Majoring on the Minors 

5 Old Testament Prophets that you might not know much about!

Over August and the first week of September we’re going to be looking at 5 of the lesser known Old Testament Minor Prophets:
Aug 4th - Joel
Aug 11th - Obadiah
Aug 18th - Nahum
Aug 25th - Haggai

Sept 1st – Malachi

We’re going to be exploring a little of the context in which these books were written as we unpack some of the historical details that undergird the books.

We’re going to examine some of the primary theological themes in each book and try to understand them in light of the historical and religious context mentioned above.

We’re also going to link these theological themes to the New Testament and Jesus Christ and explore the continuity between them.

Please note that there will not be weekly notes to accompany the series so please use the weekly sermon as your starting point.  Just to help out there is a brief introduction to each book below.


When was it written?
It’s very difficult to say with any degree of certainty or accuracy but sometime between the late sixth to mid fifth century is widely supported. 

Who wrote it?

Joel son of Pethuel.  Other than his name we don’t really know anything about Joel.  That the superscription doesn’t carry any information about him could indicate that he was well known at the time, probably living in or near to Jerusalem which provides the setting for the book.  It’s clear from the book that he is very familiar with temple worship and some have suggested he may have been a cultic or temple prophet.  It is not possible to link Joel with any of his other OT namesakes with any real degree of confidence. 
Joel has many similarities with other prophetic books both in phraseology and concept.  It is possible that Joel made use of earlier prophetic literature or that Joel employed a common stock of prophetic idioms and imagery. 
What is it?
It has been suggested, and the suggestion seems to have received wide-spread acceptance, that the book of Joel is a liturgical text which was intended for repeated use at times of national lament.  In this sense it is a timeless piece, deliberately unconcerned with historical details and identifiable dates and places.
What’s the historical context?
Given the issues in dating the work it is consequently difficult to paint a clear picture of what exactly was going on at the time of writing.  However we can piece together an outline picture from the internal evidence of the book. 
As is common with the OT prophets Israel’s long standing enemies are talked about in the book as objects of the Lords vengeance.  Joel is notable in so far as he fails to mention the Assyrians or Babylonians who between them exerted a huge influence on Israel.  The nations that Joel does mention are presented as being lined up ready for battle against the Lord.
At the time of writing the elders and priests are leading the community, which suggests that the Monarchy is either not functioning or has a very limited role.
What is the theological message?
Joel emphasizes the sovereignty, holiness, and compassion of God.  Drawing on the picture of the locust plague Joel warns Israel that if they did not repent of their sin the hand of God would punish them and drive them to repentance.  Israel had long hoped for the protective presence of the Lord, but Joel confounds this hope as he speaks of the judgmental presence of the Lord. 
As is common with the prophets God is portrayed as being sovereign not just over Israel but over all nations.  This sovereignty is linked with Israel’s victory over its enemies, and also a universal and eschatological battle against evil on the day of the Lord.  This day of battle would see God demonstrate both his judgment and also his compassion and mercy to those who would call on his name.
Taking Joel’s warnings into our own context we can agree that God disciplines those whom he loves.  Likewise the promise of a future day of judgment when Gods name is vindicated is a common theme in the NT. 
The most famous NT quotation of Joel is undoubtedly in Acts 2 when Peter sees the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy at Pentecost.  In this prophecy the old social order is turned on its head and the whole of Gods people are divinely inspired to be active participants in the mission of God.  Not only that but ‘all people’ will be active agents in the new order, even the Gentiles! Although in Joel the prophecy is directed at Israel, Paul it seems has it in mind when he speaks of the division between Jew and Gentile being removed in the church of Jesus in Rom 10.


When was it written?
Most scholars date Obadiah to sometime in the sixth century BC.  The argument for this dating rests on the specific denunciation of Edom for its raids into Judah at the time of Jerusalem’s fall, an event that is picked up in other biblical passages such as Ps137:7 and Lam4:21-22.  However if one sees the ordering of the Minor Prophets in the canon as chronological an earlier date (9th Century BC) is preferable. 

Who wrote it?

