was an unusual case: he was called to preach against a Gentile nation, the Assyrians in their major city of Nineveh. His book is famously a short story, whereby the unfaithful and callous heart of Jonah is itself a major source of teaching about God’s love, omnipresence, human hypocrisy, and the call to rejoice.
The second group of Minor Prophets lived and preached after the fall of (Northern) Israel in 760BC and before the fall of Judah in 586BC. As a result, their focus was considerably more localized.
Nahum, like Jonah, preached against Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire. They had just destroyed Israel and were (in modern parlance) guilty of war crimes, so Nahum declared God’s anger against them and renewed the promise that Nineveh would be destroyed.
Zephaniah preached about judgement, like virtually all of the other prophets. But his book contains a literary pattern: dealing with the judgement of the world, God’s people, their enemies, God’s people again, and the world again. Then the majority of the third chapter turns to hope: of conversion leading to salvation. “The day of the Lord” starts becoming a prominent theme in this book, denoting God’s victory over evil.
Habakkuk also preached to Judah, focusing less on judgment as such and more on how God’s people can live in an evil world. The first two chapters of his book cycle between “complaints” to God, and God’s answer to him. The third chapter ends the book with a psalm of lament, reviewing some of the history of God’s works and offering him praise.
The third group of Minor Prophets lived during the fall of Judah and Jerusalem in 586BC.
Joel is still reckoned by some to be an early prophet from the Northern kingdom in the first grouping. Whether they are correct, or the theory that he preached during the fall of Jerusalem is correct, his message is the same. Two visions are described – one of a locust swarm and one of an invading army. Calls to lament and repent follow these visions, intermixing the two into one. Joel closes these visions with a famous passage looking ahead to a day when God’s enemies will be removed and the Spirit will be poured out upon all. The book then finishes with a message of judgement upon the nations and eventual peace for God’s people.
Obadiah’s single-chapter book addresses the Edomites, a kingdom neighboring to Judah that was siding with her enemies to further her downfall. He predicts Edom’s defeat, reviews their crimes, and preaches that Israel will be restored on the Day of the Lord.
The fourth and final group of Minor Prophets lived in the Second Temple Era, during and after the rebuilding of Jerusalem under the Persian Empire.
Zechariah recorded a series of apocalyptic visions through the first six chapters with great literary finesse, providing vivid pictures of God’s intention to glorify his restored people and raise up godly leaders. Complete with a coronation, Zechariah’s preaching greatly encouraged his contemporaries, yet didn’t find full fruition until the arrival the Christ. A brief historical account graces the middle of the book, and then the final six chapters form a series of oracles about how God will judge the guilty and restore Judah, particularly through the work of a future Shepherd.
Haggai’s book contains four sermons, one in the first chapter and three in the second. Unusual among the Minor Prophets, each of these sermons is meticulously dated and provides context for their delivery. The first calls for the continued rebuilding of the Temple, the second promises the glory of the future Temple (again only truly fulfilled in Christ Jesus). The third addresses sin, likening it to a contagion, and the fourth (very short) sermon proclaims God’s power over the nations and his calling of Haggai’s contemporary, Zerubbabel, to lead his people wisely.
Malachi is reckoned the last of the prophets until St. John the Baptist. Virtually nothing is known of Malachi (even his name is uncertain, as “malachi” means “messenger” or “angel”). His book sets out six disputations – six sermons against particular issues of his day, most of which are pertinent warnings in any day and age. These six are: Judea’s scheming Edomite neighbors, unfaithful priests in the Temple, intermarriage with Gentiles, unrighteousness and injustice, lack of tithing, and lack of fear of God. Malachi’s book also famously ends with a prophecy about the return of Elijah “before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes” that Jesus identifies as being fulfilled in John the Baptist.
The twelve Minor Prophets come in varying degrees of readability to the modern Christian; some are more rooted in their specific time and place than others, and they contain a number of different rhetorical and stylistic approaches. Some are verbose and graphic, others are short and simple. But they all clearly preach about sin and judgment, injustice and faithlessness, hope and repentance. Although their contexts are not always as clear or relatable today, these underlying truths need to be heard in our pews in every generation! And as Christians, we find that the perfect fulfillment of all the prophets’ hope is in the person and works of Jesus.