THE MINOR PROPHETS
Of the Old Testament Scriptures, taking of them a general view, I do not know a more difficult part to understand than that which is contained in what are commonly called “the minor prophets;” that is, the series of prophecies commencing with Hosea and terminating with Malachi. They are called, as you probably know, the minor prophets, not because of any inferiority in inspiration, in authority, or in subject matter to the greater prophetsÂ—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, but on account of the comparative brevity or smallness in bulk of their compositions; rarely extending, except Hosea and Zechariah, beyond the compass of two or three chapters.
Now if these minor prophets are so difficult to understand, at least I have found them so, there must be some reason for this difficulty. But perhaps you see no difficulty; perhaps you are a thorough master of the whole subject, and have penetrated with an eagle eye into the whole series, so as clearly to see both their literal and spiritual meaning. But will you allow me to gauge by a few questions the depth of this knowledge? Can you understand Obadiah? What meaning would you affix to such a passage as this? “And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it.” (Obadiah 18.) Are you fully master of Amos? And can you explain the meaning of this verse? “I saw the Lord standing upon the altar: and he said. Smite the lintel of the door, that the posts may shake: and cut them in the head, all of them; and I will slay the last of them with the sword: he that fleeth of them shall not flee away, and he that escapeth of them shall not be delivered.” (Amos 9. 1.) Do you understand the meaning of Nahum, where he says, “Where is the dwelling of the lions, and the feeding-place of the young lions, where the lion, even the old lion, walked, and the lion’s whelp, and none made them afraid? The lion did tear in pieces enough for his whelps, and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his holes with prey, and his dens with ravin.” (Nahum 2. 11, 12,) And do you think you have sounded all the depths of Joel? “O,” you say, “I have not thought about the meaning of such passages as those.” Then don’t think you understand it until you have considered the subject a little more closely, and sounded some of these hidden depths; for you may depend upon it that these minor prophets, though we may gather up much of their general meaning are very difficult to understand in their minuter details, and especially when we desire to invest them with a spiritual interpretation. For this difficulty there seem to be several reasons.
1. First, we are but imperfectly acquainted with the kingdoms, states, and persons generally against whom they were uttered, and the events of the period in which the prophets themselves lived; so that many things which they wrote, though perfectly intelligible at the time when they were written, are very
obscure to us now. Thus Obadiah prophesies of the destruction of Edom, which was a country to the south of Canaan, and chiefly remarkable for its rock-hewn city, situated in a narrow, inaccessible defile, formerly called Selah, but now Petra. The prophet therefore says, “The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart. Who shall bring me down to the ground? Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.” (Obadiah 3, 4.) But how little is now known of the ancient state of Edom? So Nahum prophesies the destruction of Nineveh. At the time of their prophecies both of these were flourishing cities, but now neither of them has an inhabitant; and till a few years ago the very site of Nineveh was unknown.
2. Another reason to my mind is, that some of the events which are prophesied are still unfulfilled: as for instance, “And they of the south shall possess the mount of Esau; and they of the plain the Philistines: and they shall possess the fields of Ephraim, and the fields of Samaria: and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.” (Obadiah 19.) The full meaning, therefore, of the minor prophets may not be understood until the events to which they refer are accomplished.
3. There is also a third reason for this difficulty, viz. the harmonising of the literal and spiritual meaning which cannot well be done whilst the former is obscure.
But the question may perhaps arise in your mind, “If these prophecies are so difficult to understand, why do you preach from them? This morning you took your text out of Hosea, one of the minor prophets; and this evening you are taking your text out of Zephaniah, another of the minor prophets. Are you come this evening with some of these difficultiesÂ—to raise up giants that you may kill them, and set us enigmas that you may solve them?” God forbid! I would rather clear up difficulties than make or state them. Though there may be great difficulties in fully understanding these minor prophets, yet there are many very blessed passages in them; sweet openings up of experimental truth; most gracious and suitable promises given for the consolation of the church of God in all ages. We must ever bear in mind this feature in all the prophets, that as regards the people of God, all their prophecies are promises; and therefore prophecies being promises, they are all in a state of continual fulfilment. God’s dealings with his Church are the same in all ages; for he himself is “the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever;” and thus if many of these prophecies look forward into the dim and distant future, when they will have their full completion, yet there is a continual fulfilment of them as containing in their bosom every promised blessing to the saints of God. It is, I may add, this peculiar feature of divine revelation which makes the reading of the Scripture of the Old Testament profitable, and furnishes us, both as ministers and hearers, with food for instruction, consolation, and edification in righteousness.
J. C. PHILPOT (Introduction to sermon entitled “The Mighty God in the midst of Zion”)