By Mark Scott
These sometimes-overlooked prophets are anything but minor when it comes to the Christmas message.
The Major Prophets of the Old Testament get lots of press at Christmastime. Rightly so. They carry the melody line in the Christmas story. Isaiah gave King Ahaz the gospel with these words, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14*). Isaiah gave the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali even more good news: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder. . . . Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7).
Another Major Prophet gave the gospel in the midst of great angst. A layered prophecy came through the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, when he said, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
This does not sound like a gospel tune, as we hear Herod’s butchers murdering little baby boys in Bethlehem. But remember that Jeremiah 31 is the new covenant chapter. Yes, tragically, some innocent children died. But one little child was whisked away and would later bridge the gap between God and people with a new way to be right before God.
The other two Major Prophets also sing gospel songs. Ezekiel 34:11 says, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” And Ezekiel 37:24 says, “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.” Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” And remember Daniel 7:13, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.” Good words and good press.
But we dare not forget the Minor Prophets at Christmas. Christmas carols need strong harmony. The Minor Prophets supply that harmony, and then some. Remember these 12 voices (one for each of the 12 days of Christmas) are only minor in that they are shorter than the Major Prophets. They are not minor in significance or inspiration.
These prophets spoke enthusiastically (i.e. the meaning of the Hebrew word prophet). They bubbled forth their gospel tunes as they were overcome with the Holy Spirit. They functioned as covenant watchdogs and became the conscience of the holy community. As Calvin Miller noted, many times they did not just prepare messages; they were messages. They gave their guidance to those who governed them (the kings) and educated them (Levites) as they sang harmony. Chronologically here are the tunes.
Obadiah, The Gospel of the Conquering Kingdom—As we take a chronological look at the books of the Minor Prophets, we must ask, what good news could possibly come out of a book that judges Israel’s neighbor, Edom? To a great extent the Bible is about competing kingdoms (two lines of humanity)—the line of Seth and the way of Cain; Israel and the nations; the church and the world; Jerusalem and Babylon. The good news is we know which kingdom wins. “And the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (Obadiah 21).
In his book The Minor Prophets, James Smith states, “The rest of the prophetic literature is to a certain extent an exposition of the last line of Obadiah.”
Joel, The Gospel of the Greatest Gift—If Edom seemed like a strange place to begin the celebration of Christmas, what connection can there possibly be with a locust plague? All of creation seems to know when it is out of sync with its creator. The locust plague and the ensuing drought was an invitation to repent.
But this repentance had to go deeper than the skin. Joel tells the people to “rend their hearts” (2:13). Repentance creates the best atmosphere to receive one of the greatest gifts, i.e. the Holy Spirit. Joel 2:28-32 is quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-21. The good news is that the Holy Ghost becomes our holy guest. The best Christmas gift is the gift of God himself.
Jonah, The Gospel for All the Nations—Jonah is the prophet on the run—even from the grace of God. He runs from God (chapter 1), runs to God (chapter 2), runs with God (chapter 3), and runs counter to God (chapter 4). This frustrated prophet knew that “You [God] are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (4:2). What he needed to learn better was that God pitied Nineveh and cared that it was so lost (4:11).
Racial and religious prejudice can destroy Christmas. Obeying God also includes capturing his heart.
Amos, The Gospel of Abundant Life—Like several of the prophets, Amos did not ask for his job. He has been called the cowboy prophet, the Salvation Army prophet, and the backwards prophet. He was just a shepherd (1:1) and a fig nipper (7:10-17). He might have been liked by God’s people for railing against the nations (chapters 1, 2), but when he called God’s people to repentance (chapters 3, 4), he was rejected. Several times he calls for the people to seek God and live (5:4, 6, 14, 15).
The plea sounds like Jesus’ abundant life claim in John 10:10. Christmas should knock the complacency out of us (6:1) and cause us to experience the abundance of God (9:13-15).
Hosea, The Gospel of Stubborn Love—This book, the longest of the Minor Prophets, is truly good news from a broken home. God often uses the metaphor of bride to describe his relationship with his people. It is the metaphor of intimacy. Yes, God was married, and he and his wife were having issues. Clearly the problems were hers. Against the backdrop of Israel’s sins listed primarily in chapters 4-10, 12 and 13, there is this stubborn love of God in chapters 11 and 14. Just as Hosea buys Gomer back and loves her again (3:1-3), so God “led them [Israel] with cords of kindness, with the bands of love” (11:4).
