Lessons from the Minor Prophets

This post will try to distill from each minor prophet’s book what he says God wants us to do or not do.  This unsubtle approach can be taken with any book of the Bible, but seems particularly appropriate for these fellows, who were by and large pretty straightforward in what they wanted to communicate and why.  I’ve also included key prophetic (as in foreseeing the future) elements — which, after all, can also serve an instructive role.

Hosea:  The first three chapters are the story in prose of the prophet Hosea and his wife, the whore Gomer; the remaining eleven chapters of the book are Hosea’s prophecy in verse.  The marriage is an allegory of the God-Israel relationship:  God takes her back, despite her sinful ways, and in the last days Israel will seek God, too (3:5; the prophetic chapters end with a happy reconciliation between God and Israel, too).  The prophetic chapters are pretty straightforward in the do’s and don’ts:  no cursing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery, rejection of knowledge, ignoring the law, prostitution, or drunkenness (chapter 4); no illegitimacy or idolatry (chapter 5);  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6); no eating unclean food (chapter 9); no false oaths (chapter 10); and no violence, dishonest scales, or fraud (chapter 12).  I’ll note a couple of famous verses:  “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (8:7); Paul’s famous rhetorical questions in I Corinthians 15:55 — “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?” — are taken from Hosea 13:14.

Joel: Chapter 1 laments what has befallen the prophet’s land (he’s anti-drunkard, by the way, per 1:5).  Chapter 2 foresees a mighty army of the Lord coming to deliver His people, and that all will then be well; conversely, in chapter 3, we learn that the enemies of God’s people will be judged harshly.  Christians will make special note of 2:27-31 (“I am in the midst of Israel …. I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind ….  The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes”; cf. 3;15).   (One curiosity I noted:  The whole book is in verse except for 3:4-8, and I guess 1:1.  Here’s another:  Verse 3:10 reverses the usual sword/plowshare injunction.).

Amos:  Don’t “oppress the poor” or “crush the needy” (4:1; see also 2:6-7, 5:11-12; cf. 6:4-7, 8:4-6).  I recall that this book was one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites.  It’s easy to see why, given, for starters, the just-quoted injunction against oppressing the poor.  In his letter from a Birmingham jail, King famously quoted 5:24:  “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  That’s what God wants, rather than sacrifices, assemblies, etc.  And since Amos is a shepherd (!) who refuses to be silenced by a priest (!) for prophesying against a king, this is really is an instance of telling truth to power.  The punishment of both Jews and Gentiles is prophesied (e.g., “For behold, I am going to raise up a nation against you, O house of Israel” (6:14; see also 9:7 and maybe 9:12)), but the book ends with Israel being restored, though much of it is first destroyed (compare 9:8 with 9:14-15); see also chapter 7, when Amos talks God out of more destruction of Israel.  The book is almost all verse, by the way, with just a little prose (see especially 7:1-8:4).

Obadiah:  God will destroy the enemies of His people.  (That’s it:  This is one of the Bible’s shortest books, after all.)

Jonah:  Don’t disobey God or be parochial.  God wants all peoples to follow him; He answers prayers; He’s against violence and idols and is pro-sacrifice.

Micah:  Its most famous verse on moral instruction is 6:8:  “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  (And the context suggests that this, not sacrifices, is what matters.)  The book is also against sorcery, fortunetelling, and idols (5:12-13).  It says you can really count only on God (7:1-7).  And it concludes that Israel will win out, and that God is all-forgiving (7:12-20).   The book also contains some famous prophecy, like 5:1-5, which says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.  The destruction of both Jews and Gentiles is foretold, but “I will surely gather the remnant of Israel” (2:12; there are other mentions of the “remnant,” too) and apparently the “God of Jacob” will send out the law from Zion and the Word from Jerusalem (4:2-3).  One other verse of interest is 1:16, the King James Version of which refers to “baldness like an eagle”; I’m sure that was not lost on the English settlers who named the bald eagle.

Nahum:  This book is all about the disasters that will overtake evil Nineveh (which backslid after Jonah and was oppressing the Jews); conversely, those being oppressed by the Ninevites will be delivered.  There is not a lot of additional detail about what makes Nineveh evil; idolatry and “lies” are mentioned, and of course its greed, oppression, and cruelty via-a-vis Judah.   God punishes the evil and cares for those who trust in Him.

Habukkuk:  It’s okay to ask God hard, frank questions about what the heck he is doing. letting the bad guys win.  And:  Don’t be proud and haughty, drunk and naked; God will punish looters and the violent; idol worship is futile; God is powerful and awesome; always exult in the Lord, even in hard times.

Zephaniah:  Bad things will happen to the enemies of God’s people (note that it’s not always easy to tell God’s people from their enemies if you look just at the calamity that is predicted for them — there’s some irony there, but also a humbling lesson).  Idolatry, pride, and violence are all condemned; humility is demanded.  The book begins and ends with a warning of global calamity, affecting Jews and Gentiles alike, in which the good people will be sorted out from the bad; I’ll reference the parenthetical in the sentence before last in noting that backsliding Jews will be included in the latter, and apparently some humble Gentiles in the former (see 3:9; 3:15 is very Christian-sounding, too, by the way).

Haggai:  God does not want you to neglect His house, and will punish you if you do.

Zechariah:  Two passages distill the do’s and don’ts:  (1) “Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9-10); and (2) “These are the things which you should do:  speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates.  Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against one another, and do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate” (8:16-17).  The other noteworthy passages are Messianic: Chapters 1-6 are filled with apocalyptic visions; “Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation,  humble and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey …. And He will speak peace to the nations; and His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” etc. (9:9-17); 12:8-14 and chapter 14 are likewise Messianic/apocalyptic (all nations that come against Jerusalem will be destroyed; “Me [capitalized] whom they have pierced” (!); Mount of Olives, etc.; and the day will come when there will be no more (legitimate) prophets (13:3)).  Note:  Chapter 4 uses the “plumb line” image also used by another minor prophet (Amos 7:7-9).

Malachi:  Blemished sacrifices and priests who are poor instructors are criticized in chapters 1 and 2; “I hate divorce,” says God (2:16).  Chapters 3 and 4 becomes Messianic:  A purifier is coming who will set things right, burning the wicked and bringing happy days to those who serve God — and so ends the Old Testament (“I am going to send you Elijah [before the Lord comes]” (4:5)).  We need to follow His statutes; for example (3:5), no sorcery, adultery, perjury, or oppression of wage earners, widows, orphans, and aliens.  There is an implicit warning against expecting immediate results for being godly (3:13-14).