Messages of Doom and Hope

The Minor Prophets Speak Out

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the 12 prophets who wrote shorter and therefore “minor” books spoke powerfully about not only impending destruction but also ultimate restoration.

In this series on the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, we have generally kept to the order of the Hebrew Scriptures found in the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. In the Prophets section, three “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are followed by twelve “minor” ones: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. These twelve are minor only in length of prophetic material; the entire collection, originally on one scroll, is equivalent to just one of the books comprising the Major Prophets. They were assembled into a collection at some point after the rebuilding of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem.

The first mention of “The Twelve” as a unit is in the early-second-century BCE Hebrew book Sirach. The earliest physical evidence is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from the mid-second century BCE); among the scrolls are fragments from all twelve Minor Prophets.

Several of the books predate the exile of the Israelites to Assyria and Babylonia. Others are exilic and still others postexilic. But because of various uncertainties, their works cannot all be precisely dated, nor are they necessarily in chronological order. Hosea is listed first, probably because he was the first among three contemporaries of Isaiah, the others being Amos and Micah.

May the bones of the Twelve Prophets send forth new life from where they lie, for they comforted the people of Jacob and delivered them with confident hope.”

Sirach 49:10 (New Revised Standard Version)

1. Hosea

Hosea was the only prophet whose written words appear in the Bible and focus solely on the northern kingdom of Israel. His immediate audience was identified by the name of the leading tribe, Ephraim, centered in Samaria.

The opening verses make clear the time period: “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel” (Hosea 1:1).

The inclusion of the kings of Judah is perhaps a signal that the book’s contents also had a resonance for the southern kingdom. Jeroboam II ruled ca. 789–748 BCE, and Hosea probably prophesied in the closing years of his reign; Israel had benefited from several decades of political strength and prosperity, and this contributed to a growing distancing from God.

As with most of the prophets, the message was one of warning, calls for repentance, and the promise of restoration. Hosea would act out what had happened to their relationship with God. He would be required to take a prostitute for a wife—a sad reminder of what Israel had become to her figurative husband. They would have three children, whose names would represent God’s rejection of Israel. The first was a boy, Jezreel, signifying military defeat: “I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel” in the north of the country. The second was a girl, Lo-Ruhamah, “No-Mercy,” meaning that God would no longer spare Israel. A third child, Lo-Ammi, “Not-My-People,” represented the severing of God’s symbolic marital relationship with them (Hosea 1:4–9; 2:2).

In this way, God announced that He would bring an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel, a people on whom He would no longer have mercy, nor be their God and spiritual husband. Among many reversals, they would be cursed with fear, sickness, famine, war, death and exile. Failure to heed God’s escalating curses would end in captivity and exile: “They shall not dwell in the Lord’s land, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt [symbolically], and shall eat unclean things in Assyria” (9:3). Rejection of God’s law would put them in the hands of a ruthless overlord: “He shall not return to the land of Egypt; but the Assyrian shall be his king, because they refused to repent. And the sword shall slash in his cities, devour his districts, and consume them, because of their own counsels” (11:5–6).

These prophecies were fulfilled in the attack on the northern kingdom begun by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser. The author of 2 Kings gave the reason for the end of the kingdom and the exile: worshiping foreign gods, establishing high places for idolatry, stubbornly refusing to change, rejecting God’s law, and practicing witchcraft and divination (2 Kings 17:7–18)—the same sins that Hosea enumerated. He concluded, “So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day” (verse 23).

Hosea also wrote about the blessings that would come in a future restoration of Israel to its land. He spoke of the return of Israel and Judah to the land as “My people” (Hosea 1:10–2:1); of the reestablishing of the marital relationship between God and His people (2:14–23); of the restoring of godly kingship (3:5); of healing and recovery (6:1–3); of righteousness (10:12); of love for Ephraim (11:8–11); and of Israel’s complete restoration (14:1–8).

Between Jeroboam’s death and the fall of Samaria, the north was subject to instability and decline, having six kings in quick succession, four of whom were assassinated.

Hosea’s collected prophecies were likely later sent to Judah and incorporated into The Twelve.

The prophets . . . speak of little else than these two topics: how and why God’s people may expect to be punished by a variety of disasters soon, and how and why they may expect to be rescued and restored eventually.”

