For our last blog of the Walk through the New Testament (2021), I wanted to return to the message of the prophets. So much of the book of Revelation highlights the fulfillment, in various ways, of prophecies concerning God’s promised future. This overview can help us have a deeper understanding of images and ideas that make up the last book of the New Testament…
There are twelve books in this subsection of the Old Testament. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, these twelve books are treated as one book, called “The Book of the Twelve.” The name Minor Prophets get their name from their size, not their lack of importance. The word “minor” comes from the Latin word for “small,” since they are not as long as most of the Major Prophets (Lamentations and Daniel are the shorter ones). To keep this blog from getting too long, I’m going to give an overview of the Minor Prophets from a “big picture” perspective. We will take a look at the historical period covered by these books and then the message of the Minor Prophets.
THE HISTORICAL PERIOD OF THE MINOR PROPHETS
Let’s get started with the historical period covered by the Minor Prophets. Like the Major Prophets as a whole, the Minor Prophets or the Book of the Twelve go over the same broad historical periods. In the Prophetic Books, the people of Israel are living in the shadow of empire. To be precise, God’s people from the 8th century to the 5th century BC experience God’s disciplinary judgment through the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. There are three historical periods the writing prophets spoke to, each one matching up with one empire:
- The Assyrian Period (ca. 750-612 BC):the rise and domination of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, including the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.
- The Babylonian Period (ca. 612-539 BC): the rise and domination of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, including the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC.
- The Persian Period (ca. 539-400 BC):the rise and domination of the Medo-Persian Empire, including the return of the southern kingdom to the Promised Land, beginning in 538 BC, and the rebuilding of the temple in 516 BC.
It may be helpful to recall this basic definition of the prophets – the prophets are God’s spokespeople, who communicate God’s will for God’s people. The Prophetic Books are about forthtelling and foretelling. In other words, God’s prophets speak both about the future ahead of time (foretelling) and speak forth truth into the present situation of God’s people (forthtelling). Between the two, the prophets are more about forthtelling than foretelling. So, what is their overall message of the Prophetic Books?
THE MESSAGE OF THE MINOR PROPHETS
Now, let’s move on to the message of the Minor Prophets. Following much Jewish scholarship, many recent scholars are acknowledging that these twelve books seem to tell an overall message. Running through all the different historical situations related in them, these books contain a clear message that follows the pattern of sin-punishment-restoration. I have found the work of Evangelical Old Testament scholar Paul House to be helpful. The following comes from House and highlights some interesting connections among the Book of the Twelve (Old Testament Survey, 231-233):
Hosea – Israel’s general spiritual adultery
Joel – Israel’s sin, plus the nations’ general wickedness
Amos – The specific sins of Israel and the nations
Obadiah – Edom’s hatred of Israel
Jonah – Israel’s hatred of Assyria
Micah – The solution for sin
Nahum – Assyria’s punishment
Habakkuk – Israel and Babylon’s punishment
Zephaniah – Punishment of all nations
Haggai – Restoration of the temple
Zechariah – Restoration of Jerusalem and the nations
Malachi – Restoration of the Jewish people
So, how can we put this all together in a simple way? Another Evangelical Old Testament scholar, J. Daniel Hayes, has helpfully summarized the message of the Prophetic Books, both the major and minor ones. Listen to what Hayes says:
“Within the Mosaic covenant context (primarily defined by Deuteronomy) and within the historical context of the looming expansionistic world powers of Assyria and Babylonia, the message of the prophets can be summarized by the following three basic points:
1.You (Israel/Judah) have broken the covenant; you had better repent!
2.No repentance? Then judgment! Judgment will also come on the nations.
3.Yet there is hope beyond the judgment for a glorious future restoration both
for Israel/Judah and for the nations.”
As you make your way through any prophetic book, keeping in mind this pattern of sin-punishment-restoration will be supremely helpful. Let’s explore one well-known passage in the Minor Prophets to see how this dynamic pattern is at work. This passage is Hosea 11:1-9:
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7 My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
We see here the full pattern of sin-punishment-restoration. God’s people are indicted for their sin of idolatry (see verse 2). Then, we see God responding in judgment to their lack of repentance in verse 5: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.” Finally, in verses 8-9, God’s heart is laid bare as he moves in compassionate mercy to promise restoration after the time of judgment. This pattern is what we see in the Gospel. We get to glory in the good news of Jesus, who took on us the punishment for our sin. Paul proclaims this good news: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).