The twelve shorter prophetic books in the Old Testament are attributed to “minor prophets,” a title which refers to the shortness of the books, which of course were written under the same divine inspiration and contain teaching which is on a par with that in the preceding books.
The New Vulgate—like the Vulgate before it—gives these books in the same order as the Hebrew Bible, a chronological order based on the traditional opinion as to when they were written; they come from a period extending over some five hundred years. Here we will discuss them in an historical order and comment on what we consider to be the more important features of each book, with a view to elucidating the biblical message as a whole.
Before the Fall of the Kingdom of Israel (Eighth Century B.C.)
Amos was the earliest of the writer prophets. He was born in Tekoa, near Bethlehem, probably around the beginning of the eighth century. While he was shepherding his flock he was called by God to prophesy in the northern kingdom. Amos makes it quite clear in his book that God’s choice of him was quite unmerited, because he was neither “a prophet nor the son of a prophet.” He ministered in the reign of Jeroboam II (783-743), using as his base the schismatic shrine at Bethel. Therefore, he was a contemporary of Hosea.
At that time the northern kingdom, thanks to its conquests, was enjoying a period of great prosperity, but there were sharp contrasts between rich and poor and many instances of inequity and injustice; the spirit of true religion was difficult to find. Amos, a deeply religious man, zealous for God’s glory, condemns dissolute city life, social injustice and insincerity of religious worship (5:21-22). He exposes those who exploit the poor (8:6) and upbraids judges for their venality (5:10-15).
The book is a hymn to God’s omnipotence and to the permanence of the Covenant. It is full of rich imagery and vivid parables based on the pastoral and rural life with which Amos was so familiar. Through this he passes on God’s message; if the people do not change their ways they will soon be punished by Yahweh: The kingdom will collapse and its inhabitants will be sent into exile.
This is the last chance God will give them to avoid this outcome. In spite of all the criticism the prophet levels at his people, there is still, as always, a shaft of hope; in the context of the repentance to which he calls them, he speaks of future salvation for the “remnant of Joseph” (5:15) who with the “remnant” of Judah will experience the grace of messianic restoration.
Hosea (= “salvation”) was a citizen of the northern kingdom whose prophetic mission began in the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel (783-743) and probably continued until just before the fall of Samaria in 721. In this book the prophet describes his own life, surrounded as he was by moral corruption, in the form of a personal drama which represents the dramatic story of Yahweh and Israel his spouse.
To God’s generous and even passionate love, Israel’s response is ingratitude and indifference. This religious infidelity, which takes the form of worshiping false Gods, thereby breaking the Covenant, is described by him in terms of adultery, prostitution and fornication.
The entire eighth chapter of the book is a denunciation of Israel, which Hosea charges with breaking the Covenant; with having kings who are illegitimate because they contravene God’s will; with adoring the golden calf; and with making foreign alliances rather than relying on God’s aid–all of which will lead to enslavement in a foreign land (Deut. 26:68).
Yahweh, who had contracted marriage with Israel, has discovered her to be unfaithful and feels the natural jealousy of a wounded spouse. Despite her unfaithfulness he still loves his wife. Even though he does at times punish her, his only purpose in doing so is to attract her back to himself: He is merciful and desires that she mend her ways and experience once more the delight of their first love.
The teaching is clear: Yahweh is a jealous God and he wants his love to be reciprocated. Love is the very foundation of man’s relationship with God, the only thing which guarantees the sincerity of his spiritual life: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).
This teaching will be echoed by later prophets who, like Hosea, exhort people to a more personal and more interior relationship with God, based on love of him: genuine faith in God leads to moral uprightness. The use of marriage as a comparison to describe God’s relations with Israel will acquire its fullest meaning in the pages of the New Testament: Jesus’ intimacy with his Church is very appropriately described in these terms (cf. Eph. 23-32).
