Excerpted from Meet the Prophets: A Beginner’s Guide to the Books of the Biblical Prophets. Used with the permission of Paulist Press.
After the Assyrian invasion of 701 (BCE), Judah‑Jerusalem became a client state of the now firmly established Assyrian empire. This fact is graphically reflected in the religious policies that seemingly prevailed there at this time during the long 45-year reign of Manasseh (687‑642). In this period, according to 2 Kings 21, not only were various Assyrian astral deities worshiped in the courtyard of the Temple there, but in the Temple itself was placed an image of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah (2 Kings 21:7).
Purists in a Dark Age
Those in Judah who remained loyal to God alone during these Judean Dark Ages — those, for example, who would have treasured the messages of the prophets we have just studied (including Isaiah ben Amoz) — must have been greatly perplexed by this turn of events.
We must imagine that many of the prophets of the next decades and centuries were also engaged with questions of this nature, in one way or another. I do want to at least summarize the messages of several minor prophets who spoke during the opening phase of what might be called the “second wave” of prophecy in Israel, during the seventh century (BCE). These are Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Obadiah.
We know virtually nothing about them as individuals except their names and where they lived. All appear to have been prophets of Jerusalem, sharing in the general theological outlook of that city. In the following comments I will focus primarily on their messages as these relate to their historical circumstances and to the legacy of hopes and prophecies of their eighth century prophetic predecessors.
Zephaniah and the Assyrian Dark Ages
The prophecies of Zephaniah reflect the apostate conditions in Jerusalem that prevailed there during the long reign of Manasseh (see the references to the worship of pagan deities in Jerusalem, in 2 Kings 21 and Zephaniah 1:4‑5), even though the editors of his book dated it to the reign of Josiah, Manasseh’s successor in Jerusalem. According to 2 Chronicles 34:3, Josiah began purging Jerusalem of its alien deities in his twelfth regnal year. Hence, Zephaniah’s prophetic activity must have occurred prior to this, although it is not impossible that he was one of those who prepared the way for these reforms.
A key feature of Zephaniah’s prophecies is his prediction of the demise of Assyria (2:13‑15). With this he was saying in effect that what Isaiah had already foretold — Assyria’s eventual humiliation– is now soon to take place, and with a vengeance appropriate to Assyria’s criminal behavior. However, Zephaniah does not share Isaiah’s earlier optimism that this would be followed by a spectacular renascence in Jerusalem of righteousness and peace. In fact, his conviction is that yet another purging judgment will be necessary before this can happen. Like Amos (see Amos 5:18‑28), Zephaniah announced a fearful “day of Yahweh” (1:7) that will sweep across the face of the whole earth (1:2, 14‑18) and purge it of its evil.
In Zephaniah the aspirations of the Yahweh loyalists in Jerusalem during the waning years of the Assyrian Dark Ages found a voice. Despite the apostasy that surrounded them, and the doubts they themselves might have had about Assyrian control and influence in their region, they were still confident that Yahweh was God and the words of his prophets were true. Assyria’s demise, though delayed, was certain, just as Isaiah had predicted. However, fresh insight was needed regarding what would follow that demise. Yet additional terrors would have to befall his city, Zephaniah came to believe, before that new age of righteousness Isaiah had also spoken of would actually dawn.
Nahum–A New Age Coming
Another who represented the Yahweh-believing circles of Jerusalem during the fading away of the Assyrian Dark Ages was the prophet Nahum. His oracles also reflect a familiarity with those of Isaiah, especially his words regarding the demise of Assyria. Isaiah, it will be remembered, had spoken of this as of a yoke that would be lifted one day from Judean shoulders (9:4).
Nahum repeated this prophecy in almost identical terms: “. . . for now I shall break his yoke which presses hard on you, and snap your chains” (1: 13). For him, as for Isaiah, this stupendous event will usher in a new era of peace and righteousness. So real were his expectations in this regard that he could already “see on the mountains the feet of the herald” hurrying to bring news of it:
“Peace!” he proclaims. Judah, celebrate your feasts, carry out your vows, for Beliel [Assyria] will never pass through you again; he has been utterly destroyed (2: 1).