The book carries very little information about its author.  Even his exact name is a matter of debate, the choice is between ‘Worshipper of Yahweh’ or ‘Servant of Yahweh’.  It seems unlikely that the Obadiah who authored the book is the same as any of the other Obadiah’s mentioned in the OT.
What is it?
It is the shortest book in the OT.  However unlike Joel it doesn’t appear to be a liturgical text and is much more specific about historic events.  It is an oracle against Edom with whom Israel had regular military engagement.   Many other such oracles exists as components in longer writings, Obadiah is unusual in that it stands alone as a complete work.
What’s the historical context?
Edom was also known as Seir and was located to the south and east of the Dead Sea.  The Kings Highway, a major trade route, ran north to south through the territory.

The Edomites are described as the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob/Israel, and after the exodus Edom denied Israel right of passage across her territory.  From this point onwards the two nations engaged in regular military skirmishes until the Kings of the united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon) eventually conquered / subdued Edom for a period.  In the 9th Century Edom managed to break free of Israelite suppression and enjoyed 40 years or so of freedom and by the middle of the 8th Century BC Edom had become strong enough to shake free of Israel’s grip permanently.  As the Assyrians and Babylonians increased in power Edom became a vassal state and at one point even considered a rebellion against Babylon.  With this history in mind Edom took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem and partnering with Babylon raided Judah and Jerusalem.  It is thought that Obadiah’s oracle was issued in response to these raids. 

What is the theological message?
In common with other oracles against nations Obadiah has three consistent theological themes:
1)    The rue of Yahweh is universal.  Yahweh is presented not just as the God of Israel but as the God over all people and all nations.  His power and ability to effect life is not limited to within Israel’s borders.  He orders the whole of history and through his prophets makes his sovereign will known.
2)    The Abrahamic covenant is worked out.  In Gen 12:3 we read the Abrahamic covenant “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse…”  The oracle against Edom expresses the outworking of this covenant in a particular historical setting and with regard a particular people.  Underlining that the God who promised to Israel is faithful and his promises stand. 
3)    The prophets of Yahweh are warriors in the Holy War, acting on behalf of the Divine Warrior. The prophets played an active part in the military life of Israel, guiding her Kings and leaders as to when to go to war and even how war might be conducted.  The oracles then is an extension of this involvement.  In speaking the Divine Warriors intentions and assured outcomes the prophet is giving a pre-battle speech, even though the opposing armies are not in sight. 
The history of these Israel and Edom is so tightly bound together.  Quite literally they are family, originating in the same tent of Isaac and Rebekah.  The oracle tries to convey a sense of moving beyond the political and into the arena of the family with its repeated use of Esau’s and Jacob’s names.  The family structure is set from the first days, with Esau serving Jacob for all time – and the whole of the history of the two nations is seen as the outworking of this – and particular attention is focussed on Esau / Edom’s attempts to rid itself of this burden.  The sense of outrage in the oracle is found in the previously unexpected attack on Jerusalem by Edom.  In the past Edom had sought to throw of the yoke of serving Jacob / Israel, but had stopped short of actually attacking her.  In bringing the attack to Jerusalem Edom was betraying a brother and opposing Gods stated plan and order established so many centuries before. 
The final theological theme is that of divine justice.  Obadiah demonstrates a deep concern for his fellow Israelites and re-affirms the triumph of divine justice in the outworking of Gods plan.  The law of compensatory justice is also affirmed and held out as a guarantee of future joy.


When was it written?
Most scholars date Nahum to sometime in the 7th century BC.  This date is suggested due to internal evidence and in particular the destruction of Thebes which took place in 664BC.  The Judeans were the first recipients of the book. 

Who wrote it?