The prophet Micah (= “Who is like Yahweh?”) was a native of Moresheth, a village near Israel’s border with the territory of the Philistines, about 45 kilometres from Jerusalem. He ministered as a prophet in the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He was a contemporary of Hosea in his youth, and also of Amos and Isaiah. His rural background reminds us of Amos–witness the vivid, expressive language, rich in imagery, which he uses to illustrate his teaching.
We do not know anything about Micah’s life. The inspired text does show him to be a true prophet, chosen by God to perform this mission. Micah does nothing to ingratiate himself with the people, yet they listen to him nevertheless. His main message has to do with the sentence God is going to pass on the Israelites and the punishment they will experience if they do not repent.
In a dialogue alternating with threats and promises, this book, like Amos and Hosea, warns them that “the day of Yahweh” is near at hand. Contrary to what many people think, it will be a day of darkness, not of light. However, he tells them, after a period of purification, a new light of hope will shine out.
As regards this purification, what God wants of man, is not so much material offerings as acts of the virtues of humility, justice and charity: for that proves a person’s faithfulness. Any worship and any purification which stem from this deep humility will have the effect of rendering material offerings pleasing to God (Hos. 6:6, Amos 5:24-25).
God’s promises to Abraham (7:20) will come true in that “remnant” of the people which will be purified (4-5). From this remnant will be born, in Bethlehem Ephrathah, him whose origin is from ancient days, from eternity (5:1). The birth of the Messiah of a woman (5:2) implies that Micah is aware of the prophecy of Isaiah: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). The New Testament sees in this passage a reference to the virginal birth of Jesus, the Son of God, from a particular woman, Mary, in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:6, John 7:42).
From the fall of the kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) to that of the kingdom of Judah (587 B.C.).
From the opening verse of this book we learn that Zephaniah (= “Yahweh protects”) prophesied in the time of Josiah, king of Judah (640-609 B.C.). Since Josiah’s religious reform took place in 622 and Zephaniah in his preaching continues to make reference to sins of idolatry (1:46) and exhorts the people to conversion, his ministry should probably be dated prior to 622, which would make him a contemporary of Jeremiah, Nahum and Habukkuk.
The book of Zephaniah and its message can be summed up in terms of its announcement of the “day of Yahweh.” This “day,” which the preceding prophets referred to so much, implies a clear invitation to penance, extended to pagan nations and more particularly to Judah itself. Yet, when it does come God will give his people–that is, the faithful remnant–a new hope and confidence.
This remnant will, as Amos and Isaiah had earlier foretold, consist of the poor, the humble and all those who put their trust in God. Clearly this teaching has a reference to the New Testament. No matter how seriously they have sinned, these humble people are being promised salvation, for the Redeemer is coming to heal them (Matt. 11:5). They are the poor in spirit referred to in our Lord’s first beatitude (Matt. 5:3).
The prophet Nahum (in Hebrew “consoler”) was a veritable consoler of Judah: In his short oracle he communicated God’s message of the downfall of its greatest enemy, Assyria. That kingdom’s capital would be destroyed, as happened previously in the case of Thebes (663 B.C.), in just punishment of its sins.
Like Jonah, Nahum does not address Israel directly: he speaks to the people of Nineveh in an attempt to move them to repent. This sacred book stresses the justice and mercy of God, who always comes to the defense of these who love him and keep his commandments.
The fall of Nineveh in 612 built up Judah’s hopes for a short while, but soon Judah itself was punished for its unfaithfulness and its own capital, Jerusalem, destroyed.
Somewhat earlier than Nahum and like him a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zephaniah, Habakkuk (the origin of the name is unclear) lived at an important point in history when the Chaldeans, after the victory of Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemis (605 B.C.), extended their control over vast areas of the Near East and now threatened Judah.
In this short book Habakkuk poses the problem of evil and how it fits in with divine justice. In his prayer he accepts that God has chosen the Babylonians to be the instrument of justice against Judah. But, he asks, how can God allow them to be so brutal, how can he permit them to commit such terrible crimes? (1:13ff). One can detect in his lament, which is also a prayer of entreaty, an echo of the book of Job, which posed a similar problem.
