1. Why should you be interested in the 12 prophets who wrote the last books of the Hebrew Scriptures?
WOULD you like to get to know 12 messengers of God? These particular 12 lived before Jesus walked the earth, so you cannot meet them face-to-face. Still, you can get to know them, noting how they kept close in mind “the great day of Jehovah.” And what you will learn is truly of significance to every Christian who is rightly striving to keep Jehovah’s great day in mind.—Zephaniah 1:14; 2 Peter 3:12.
2, 3. How can we relate to the experiences of the 12 prophets?
2 There are scores of men called prophets in the Scriptures—many Bible books bear the names of prophets. As with the other prophets, the 12 men we will consider are examples of faithfulness and courage. Some of them experienced the elation of seeing their message change hearts and minds, leading people back to God. Others experienced bitter disappointment when they saw wayward ones violate Jehovah’s standards and work against his will. Some of these 12 felt the frustrating effects of complacency and self-indulgence on the part of professed worshippers of Jehovah around them.
3 Like us, these 12 prophets lived in times marked by political unrest, social upheaval, and religious decline. Since they were men “with feelings like ours,” they must have had their own fears and challenges. (James 5:17) Yet, they set good examples for us, and their messages should be remembered, being recorded in the “prophetic scriptures” for the benefit of us “upon whom the ends of the systems of things have arrived.”—Romans 15:4; 16:26; 1 Corinthians 10:11.
12 PROPHETS IN THEIR TIMES
4. What have you noted regarding the order in which the 12 prophets lived, and which ones did Jehovah first raise up to warn and motivate his people?
4 You might think that the sequence in which the books of Hosea through Malachi appear in your Bible reflects the chronological order in which these prophets lived. That is not the case. For instance, the prophets Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, and Micah all lived in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E.* During that period, many kings in both the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel were unfaithful. And their subjects followed suit, earning God’s wrath. It was at this time that the Assyrians and later the Babylonians sought to attain world domination. Little did the Israelites realize that Jehovah would use these two world powers as his executioners! You are aware, though, that God had constantly alerted Israel and Judah by means of faithful prophets.
5. What group of prophets proclaimed Jehovah’s judgment as Judah and Jerusalem faced desolation?
5 As the time for his judgment on Judah and Jerusalem drew closer, Jehovah raised up another group of forceful spokesmen. Who were in this group? The prophets Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah. They all were active during the seventh century B.C.E. The most tragic events marking that period were the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E. and the exiling of the Jews. Again, it was just as God had warned in prophecies uttered by some of these very men whom he had sent to speak for him. They had tried to alert the people to things that were wrong, such as getting drunk and carrying on violence, but the people would not change.—Habakkuk 1:2, 5-7; 2:15-17; Zephaniah 1:12, 13.
6. How did Jehovah motivate the remnant who returned from exile?
6 After God’s people returned from exile, they needed competent leadership as well as comfort and admonition to stay focused on true worship. Another group of prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—filled that need. They served in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. As you learn more about these 12 stalwart defenders of Jehovah’s sovereignty and about their work, you will discern important lessons that you can apply in your ministry during our perilous times. Let us now consider these prophets in the general order in which they served.
STRUGGLING TO RESCUE STUBBORN NATIONS
7, 8. How can Jonah’s experiences encourage us to deal with any lack of confidence?
7 Have you ever experienced a crisis of confidence, perhaps feeling that your faith is waning? If so, Jonah’s experiences are particularly valuable to you. Jonah lived in the ninth century B.C.E. You likely know that God assigned Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the ascending Assyrian Empire. Jonah was to denounce the wickedness of the Ninevites. However, instead of going to his assignment—about 550 miles (900 km) northeast of Jerusalem—Jonah boarded a ship bound for a port that was probably in Spain. Yes, he was headed 2,200 miles (3,500 km) in the opposite direction! What do you think? Was Jonah moved by fear, a temporary lapse of faith, or even resentment against any repentance the Ninevites might show and thereafter be able to express their aggression against Israel? The Bible does not tell us specifically. But we can see why we need to guard against letting our thinking go astray.
8 You know how Jonah reacted to God’s censure. When Jonah was inside “a great fish” that had swallowed him, he acknowledged: “Salvation belongs to Jehovah.” (Jonah 1:17; 2:1, 2, 9) Once miraculously rescued, Jonah carried out his commission, only to be gravely disappointed when Jehovah held back from destroying the Ninevites because they heeded Jonah’s message and repented. Jehovah again lovingly corrected the prophet, who had displayed self-centeredness. And though some might focus on Jonah’s lapses, God counted him worthy as an obedient and faithful servant.—Luke 11:29.