Douglas Stuart, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 31: Hosea–Jonah

2. Joel

Joel came with a message of repentance and restoration to Judah, but there is no indication of historical setting or personalities, no kings or princes, only priests and elders. Because Assyria and Babylon are not referenced, it’s presumed that the book was composed either before they came to prominence or more likely after the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE. The surrounding nations named are those who had dealt poorly with Judah (Joel 3:4–8). Additionally, there’s no mention of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the use of Judah to indicate Israel may suggest that the book is postexilic. Positive references to the temple in Jerusalem suggest a date after the return from Babylon.

The book opens with an account of an unprecedented plague of four kinds of locust (chapter 1), which leads in similar terms to a prophecy about the yet future “Day of the Lord” and God’s angelic army (2:1–11). This is the time of God’s intervention to bring this era of human affairs to a conclusion.

A plea for Judah to repent in the face of the locust plague follows. Implied here is the need for all people to change their ways as they consider the coming day of God’s judgment: “‘Now, therefore,’ says the Lord, ‘turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’ So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm” (2:12–13).

A prophecy about the pouring out of God’s Spirit on people before the Day of Judgment (2:28–32) introduces the concluding section of the book. This passage is quoted in the New Testament book of Acts as part of Peter’s public address explaining the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16–21). The early followers of Jesus understood that they were part of an initial group of people to receive God’s Spirit before Christ’s eventual return and the Day of Judgment.

Finally, Joel explained some of the events at the close of this age of man. Many nations will do battle in the Middle East, summoned there by God Himself (3:9–15). This will be the time of judgment for all nations that have disadvantaged the people of Israel: “The Lord also will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem; the heavens and earth will shake; but the Lord will be a shelter for His people, and the strength of the children of Israel” (3:16).

The Prophet Amos by Gustave Doré, woodcut (1866)

3. Amos

Amos’s message concentrated mostly on the northern Israelites, to whom he announced that captivity was coming. Formerly a farmer (Amos 1:1; 7:14), he now spoke under God’s authority about the problems of northern Israel under Jeroboam II and the sins of Judah under King Uzziah (ca. 785–743 BCE). The surrounding kingdoms of Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab were also specified for future retribution (1:3–2:3).

As a reminder to the whole nation, north and south, of His commitment to Israel, God said, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).

Focusing on the coming destruction of the northern kingdom, He said He would continue to speak through His prophets about the coming downfall (verse 7), though despite warnings to repent—delivered by means of famine, drought, crop infestation and locust plagues—they had not changed their ways (4:6–11).

The lack of justice and equity, the prevalence of bribery, and wrongful treatment of the poor and needy (5:7, 10–11) were all reason for God’s punishment, though He still held out hope for the repentant: “Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (verse 15). The luxuriousness, ease and complacency with which the leadership was surrounding itself was going to bring on “the day of doom” (6:3–8), and the entire nation—from “the entrance of Hamath” in the north to “the Valley of the Arabah” in the south—would be afflicted (verse 14; see also 2 Kings 14:25).

If Amos was not a professionally trained prophet, this certainly did not detract from his ability to deliver powerful, moving oracles whose impact cut to the very heart of a wayward nation’s responsibilities before God.”

Douglas Stuart, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 31: Hosea–Jonah

Though God heard Amos when he pleaded with Him for mercy for Israel regarding plagues of locusts and fire, He would not relent when it came to judgment on the northern kingdom: “I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam” (7:9).

The priest at Bethel, Amaziah, reported Amos’s prophecy to the king and then told the prophet to remove himself to Judah. Amos’s defense was simply that God had instructed him to bring the message and that the priest would suffer the consequences of invasion and captivity (verses 15, 17). The fall of the northern house was imminent, God would withdraw from them, His word would become unavailable, and the land would be plundered and the people taken captive (chapter 8).

Yet there would be mercy and restoration: “‘Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,’ says the Lord” (9:8). The captives of Israel would be scattered among the nations and then brought back (verse 9).