Nahum.  His name means “compassion”, and yet he delivered a stern message of Judgement.
We’re told that Nahum comes from a town called Elkosh.  We’re not sure of the location of Elkosh, but the main candidates are:  near Nineveh, at El-Kauzeh in Galilee, Capernuam, the area around Begeber in Judah. 
What is it?
The book of Nahum is an oracle of judgment against the Assyrians.  It is a deeply poetic work and technically very impressive.  Many have noted that the beauty of its poetry stands in stark contrast to the harshness of its message.
Unlike other prophets Nahum’s book is actually a book!  The majority of prophets gave oracles which after a while were collated and written down by scribes or others.  Nahum however seems to have actually developed his message in written form from the start.  There are a number of clues to this within the text including the use of acrostic in chapter 1. 
What’s the historical context?
The oracle is deeply embedded in its historical setting, so much so that many Christians are put off reading it due to the seemingly irrelevant nature of what the prophet says. 
At the time of writing Assyria was still a powerful political and military force.  Under a succession of impressive rulers Assyria had gained in strength significantly and become the dominant imperial power in the region.  Unsurprisingly, as well as exerting huge military and political power it also had a tremendous cultural impact on the nations around it, most of whom were conquered and subsumed. 
Assyria’s dominance ultimately began to wane as Babylon, forever a problem, began to gain in strength and ambition.  By 650 two brothers sat on the Assyrian and Babylonian thrones, and as in so many other similar situations the subservient brother (Babylonian king) rose up against the other in what amounted to a civil war.  Assyria won the day but at a high cost and so began a spiral that led eventually to the destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612BC. 
What is the theological message?
The main theological message of the book could be summed up in the 7th and 8th verses of the chapter 1:
“The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble.  He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into darkness.”
In Nahum God is presented as a warrior who is ready to go into battle on behalf of the people that he loves.  For the Judeans reading the book in the 7th C the message was a long awaited message of hope.  Having lived in the shadow of the Assyrians and under their oppressive rule for many years, God it seemed was at last going to act to free them.  To bring about their freedom he would destroy their enemy Assyria and desolate Nineveh. 
Many modern readers struggle to find any points of relevance for the church today in Nahum.  It is so specific (and so bloody) that it appears difficult to relate to a NT understanding of God as revealed in Christ.  However some points of correlation may be drawn out. 
In Nahum God is presented as the divine warrior and in the NT Jesus is sometimes pictured in the same way.  In Nahum God wages war against flesh and blood, however the battle being fought by Christ is not against flesh and blood but against Satan and the principalities and powers of darkness. 


When was it written?
Haggai began his ministry around 520BC, and each of his 4 oracles includes quite a lot of detail concerning when the oracle was given.  All 4 oracles are set within a 4 month period and so the material compiled in the book likely represents a tiny snap-shot of the ministry of the prophet. 

Who wrote it?

We know relatively little about Haggai other than that he was preaching in Jerusalem around the same time as Zechariah.  Well known in his day it is possible that Haggai was a priest.  It is also possible that he authored a number of Psalms.  It is possible, given that Haggai is referred to in the third person that his sayings and oracles were collated by a friend and scribe
What is it?
The book of Haggai consists of 4 oracles which are set in the genre of prose narrative.  For this reason the book is less about the effect of Haggai’s oracles on his hearers, and more about directly reporting his various utterances. 
Haggai’s first oracle is a judgment speech which was most likely given at a public event of some kind.  His second oracle was delivered about a month later and the third and fourth on the same day 3 months after work on the temple had begun.  These oracles contain a mixture of encouragement and dialogue between the prophet and Yahweh. 
What’s the historical context?
Like the oracles of Zechariah, Haggai is set against a backdrop of the first generation of exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem.  Cyrus the king of Persia had given the Jews permission to return from captivity and rebuild the temple, but despite this permission being given relatively few (approx 50,000) were keen to leave the security and prosperity of Babylon. Those who did return home found a number of significant challenges and threats faced them.  As a result the work of rebuilding the temple didn’t begin immediately and it wasn’t until Haggai (and Zechariah) began to exercise their ministry that the work of rebuilding began. 
As the exiles returned and attempted to pick up their lives in Jerusalem significant tensions began to appear between them and the lower class (and therefore less important) Jews who had not been deported.  Those who had remained had taken over land and property belonging to the exiles, and now that the exiles were returning they wanted their property back.  These community tensions simmered away for well over a century. 
The work of rebuilding the temple got off to a reasonable start but very quickly slowed down and almost stopped.  Haggai tells us that the returning exiles were more concerned with rebuilding their homes and restarting agricultural production than they were with reconstructing the Temple.  Finally however the temple would be fully rebuilt by 516BC. 
What is the theological message?
Although the Jews have a reputation for ignoring their prophets, it seems that in the case of Haggai they sat up and took note of his words.  Despite pouring great energies into restoring their homes and livelihoods it seems that the Jews found little success in their labours with crop failures and drought being the order of the day.  Haggai says that this failure is down to the returning exiles neglect of the temple building project, and is a sign of Gods displeasure with them.  In the understanding of the prophet poor harvests, famine, drought, and frustrated labour are curses for covenant disobedience. 
Once work had begun on the temple it quickly became obvious that the rebuilt temple would be far less grand than the temple built by Solomon.  However despite this structural inferiority Haggai encourages the workers by saying that regardless of appearance the glory of the new temple will be greater than that of the old temple. 
As his message continues to unfold he reminds the labourers that simply working on the temple project does not make one holy, but that rather the temple would be clean and undefiled if the people themselves were clean and undefiled.  The new temple would not be a lucky charm, the favour of the Lord would be granted by divine grace alone. 
Although a new era had dawned with the decree of Cyrus and the oversight of the Davidic King Zerubbabel, this was in reality only a small step towards the full restoration of the people of Israel.  Although enjoying a high degree of autonomy the Jews still served foreign masters. 
With the rebuilding of the temple the expectation of the people was that the presence of the Lord would once again be established in the midst of his people, perhaps manifest in the fire and cloud of the earlier ages.  There is no suggestion that the fire and cloud ever did appear, Reading the prophet through New Testament lens might lead one to conclude that until the coming of the Messiah the hope of the manifestation of the glory of the Lord was unfulfilled, but with his arrival, the glory of the Lord truly dwelt with his people once again. 


