Before entering on the study of the minor prophets, I will avail myself of the opportunity they afford to make a few remarks on the prophetic writings in general, pointing out the subjects of which they treat. We may divide these books into four principal classes according to the subjects on which they speak—subjects often connected with their dates.
1st. Those which speak of the great crisis of the capture of Jerusalem, and its consequences. These are Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel—all the greater prophets excepting Isaiah. I place the book of Daniel in this class, though his chief subject be the consequences under Gentile rule, till the Lord come; because, in fact, that event changed the government of the world, setting aside (in judgment) the elect people; and, while speaking of the Gentiles, he does so in connection with the substitution of the Gentile monarchy for that of God in Israel, and in view of that people’s destiny.
2nd. Those which speak of the judgment of the Gentiles as such. These are Jonah, Nahum, Obadiah.
3rd. Those which speak of the entire fall of Israel, and of the destiny that already threatened Judah, such as Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah. They announced a penal judgment on the people, while unfolding with more or less extent the dealings of God in grace at the end. With the exception of Amos, who prophesied in the reign of Uzziah, earlier than the other three, they belong to the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (this last king forming an epoch in these prophecies, the Assyrian having overthrown the kingdom of Israel during the reign of Hezekiah, and threatened Jerusalem).
Lastly, we have Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who prophesied after the captivity: the first two for the encouragement of the people; the last to bear witness to the failure of the Jews who had returned from captivity, and to announce the testimony and the judgment of the last days, which should separate the remnant from the wicked around them.
I have not spoken of Joel and Habakkuk, because these two prophets have each a peculiar character, not applying to the judgment of the Gentiles, like Nahum and Obadiah, and having no date to indicate a moral import founded on the condition of Israel. They both point out, in an especial manner, the judgments of the last days. Joel speaks of a particular invasion of the land, and of the judgment of the nations, which is fulfilled ‘at the same period, in connection with the blessing of Israel. The Spirit in Habakkuk, whilst availing Himself of the occasion of a particular judgment, brings out the spiritual affections and the exercises of heart produced by the sight of the evil, and of the consequent judgment, and shews the condition of a soul taught of God in view of these things.
We find thus in the prophets (taking a moral view of their subjects), first, the judgment of the people in general, the house of David being spared for a time, God raising up Hezekiah; and on this occasion the true Son of David is announced. This is contained in Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah. Secondly the judgment of Jerusalem, and the substitution of the Gentile monarchy, the people of God being entirely set aside; Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel; the last discussing all the great principles of relationship with God, and the destiny of all Israel as a land and nation. Thirdly, the judgment of the world—Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah. Fourthly, the desolation of the last days, by the northern army, and the judgment of the nations; followed by the temporal blessing of Israel, and, in the Spirit, of all flesh. This is Joel. Fifthly, the chastisement of God’s people by the successful violence of the man to whom God allows power for this purpose. The spirit of the prophet, overwhelmed by the evil which he beholds in the people, and yet, still more so when they are oppressed by their haughty enemies, understands that the just shall live by faith; and that this oppression was needed to chastise the evil, and to allow the pride of man to reach that height of iniquity which leads to the judgment that annihilates his pride for ever. This is Habakkuk. The last chapter is the expression of the sentiments produced by this instruction—the desires, the recollections, and the confidence of faith; a faith that rests on God Himself, in the midst of all those exercises of heart to which the history of His people gives birth in the faithful. Precious consolation, when we think of all that invests itself with the name of God! We next find, sixthly, that which appertains to the special circumstances of the Jews, who have been brought back to Jerusalem in view of the coming of Christ, and the consequences of that coming, as well as of the people’s own responsibility with respect to the circumstances in which they already stood:—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
There remain still some details to be pointed out. Jonah sets before us, in a very striking manner, the patient goodness of God towards a world of proud and careless sinners; and that in contrast with the impatience of the man to whom the oracles of God are committed, to see them accomplished for his self-satisfaction, even though it were by the execution of the judgment which grace would set aside on the humiliation of those who were its objects.
Nahum however, shews us, that this judgment must in the end be executed, and that a long suffering—the only result of which is to glorify God—would at length give place to a judgment that should definitely and for ever put an end to all that exalted itself against God.
Obadiah reveals to us, not this general and public pride of the world, but the hatred to God’s people which is especially seen in those who were outwardly connected with them, and who, according to the flesh, claimed a right to the inheritance of the firstborn.
