We are so familiar with the names of the prophets to which these books are attributed that we easily forget that most of them are not mentioned anywhere else. Exceptions are Micah (Jer. 26:18), Jonah (II Ki. 14:25), and Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1; 6:14). We know little about most of the Minor Prophets and still less about how this information helps us to understand their books.
The Minor Prophets stretch from Hosea (a contemporary of Jeroboam II, 786-746 B.C.) to Malachi (likely a contemporary of Ezra, 458 B.C.). In the mid-700s B.C. the kingdoms of Israel in Samaria and of Judah in Jerusalem were intact and prosperous. But in Mesopotamia, Assyria was growing in power and ambition. It was becoming increasingly interested in Palestine and, beyond that, in Egypt. Its campaigns in 734 and 721 destroyed Samaria and took most of its peoples into exile. Judah survived but became Assyria's vassal and had a troubled history during the following century.
After 655 B.C. Assyria was weakened by a series of rebellions and finally fell to Babylon in 612 and 609. Babylon defeated Egypt and took over Palestine. Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon in 587, and many Judeans were taken into exile. Then Persia succeeded Babylon in 539 and inherited that empire.
Under Persia's more tolerant attitude toward various religions, permission was received for Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It took a long time in view of opposition from their neighbors. But through the work of Zerubabbel in 520-515, of Ezra in 468, and of Nehemiah in 445-427 B.C., the temple and the city were rebuilt, the priestly services were reinstated, the Torah of Moses was recognized as law in Jerusalem, and pilgrims were welcomed for the great festivals.
The Minor Prophets do not follow a strict chronological order. There is a rough chronological outline carried through from Hosea, Amos, and Micah (about 750-701 B.C.); to Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk (about 628-605); to Haggai and Zechariah chapters 1-8 (520-515); and finally to Malachi (about 500-450). The chronological position of the other books is vague. Obadiah and Habakkuk are apparently related to the fall of Jerusalem in 587, but this is not explicit. Zephaniah's superscription places it in Josiah's time (640-609), but nothing in the book fits that time.
Parts of the Minor Prophets follow a thematic outline rather than a strict chronological order. The six small books relate three themes in reverse order.
These seem to be arranged in an order that has little to do with chronology. Instead, they deal with issues related to GOD's judgment over Israel and the nations. They seem to be particularly related to the terrible happenings at the fall of Jerusalem in 587 (Obadiah and Habakkuk) or to the long rule and fall of Nineveh (Jonah and Nahum) and to the broader theology of GOD's judgment over all history (Joel and Zephaniah).
Micah's position in the center of the whole seems to be deliberate to shift the center away from 587 B.C., the destruction of Jerusalem, which is the crucial event through the Books of Kings and Chronicles. Isaiah changed that in placing chapters 36-39 in the middle of its vision. Now the twelve Minor Prophets followed suit. They saw the decisive moment, not in an event of history, but in GOD's decision that would determine all future history. Isaiah had placed this picture of the future temple city at the beginning (ch.2). The twelve Minor Prophets used the same words at the center of their work in Micah 4 with the same effect.
Both Isaiah and the twelve Minor Prophets pointed the predictions and announcements within their books toward fulfillment at or near the end of the book. They both looked back to GOD's word, spoken through prophets and in their pages, in order to celebrate its fulfillment before the end of the book. They did not leave the readers without a future. Quite the contrary. What GOD has accomplished in history gives the readers a future to be lived with GOD's written Word (Torah in Mal. 4:4) and GOD's living words through prophets (Mal. 4:5).
The Books of the twelve Minor Prophets interpret the previous three and a half centuries (about 750 to 430 B.C.) from a viewpoint of GOD's sovereignty over history. Specifically this includes His covenant people, the nations of Canaan, the Mesopotamian nations, and Egypt.
The central issue was whether the LORD still loved Israel and had a purpose for it after all the terrible times that had passed. Its history is reviewed in terms of the blessings and the curses prescribed in the covenant statements in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-30. But the stress is on GOD's continued love for His people even after the necessary judgments.