When was it written?
From the internal evidence of the book we know that Malachi exercised his ministry after the temple had been rebuilt.  Due to there being no mention of Ezra and Nehemiah it is assumed that Malachi precedes them, and so the majority of scholars settle for a date somewhere between 475 and 450BC. 

Who wrote it?

The superscription to the book simply reads “An oracle, The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi”.  Unlike other superscriptions the author is not called a prophet and no information as to his ancestry or home town is given.  The authors name Malachi can be translated as “My (Yahweh’s) Messenger”, and despite the lack of information about him it is reasonable to conclude that he exercised a recognized prophetic ministry. 
What is it?
The book is an oracle built around a series of disputations in which God through his prophet describes his character, challenges his wayward people, and speaks of his divine judgment.  Through the prophet Yahweh challenges a number of cultic and societal evils including mixed marriages, failure to tithe, lack of concern for the Sabbath, corruption in the priesthood, and a variety of social problems.
The book takes the form of the Lord asking his people a question, the people’s collective response is offered, and the Lord through the prophet then argues his case.  The format is:
1)    Introduction – setting out an aspect of Gods character and person and leveling an accusation against his people
2)    God’s people respond by asking a question about how they have failed
3)    God answers the people’s question and reinforces the accusation with evidence.
What’s the historical context?
The temple has been rebuilt however within a relatively short time disillusionment has set in amongst Gods people. 
This period in Israels history was particularly difficult.  After the exultation of the return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple.
What is the theological message?
Malachi refers to three covenants in the course of his oracles.  The covenant with Levi, the covenant with the Fathers, and the covenant of marriage, using these examples to underline a foundational aspect of Gods relationship with Israel – i.e that it is based on covenant.  Despite having recently returned from exile the people of God needed reminding that it was covenant violation that led them to exile in the first place. 
In framing the relationship between Israel and Yahweh in covenant terms the prophet makes the point that it is possible for one partner in the covenant relationship to break covenant and for the other to continuing loving them despite their faithlessness.  Yahweh still shows signs of loving his people, but the prophet suggests that Yahweh does not believe that his people love him.  When covenant relationship is broken the Lord continues to love his people, but will also judge them and hold them to account.
A number of theological statements about God and his relationship with his people are made:
1)    God loves his people
2)    God is Israel’s father and master
3)    God is Israel’s father and creator
4)    God is the god of justice
5)    God does not change
6)    God is honest
Whilst warning Israel to repent of her past and present sins, Malachi also presents a picture of hope for the future.  A day was coming which would see God intervene and bring glory to those who were faithful to the covenant and judgment on those who were not.  Looking forward to the New Testament John the Baptist picks up the same message as the prophet Malachi and in the pages of the Gospels we find the eschatological hopes of Malachi finally fulfilled.  

Simon Butler, 20/08/2013