Who Were the Minor Prophets?

ZA Blog on November 30th, 2017. Tagged under ,.

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Who were the Minor Prophets?

The Minor Prophets is a collection of twelve Old Testament books, known simply as “the Twelve” or “the Book of the Twelve” in the Hebrew Bible. The title “minor” refers to length, not significance. Roughly in chronological order, each of these short books gives a glimpse into the spiritual landscape and history of Israel, challenging the status quo through prophets called to speak on God’s behalf.

But who were these people?

In their Old Testament Survey online course, Andrew Hill and John Walton provide a scholarly overview of the entire Old Testament, answering questions like this along the way. The following post is adapted from their unit on the Minor Prophets.

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Hosea

Hosea was the son of Beeri and he lived in Israel during its “golden age” under Jeroboam II. Hosea (or Hoshea) was a common name in ancient Israel derived from the Hebrew word meaning “salvation.” It means “help” or “deliverance.” Jesus (or Yeshua) is a form of this name (Matthew 1:21). Hosea was a prophet to Israel during the eighth century BC, and with the possible exception of Jonah, he was the only writing prophet to live in the northern kingdom.

God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. Together they raised three children—though it’s not clear if they were all Hosea’s biological offspring. (Their son Lo-ammi’s name means “not my people.”) Hosea’s marriage was integral to his prophetic ministry, since Gomer’s repeated unfaithfulness—and Hosea’s continued faithfulness—paralleled Israel’s spiritual adultery and breach of covenant with Yahweh.

The purpose of the book of Hosea

Hosea’s prophecies have three main objectives:

  1. To warn northern Israel of the impending Assyrian exile.
  2. To demonstrate God’s steadfast love for his people (through his own marriage to Gomer).
  3. And to call the people to repent and renew their covenant with Yahweh.

Main ideas in the book of Hosea

  • Yahweh’s unchanging love for Israel
  • Yahweh’s jealousy for his covenant
  • Yahweh’s just judgment
  • Yahweh’s healing and restoration of the remnant

Joel

Joel isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament, so we don’t know much about him. His book shows he was a powerful and effective preacher. He has at times been counted among the official “temple prophets” who weren’t always accurate spokesmen for the Lord (as we see in Jeremiah 28). But Joel’s message rings true and served as a catapult for the Christian church—Peter used it in his message on the Day of Pentecost.

Joel’s vision of the locust plague is also perhaps among the most familiar prophetic images of impending invasion and devastation.

The purpose of the book of Joel

Joel’s concern was to address “the day of the Lord.” The locust plague was only the beginning, and the judgment would get worse. He called on the people to repent, and when they responded positively, favor and prosperity were proclaimed.

Main ideas in the book of Joel

  • Analogy of the locust plague to describe the coming day of the Lord
  • The pouring out of the Spirit on all people as a prelude to judgment

Amos

Amos was a shepherd and sycamore fig farmer from Tekoa, a village about ten miles south of Jerusalem. In Amos 7:14–15, he points out his separation from the “religious establishment” to emphasize his detachment from formal institutions like the royal court and the temple. As an independent layman and blue-collar worker, Amos had freedom to proclaim God’s message unencumbered by vested interests or public opinion.

Amos highlights the truth that God shows no partiality—a timely reminder in an age of professionalism like ours.

The purpose of the book of Amos

Amos forecasts disaster for the northern kingdom of Israel in the form of Assyrian invasion and exile—the consequences of religious hypocrisy and social injustice. Amos also calls the people to repent, promising hope for the future in the form of messianic restoration and blessing.

Main ideas in the book of Amos

  • God holds the nations accountable for their social policy
  • Israel will not escape the judgment of the day of the Lord
  • True worship creates social justice
  • God will restore a remnant of Israel

Obadiah

Obadiah means “servant (or worshiper) of Yahweh,” and it’s a common biblical name—there are at least a dozen other Obadiah’s in the Old Testament. Later Jewish tradition identified Obadiah as King Ahab’s God-fearing steward, but that hasn’t been proved (Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 39b; 1 Kings 18:3–16). The book of Obadiah is the shortest book of the Old Testament—just twenty-one verses long.

The purpose of the book of Obadiah

Obadiah’s purpose was to pronounce divine judgment against the nation of Edom for assisting the Babylonians in their conquest of Judah, and to predict the divine restoration of the people of Israel.

Main ideas in the book of Obadiah

  • The sovereignty of God
  • The principle of retribution
  • The restoration of Israel

Jonah

Although Jonah lived in the eighth century BC, the date of the book is disputed because we can’t be sure who the author was. Jonah is referred to in the third person, and the author isn’t identified elsewhere in the Bible. Nevertheless, if the book preserves an account of an actual event, we would expect that either Jonah or someone getting information from Jonah would have to have written the book—such as someone from the “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3).

