The “minor” prophets: Highly relevant today
The twelve so-called “minor prophets” under the Old Covenant are traditionally grouped at the end of the prophetic books, even though they range chronologically from the 8th to the 4th century before Christ. This is probably because they are short, anywhere from one to fourteen chapters. As such, for this series, a separate commentary on each would seem excessive.
Moreover, the prophetic themes are quite consistent throughout the Old Testament, as we have already seen in the major prophets. The biggest shift occurs in relationship to the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC. Before the Exile, a substantial portion of the prophetic message featured warnings of the punishment to come as a result of Israel’s sins. After the Exile, obviously, there are no more warnings of this catastrophe.
Accordingly, I will begin my survey of the minor prophets by grouping in a single commentary the three eighth-century figures: Hosea Amos and Micah. Since I have already explored the principal prophetic themes in considering the major prophets, here I will more frequently cherry-pick passages easily applied to our own situation today.
Hosea, for example, explains that one of the key factors in God’s decision to punish Israel is that nation’s sociopolitical neglect of the Lord, putting the prophetic finger on the very area today which we believe not only can but ought to be kept secular, divorced from God:
Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue him. They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but without my knowledge. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. [Hos 8:4]
An interesting feature of the Book of Hosea is the symbolic use of the prophet’s wife and children. In some other cases, God instructed his prophets to act in specific ways which will be symbols of various elements of His message, but such symbolism runs very deep here. Hosea is told to marry a harlot as symbol of the Lord’s own marriage to Israel; and his wife bears him three children, who are assigned names which foretell what will happen to Israel (including “Not Pitied” and “Not My People”). This naming of the children lends a poignancy to the impending punishment.
The classic prophetic voice is also present, of course, especially in one of its most succinct statements: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). But the description of Israel’s sin and captivity in chapter 10 significantly strenghthens our grasp of a deeper reality, namely that God’s justice is, in effect, built into the very nature of reality. Thus Israel’s “punishment” is, in the very nature of things, an inescapable consequence of her sins. “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of mercy,” cautions Hosea, but instead:
You have plowed iniquity,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies. [10:12-13]
This disastrous reaping and eating results from preferring evil, for evil is always a privation of good, a disorder, a chaos.
Turning to the prophet Amos, we see again the repeated warnings to Israel, and indeed to all the nations which in their iniquity become tools for the punishment of Israel. God also again promises not to carry out the full extent of possible punishment, this time through visions in which Amos intercedes for Israel. For example, in response to a vision of locusts eating up all of the grass in the land:
“O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”
The LORD repented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” said the LORD. [cf. 7:1-6]
Amos portrays both God’s wrath and His mercy in colorful analogies and forceful images. An excellent instance appears in the third chapter:
Thus says the LORD: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and a part of a bed.” [3:12]
And in Chapter 4, the prophet explains that the severe punishments to come could have been avoided if Israel had responded properly to the earlier and lighter punishments she had suffered. Repeatedly the LORD says He sent this or that punishment “yet you did not return to me.” So now, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD,” for the day of the LORD will be “darkness and not light...and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18-20).
Amos explains that Israel will be punished for mistreatment of the poor, false Gods, sterile religious observances, and the complacency in which she ignored all the warnings God sent. But in a startling spiritual development which surely mirrors the condition of our own time, even within our complacent Church, the prophet explains that the greatest punishment will be God’s apparent absence:
I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run back and forth, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. [8:11-12]
In another passage which we might well find chilling today, Amaziah the priest reported to Jeroboam the king that the prophecies of Amos proved him to be a conspirator against the kingdom, and so Amaziah commanded Amos to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary”. In reply, Amos distanced himself from the religious establishment, emphasizing that he cannot be ordered about like one of the company of the professional prophets: “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’” (cf. 7:10-16).
Closing with Micah, who lived at the same time as Isaiah, we find that he encapsulates the classic prophetic denunciation of evil, prediction of punishment, and assurance of restoration. In a striking passage, the prophet summarizes the evil of Israel’s leaders:
Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for hire,
its prophets divine for money;
Yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
“Is not the LORD in the midst of us?
No evil shall come upon us.” [3:11]
Then, in the brilliant sixth chapter, Micah explains the LORD’s demands. God will not be pleased if anyone comes before Him with burnt offerings of year-old calves or with thousands of rams or even with the sacrifice of a child, “the fruit my body for the sin of my soul” (6:6-7). Rather:
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? [6:8]
Happily, in the passages which deal with the ultimate restoration of God’s people, we find the remarkable prophecy concerning Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient of days” (5:2).
Fittingly, then, the Book of Micah closes with God’s forgiveness: “He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in mercy” (cf. 7:18-20). Yes, God will show faithfulness to Jacob, and mercy to Abraham—and even to us—as he has sworn from days of old.
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Next: The minor prophets: Varied voices, including our own
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