Introduction to the Twelve Prophets

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Introduction 12prophets

The Book of the Twelve Prophets covers a range of conditions in the life of Israel, each of which brings its own challenges. The unifying theme of these prophets is that in God there is no split between the work of worship and the work of daily life. Nor is there a split between individual wellbeing and the common good. The people of Israel are faithful or unfaithful, in varying degrees, to God’s covenant with them, and degree of their faithfulness is immediately apparent in their worship or their neglect to worship. The people’s faithfulness, or lack of faithfulness, to God’s covenant, is reflected in not only the spiritual environment, but also the social and physical environment, including the land itself. The people’s degree of faithfulness is also visible in their ethics in life and work, which in turn determines the fruitfulness of their labour and their consequent prosperity or poverty. In the short term the wicked may prosper, but both God’s discipline and the natural consequences of unjust work will eventually reduce the unjust to poverty and despair. But when people and societies work in faithfulness to God, he blesses them with an integrated spiritual-ethical-environmental health and prosperity.

These final twelve books of the Old Testament are usually referred to in the English-speaking Christian tradition as the Minor Prophets. In Hebrew tradition these books are contained in a single scroll called “The Book of the Twelve.” It forms a kind of anthology with a progression of thought and coherence of theme. The essential background of the collection is the covenant that God has made with his people, and the narrative told within the collection is the story of Israel’s violation of the covenant, God’s response in punishing or disciplining of Israel, and God’s slowly-unfolding restoration of the Israelite nation and society.[1]

That being the case, five of the first six books of the Twelve—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah—reflect on the effect of the people’s sin, both on the conduct of the covenant and on the events of the world. Then the next three—Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah—concern the punishment for sin, again with respect both to the covenant and to the world. The last three prophetic books—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi—concern the restoration of Israel, yet again with respect to a renewal of the covenant and partial restoration of Israel’s standing in the world. Finally, Jonah is a special case. His prophecy does not concern Israel at all, but with the non-Hebrew city-state of Nineveh. Both its setting and its composition are famously difficult to date reliably.