By Fred Gilley
Prophets form the second classification of Old Testament literature. The first is the Pentateuch, the first five books, under the general umbrella of Torah or Law. Writings form the third classification, of which the Psalms and Proverbs are better known examples.
Prophets can be divided into former (Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha) and latter or writing prophets, such as Amos or Isaiah. Major (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and minor prophets form another division.
Minor prophets are not less important, but shorter. Isaiah, as an example, covers 50 pages in the Gideon bible, a convenient King James reference in my study. All the minor prophets—the last 12 Old Testament books.—claim 42 pages in the same bible.
The minors, often referred to as The Twelve, are out of chronological order in English bibles. Chronologically, Amos should be before Hosea and Joel.
Prophet, in English, comes from Greek and Hebrew words with multiple meanings, including spokesperson for God or a god. Major or minor, former or latter, Old Testament prophets believed they were speaking for God rather than themselves. They could say “Thus says the Lord” with certainty and a clear conscience. Anticipated or ongoing crisis or imminent danger prodded prophetic speech.
The prophets had no problem viewing cruel, evil powers as God’s instruments, especially for punishment, correction, and guidance. Instead of long range predictions, the prophets speak what they hear God saying and interpret what God is doing in the moment or immediate future. How should we view Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and ISIS? Is God saying or doing anything through them?
As cruel, brutal, and horrifying as some Islamic extremist groups have been, they haven’t done anything that Christians did not do to “Mohammedans” through crusades and inquisitions. Christians, both past and present, have held some strange ideas and committed too many terrible acts in the name of Christ.
Amos, third in the present order of 12, refused to be labeled a prophet, but he ended 75 years of prophetic silence by going from Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel, which consisted of the 10 tribes that had seceded following Solomon’s death. Solomon’s father, David, had united the 12 tribes to form one nation. Union continued, with some reluctance, under Solomon. Amos also became the first of the writing prophets.
Zephaniah (pronounced Zef a ni a), ninth of 12, is a lesser known minor prophet. He identifies himself as the grandson of Hezekiah’s grandson. Hezekiah, presumably the reforming Judean king, could have a fifth generation descendant, although Zephaniah stakes no claim to other royal family connections. The prophet knows his way around Jerusalem’s districts and was active during Josiah’s reign, probably before 621 BCE.
Zephaniah had the same Day of the Lord expectation as Amos and Isaiah. Instead of present and future joy, the Day of the Lord would be a time of accounting and judgment. Religion and personal behavior are denounced in chapters 1 and 2. The final verses of Chapter 3 are so different, more positive, that Zephaniah’s authorship has been questioned. Chapter 3:14-20 was a reading for the third Advent Sunday in Year C (2015 – 2016) of the Revised Common Lectionary.
An unidentified threat from the North caused Zephaniah considerable anxiety, which is why he was chosen to represent the 12 Minors. We face similar uncertainties, not knowing our enemies. Who would suspect the young couple in the next apartment to be laying booby traps and preparing to kill 14 innocent people and wound many more? Or, young men boarding airplanes with explosives in shoes or underwear?
Paul tells the Colossians (3:10-11, King James) they “have put on the new man…there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free but Christ is all, and in all.” Do we dare claim love conquered the Roman Empire, knowing how much politics was involved in Christianity’s triumph?
How do we love those who want to kill us? We have precedents in the first centuries of Christianity.
After advising the multitude to love enemies, bless cursers, do good to haters, Jesus continues with “…if you love them which love you,” (Matthew 5:46, KJV), “what reward have ye?” Rewards, apparently, are reserved for those who can love the unlovable.