The book of Jonah is unique among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Rather than being a collection of the oracles of the prophet, it relates an episode in his life. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah is mentioned outside the book only in 2 Kings 14:25, in reference to the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel in the first half of the eighth century BC.

The purpose of the book of Jonah

God reserves the right to be compassionate, even if it means working against a prophetic warning. God delights in grace. He responded to Nineveh’s small steps in the right direction with compassion. And if he could do that for Nineveh—the epitome of pagan wickedness—he would respond compassionately to his chosen people, Israel.

Main ideas in the book of Jonah

  • God’s right to perform gracious acts of compassion
  • God’s delight in small steps in the right direction
  • God’s propensity for offering second chances

Micah

A contemporary of the well-known prophet Isaiah, Micah was from Moresheth, a small town located in the hilly region between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea. He is one of the few prophets referred to specifically in another prophetic book. When Jeremiah was threatened with death for his prophecies of doom against Jerusalem, elders who reminded the people that Micah had prophesied the same more than one hundred years earlier (Jeremiah 26:18–19). (Jeremiah was spared as a result.) This gives some indication of the prominence of Micah as a spokesman for the Lord.

Micah ministered during the great Assyrian crisis. He was a witness to the events that brought about the destruction and deportation of the northern kingdom of Israel.

The purpose of the book of Micah

Micah is one of the few prophets who explicitly stated his purpose: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin” (3:8). There are numerous indictment and judgment oracles in the book, reflecting this purpose.

Main ideas in the book of Micah

  • An indictment of injustice
  • A deliverer from the line of David would be born in Bethlehem
  • Right behavior—not manipulating rituals—are the proper response to God’s anger
  • The coming deliverance from the Assyrian threat

Nahum

More than a century after God spared Nineveh from judgment (prophesied through Jonah), Nahum also declared the judgment of God upon the wicked city of Nineveh. This time there was no fasting or sackcloth, and Nineveh was not spared.

It is unlikely, but possible, that Nineveh was the audience of Nahum’s prophecy. More likely, it was given as an encouragement to the people of Judah, who were suffering under Assyrian domination.

The purpose of the book of Nahum

Nahum’s purpose is to pronounce the doom of Nineveh. This was not just a case of the ebb and flow of history, but the action of the Lord’s punishment against Nineveh. He announced Nineveh’s doom, and he would accomplish it.

Main ideas in the book of Nahum

  • The impending judgment of Nineveh
  • Judah’s eventual release from the power of the Assyrian Empire

Habakkuk

Little is known about Habakkuk. The book doesn’t give us any genealogical or historical information about him. Unlike most of the other prophetic books, this one places a higher priority on addressing a particular topic—rather than simply preserving the oracles of the prophet. In this way, the book is more like Jonah than like Jeremiah. The “wisdom” tone of the prophecy and its organization also distinguish it from the rest of the prophetic literature.

The purpose of the book of Habakkuk

The purpose of the book of Habakkuk is to examine the issue of God’s justice on a national plane. The question at hand in the theodicy (the justification of God’s ways with humanity) was, How can a just God use a wicked nation like Babylon as his instrument for punishment?

Main ideas in Habakkuk

  • God is just
  • Judah was punished through the Babylonians, who would later be punished by God
  • Even when things are confusing, we need to trust God and act with integrity

Zephaniah

Zephaniah was possibly a member of the royal household (if the person mentioned in 1:1 was King Hezekiah), and was a contemporary of Jeremiah. These two prophets signaled the beginning of God’s witness to Judah during the Babylonian period that eventually destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Their ministries paralleled Micah and Isaiah, who prophesied a century earlier. With Zephaniah came a resurgence of prophetic witness, announcing the coming judgment on Judah.

The purpose of Zephaniah

Zephaniah’s purpose was to initiate change in Judah by pronouncing God’s judgment on wickedness. Coupled with God’s intention to punish Judah came the proclamation of his intention to restore it. Zephaniah’s message focused on the day of the Lord, which he claimed was approaching fast.

Main ideas in Zephaniah

  • The coming day of the Lord
  • The call to the humble to seek the Lord
  • The universal impact of the coming judgment

Haggai

Haggai has two titles that identify him as a “spokesman” for God. He’s called “the prophet” (1:1; 2:1, 10; Ezra 6:14), and he’s labeled “the Lord’s messenger” (1:13). Haggai was a contemporary of Zechariah, and through their combined ministry the temple of the Lord was rebuilt in Jerusalem.

