All Catholics are baptized priests, prophets and kings, though only some of us go on to the fullness of any of these roles. Very few of us are kings in the Davidic sense, but all of us lead and govern others to some limited degree. Relatively small numbers of Catholics are called to the fullness of the special priesthood, yet we all offer sacrifices (and participate in the Sacrifice) to bear fruit in the economy of grace. And as far as prophecy goes, while we hope to say what God wants us to say, very few of us are in a position to state with certainty that we have spoken only what was given to us by God. Still fewer will prophesy in any publicly verifiable way, accompanied by marvelous signs or proven unmistakably by future events.
The Minor Prophets
Having recently reread the four giants of Biblical prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel), I’ve now turned my attention to the twelve minor prophets. As always I am using the Navarre Bible (the Standard Edition including both texts and commentaries) because the commentaries include not only relevant information drawn from historical criticism but also the insights of the saints and especially the Fathers of the Church. I’ve been going through the entire Old Testament in slow spiritual reading over the past couple of years. The Minor Prophets is the last volume.
Personally, I find the minor prophets encouraging. Each of the four major prophets takes up an entire scroll in the original texts, and all four together make one very fat volume in the series. By contrast, all twelve of the minor prophets fit on a single scroll, and the corresponding Navarre Bible volume is quite thin. If some future redactor boils down my millions of written and spoken words to their Divine essence (assuming there’s some inspiration somewhere), I’d be very pleased if what was left could fill a twelfth of a scroll. In fact, I’d be happy to keep up with Obadiah, who seems to have set the minimum bar for admission into the fraternity. His book consists of just twenty-one verses. Suddenly the challenge seems possible.
Who are these minor prophets? Those with a better Catholic education than my own will doubtless have learned some mnemonic device to help them remember the whole group. It’s too bad that the order varies in the different sources, but that’s a minor point. The truth is that in some cases the historical identifications of both the prophet and the precise period are difficult to determine. Here’s the order as given in the Navarre Bible:
- Hosea: Hosea prophesied during the reign and after the death of Jeroboam II, between 750 and 725 BC, emphasizing God’s spousal love for His people.
- Joel: Perhaps around 400 BC, but possibly much earlier, Joel (whose name means “The Lord is God”) prophesied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a significant development in Revelation.
- Amos: Active during the 8th century BC, Amos focuses on God’s judgment and punishment of all the nations, including Israel, but ends with a promise of Messianic restoration. This is a central prophetic theme in most cases.
- Obadiah: This man may have prophesied against Edom in the late 6th century BC. He too announces the “day of the Lord”—judgment, punishment, and final restoration.
- Jonah: Jonah is very unlikely to have been an historical figure. Christ refers to him, but probably as a symbol. (This is not modernist drivel; St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Jerome, and other Fathers doubted Jonah’s historicity from the first.) More likely, he is a figure in a book which is really Wisdom literature, composed in the fifth or fourth centuries before Christ. The “sign of Jonah” prefigures Christ’s death and Resurrection and the book teaches God’s willingness to forgive.
- Micah: Micah lived at the same time as Isaiah (8th century BC), denouncing sin and winning the people to a change of heart, alternatively emphasizing Divine judgment and Divine restoration. In fact, Isaiah refers favorably to Micah's preaching.
- Nahum: The core of this book goes back to the fall of Nineveh in the 7th century BC. Nahum rejoices in God’s sovereign punishment of Nineveh for its sins, and His wonderful providence toward the Chosen People.
- Habakkuk: In the late 7th century BC, this prophet explored the meaning of Israel’s sufferings at the hands of the Chaldeans, emphasizing the universal sovereignty of God, who will ultimately punish wickedness and reward perseverance in righteousness.
- Zephaniah: Active in the early years of Josiah’s reign (late 7th century BC), Zephaniah also emphasizes God’s sovereignty, his judgments against the nations and against Judah, and His promise of salvation, capturing both aspects of “the day of the Lord”.
- Haggai: This prophet refers to events precisely dated between August 29th and December 18th in the year 520 BC. Haggai was probably among those repatriated after the Babylonian captivity, and the book concentrates on the rebuilding of the temple and Messianic themes.
- Zechariah: Also among the repatriates, Zechariah emphasizes both the immediate restoration of Israel that is going on during his life, and the ultimate future restoration in which salvation will be extended to all.
- Malachi: The name means “my messenger”, and this may be the work of an anonymous prophet. He lived after the initial euphoria had worn off following the end of the Babylonian exile, and apathy was creeping back in. The books insists on the enduring validity of God’s covenant, and the importance of living up to it.
