“See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey ” Zechariah 9:9
Having looked a the Law, History, Wisdom and the Major Prophets, we came last week to the final section of the Old Testament—the Minor Prophets. In Hebrew the Minor Prophets are referred to as ‘The Twelve’, or, sometimes, as ‘the Book of the Twelve.’ We noted that the terms ‘major’ and ‘minor’ did not refer to the relative importance of the prophets, but to the length of their writings. We saw that the books collected together as the Minor Prophets run from Obadiah, just one chapter of twenty-one verses in length to the fourteen chapters of Hosea and Zechariah. It is not known when the Twelve Minor Prophets were collected together. Scholars believe that that initially the first six were collected, and then later the second six were added, so that by the Second Century BC they formed a single scroll. Looking at the first six of the prophets, we saw a logical flow in the thinking: Hosea through to Jonah raised questions of human sinfulness. Looking now at the second six books, Nahum through to Malachi, we see suggestions of the ways in which the situations facing the people might be resolved.
The first six books come from the early Assyrian period, the time when the Northern Kingdom, Israel was threatened with invasion and then fell to the Assyrians in 740-730 BC. The second six books come from later times, dated variously in the 7th and 6th Centuries BC.
We know little about the prophet Nahum. His name means ‘comforter’ and he is from the town of Alqosh. His prophecy is nationalistic, speaking for his people against the Assyrian invaders. The book of Nahum is almost exclusively a prophecy against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Israel had suffered at the hands of Sennacherib, c. 700 BC a time from when 2 Kings Chapter 19 Verse 35 tells of how “the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp”. Despite that destruction, Nineveh was to endure for almost a century more. Nahum prophesies its final destruction in 612 BC at the hands of the Medes and the Babylonians. Nahum Chapter 3, Verses 18-19 warn, ‘King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal’. The destruction was seen as judgement.
Nothing is known of the person who wrote the book of Habbakuk. The writer’s name may be derived from the Hebrew word for ‘embrace’, but the book provides no biographical details. Some scholars think Habakkuk ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem and that the word he wrote came from worship in the Temple, Chapter 3 Verse 1 says, ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet’, then there is a note, ‘On shigionoth’, which is thought to be an instruction regarding the music to be used to accompany the words of the prophecy. The book concludes with the words of Chapter 3 Verse 19, ‘For the director of music. On my stringed instruments’.
The first two chapters of Habakkuk are a dialogue between the prophet and God about all that has been happening in the history of the times. Chapter 1, Verses 4 and 5 are important in understanding the view of history that developed, God says to the prophet, ‘Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own’. In what is going to happen, God is working his purpose out.
Habakkuk not only understands history to be within the divine purpose but he also stresses the importance of the faith of individual people. ’The righteous person will live by his faith’, says Chapter 2 Verse 4. It is a theme that we find in Saint Paul’s Letters to the Romans and the Galatians, and in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Zephaniah opens his writing with information about himself, Zephaniah Chapter 1 Verse 1 reads, ‘The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah’. ‘Cushi’ means Ethiopian; the prophet is writing for people who believe that God’s covenant was with a particular people, so Zephaniah feels he must establish his ancestry, convince his readers that he shares their heritage.
Writing during the days of Josiah, during whose time the Book of The Law was found, Zephaniah is ministering around the same time as Jeremiah. If we read Chapter 2 Verse 1, there is a suggestion that Zephaniah’s writing is before the reforms are introduced, Chapter 2 Verse 3 says, ’Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility’.
Like Jeremiah, Zephaniah urges Josiah to introduce reforms. Zephaniah has no respect for the social elite in Jerusalem, In Chapter 3, Verses 3-4 he declares, ‘Her officials within her are roaring lions; her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law’. As we saw in the History, reform was introduced, but in a short time the people slid back into their former ways.
The book of Haggai provides no information about its writer, but is specific in its information about when it was written. The exiles have returned from Babylon following a decree in 538 BC by Cyrus the king of Persia who had conquered the city eighteen years previously, now it is seventeen years later. Chapter 1 Verse 1 says, ‘In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month’, Haggai is describing events in August 521 BC.
Haggai’s prophecy, the words from God he is to speak, is that the people have concerned themselves with their own houses had have forgotten the house of God, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’ asks God in Chapter 1 Verse 4. The people are urged to act and Chapter 1 Verses 14-15 says they began work three weeks later. Three months later, Haggai gives two more prophecies, God will restore his blessings to his people—blessings restored because the people have been prepared to be obedient.
Like Haggai, the opening chapters of Zechariah are written in the second year of Darius, in the eighth month of that year, October 521 BC. Zechariah’s name means, ’The Lord has remembered,’ and there is a sense of the Lord remembering his people in the words of Zechariah. Zechariah has a series of visions in Chapters 1-6 concerned with the meaning of the return from exile. Two years later, in November 519 BC, Zechariah in Chapters Chapters 7–8 speaks of what God expects from his people: ’Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’ says the Lord in Chapter 7 Verses 9-10. Do these things, and the people are promised that God will be with them. Chapters 9-14 are prophecies concerning the future, including Chapter 9 Verse 9, quoted by Saint Matthew in describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, ‘See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah writes words of reassurance. God is at work in history and will be with his people and allow them renewed lives.
Malachi is the final of the Twelve prophets; and is the last book in the Old Testament, as we have it. It is uncertain whether the prophet was actually called Malachi, the name simply means ‘my messenger’ and the book gives no details of the prophet’s life. Chapter 1 Verse 8 gives clues as to the date of the book, ’When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor!’ There is a governor instead of a king, so it is after the Exile and sacrifices are being offered, so the Temple has been rebuilt, which gives a date after 515 BC
Malachi is concerned with the decline in standards of behaviour, particularly among the priests. The people have not long been restored to their land, not long restored the Temple, and already the downward cycle of history has begun. Chapter 3 Verse 1, warns, ’Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple’. Chapter 3 Verse 18 points to the need for individual response, ‘And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not’.
‘I will send the prophet Elijah to you’, says God in Chapter 4 Verse 5. Seeing John the Baptist as Elijah, Christians would see Jesus as the Lord coming to his Temple and as the king coming to his people on a donkey.