Friday, August 25, 2000

New Bible commentary explains six minor prophets

By Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press

        Quick quiz: Identify Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

        Scripture mavens will recognize them as the final books of the Christian Old Testament. (Judaism lists the biblical books in a different order.)

        Even those who know the names may not be familiar with the books, which are among the least read in the Bible. They form the second half of the 12 “Minor Prophets,” minor meaning they are brief compared with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

        The six books are really two groups of three. In the days of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, Assyria was waning before its defeat by Babylon in 612 B.C. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi taught after Babylon had fallen to Persia, and the Jews were allowed to return home from Babylon.

        These six books are treated in Minor Prophets II by Grace Emmerson, formerly of the University of Birmingham, England.

        Some of her observations:

        • Nahum. His poetic oracles depict God as a wrathful avenger, which Ms. Emmerson admits is unpleasant reading. But the prophet is not gloating about a conquered enemy, but crying for relief “from tyrannical oppression and from savage acts of war against the helpless.”

        The point is, evil will not go forever unpunished. “God's judgment falls on those who flout his will for justice, peace and love.” And the prophet is concerned about all enslaved nations, not just Israel.

        • Habakkuk: His main message is that humans cannot fathom the ways of the sovereign God. Ms. Emmerson writes: “Nation destroys nation, empires rise and fall. Amid the wreckage of time God's kingdom alone remains, a kingdom founded not on military might but on vulnerable love.”

        Habakkuk expresses frustration that God appears inactive amid oppression. Like him, we should “be open with God about the things that trouble us, the awkward questions that test our faith. ... God does not confuse doubt with blasphemy.”

        • Zephaniah: This prophet wrote just before King Josiah's religious reforms, when Judah was spiritually at its worst. He denounces the people for following false gods and paying more attention to money than to worship.

        As usual with the Old Testament, Zephaniah is no simple nationalist. He casts his gaze on countries to the west, east, south and north, then warns his countrymen that they have no privileged protection. “Israel, too, comes under God's judgment and is the first to be challenged by the prophets to repent.”

        • Haggai: His prophecies occurred in 520 B.C., just after the return from Babylonian exile. Haggai denounced those who build “paneled houses” while God's temple lay in ruins. He does not promise mechanical blessings if the temple is restored, but sees the rebuilding as “an outward and visible sign of their determination to put God first.”

        For 21st century believers, says Ms. Emmerson, money spent on beautiful churches is a constant reminder that worship takes priority.

        • Zechariah: This book, from the same temple-building period, includes eight strange visions reminiscent of the Book of Revelation, with floating horns, a flying scroll, olive trees and mountains of bronze.

        Though the prophet is interested in sincere personal commitment to God, like Haggai he knows that “worship must have a public face and so, too, must commitment if it is to undergird society and shape its values.” No narrow nationalist, Zechariah ends with a grand vision of all nations worshipping the true God.

        • Malachi: For Christians, Malachi's final verses are a fitting Old Testament conclusion because the next book is the New Testament Matthew. Malachi 4:4 exhorts the people to remember the law given to Moses on the holy mountain, while in Matthew 5-7, Jesus interprets Moses' law in the Sermon on the Mount.

        And Malachi says Elijah will return before the great “day of the Lord” (4:5), while in Matthew 11:14, Jesus identifies his forerunner John the Baptist as the promised Elijah.


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