The last 12 books of the Old Testament (as ordered in most Bibles), are known collectively as the Minor Prophets. We noted in Part 27 that they are minor only in length; the messages of these 12 Hebrew prophets were just as important as those of their “major” counterparts, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
We addressed the first six in Part 27. In this final installment on the section of the Bible called the Prophets we’ll look at the books by Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Who were these men, and what was the nature of their writings, which have been preserved for well over two thousand years?
Three of these six prophets lived and worked after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722/21, but before the Babylonians overcame the southern kingdom, Judah, in 586 (dates throughout are BCE).
Nahum’s prophecy is directed at Nineveh (Nahum 1:1), capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire after 705. Earlier in the eighth century, the northern kingdom of Israel had been subjected to Assyrian invasion several times, until it was finally defeated and the majority of its remaining people deported to various cities in Assyria. The oracle brings hope to Judah by means of a hymn about God’s power over evil—something that would become apparent in Nineveh’s forthcoming collapse.
The prophecy was likely written between the fall of the Egyptian city of Thebes, conquered by Assyria’s Ashurbanipal in 664–663, and the capture of Nineveh in 612: “Are you better than No Amon [Thebes] that was situated by the River, that had the waters around her, whose rampart was the sea, whose wall was the sea?” (3:8).
At the time Nahum wrote, Nineveh was safe and secure (1:12a). Eventually it fell to the Medes, who were allied with the Babylonians. Flooding the city by diverting the Tigris River, they were able to overcome the inhabitants: “The gates of the rivers are opened, and the palace is dissolved. . . . Though Nineveh of old was like a pool of water, now they flee away. ‘Halt! Halt!’ they cry; but no one turns back” (2:6, 8).
Beyond the immediate historical connection to events in the seventh century, Nahum shows that God will eventually restore Judah: “Behold, on the mountains the feet of him who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace! O Judah, keep your appointed feasts, perform your vows. For the wicked one shall no more pass through you. . . . For the Lord will restore the excellence of Jacob like the excellence of Israel” (1:15; 2:2).
“The name Nahum may be translated ‘compassion.’ This is of interest since the book intertwines the themes of divine judgment and compassion.”
Habakkuk is another preexilic prophet to Judah. He addresses the coming of the Chaldeans, or Babylonians. The book comprises a prophecy of that event (Habakkuk 1:1–2:20) and a psalm (3:1–19). He is concerned about the injustice of his own society, but also why God allows it, both in Judah and more widely as a result of Babylonian rule (1:2–4, 12–17).
The general time frame is possibly just after the death of Josiah and the rule of Jehoiakim (see Jeremiah 22:13–19), the king whose rebellion against his overlords brought Nebuchadnezzar to the gates of Jerusalem: “That is why decision fails and justice never emerges; for the villain hedges in the just man—therefore judgment emerges deformed. . . . For lo, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce, impetuous nation, who cross the earth’s wide spaces to seize homes not their own. They are terrible, dreadful; they make their own laws and rules” (Habakkuk 1:4, 6–7, Tanakh).
Zephaniah prophesied during the time of Josiah, the last reformer king of Judah. It is possible that the Hezekiah mentioned in his lineage was the former righteous king of Judah (Zephaniah 1:1).
The immediate context is the condition of Judah prior to Josiah’s reforms. Jerusalem’s leadership was corrupt: “Her princes in her midst are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave not a bone till morning. Her prophets are insolent, treacherous people; her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law” (3:3–4).
But Zephaniah’s overall message speaks to the eschatological “Day of the Lord”—the time of God’s intervention in human history yet future: “I will sweep everything away from the face of the earth—declares the Lord. I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble, and I will destroy mankind from the face of the earth—declares the Lord” (1:2–3, Tanakh).
After the Exile
The remaining three minor prophets are all postexilic: Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Their works span a period of approximately 90 years during the Persian period.
Following the collapse of the Babylonian Empire in 539, its conqueror, the Persian king Cyrus, issued a declaration appointing the Jewish prince Sheshbazzar as governor of Judea and commissioning him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 1; 5:14–15). Cyrus was happy to placate the gods of the peoples he defeated, believing such accommodation would benefit his reign. But after the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538, opposition from the Samaritans and other local inhabitants caused them to become lethargic about finishing the reconstruction (Ezra 4:6–24).