His reply confirms that God has acted justly, even though man finds it difficult to see it that way. The chastisement Judah will receive is medicinal; therefore it is temporary and is proportional to its faults, because “he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous man shall live by his faith” (2:4). The book ends with a prayer and a canticle of hope and faith or abandonment in God. He who trusts in the word of Yahweh may suffer and bemoan his state for a while, but in the end, if he perseveres in his fidelity, he will rejoice in the God of his salvation.
After the Return from Babylonian Captivity (537 B.C.)
Haggai ( = “festive”) was the first of the postexilic prophets. With him began the last prophetic period, that of the restoration which followed the end of the Jewish exile. Haggai began his preaching in the second year of the reign of Darius (522-486 B.C.). His book has a different kind of content from that of the previous prophets: Instead of threats of punishment for unfaithfulness and words of hope and consolation for the exiles, now it is a positive desire for restoration that the prophet is encouraging them to have.
They had started rebuilding the Temple with this frame of mind, but they soon ran into opposition from the Samaritans, their greatest enemies. The Samaritans prevailed on the Persian authorities to put a halt to the rebuilding. On top of this there were bad harvests. The net effect was that the Jews’ initial enthusiasm was beginning to wane, if it had not indeed disappeared.
Haggai’s exhortations, in the months of August and September 520, were aimed at reversing this trend–as Zechariah’s would be, some time later. Haggai inspired new energies in the people and encouraged Zerubbabel to start work again on the Temple. What he says is: God has permitted the harvest to fail because his Temple is still in ruins and no one is doing anything about it; on its rebuilding depends the future prosperity and plenty of Judah.
Although the new Temple will not be as magnificent as Solomon’s, it will surpass it because of its close connexion with the Messiah, the descendant of David. Paul later used Haggai’s prophecy to show the permanence of the New Covenant, which has come to replace the Old (Heb 12:26ff).
The book of Zechariah (= “Yahweh remembers”) comes chronologically after that of Haggai. The prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah and grandson of Iddo, belonged to a priestly family which had returned from exile to Babylon. Like Haggai, he was called by God in 520, the second year of the reign of Darius. He probably lived until very near the time the new Temple was finished.
Working in a literary style quite different from Haggai’s but with the same doctrinal content, Zechariah describes in the first part of his book (chap. 18), by means of eight sublime visions, God’s plan for the restoration of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem, and promises God’s blessing on Israel. As a prerequisite God asks his people for moral rectitude, to be shown in acts of justice and mercy and obedience to his commandments. It should be pointed out that in Zechariah’s time the Jews gave much importance to fasting but their motivation was at fault because they were more concerned about appearing to others to be good that about seeking God’s favor. The prophet tells them that fasting is pleasing to God if it stems from genuine piety.
The second part of the book (chap. 9-14), referring to a later period, is also important for its messianic teaching. It describes in detail the reestablishment of the house of David (chap. 12); the advent of the Messiah, humble and riding on an ass (9:9-10); his passion and death, with the remarkable prophecy of his being pierced (12:10); his priesthood (13:9); and, finally, the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (14:16).
In his Gospel Matthew sees these prophecies being fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who enters Jerusalem meekly mounted on an ass (Matt 21:29) at the start of the week in which God’s plan for salvation reaches its climax.
Malachi in Hebrew means “my messenger,” and is the prophet’s real name and not that of some anonymous person. We know nothing about Malachi other than what can be gleaned from the text. He must have begun his prophetic ministry after the exile, during the period of Persian domination, given the laxity of morals noted in the text and the continued lack of devotion on the part of priests. Along with this there was the proliferation of mixed marriages consequent on the return from exile, and many divorces among the Jews, which fuelled the prophet’s indignation. The spiritual renewal worked by Haggai and Zechariah has come to a halt. The people are very easygoing and weak in the practice of their faith. In a style reminiscent of Ezekiel, Malachi energetically exhorts them—particularly the priests—to practice religion in a more wholehearted manner, based on the love of God. He foretells the coming of the Messiah—the angel or messenger of the Covenant, he calls him—who himself will be preceded by another messenger, a precursor (3:1), which is clearly a prophecy about John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10).
