Faithfulness in a Minor Key


Among the most obscure of the Bible’s writers are the “minor prophets.” Who were they? Bible scholar Steven Thompson explores this collection of Old Testament writers.

The written record of the lives of the so-called “minor prophets” of ancient Israel—those biblical authors that follow the book of Daniel—accounts for roughly one-third of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. Called minor because their 12 documents combined would hardly have filled one complete scroll, they nevertheless greatly impacted Israelite life, insisting that Yahweh, their God, had bypassed the official priests, giving them messages for His chosen people.

Prophecy in Israel rose and fell in relation to political, social and spiritual unrest, peaking during times of unrest. The period of the minor prophets cover three peaks of intense prophetic activity in Israel’s history. The first (790-721 BC) focused on the northern part of the Hebrew nation, known as Israel, where 10 of the 12 tribes lived. Israel enjoyed 70 years of peace, and prosperity ensued.

The unaccustomed wealth made possible larger cities and public works projects. However, it also led to the breakdown of the old tribal land division laws, allowing landowners to accumulate vast holdings, forcing ordinary people from their small holdings unlawfully.

This divide between haves and have-nots came just as Assyria, a sleeping superpower to the east, awoke. Under its king, Tiglath-pileser III, it muscled into Israel’s territory, which it devastated, sending the 10 northern tribes into permanent exile in 721 BC. It was during this period that the minor prophets were active, and include Amos, Jonah, Hosea and Micah.

The First Period

Amos was a stockbreeder and orchardist living in the southern highlands of Judah, about eight kilometres south of Bethlehem. Around 760 BC, he became convinced that God had given him a message for the more prosperous northerners. This was despite a lack of religious training or background. But once God spoke, he simply couldn’t remain silent: “The lion has roared,” he declared, “who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).

He travelled to Bethel to deliver his colourful message, rich in agricultural imagery. Its gist is that for the nation of Israel, there was a direct link between the ethical conduct of the present and their future. If people didn’t stop exploiting one another and perverting justice for economic gain, God would break His earlier covenant promise to keep them perpetually on the land, and would allow foreigners to take them into captivity.

This reference to the “covenant”—a treaty of mutual obligation—God had made with Israel, is the key to understanding the message of these prophets. They drew words of both encouragement and warnings for the future from the covenant.

God originally made the contract with Israel when they entered Canaan centuries before, following their deliverance from Egyptian slavery.

The covenant included blessings and curses from God, depending on whether the covenant was honoured or dishonoured (see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). Amos and other prophets recycled these blessings and curses, applying them to their present situations, as God instructed.

The message of Amos so alarmed and annoyed the northern authorities that he was ordered out. Wrong response! They should have listened and repented! The violent invasion and captivity predicted by Amos was accurate, and a generation later, in 722 BC, neo-Assyria invaded, destroying the nation, carrying the 10 tribes into a captivity from which they never returned.

It is interesting to note how some of the sayings of Amos have become stock expressions today, among Christians and nonchristians alike: “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet”; “Prepare to meet your God”; and, “Let justice roll.

So if all that happened more than 2500 years ago, and Amos’s predictions are already fulfilled, then what’s the point of reading his message today?

Even though he spoke to his own era, Amos tells us that God is true to His word; he says that He delivers vital, saving messages through prophets, especially in times of social unrest. “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (3:7), he says. He might also repeat his conviction that nations have a rendezvous with God—“Prepare to meet your God” (4:12)—and that its outcome is directly influenced by the moral conduct of its citizens.

Jonah, another of the “minors,” is best known as the first whale rider. Which is surprising, because he grew up on the land at Gath-hepher—“the digger’s winepress”—about five kilometres north-east of Nazareth (see 2 Kings 14:25). His occupation isn’t stated.

Like Amos, God gave Jonah a message to deliver to a doomed people. But instead of doing so, he bolted, travelling west by sea instead of east to Nineveh by land.

The futility of escape is made clear by an unnatural storm that abated only when Jonah, at his own insistence, was ditched overboard. Three unforgettable days in the dark innards of a great sea creature transformed Jonah’s attitude (as it well might anyone), so that the next time God said “go to Nineveh,” he went immediately.

As the capital city of the awakening superpower Assyria, Nineveh symbolised the worst of frightening, pagan idolatry to an Israelite. With its long and fearsome past, Assyria was a byword for cruelty. It was also looking beyond its borders after a period of military inactivity. The last thing Israel needed was to draw Assyria’s attention to its own prosperity!

God’s message to Nineveh was straightforward: because of wickedness, it would be destroyed in 40 days time. But to evangelist Jonah’s astonishment, its inhabitants repented and the city was spared. This was a happy ending, but it was spoiled because the now-embarrassed and possibly disappointed Jonah worked himself into depression over the failure of God to deliver destruction! The story concludes with God explaining to Jonah that He cares for Nineveh’s 120,000 inhabitants, even though they weren’t Hebrew and had never worshipped Him.