The restoration would bring the recovery of the house of David, which had collapsed, and include those nations that accepted God’s sovereignty (verses 11–12). The early New Testament leader James quoted this passage with some reinterpretation in reference to the acceptance of non-Jews into the Church under Christ as David’s spiritual successor (Acts 15:16–18). Further, the restoration would bring the return of captive Israelites, the rebuilding of cities, and agricultural abundance (Amos 9:13–15)—a feature of millennial restoration following Christ’s second coming.

4. Obadiah

From the context, Obadiah likely prophesied in the preexilic period. He spoke about the adjacent kingdom of Edom, the territory of the descendants of Jacob’s twin brother, Esau. Their relationship had been fraught since the time of Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright by deception (see Genesis 27).

Much later, when the Israelites had begun the last stage of their exodus journey into the Promised Land, God instructed them to avoid confronting the Edomites as they attempted to cross their territory. Despite Israel’s carefulness, the Edomites opposed them with a heavily armed force (Numbers 20:14–21). Obadiah’s short prophecy warned Edom about continuing their hatred (Obadiah 1:10–16).

The prophet Ezekiel referred to the history of Edom’s attitude and its outcome in his day, showing that Edom’s animosity, when Jerusalem was under Babylonian attack, would not go unpunished: “‘Because you have had an ancient hatred, and have shed the blood of the children of Israel by the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, when their iniquity came to an end, therefore, as I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I will prepare you for blood, and blood shall pursue you; since you have not hated blood, therefore blood shall pursue you’” (Ezekiel 35:5–6).

5. Jonah

During Jeroboam’s reign, God also spoke through the minor prophet Jonah. He is best known for his reluctant prophetic mission to the significant regional power, Assyria, and its capital, Nineveh, during which he famously encountered a great fish (Jonah 1–3).

Much to Jonah’s chagrin, Assyria changed course at his public warnings and avoided punishment, forestalling their eventual invasion of Israel and deportation of its inhabitants.

Jonah would have preferred to see them destroyed rather than achieve what he expected for his own people at their hands. But God chided him for his unmerciful attitude: “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (4:11).

Micah Exhorts the Israelites to Repent by Gustave Doré, woodcut (1866)

6. Micah

The prophet Micah was active during the reigns of Jotham, king of Judah, and his successors Ahaz and Hezekiah (Micah 1:1), whose reigns covered a period of 55 years (ca. 743–698 BCE). Though he came from Moresheth, a town south of Jerusalem, his messages were directed toward both Judah and Samaria. The idolatry of both kingdoms brought on their destruction, though here the emphasis is on the north (1:6–7; 5:13–14). First Samaria would fall, then Judah.

Micah’s opening verses addressed their collapse: “All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? And what are the high places of Judah? Are they not Jerusalem? Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of ruins in the field” (Micah 1:5–6a). The message to Samaria must therefore be dated prior to 722 BCE, when it fell to the Assyrians.

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Jeremiah confirmed that during the reign of Hezekiah, Micah spoke a specific prophecy about Jerusalem’s fall (compare Jeremiah 26:18–19 and Micah 3:12). He further mentioned the coming captivity of Judah in Babylon (Micah 4:10–11). Lamenting the sins of the southern kingdom, Micah mentioned various cities on Israel’s coastal plain (1:8–16), all likely among the 46 that the Assyrian king Sennacherib said he captured during his campaign against Hezekiah in 701 BCE.

The kinds of behavior that caused Israel’s and ultimately Judah’s downfall were mistreatment of the poor by the wealthy (2:1–2, 8–9), corrupt civil and religious leadership, inequity, injustice and bribery (3:1–11; 7:2–5). But as with other prophets, Micah was used not only to speak of judgment but also to deliver hope of restoration. He prophesied the coming of the Messiah (5:2) in a passage mentioned later by the Gospel writer Matthew as having been fulfilled by Jesus.

In the well-known prophecy about the eventual establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth for all people, Micah described a time when appreciation for God’s way will become widespread: “Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2). War and military instruction will cease as nations symbolically turn their weapons into agricultural implements, and all humanity will be at peace (verses 3–4).

Micah’s final words are hope-filled. Despite all that Israel and Judah had done contrary to their commitment to God’s ways, He would yet forgive: “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which You have sworn to our fathers from days of old” (7:18–20).

Next time, we’ll complete the Minor Prophets with an overview of Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.