The minor prophets: Varied voices, including our own
In discussing the twelve “minor prophets”, I began last time by treating the three who were active in the eighth century before Christ. This time I will take up what I call the four “exilic” prophets, that is, those whose mission fell during the period just before or during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BC. These include, in the order treated here, Nahum, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk.
What I find most interesting about these four short prophetic books, which range only from one to three pages in length, are the differences in the prophetic voice in each of them. When we consider that God spoke through the personalities of the prophets He chose—and that each baptized person is also a prophet (baptized as priest, prophet, and king)—it becomes easier to understand the great variety of prophetic voices, which typically emphasize different aspects of the Divine message.
This insight may explain some of the annoyance even good Catholics can feel at other good Catholics who do not match their spiritual style. For example, one may tend to denounce evil, another to insist on God’s power, still another to speak of His mercy. All of these can be prophetic (if prompted by the Holy Spirit), though I suppose we can say with some assurance that nobody likes a Johnny One-Note. Indeed, perhaps the only prophet we like less than one who is always negative…is one who is always positive.
Nahum and Obadiah
In the three short chapters of the Book of Nahum, the prophet foretells the utter overthrow and destruction of Nineveh, because the Ninevites had oppressed the Israelites for a long time in the period before the exile. “The LORD is a jealous God and avenging,” begins Nahum, “the LORD is avenging and wrathful…and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (1:2-3). “I will make your grave, for you are vile”, says the Lord: “The shatterer has come up against you” (1:13; 2:1).
Indeed, Nahum’s prophecy is nearly all harsh imagery:
Desolate! Desolation and ruin! Hearts faint and knees tremble, anguish is on all loins, all faces grow pale…. Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and booty…. The crack of whip, and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end…. And all for the countless harlotries of the harlot, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her harlotries, and peoples with her charms. Behold, I am against you, says the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt…. [2:10; 3:1-6]
In only a rare verse or two, Nahum offers a corresponding consolation to Israel: “Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more. And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds asunder” (1:12-13). But this relief was to be only from Nineveh. For while that city fell in 612 BC, the Jews did not heed the other prophets in repenting their sins: Jerusalem fell just fifteen years later, and the Babylonian Captivity began.
In the even shorter Book of Obadiah, the theme still concerns those who are unfair to Israel, but the message is more tightly-focused and far less dramatic. Set a little later, Obadiah portrays the consequences of the lack of sympathy shown by the neighboring Edomites when Israel was taken into exile. The book is a single vision experienced by the prophet, in which the Edomites will be punished and, despite the great suffering of Israel, a remnant will “go up to Mount Zion” to rule over Edom’s Mount Esau, “and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s” (v 21). Here the lesson seems to be primarily moral. Edom “should not have gloated over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune”, and so “as you have done, it shall be done to you, your deeds shall return on your own head” (cf. vv. 12-16).
At roughly the same time as Nahum, the prophet Zephaniah was announcing a far more comprehensive message. The difference in focus from one prophet to the next varies, obviously, with God’s particular mission for each one. This remains an important reality among faithful Christians, who are called by God to such a wide variety of purposes, tasks and emphases. In the space of the three chapters which make up his entire book, Zephaniah announces the proverbial “Day of the Lord”, the day of wrath against unfaithful Israel; he also pronounces judgment on all the nations whose evil God has used to chasten Israel; and finally, in a passage clearly focused on the end times, he prophesies the restoration of Israel, when truth and harmony will reign with God in their midst.
“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast,” begins Zephaniah. “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom” (1:14-15). God says point blank that He will bring distress because “they have sinned against the LORD” (1:17). But in the second chapter, God has heard how the nations have “taunted my people and made boasts against their territory”, and so the day of wrath extends to them as well.
“Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah” (2:8-9). This will be their lot because they have proudly “scoffed and boasted against the people of the LORD of hosts” (2:10). Nineveh too will fall, for “she listens to no voice, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God” (3:2).
But parallel to the day of wrath there will also be a day of restoration for Israel and of all the nations as well, though in Zephaniah this clearly refers to the end times, not the temporary recovery from the Babylonian Exile. Note in the following passage how the destiny of Israel in salvation history is ultimately fulfilled through conversion:
Yes, at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord…. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. [3:9;14-15]
We will see this conversion and joining of the nations with Israel, explained more fully, in the post-exilic prophets, especially Zechariah.
In marked contrast to Nahum, Obadiah, and Zephaniah, the prophetic voice of Habakkuk neither blames Israel’s enemies nor delights in Israel’s vindication. Instead, the prophet comes perilously close to blaming God for Israel’s condition during the Exile, which is a very different sort of penetration into Divine Providence. Even though he understands that God must have ordained the Chaldeans “as a judgment” and established them “for a chastisement”, Habakkuk cannot avoid wondering about this treatment. Thus the first of the book’s three chapters is one long complaint:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?...You who are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong, why do you look on faithless men, and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? …[H]e brings all of them up with a hook, he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults…. Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and mercilessly slaying nations for ever? [from chapter 1]
The second chapter of this highly artful book is God’s reply, which is essentially a lesson in Providence:
For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith…. [T]he arrogant man shall not abide. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough…. The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!... But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. [from chapter 2]
We may well ask which of these prophets seems most relevant to our own situation. Habakkuk closes the book with a prayer (chapter 3) which, in fact, must be our prayer today. He acknowledges God’s holiness and might, and he says that, no matter what, “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us”. Moreover, the book closes with the prophet’s affirmation that, no matter how bad things seem, “I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
In the Old Testament prophets, the root cause of all distress is Israel’s infidelity. There is a great deal of emphasis on the chastisements, but the trigger for disaster is in fact always infidelity. In the midst of this, the faithful have trouble comprehending why God fails to act. But God’s answer is that He is always acting: “For still the vision…hastens to the end—it will not lie.” Catholics of our century will find that Habakkuk was there before us, and that Habakkuk’s closing prayer is not only our model, but our answer as well.
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