He is certain that with this event Yahweh’s purposes for Israel will have been achieved. Having once been made to suffer, Judah will be made to suffer no more (1: 12). The utter annihilation of Assyria (2:2‑3:19), was thus for him more than a demonstration of the truth that though slow to anger Yahweh is “great in power” and will not let evil go unpunished (1:2‑3). It will also mark a new stage in salvation history. With Assyria’s demise a new age will dawn for Judah (2:1). Unlike Zephaniah he did not think that further punishments or judgments would be necessary.
Habakkuk–Grappling with Divine Choices
Habakkuk, who prophesied somewhat later than either Nahum or Zephaniah‑-at a time when the Babylonians were already threatening to replace the Assyrians as the major power of the ancient Near East (1:6; perhaps as late as the fall of Assyria, in 612, or the death of Josiah, in 609) ‑-speaks to these same issues in a somewhat more philosophical manner. It has been conjectured that he may have been a prophet by profession‑‑one who was attached to the Jerusalem temple for the purpose of receiving or “incubating” oracles there–as his words in 2:1 seem to imply:
I will stand at my post,
I shall station myself on my watch‑tower,
watching to see what he will say to me,
what answer he will make to my complaints.
The problem that perturbs him is the divine rationale behind the raising up of a people as fierce and amoral as the Babylonians (see his critique of them in 2:5‑20) as an instrument of punishment and justice against a people better than they (1:12‑13). This alerts us to the fact that already in this period the prophetic slant on history as the arena of divine action in judgment was beginning to pose problems. Later on intellectuals in Israel would grapple with such questions more and more (see Job and Ecclesiastes, for example).
It appears that Habakkuk could not find an intellectually satisfying solution to the issue he posed, but concluded, nevertheless, that the “upright” need not lose faith, but should persevere and wait patiently for the outworking of Yahweh’s purposes (2:1‑4). However, his book has very little concretely to say about what that “outworking” might look like eventually. In this regard, one might say, Habakkuk appears to have been much more tentative about the future than were Nahum and Zephaniah.
Obadiah–Pulling Down Edom
The message of Obadiah, the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible, is again more in line with Isaiah and Nahum, in that he believed fervently in the survival of a righteous remnant in Jerusalem‑‑one that would become the nucleus of a new and powerful people in a restored Zion (verses 17‑18). The historical context of this prophecy appears to have been the aftermath of Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon, in 586 (see verse 11), when the Edomites to the south took advantage of the plight of their “brother Jacob” and mistreated him (verses 10‑14).
Obadiah is vehement about the ruin that will befall the Edomites because of this (vv. 16, 18), and envisions the triumph of the “House of Jacob” (and hence the triumph of Yahweh from Mount Zion‑ verse 21) as a reconquest of the land of Canaan (verses 19‑21).
Applying of Isaiah’s Words to Israel’s Future
These more or less minor prophetic voices give testimony to the seriousness with which certain circles in Jerusalem were attending to the words of the eighth century prophets a century later (and to the words of Isaiah in particular). At the same time they also indicate the extent to which that legacy had proven to be problematical. All shared Isaiah’s certainty of Assyria’s eventual demise and of the promise of a new era beyond that demise. But precisely when this would occur and what, exactly, would then happen–regarding this there appears to have been considerable confusion.
Some (notably Habakkuk) were frankly perplexed at the way events were unfolding. They were sure that God was still working things out, but that was about all. Others (notably Zephaniah) foresee yet additional catastrophes of cosmic proportions coming upon Judah, before a brighter future will dawn for the inhabitants of Judah‑Jerusalem. The thoughts of still others (notably Nahum and Obadiah) are much more hopeful. They believed that a (renewed) Davidic state would soon arise, and when it did, God’s sovereignty and peace would be manifest in history as never before.