Christmas says God cannot give up his people. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:8).
Micah, The Gospel in Little Places—In Micah we learn what God is like (the meaning of the prophet’s name) and what he expects (6:8). Micah spoke to the major cities of his day, namely Samaria and Jerusalem. Micah knew God would raise up a mountain to which all the nations would flow (4:1, 2). But he also knew that sometimes the good news comes from the strangest and most out-of-the-way places.
Bethlehem would be that strange out-of-the-way place where big things would happen. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2; quoted in Matthew 2:6).
Nahum, The Gospel of Vindication—In Nahum we found ourselves back in Nineveh. One hundred years have passed since Jonah preached there. The city’s repentance lasted only that long. God’s grace does have an expiration date on it. We dare not presume on the patience of God (Romans 2:4). Nineveh is mentioned in each of the three chapters. This is a city now bent on destruction.
Occasionally the announcement of good news to some becomes bad news for others. A couple excited to share their news of a pregnancy becomes an occasion of sadness for those who have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive.
Christmas says that God will have the last word. His cause in the world will be vindicated.
Zephaniah, The Gospel of Restoration—Zephaniah predicts a day of disaster and a day of delight. The disaster was due to things like syncretism (1:8), complacency (1:12), materialism (1:18), and pride (3:11) among God’s people. But the delight will be known in pure speech (3:9), evangelism and humility (3:11, 12), joy (3:14), singing and love (3:17), and restoration (3:20).
In The Minor Prophets, James Smith observed, “Zephaniah began with a description of universal judgment and the destruction of the earth. Properly understood, the concluding verses of Zephaniah reach out to the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
For Zephaniah, Christmas is the announcement that God will not only make things better; he will make them new.
Habakkuk, The Gospel in Hard Times—Good news is especially welcome when times are tough. Times were very tough for this prayerful prophet. With Jeremiah at his side, he predicted the coming of Babylonian captivity. At first Habakkuk wondered if God was paying attention to the conditions of his day. When he learned God was on top of it in every way, he could not understand. God would punish Israel with a nation worse than Israel? That seems upside down. But he learned the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (2:14), and that the Lord was in his holy temple so all the earth should keep silence (2:20).
For Habakkuk, Christmas meant hanging on even if God stripped away everything he promised to give (3:17). Judgment makes the prophet shake (3:16), but he finds the courage to pray, “yet” (3:18).
Zechariah, The Gospel that Kills Apathy—Christmas takes the ho-hum out of life. Colonel James Irwin, astronaut and moonwalker said, “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”
It did not take God’s people long after returning from the exile in Babylon to backslide into indifference. This postexilic prophet has to call God’s people to do more than just rebuild the temple (Haggai’s emphasis). He has to tell them to reengage the life that true temple worship should inspire.
The book has a backward look (chapters 1–8) and a forward look (chapters 9–14). God would kill this apathy by the power of his Spirit (4:6), by a king riding a donkey (9:9), and by sacrifice of the one who would save them (12:10; 13:7-9).
Haggai, The Gospel of Greater Glory—At Christmas the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14). That glory was predicted by the prophet Haggai.
He worked with Zechariah in restoring God’s people following their captivity in Babylon. The temple was still not finished. The people’s lives were in shambles because they were not putting God first. The result was like putting their money in a bag with holes in it (1:6). Haggai tells the people that even if the second temple was not as nice as Solomon’s temple, there was coming a day when a greater glory would be realized.
Christmas shakes the foundations of the world and gives us a glimpse of the glory of God.
Malachi, The Gospel of the Message of the Messiah from the Messenger—Jeff Walling became Matthew the tax collector in a first-person sermon at the ZOE Conference in Nashville. He says we are in a mess (sin). That is why we need a “Mess-iah.” That becomes our “Mess-age.” Christmas gives us the opportunity to tell the message that the Messiah has entered our mess, and he intends to do something about the mess.
The mess for Malachi was polluted offerings, corrupted priests, divorce, and stealing from God (not bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse). But God would send his messenger, and God’s people would be refined through fire and soap (3:2). Christ would rise with healing in his wings (4:2), and the messenger would turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers (4:6).
The Minor Prophets are anything but minor when it comes to the Christmas message. Maybe they should receive some major press this Christmas.
*All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, ©2001.
Mark Scott serves as professor of New Testament and preaching at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.