In 520, during the reign of Darius the Persian, God sent Haggai and Zechariah to the high priest, Joshua, and the Jewish governor, Zerubbabel, grandson of Judah’s king Jehoiachin, to encourage them and the people to continue the building work (Ezra 5:1–2; 6:14; Haggai 1:1–2).
“The spiritual sickness that caused the preexilic community to perish was eating away at the vitals of the new community. The work prospered, however, and the laborers finished the temple in 516 B.C.”
The book of Haggai opens with correction of the Jews’ complacency about the reconstruction. They now preferred to build their own houses and look after their own interests. As a result, they were not prospering but rather were suffering poor harvests, drought and inflation (Haggai 1:4–10). These conditions can be linked with prophesied punishments announced by Moses for failure to keep the covenant with God (see Leviticus 26). In response to the prophet’s reprimand, the leadership and the people were stirred up to complete their work on the temple (Haggai 1:12–14).
The following month Haggai received another message from God, this time directed at the few who had seen the former temple at its finest. They would be understandably disappointed at the less impressive new building. But they were to be encouraged because God was with them and would provide a much greater edifice at a yet future time, using the wealth of the non-Israelite nations: “‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the Lord of hosts” (2:9).
The context is the time when God will “shake all nations” by His intervention in human affairs (verses 6–7). At that time Zerubbabel will become a royal leader, not merely a governor. These events did not happen in the Persian period, nor in the first-century time of Christ. Though some have thought of Christ’s first coming as fulfilling, in type, the prophecy to Zerubbabel, the temple was destroyed again in 70 CE. This, then, is an eschatological prophecy about the yet future time of God’s ultimate intervention.
Zechariah’s ministry briefly overlapped that of Haggai as he began his work in the second year of Darius (Zechariah 1:1). The theme of repenting and finding God dominates his book: “‘Return to Me,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and I will return to you’” (Zechariah 1:3).
Zechariah was likely a member of the priestly order, or course, of Iddo (1:1, 7; Nehemiah 12:1, 4, 7b), which had returned from Babylon in 537. His book is the longest of the Minor Prophets and is referenced in the New Testament Gospel accounts of Christ’s death as well as in the book of Revelation. Its structure can be understood as a series of six sets of prophecies. Two relate to the immediate temple-building period (chapters 1–8) and four to the time of the Greek conquest of the Persians, the first coming of Christ, and His ultimate return (chapters 9–14).
“Zechariah 9–14 is the most quoted section of the prophets in the passion narratives of the Gospels.”
In the temple-rebuilding section of the book, eight specific prophecies are presented in two sets of four.
The first vision (1:8–11) reveals a man on horseback with red, white and sorrel horses behind him. The horses and their riders patrol the earth to ascertain conditions. They report that everything is at rest, including in those nations that took advantage of Judah’s fall (verse 15). This only serves to highlight the lack of activity surrounding the reconstruction of the temple. But God states that He has returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of abandonment and will see that His temple is rebuilt and the cities of Judah restored (verses 16–17).
A second vision shows that the nations that attacked and overthrew Israel and Judah will be punished (verses 18–21). In a further vision, Jerusalem will be restored and God will inhabit the temple in the city. Those exiled in Babylon are invited to return (2:1–9). Final aspects of this prophecy (verses 10–13), such as the world’s nations seeking to become God’s people, will remain unfulfilled until the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth.
The fourth and final vision in the first set brings us back to Joshua, the high priest of Zechariah’s time, and extends the sequence through Jesus Christ (the atoning “Branch” of Zechariah 3:8–9) to the millennial rule of the returning Messiah (3:10).
The second set of four prophecies in section one of the book deals with visions showing Zerubbabel, powered by God’s Spirit, as builder of the temple (chapter 4); the cleansing of the land and people by God’s Word (5:1–4); the removal of wickedness to Babylon (verses 5–11); and, in the final vision, four chariots drawn by red, black, white and dappled horses. They patrol the earth, and two of the four subdue Babylon’s power (6:1–8).
An interlude follows with commentary on Joshua’s crowning as a type of the Messiah (verses 9–15), and a discussion of unacceptable attempts to court God’s favor by fasting (7:1–14). Chapter 8 shows Jerusalem as the center of God’s future kingdom, with descendants of Israel brought back from afar (verses 7–8). Other nations will seek out God’s way by coming to Jerusalem to learn from Him and His returned people (verses 22–23).