That’s about all we know about him. According to Epiphanius (a fourth-century bishop), Haggai came to Jerusalem from Babylonia under the leadership of Sheshbazzar. But he’s not recorded among the returnees in Ezra 1–2, so all we have is this fourth-century claim. Some have tried to identify Haggai as a priest, based on his teaching about ritual purity in 2:11–14, but the argument remains unconvincing.

The purpose of the book of Haggai

Haggai’s purpose is to initiate the reconstruction of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Main ideas in the book of Haggai

  • The importance of establishing proper priorities
  • The value of the temple as a covenant symbol for Israel
  • The faithfulness of God in renewing his covenant promises to David’s descendants

Zechariah

Zechariah means “Yah(weh) has remembered,” which is the essence of his message to Jerusalem after the exile. While Haggai called on the people to erect the temple of God, Zechariah summoned the community to repentance and spiritual renewal. His task was to prepare the people for proper worship and temple service once the building project was completed.

About 32 people are called Zechariah in the Old Testament, which makes it easy to misidentify the prophet. Zechariah, son of Berekiah is a different person than Zechariah, son of Jeberekiah (Isaiah 8:2). The book identifies him as the son of Berekiah and the grandson of Iddo (1:1), and Ezra says Zechariah is the son of Iddo (5:1; 6:14)—but this isn’t an error. In Ezra, the word “son” was used simply to designate “any descendant.”

Nehemiah lists Zechariah as the head of the priestly family of Iddo (12:16), which means Zechariah was a member of the tribe of Levi, a priest, and a prophet.

The purpose of the book of Zechariah

Zechariah is a tract for troubled times. First, the prophet rebuked the people for perpetuating the evil ways and deeds of their ancestors (Zech. 1:2–6). He exhorted them to repent and return to God in a renewed covenant relationship that demonstrated social justice (7:4–10). Finally, the prophet offered the people of Judah encouragement and hope for the future with promises of God’s blessing and restoration (10:6–12).

Main ideas in the book of Zechariah

  • Repentance and covenant renewal
  • Hope rooted in God’s sovereignty
  • Social justice
  • Messiah

Malachi

In the entire Old Testament, the name Malachi only appears in the title verse of this book (1:1). The name can be translated as “my messenger” or “my angel.” As a result, some biblical scholars suggest that the “name” is actually an editorial heading for the book, borrowed from verse 3:1 (“See, I will send my messenger . . .”), making the work an anonymous prophecy. Still, Malachi is similar to other Old Testament names ending in i, such as Beeri (Genesis 26:34) and Zichri (1 Chronicles 8:19). Plus, both Jonah and Habakkuk are solitary names among the prophets, the name’s single occurrence shouldn’t count as evidence against its use as a proper name.

As with Obadiah, the opening verse of the prophecy traces no genealogical heritage. Jewish tradition regards Malachi, along with Haggai and Zechariah, as a member of “the Great Synagogue.” This synagogue was a council of scribes and other leaders who helped reorganize religious life and culture after the Babylonian exile. They played a key role in collecting and arranging the books of the Twelve Prophets in the Hebrew canon.

Malachi’s convictions about idolatry (2:10–12), easy divorce (2:13–16), and social injustice (3:5) suggest he is a man of commitment and integrity. He was also a man of courage, because he scolded the influential priestly class and social elites (1:1–14; 2:1–4; 3:2–4).

The purpose of the book of Malachi

Malachi calls Israel to repent in order to renew their covenant with Yahweh (1:2–5; 3:7). This will enable the priests and people of God to restore proper temple worship (1:10–14; 3:9–10) and practice social justice within the community (3:5).

Main ideas in the book of Malachi

  • God desires wholehearted worship
  • God expects faithfulness in marriage
  • God hates divorce
  • The day of the Lord affects both the righteous and the wicked
  • An Elijah-like figure will announce the day of the Lord

Conclusion

We don’t know much about most of the Minor Prophets. There were priests, farmers, possibly royal servants, and maybe even royalty among them. What we know for sure is that each prophet challenged people to faithfully follow Yahweh, calling out the atrocities of the past and present, and proclaiming God’s warnings and encouragements for the future. We know their names (with the possible exception of Malachi) and we have their words, and as we trace the trail of breadcrumbs throughout Scripture we can piece together a little more of their identities, fleshing out their faint portraits.

In the end, each Minor Prophet is a voice crying out in the wilderness of their time. And they’re voices worth listening to.

To learn more about the Minor Prophets, sign up for the Old Testament Survey online course.

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