9. What benefits can you draw from Joel’s prophetic message?
9 Were you ever frustrated when people maligned your Bible-based message as alarmist? The message of the prophet Joel, whose name means “Jehovah Is God,” was viewed similarly by his countrymen. He appears to have recorded his prophecies in Judah about 820 B.C.E., in the days of King Uzziah. The services of Joel and of Jonah seem to have overlapped. Joel spoke of a plague of destructive locusts that would come in waves to desolate the land. Yes, God’s fear-inspiring day was near at hand. You will find, however, that Joel’s message was not all doom. On a positive note, he indicated that the faithful ‘would prove to be escaped ones.’ (Joel 2:32) Repentant ones can rejoice over Jehovah’s blessing and forgiveness. How reassuring it should be for us to bear in mind that this is part of our message too! Joel foretold that God’s active force, his holy spirit, would be poured out “on every sort of flesh.” Do you see how you are involved in that prophecy? And Joel stressed the only sure way of salvation: “Everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will get away safe.”—Joel 2:28, 32.
10. How did Jehovah use a mere seasonal laborer?
10 You can feel for Amos if you are sometimes struck by the gravity of the message we are to proclaim, usually to individuals who do not respond. Amos was neither the son of a prophet nor a part of a group of prophets; he was but a sheepherder and a seasonal laborer. He prophesied during the time of King Uzziah of Judah, close to the end of the ninth century B.C.E. Despite his humble origin, Amos (whose name means “Being a Load; Carrying a Load”) carried weighty messages directed at Judah, Israel, and surrounding nations. Does it not encourage you to know that Jehovah can enable an average man to do such significant work?
11. To what extent was Hosea willing to go in doing God’s will?
11 Have you ever asked yourself, ‘What sacrifices would I be willing to make to do Jehovah’s will?’ Think of Hosea, who lived about the time of Isaiah and Micah and who served as a prophet for some 60 years. Jehovah instructed Hosea to marry Gomer, “a wife of fornication.” (Hosea 1:2) Of the three children Gomer later bore, apparently only one was Hosea’s. Why would Jehovah ask anyone to endure the indignity of spousal infidelity? Jehovah was teaching a lesson in loyalty and forgiveness. The northern kingdom had betrayed God as an adulterous wife does her husband. Still, Jehovah would show his love for his people and try to help them repent, which certainly is heartwarming for us to consider.
12. How can you benefit from considering the example of Micah and the effects of his prophesying?
12 Do you not agree that today’s critical times challenge you in developing boldness and complete reliance on Jehovah? If you manifest these qualities, you will be like Micah. A contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah, Micah declared messages against the nations of Judah and Israel during the reigns of Judaean Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, in the eighth century B.C.E. Extreme moral corruption and idolatry had defiled Israel to the north, which suffered destruction when Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 740 B.C.E. Judah wavered between obedience and unfaithfulness to Jehovah. Despite foreboding events, Micah could draw comfort in seeing his God-given message temporarily stall Judah’s plunge into spiritual corruption and eventual disaster. How comforting it is for us to see that some do respond positively to our message of salvation!
ANTICIPATING A GATHERING STORM
13, 14. (a) How can Zephaniah’s example help you in your worship? (b) What spiritual reform did Zephaniah’s activity help bring about?
13 As the Egyptian and the Assyrian world powers were fading, Babylon was becoming more prominent. Its ascendancy would soon have dramatic effects on the nation of Judah. God’s prophets were on hand to warn and admonish Jehovah’s worshippers. Consider some of those prophets, bearing in mind that Christians today similarly preach a warning message.
14 If you have had to break from family traditions to do Jehovah’s will, you can sympathize with Zephaniah. It may be that he was a great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah and a relative of King Josiah—thus a member of Judah’s royal house. Yet, Zephaniah obediently carried a message of denunciation against the corrupt leadership in Judah. His name means “Jehovah Has Concealed.” He stressed that only by God’s mercy might one “be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3) Happily, Zephaniah’s courageous proclamation bore fruit. Young King Josiah led a spiritual reform, removing the idols, repairing the temple, and restoring pure worship. (2 Kings, chapters 22-23) Zephaniah and his fellow prophets (Nahum and Jeremiah) must have been instrumental in assisting or advising the king. Sadly, most of the Jews repented only superficially. After Josiah died in battle, they returned to idolatry. Before many years had passed, they were taken into Babylonian captivity.
15. (a) Why did Nineveh deserve the adverse message delivered by Nahum? (b) What can you learn from what happened to Nineveh?
15 You may feel that you are of no account, not one who is in the limelight. Christians have the great privilege of being “fellow workers” of God, yet personally most do not enjoy great prominence. (1 Corinthians 3:9) Similarly, we know nothing more about the prophet Nahum than that he was from a small town called Elkosh, possibly in Judah. His message, though, was weighty and important. How so? Nahum prophesied against the capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. Its people had responded favorably to Jonah’s work, but after a while they returned to their old ways. Stone carvings from the site of ancient Nineveh show that it was, as Nahum stated, a “city of bloodshed.” (Nahum 3:1) Those carvings illustrate the cruel treatment meted out to prisoners of war. In descriptive and dramatic language, Nahum foretold the complete annihilation of Nineveh. His message proved true, as will the message that we bear today.
16, 17. If our expectations about the end have not yet been fully met, what can we learn from the case of Habakkuk?