With Jesus, the Messiah, to whom all the books of the Old Testament, and particularly this one, refer, the era of salvation will begin. In that era the moral order will be reestablished (3:5) and proper worship (3:4), and above all the sacrifice of the New Covenant will take place, a perfect offering made to God on behalf of all men (1:11) by Christ, who is both victim and priest. This comes true and is renewed each day in the holy sacrifice of the altar, the only sacrifice of the messianic era, offered to God all over the earth.
Obadiah (= “servant of Yahweh”) was perhaps a contemporary of Ezekiel, but profane history can tell us nothing about him. His “book” of 21 verses is the shortest of the minor prophets. However, Jerome says of him: “a little prophet as far as words go, but not little in terms of ideas.”
Obadiah’s prophecy operates on two levels—that of the chastisement of Edom and that of the ultimate triumph of Israel on “the day of Yahweh.” The Edomites incurred the prophet’s anger because they had foolishly applauded the destruction of Jerusalem and had gone to play a part in the sacking of the city and the persecution of its refugees (Jer. 49:7-22. Ezek. 25:12ff). Parallel with the punishment of Edom, Judah will receive the reward of being restored and of recovering its treasures. All this should be understood in terms of its ultimate messianic restoration.
The name Joel means “Yahweh is God” in Hebrew. Joel prophesied in Judah, in Jerusalem, and most scholars think that he operated around the year 500, after the return from exile.
There are two parts to the book. The first describes a plague of locusts, a sign of the sentence God will deliver on the “day of Yahweh.” Is this day close at hand? The prophet describes a series of calamities which will precede it; these include the locust plague. Is this a symbol or something which will actually happen? Even if it is a real event, it is also a symbol of invasion by enemy peoples, invasion of the Holy Land by pagan foreigners, in chastisement of Israel’s unfaithfulness. The people will do penance and God will call a halt to the plague and restore prosperity.
The second part, written in apocalyptic style, describes God’s judgment of the nations and his final victory, and therefore the victory of Israel. The “day of Yahweh” refers to the messianic era, at the end of time, prior to the Last Judgment, which will, Joel says, be accompanied by a cosmic disaster. However, since the book is apocalyptic in style, what it says does not have to be taken literally. Its teaching can only be understood in the light of the New Testament.
The book’s main doctrinal contribution is its prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit, who will descend on all the people of God in the messianic era (3:15). Peter actually quotes this text on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21), asserting that this prophecy has come true in the Church.
Joel concludes by speaking of the judgment which will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat, an eschatological vision shot through with messianic hope.
The author of this book used to be identified as the prophet of the same name, the son of Amittai (1:1), who in the times of Jeroboam II (783-743 B.C.) prophesied the reestablishment of the ancient frontiers of Israel (2 Kgs. 14:25). Scholars are in disagreement as to the book’s date of composition, but it seems to be around the end of the fifth century.
The book starts with Yahweh’s command to Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach penance. Jonah makes excuses and in fact disobeys. He flees on board ship but is thrown into the sea during a storm. A huge fish swallows him (chap. 1), and he spends three days and three nights in the fish’s belly. Then the fish vomits him out and he finds himself safe and sound on the coast of Palestine (chap. 2).
Yahweh repeats his command and this time Jonah obeys. When he reaches Nineveh he tells the people that the city is now to be destroyed in forty days time (3:4). But the Ninevites do penance, and God in his mercy forgives them (chap. 3).
Basically what the book says is that God’s plan for salvation embraces everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. All have need of God. That is why the prophet is sent to a “foreign” city—to show that God is no respecter of persons but loves everyone, without exception. He takes pity on Jonah (2:7) and on the people of Nineveh–but only when they do penance.
His love even extends to infants—people “who do not know their right hand from their left” (4:11). This book prepares the way for a more exalted and definitive revelation—whereby Jesus explains the essence of God’s inner life by telling us that God is love (1 John 4:8).