This information was intended as an encouragement to the builders of Zerubbabel’s time: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Let your hands be strong, you who have been hearing in these days these words by the mouth of the prophets, who spoke in the day the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord of hosts, that the temple might be built’” (verse 9).
The second section of the book (chapters 9–14) contains the next four sets of prophecies. Possibly within Zechariah’s life span, the Persians came against the Greeks in a series of battles known today as the Persian Wars. The Greeks, though far outnumbered militarily, eventually turned back the invaders.
The first set of prophecies in chapter 9 is likely a description of the defeat of Syria, Tyre, Sidon and the city-states of the Philistine plain by the later Greek conqueror Alexander the Great (356–323). In the midst of this is a prophecy that relates to the Messiah’s arrival as explained in the New Testament. The king of Zion is pictured entering Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey (verse 9), an event fulfilled in Jesus’ entry into the city prior to His crucifixion (see Matthew 21:1–11). This prophecy of the first coming leads to a description of conditions during the Messiah’s millennial kingdom: “He shall speak peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10c).
The second set concerns the second-century BCE revolt of the Jews against the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes (verses 11–13). But as with earlier parts of the chapter, this leads into prophecies about the second coming, when Israel and Judah will be restored (9:14–10:12).
Prophecies in set three may indicate events under successive Greek rulers and corrupted Hellenized Jewish priests at the time of Judas Maccabeus’s cleansing of the temple (11:4–8). It certainly includes a passage that was fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming. The payment for Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ is mentioned: “Then I said to them, ‘If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain.’ So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter” (verses 12–13; see Matthew 26:14–15).
Chapter 12, also part of the third set, addresses Jerusalem at the end of the age, just prior to the second coming of Christ. The city will come under a final siege, and all nations will be gathered against it and defeated (verses 2–9). And again there is a prophecy that recognizes Christ’s crucifixion in the context of His second coming: “And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (verse 10).
In the final set of prophecies, there are no references to the Old Testament period but only to the first and second comings, including a prophecy about the capture and death of Jesus and the dispersal of His disciples: “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (13:7b; see Matthew 26:31).
Finally, chapter 14 records some of the events of the Day of the Lord: from the gathering of the nations against Christ at Jerusalem to His return to the Mount of Olives; from the transformation of the land around Jerusalem, and the opening of a new river flowing east from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and west to the Mediterranean, to the establishment of the kingdom of God under Christ as king over all the earth (verses 3–11). In that millennial time, Zechariah writes, nations will want to follow God’s way of peace and security.
Malachi’s short book brings the entire Prophets collection to a close. Little more is known of this messenger, who followed shortly after Zechariah, than that his emphasis was twofold: the sins of Judah following the rebuilding of the temple, and intervention to resolve the resulting problems.
“Malachi’s is a book of transition. He stands at the close of the OT period, as the last representative of divine prophecy before its reappearance in the preaching of John the Baptist.”
Writing around 430 during the governorship of Nehemiah over Judah, Malachi references in the first half of his book an altar, sacrificial offerings and a priesthood (Malachi 1:7–10). This indicates a time after the completion of the temple. But it becomes clear that despite the presence of these elements of Israel’s system of worship, the priests and the people had returned to the corrupt behavior that had led to their earlier captivity in Babylon. The land was under a curse, with poor crop yields, the priests failing in their teaching role. The people had forsaken the covenant with God, allowing idolatry once more. Hypocrisy, adultery and divorce had overtaken them.
In the second part of the book, Malachi shows God’s resolution to the ongoing problems of faithlessness at all levels. He will send a special servant to precede the coming of the Messiah: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord of hosts” (3:1). This is the well-known passage that prophesies the work of one messenger, John the Baptist, preparing the way for a second messenger, Jesus Christ.
But even so the Lord did not come to His temple at that time. This is indicated in the following verses that relate to yet future events: “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness” (verses 2–3).
In the meantime, Judah and its priesthood must return to God if they are to be blessed (verses 6–7). The book of Malachi concludes with a warning that “the great and dreadful day of the Lord”—of God’s judgment on all humanity—is coming. But so that there will be a remnant saved from the utter destruction that will otherwise strike the earth, just before that day an Elijah-like prophet will come to turn people to God’s way as exemplified in the law of Moses. This is described as fathers turning their hearts to their children and those children to their fathers—a recommitment to godly families, based on the teaching of the Torah (4:5–6).
Next time we’ll begin consideration of the third and final section of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Writings.