The message of the book of Jonah is that the sphere of God’s rule and influence extended well beyond the borders of his “chosen people,” Israel. In a time when every city-state had its own local gods, the idea of a truly international God was revolutionary and unfamiliar, even to Israelites. It’s a message that churches of today need to heed as well.

The story shows God’s power over the elements of nature—the wind, sea, and the creatures within it.
It tells us that God has a plan to save more than just those within His immediate flock—the non-Israelite people—and when they see His power, they will turn to Him. This is neatly illustrated in the reaction of the ship’s pagan crew, who prayed and made vows to God after their brief encounter with Him via Jonah. It is more so illustrated in the response of the inhabitants of Nineveh.

Today Jonah’s story counters the widely held view that the God of the Old Testament cruelly and mercilessly called for the destruction of all those nations who failed to honour Him.

The Second Period

The second period of intense prophetic activity focuses on the welfare of the remaining two Hebrew tribes of southern Palestine, who made up the tiny kingdom of Judah. The period began about 120 years after the northern kingdom’s exile. Nineveh’s repentance apparently did not endure, because both city and empire fell to a combined Babylonian and Median attack in 612 BC.

Shockwaves from the collapse echoed across the ancient Near East. An entire book, Nahum, is devoted to describing it. Out of the social chaos, a Babylonian chieftain, Nabopalassar and his soon-to-be-famous son, Nebuchadnezzar, established the ancient world’s most famous superpower, Neo-Babylonia. Its detailed, complicated relationship to Judah, constitutes almost the entire subject matter of the major prophets—Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Minor prophet Zephaniah refers to the then recently destroyed Nineveh, prophesying that Jerusalem would be purged of the corrupt city officials, judges, priests and prophets who’d come to believe in a non-interventionist God, who would not reward justice or punish injustice (see Zephaniah 3:3, 4). Their theology, expressed in the slogan of a times—“The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad” (Zephaniah 1:12)—was defective, as they were to discover.

Habakkuk was also concerned about God’s seeming indifference to corruption. His book’s opening line asks, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (1:2). To which God portentously replies, “I am raising up the Babylonians” (1:6), the ethnic name of Nebuchadnezzar’s tribe. Just as Assyria was sent by God to punish unrepentant Israelites, so the Chaldeans would punish unrepentant Judeans.

Launching three devastating attacks on Judah and Jerusalem between 605 BC and 586 BC, they sacked Jerusalem, reduced its magnificent temple to dust, and rendered the surrounding land unproductive for the next 70 years. This was as Jeremiah predicted (see 25:12; 29:10) years before.

The Third Period

The third burst of prophetic activity took place after Babylon’s fall in 539 BC to a superseding superpower, Persia. The Persian kingdom was established by Cyrus the Great. Judeans, exiled in Babylon for 70 years, were then invited to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the Temple. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophesied between 520 BC and 515 BC, their messages focusing on restoring faith and spirituality.
They realised that the dethronement of their last king by the Babylonians in 586 BC forever ended kingship for Israel, so they introduced a new way of relating to their superpower overlords. No longer were the Jews to exist as one kingdom among others; rather, they were to submit, without their own king, to the power of the day, accepting modest territorial boundaries in exchange for freedom to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem. They saw this as a means to allow prosperity and also a spiritual magnet attracting people groups to seek God (see Haggai 2:7; Zechariah 8:20-23; 14:16; Malachi 1:11).

Importantly, they agreed that at some time in the future, God Himself would come to His temple and set up there His rule over the earth, expressed variously in such statements as: “I will return to Jerusalem with mercy” (Zechariah 1:16); “I am coming, and I will live among you” (2:10); “The Lord will be king over the whole earth” (14:9); and, “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1).

However, before God’s return to His temple, He promised to send the metaphoric “Elijah”—Jesus Christ—to bring about reconciliation, in order to reduce the destructive impact of His return (see Malachi 4:5, or 3:24 in Hebrew Bibles).

It is significant that in Christian Bibles the four Gospels of the New Testament immediately follow Malachi, indicating the Christian conviction that the coming of Jesus to His people and temple fulfilled this prediction.

Their Message

The minor prophets reminded their contemporaries of the ongoing importance of God’s covenant, and how its blessings or curses provided an indication of the ethical quality of national life at any given moment. They pointed to God’s actions in history on their behalf, including His working through major political and social events.

Through this group of prophets, God foretold the rise and fall of superpowers, and assisted the Israelites to adjust their faith to cope with the loss of kingship and territory that accompanied life under the superpowers. For 275 years they warned and encouraged their people in God’s name.

With their guidance, a remnant of the ancient Hebrew nation survived the rise of four superpowers and the fall of three. Their predictions provided pointers that helped the contemporaries of Jesus interpret the major events in His life also, as part of a new phase in God’s ongoing involvement with His people.

Does God, through these so-called minor prophets, have a message for the 21st century? Maybe He does. Perhaps they deserve a rereading as our world goes through yet another peak of political, social and spiritual unrest.

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