16 Over the centuries, some Bible readers have had unfulfilled expectations regarding the day of Jehovah. Others might be frustrated by the seeming delay of God’s judgment. How do you feel? Habakkuk expressed his understandable concerns, asking: “How long, O Jehovah, must I cry for help, and you do not hear? . . . Why are despoiling and violence in front of me?”—Habakkuk 1:2, 3.
17 Habakkuk prophesied during a troubled period of Judaean history, after the reign of good King Josiah but before Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 B.C.E. Injustice and violence were rampant. Habakkuk warned that siding with Egypt would not spare Judah from the bloodthirsty Babylonians. He wrote in vibrant and dramatic style, offering the comforting thought that “as for the righteous one, by his faithfulness he will keep living.” (Habakkuk 2:4) Those words must be really important for us, since the apostle Paul quoted them in three books of the Christian Greek Scriptures. (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38) Furthermore, through Habakkuk, Jehovah offers us the assurance: “The vision is yet for the appointed time . . . It will not be late.”—Habakkuk 2:3.
18. Why did Jehovah direct Obadiah to prophesy against Edom?
18 The prophet Obadiah has the distinction of penning the shortest book of the Hebrew Scriptures—just 21 verses. All we know about him is that he prophesied against Edom. The Edomites descended from Jacob’s brother, thus being the Israelites’ ‘brothers.’ (Deuteronomy 23:7) But Edom had treated God’s people in a very unbrotherly fashion. In 607 B.C.E., about when Obadiah wrote his book, they blocked the roads and handed fleeing Jews over to the enemy Babylonians. Jehovah foretold the complete desolation of Edom, a prophecy that was fulfilled. As with Nahum, we may know little about Obadiah, but how encouraging it is to realize that God can use seemingly insignificant ones as His messengers!—1 Corinthians 1:26-29.
MOTIVATING, COMFORTING, AND WARNING
19. How did Haggai help to invigorate God’s people?
19 Haggai is the first of three prophets who served after a faithful remnant returned from Babylonian exile in 537 B.C.E. Haggai may have been in the first group of returnees. With Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua and in cooperation with the prophet Zechariah, Haggai tried to motivate the Jews to overcome external opposition and their own apathy linked to materialism. They needed to accomplish what they had come back for: the rebuilding of Jehovah’s temple. Haggai’s four straightforward messages, given in 520 B.C.E., emphasized Jehovah’s name and sovereignty. As you read the book, you will find the expression “Jehovah of armies” 14 times. Haggai’s forceful messages stimulated the people to resume their temple building. Are you not similarly invigorated by knowing that Jehovah has unlimited power as Sovereign Ruler and that he commands vast armies of spirit creatures?—Isaiah 1:24; Jeremiah 32:17, 18.
20. What prevailing attitude did Zechariah fight against?
20 You may at times be disheartened by a lack of zeal evident in some who have served God. Then you can identify with the prophet Zechariah. Like his contemporary Haggai, he faced the challenge of stirring up fellow worshippers to keep at the work until the temple was completed. Zechariah worked hard to strengthen the people to tackle that monumental task. In the face of the self-indulgent attitude of the people around him, he strove to stimulate strong faith and corresponding action. And he was successful. Zechariah recorded numerous prophecies about the Christ. We too can draw strength from the message that “Jehovah of armies” will not forget people who seek his favor.—Zechariah 1:3.
IN EXPECTATION OF THE MESSIAH
21. (a) Why was Malachi’s message sorely needed? (b) With what assurance does the book of Malachi bring the Hebrew Scriptures to a close?
21 The last of the 12 prophets, Malachi, lived up to his name, which means “My Messenger.” We know little about this prophet, who lived in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. From his prophecy, however, we do know that he was a fearless spokesman who rebuked God’s people for their sins and hypocrisy. The conditions that Malachi described are very similar to those depicted by Nehemiah, likely a contemporary of Malachi. Why was Malachi’s message sorely needed? The zeal and enthusiasm that the prophets Zechariah and Haggai had stimulated some decades earlier had faded. The Jews’ spiritual state was at a very low ebb. Malachi spoke boldly against haughty and hypocritical priests, and he criticized the people for the halfhearted worship and the sacrifices that they were offering. Yet, just as God’s Word assures us of a bright outlook for the future, Malachi foretold the coming of the Messiah’s precursor, John the Baptist, and afterward of Christ himself. Malachi’s message closes the Hebrew Scriptures on a positive note, promising us that “the sun of righteousness will certainly shine forth” for those in fear of God’s name.—Malachi 4:2, 5, 6.
22. What are your observations regarding the character and the message of the 12 prophets?
22 You can see that the men who wrote the last 12 books of the Hebrew Scriptures had faith and conviction. (Hebrews 11:32; 12:1) Their example and message can teach us valuable lessons as we eagerly look forward to “Jehovah’s day.” (2 Peter 3:10) Consider now how these prophetic messages can affect your eternal future!
Compare this with the time line found on pages 20 and 21. You will see from it, for example, that both Micah and Hosea served during a period when Isaiah was a prophet of God in Jerusalem.