Another issue was whether GOD had controlled this turbulent history or whether chaos had overrun His purpose and control. What was GOD's relation to a history in which heathen empires had occupied His land and enslaved His people? In a world obviously not controlled by Yahweh's anointed king on Zion, where was GOD to be found? And what of those who worshiped Him?
The Books of the twelve Minor Prophets, along with the other prophetic books, were written to help their readers or hearers believe their own times to be ones GOD had willed to be and brought to pass. Knowing this they could ask, "What does GOD want us to do in this time?" and do it. They had to know that they were surely loved by GOD. They were privileged heirs of GOD's great victories. They were responsible to the love of GOD which spared and restored them. They were still the elect people of GOD, beloved and blessed, to be guided by His written Word (Torah) and by His presence among them, witnessed by inspired preaching like Elijah's.
Taken as a whole, the Books of the twelve Minor Prophets spoke to a people who questioned GOD's love for them. They were priests who failed to sense the gravity of their service. They were persons who chose to ignore the law and the provisions of covenant. For them the Book of the Twelve reviewed three and a half centuries of GOD's relation to Israel's bitter history. The lessons of that history follow:
Because of the complexity of the literature, it is important to keep in mind a "map" of the heart of the message. The main points of emphasis are:
Because the Book of the Twelve Prophets is preserved in the Jewish canon of the Latter Prophets and in the Christian Scriptures at the end of the Old Testament, modern readers look to it for lessons that continue to be applicable. These include: the love of GOD for those He has chosen who seek Him and believe in Him; GOD's control of history to fulfill His plan in which His beloved elect are to play their vital part; and GOD's primary goal for His people for them to worship Him sincerely and joyfully. (Others can rule the world for Him.) GOD invites seekers from all nations and peoples to join His people in worshiping HIm.
Both Jews and Christians have recognized that the Books of the twelve Minor Prophets affirm the life-style GOD wants for them. It was not necessary for the Jews returning from the exile to recreate the situations of twelve tribes in Canaan like that in the Book of Joshua or that of the United Kingdom under David. GOD affirmed their status of being a people dispersed through the known world, offering worship to Him wherever they were. He called them to be unified in their commitment to Him in worship, through their use of a common Scripture, and in looking to Jerusalem's temple.
Christians and Jews today are keenly aware that subsequent history eliminated the temple. The Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70, and it was not to be rebuilt or replaced. The Gospels are aware of this (Mark 14:58; 15:29; John 2:19,21). Part of Christianity later came to look to Rome and St. Peter's basilica as a Christian substitute for Jerusalem's temple. But all Christians have accepted the other forms for the life of the people of GOD which are taught here: their spread throughout the world, their direction through a common Scripture, and the expectation that GOD would continue to speak through chosen messengers.
Christians placed the twelve Minor Prophets at the end of the Old Testament. This links the closing message about Elijah with the ministry of John the Baptist in the Gospels. In doing so christians affirm the books' basic message. The Gospels affirm GOD's continued love for His people as promised to Abraham. Jesus taught GOD's concern for the lame, the blind, and the other disadvantaged of His people. Jesus also taught GOD's bias in favor of the poor, the meek, and the humble among believers. All these re emphases of the twelve Minor Prophets. Acts and the Epistles that follow affirm that GOD sends His people out to settle in small congregations scattered among the nations, committed to teaching, worship, and care for the poor. And the Book of Revelation pictures Jerusalem and its temple as raised above the earth to be the eternal place of GOD's presence with His beloved and redeemed people.
The Minor Prophets (the Book of the Twelve) helped the Jews returning from and remaining in exile to come to terms with their turbulent past. They had lost their country, their king, their temple; they were threatened with the loss of their very identity. It helped them see GOD's consistent love and purpose, still alive and valid for them. They were invited to view that terrible experience as GOD's way of refining them, preparing them for a new way of fulfilling His original purposes for Abraham and Jacob.
It also teaches that the problems of apostasy and rebellion continue. Not all Jews make it into GOD's kingdom. But the door is open to them and all others who would join them in seeking GOD and turning to Him. It teaches that the guide to GOD's way is in the Scriptures, both the Law and the Prophets.
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