Four late minor prophets, plus Jonah as a bonus
Wrapping up the so-called minor prophets in rough chronological order, we will now look at those who prophesied after the Babylonian Exile. Ranging from about 520 BC into the 300s, these prophets tend to be more specifically Messianic. It is almost as if the pre-Messianic time is growing short. As Christians might expect, we find a number of famous passages here that can be applied directly to Jesus Christ.
Haggai and Zechariah
That’s not so true, however, of Haggai, who prophesied at the time when King Darius began to permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem. What we find in this very short book—two brief chapters which take little more than a page in most Bibles—is what we might consider “old business”: God’s commissioning of the priest Joshua and the Davidic descendant Zerubbabel to rebuild the Temple.
Haggai’s argument is interesting. He tells the Jews to consider how badly they are faring in their efforts to prosper in their native land. Through him God says, “You have looked for much, and behold, it came to little…. Why? Says the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house” (1:9). Here the LORD is taking a different tack than He had with David, who was denied the privilege of building the Temple (I believe because his desire to do so arose from pride). What we have here, rather, is neglect. God promises that He will bless the people from the time they laid the foundations (2:15-19).
Zechariah, whose mission was fulfilled about the same time (ca. 520 BC) is by contrast strongly Messianic, both in reference to the end times and to Christ Himself. It is hard to consider Zechariah “minor” in the same sense as the others, for there are fourteen chapters in his book. The first six of these describe eight visions which are difficult to interpret, before referring (as did Haggai) to the role of Joshua and “the Branch” (Zerubbabel) who will rebuild the Temple. After that, the Book portrays the trials of Israel while looking forward to Israel’s ultimate vindication.
Particularly striking is the emphasis on the theme of shepherding, notably in the description in chapter 11 of two kinds of shepherds, those who are only too glad to profit from the sale and slaughter of the sheep, and the one who shepherds for good but is rejected by the people and given his final wages. This shepherd is personified by the prophet. In a remarkable passage, Zechariah proclaims:
So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die; what is to be destroyed let it be destroyed….” And I took my staff Grace, and I broke it, annulling the covenant which I had made with all the peoples…. And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. Then the LORD said to me, “Cast it into the treasury….” [11:7-14]
Examine the Gospel of Matthew (27:1-10), and see how the rejection of Zechariah by the people resonates with the betrayal of Christ by Judas and the priests.
Continuing in Zechariah, we find a vision of the Messianic restoration of Israel. God will pour on the house of David “a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born” (12:10). The result? “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). But there will also be a chastisement. Thus God speaks through the prophet: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13:7).
But Zechariah looks forward also to the end times. In chapter 8, the LORD promises good to the remnant of Israel, who will dwell at peace with God, and also good to all the nations: “[T]en men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8:20-23).
Malachi and Joel
Prophesying in the fifth century, around the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah were guiding the recovery of Jerusalem after the Exile, the prophet Malachi inveighs tirelessly against the wickedness of the religious leaders of the Jews, particularly the priests. We too understand this message, as through the prophet God exclaims:
For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. [2:7-8]
The Book of Malachi has a unique style, in which God speaks in this pattern: “You have done X. You ask, ‘How have we done X?’” And God explains exactly how. Or, “You say that God has done X to you. You ask, ‘Why has God acted so?’” And God explains exactly why. The message is that the Jews must return to doing good and being generous in their offerings to the LORD. (See chapter 3 of this four-chapter book for the details of how they must change.)
But again the Messianic character of the book is very strong. At the end of the book, just after describing the coming judgment on the Day of the Lord, God says “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” When asked, Christ said this was a reference to John the Baptist. And in the previous chapter, the LORD had just said:
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? [3:1-2]
Later, in the fourth century, the prophet Joel would also speak of the coming Day of the Lord, prophesying ruin and terror but also proclaiming the blessings of conversion:
“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and tear your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy…. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him…? [2:12-14]
Indeed, “let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O LORD’” (2:17), and He will still do so. He will certainly execute judgment on the nations (cf. the final chapter 3), but “it shall come to pass…that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (2:28).
Ultimately, such prophecies are most fully understood in the light of Christ, through whom redemption is accomplished and the Day of the Lord comes in glorious joy for all who, despite their sins, do indeed return to the gracious and merciful God whom Our Lord reveals. As the Book of Joel concludes, “I will not clear the guilty” but “Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (3:20-21). Interestingly, the final book we must consider—the strange Book of Jonah—conveys the same message, but in a very different way.
And even lowly Jonah
Jonah is a peculiar prophet with a peculiar book, portraying events that appear to be from the eighth century before Christ, but were more likely actually written in the fifth. Many elements of the story suggest that it really is a story, a fable to make a spiritual point, and although Our Lord Himself refers to Jonah to make a more important point, this does not prove it to be a historical book. On the other hand, neither is it a mockery of Old Testament prophecy as a few scholars seem to believe, on the preposterous assumption that ancient Jewish authorities failed to recognize it as an unholy work of satire, and so erroneously included it in the Hebrew canon (where all twelve of the minor prophets were placed in a single book entitled “The Twelve”).
The story of Jonah is too well-known to repeat in detail: It covers the reluctant prophet’s flight from God, his experience with the whale, his preaching to the Ninevites and their immediate conversion, and his anger at God for forcing him to proclaim doom and judgment only to let the Ninevites off the hook—just as Jonah had always suspected He would! It is a story almost paradigmatic of our attitude toward the punishment others deserve for their sins, and of our reluctance to serve as suffering instruments of their conversion.
But at root the Book of Jonah it is not about the prophet but about the message and the fruit it bears. Moreover, that message is found not only in the prophet’s words, but in the circumstances of the prophet’s life as he delivers the message. In this light, who does not see a parallel between Jonah’s deliverance from the whale so that he may deliver the Ninevites, and St. Paul’s deliverance from the storm at sea so that he may deliver those he meets on his way to Rome? In just the same way, our own work for the Lord is not about our plans but His. It is about the message of God spoken and mirrored in our own lives. It is about the living Word of God, about the salvation He brings.
Perhaps this is why, when Our Lord speaks of the Book of Jonah, He speaks about it precisely as a sign.
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. [Lk 11:29-31; cf. Mt 12:39-41 and Mt 16:4]
These “men of Nineveh” may be real, historical men and women converted by a real, historical Jonah (who was, after all, known to be a prophet in that period). Or they may be a sign of all those who converted on hearing the message of the prophets—prophets whose works and words, for all their goodness, fell far short of Christ’s. Either way, what matters most is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah.
The Day of the Lord in Scripture brings both blessing and woe. In the minor prophets, we see it as a conflation of Messianic shepherding and Messianic judgment, or of what Christians call the first and second comings of the Son of God. The Book of Jonah, like the rest of the Old Testament, points to Christ and must be read in the light of Christ. After all, as Our Lord’s Transfiguration makes clear, even the great Moses and Elijah endured only in relationship to Christ. And the Day of the Lord is real only because there is one greater than Jonah already here.
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