Source of Encouragement
The minor prophets are encouraging in many ways (and not just because of their appealing littleness). Prophets came in a variety of forms in Israel, and many were members of families with a tradition of prophecy; these were, in effect, professional prophets, recognized as such, and organized into more or less official advisory groups. Too often such prophets simply told the rich and powerful what they wanted to hear. True prophets, called from both the professional ranks and from far outside those ranks, often denounced this fundamental falseness, this speaking in God’s name without speaking God’s message. It was regarded as a grave sin which God would punish before he punished many other things.
Without commenting again on particular problems of ecclesiastical leadership in our own day (for truly similar problems must inevitably afflict every age), and remembering that true and courageous prophets were sometimes drawn from the professional ranks, I think it must always be a source of encouragement to Catholics that God’s inspiration is not confined to His official representatives. All of us little ones, like the minor prophets, can seek holiness, speak the truth and inspire others no matter how the professionals may behave, as indeed we are all called to do. Those in the lower ranks of the clergy should feel the same encouragement if their superiors are unexemplary.
Indeed, as time went on all the books of the Old Testament, and especially the later prophets, increasingly reveal that virtue and vice, along with the reward or punishment attached to them, are primarily personal, though they necessarily have a corporate dimension. While those in leadership positions bear a grave responsibility, the prophets gradually unfold a clear picture of personal responsibility, showing that in the end each one of us is responsible for his own faithfulness to the Covenant, his own choice to be for or against God. It is instructive to see this idea develop from the earlier emphasis on the sins of fathers being visited on their children (as indeed they are in many ways) to the later emphasis on the judgment of each person, based ultimately on his own commitment to the Most High God, his own life of truth and fidelity, love and service—or his own flight from God into sin, failure and wretchedness.
The Central Prophetic Message
The central message of the prophets, which is clearly and concisely evident in the minor prophets, is their interpretation of events in light of God’s plan of salvation. Most prophetic books stress the two sides of “the day of the Lord”, when God will finally and definitively conquer evil and restore good. It becomes clear that each and every person is to anticipate both aspects of this “day”—both the terror of the judgment and the everlasting peace of salvation and restoration. Accordingly the prophets continually denounce sin—both personal sins and the unjust institutional situations which widespread personal sin creates—and they announce God’s impending punishment, not just on Israel but on all the nations. They interpret present sufferings as consequences of sin and infidelity (with the complexity of that relationship increasingly grasped over time). Most importantly, they teach that all suffering and all Divine punishment have but a single purpose: to stir us to repentance, to cause us to return to the Lord.
Through the minor prophets, God reveals Himself as the Father we defy and the Husband whom we betray. His love is so deep that He punishes only to make us realize our dependence, so that He can shower us with love, blessings, prosperity, joy and peace. The message itself is certainly encouraging, but the manner in which it is delivered also carries encouragement. For we hear this message in as many different voices as there are minor prophets. One may emphasize the sins of “the nations”, another the shortcomings of Israel, a third the Providence of God, a fourth His fidelity to the Covenant, a sixth the steadiness of God as Father, a seventh the passion of God as Lover—a Tremendous Lover, in fact, whom the minor prophets sometimes foretell.
This then is also the message Catholics are called as prophets to speak, in season and out of season. There are a thousand ways to speak it. All of us are called to speak the appropriate word: To denounce sin and explain why it is wrong; to unveil suffering as God’s means to alternatively bring us to our senses, purge us of our sins, and draw us into ever closer union with Himself; to connect the frightful situations in which we and our neighbors find ourselves with God’s loving Providence; to warn others of the impending judgment while holding out the promise of ultimate restoration. Yet like the minor prophets, each of us is in a different circumstance, with different gifts, dealing with different kinds of people. Sometimes a rousing denunciation of sin is desperately needed; at other times we must offer a vision of love and forgiveness so as not to break the bruised reed. As with the minor prophets, our message may be starkly harsh or creatively gentle. It may be militant or tender.
We may be relentless reporters or imaginative geniuses. We may emphasize now one side of the message, now another, but the point is always the same: to draw men back to God, to bring them home. This is the essence of prophecy, and it doesn’t matter whether we can work miracles or predict future events. It matters only that we stop running away like Jonah and turn toward our own Nineveh with God’s message in our heart and on our lips. What matters is that we understand the very deepest reality, that the day of the Lord begins in suffering and fear only so that it can end in ecstatic love. This is our messagethe message which all of us, baptized prophets, must never fear to speak.
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