The notice which God gives us in these prophets of His relationship with the world, and of the manner in which He looks upon it, is full of interest. Jonah presents the force of that expression in Peter, “a faithful Creator.” In Isaiah we may have remarked the rich development of the ways of God in reference to Christ, and with Israel; and the connection of these things, both with each other, and with the judgment of the world. The purposes of God in government are largely opened in that book.
The three other great prophets instruct us in the vast importance of that crisis in the history of the whole world—that critical moment when Jehovah ceased to govern it in the midst of His people, and removed the seat of His power into the midst of the Gentiles, and placed that power in the hands of men.
Amos and Hosea give us some precious light on the moral government of God; they furnish the reader of the Bible with striking pictures of the state of things—the facts, which were the procuring cause of the judgment that God inflicted; not only the facts which resulted from God’s dealings, but the conduct that gave rise to those dealings with His people. This exposure of their conduct is full of humbling interest.
Micah (as well as Isaiah), while occupied with these same subjects, enlarges more on the promises in connection with Christ, the effect of which would raise up the people from the condition into which sin, and the judgment of God upon the sin, had cast them. It may have been already remarked, that the commencement of Isaiah, while speaking of the Lord Jesus, is essentially occupied with Judah, Israel, and the nations; the close of the book especially with Christ, and the consequences of His rejection by the people.
It will have been understood, from what I have already said on the three prophets who prophesied after the return from captivity, that they also are occupied with the same two subjects.
The Messiah appears in Haggai, and with still more detail in Zechariah. The condition and the destiny of the people are more seen in Malachi—the whole in connection with the last days.146
146 I desire to add here, in a note, something more detailed and precise to that which I said on the subject of prophecy at the beginning of Isaiah. Prophecy is the intervention of God’s sovereign grace in testimony, in order to maintain His relationship with His people when they have failed in their responsibility to God in the position they held, so that their relationship with God in this position has been broken; and before God has established any new relationship by His own power in grace. The subjects of prophecy are, consequently, the following:—
The dealings of God in government upon the earth, in the midst of Israel; the moral details of the conduct of the people which led to their ruin; God’s intervention at the end in grace by the Messiah to establish His people in assured blessing by God’s own power, according to His purpose.
Two things are connected with these leading subjects: the judgment of the nations, which was necessary for the establishment of Israel in their own land; and the rejection of Christ by the Jews at His first coming into this world.
Finally, Israel had been the centre and keystone of the system that was established after the judgment upon Noah’s descendants for their pride at Babel. In this system the throne and temple of God at Jerusalem were :—the one, the seat of divine authority over all nations; and the other, the place where they should go up to worship Him who dwelt between the cherubim. Israel having failed in that obedience which was the condition of their blessing and the bond of the whole order recognised by God in the earth, another system of human supremacy is set up in the person of Nebuchadnezzar. Prophecy treats, therefore, of this unitary system also, and of its relationship with the people of God on the earth.
Guilty of rebellion against God, and associated with Israel in the rejection of Christ, and at the close rising in revolt against Him, this power is associated with the Jews in the judgment, as being united with them in evil.
What has been here said evidently applies to Old Testament prophecy with which we are here occupied. But this raises the question of the difference of New Testament prophecy. The assembly is not the scene of the earthly government of God, but sitting in heavenly places: hence prophecy cannot be the direct action of the Spirit on its present state, as it was in Israel. The communications are direct from the Father and from the Lord according to the relationship in which it stands to them, just as prophecy was with the Jews. But the Spirit can look forward in the assembly to the time when the decay of the outward system will prepare the way for the introduction of the direct government of God again in the Person of Christ. This in general we find in the Apocalypse, from the beginning of the assembly’s declension until it is rejected, and then in the world. Hence we have also the prophecies which announce the decay and ruin of the assembly after the departure of the apostles, as in i Timothy 4:152 Timothy 3 and 2 Thessalonians 2. The decay itself is spoken of in the Epistles of John, Jude, and 2 Peter. Another subject belongs to this and introduces prophecy into the Lord’s mouth, with which James connects itself, but does not concern the assembly properly speaking—the connection of Christ as minister of the circumcision with the Jewish people, as in Matthew 24 and parallel passages in Mark and Luke, and even Matthew 10 from v. 15 to the end, where the portion of the residue in their service in Israel is traced on to the Lord’s coming. So that in the moral ruin of the assembly on earth, and the history of the residue, we have the connecting links of these days and Christ’s mission to Israel, with His coming in the last days.