While most of the Minor Prophets conducted their ministries in Israel and Judah before both nations fell in war and their populations were exiled to foreign lands, the final three—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—prophesied in Judea after a remnant of Jews, Levites, and Benjamites returned from captivity in Babylon. Their return became possible only after Babylon fell to an invading army of Medes and Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, followed a policy of returning exiled peoples to their homelands, and Jews were able to take advantage of his benevolence. Moreover, the seventy years of Judah's exile, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10), were complete.
A shorter version of Cyrus' 538 BC decree appears in II Chronicles 36:23 (the longer one is quoted in Ezra 1:2-4):
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!
Not only did he allow the Jews to go back to Judah, but he also returned the silver and gold Temple items plundered by Nebuchadnezzar from Jerusalem. Ezra 1:6 adds that the returnees' neighbors "encouraged them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered." They left well-provisioned and with plenty of wealth to make a good start in resettling Judah.
The return took place under two or three different leaders at two separate times. The first group of about 50,000 people made its journey to the land of Judah within the year of Cyrus' decree to return to Jerusalem. Biblical scholars are unsure about the leadership of this first return because Ezra mentions both Sheshbazzar, a prince of Judah (Ezra 1:8, 11), and the better-known Zerubbabel, himself a grandson of Jeconiah/Coniah/Jehoiachin (Ezra 2:2; I Chronicles 3:17-19). Confusing matters further, a "Shenazzar"—possibly an alternate spelling of "Sheshbazzar"—appears in the genealogy in I Chronicles 3, making Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel uncle and nephew. They may have been two distinct individuals, with Sheshbazzar, dying soon after his arrival in Judah, being succeeded by Zerubbabel. Some, however, believe that both of these names identify the same person, the first being his official Persian name and the second his personal Hebrew name. No definitive solution has been put forward.
Though undoubtedly enthusiastic about returning from their three-generations-long exile, the Jews soon faltered in their primary responsibility of rebuilding the House of God. They rebuilt the altar just before the Feast of Tabernacles in 537 BC, laying the foundation for the Temple in the second month of the following year. Yet, due to local opposition, all building ceased by about 530 BC, and it did not resume for ten years. Only the prodding of God through Haggai to rouse the people to action, as well as a favorable decision by the Persian emperor, Darius I (Ezra 6:1-15), enabled them to finish the Temple in 516 BC.
The second group to return to Judah traveled under the leadership of Ezra, a priest and a scribe, about a half-century later (457 BC). Though Artaxerxes bestowed him with sufficient funds and authority to revive the Jewish remnant in Judah, only a few thousand exiles decided to return with him. Upon arriving, Ezra took up his task of reforming his spiritually lax brethren, particularly in their marriages to non-Jewish women (Ezra 9-10).
A dozen years later, Nehemiah, Artaxerxes' cupbearer, requested permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its wall. The emperor appointed him as governor of Judah, and he and a few companions made the long journey from Susa to Jerusalem. Under Nehemiah's leadership and enthusiasm, the wall was raised in 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15), despite opposition from political rivals, wealthy Jews oppressing the poor, and false accusations of rebellion against Persia. Just after the Feast of Tabernacles that year, the Jews rededicated themselves to the covenant with God (Nehemiah 9-10). Nehemiah spent much of his remaining time as governor supporting Ezra's reforms, including the collecting of tithes, the maintaining of the Temple, and the keeping of the Sabbath.
The prophet Zechariah ("the LORD remembers"), a priest from a prominent family, identifies himself as "the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo" (Zechariah 1:1). The latter, Zechariah's grandfather, returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC (Nehemiah 12:4), and he, it seems, had a lasting influence on young Zechariah (see Ezra 5:1, where the prophet is called "the son of Iddo"). Zechariah began his ministry in Jerusalem in "the second year of Darius" (Zechariah 1:1), 520 BC, and his last, dated prophecy (Zechariah 7-8) came to him just two years later. Most conservative scholars believe that the undated prophecies in chapters 9-14 are later, given to him perhaps early in the next century.
As just mentioned, the book—at fourteen chapters, equal to Hosea, the longest of the Minor Prophets—divides neatly into two parts. The first eight chapters make up the first part, which can be further split according to its eight visions and two longer discourses. In many ways, the visions resemble those the apostle John received on the Isle of Patmos and recorded in the book of Revelation. In general, they are symbolic representations of what God is doing and prophecies of what He will do. Most of them contain messages that Zechariah's contemporaries could apply to their situation in Judah—messages of hope and mercy for the Jews and oppression and judgment on their enemies. They also contain antitypical prophecies for the end time, for instance, the vision of the olive trees (Zechariah 4:3, 11-14), which Revelation 11:4 identifies as the Two Witnesses.
Chapters 7 and 8 contain two discourses that provide lasting instruction for God's people. The first concentrates on the subject of obedience. The question of continuing to fast to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem had come up. God replies, "When you fasted and mourned . . . during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? . . . Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets . . .?" (Zechariah 7:5, 7). He goes on to say that their forefathers' disobedience directly caused their captivity.
The second discourse is a long prophecy that predicts that Jerusalem will one day be restored as a holy city, where God will return to dwell. It quickly becomes apparent that He is looking far into the future, the time of the end, when He will bring all of Israel back to the Promised Land, and they will once again be His people (Zechariah 8:7-8). The just-returned remnant of Judah is only a type of what will happen when God acts to restore Israel in the soon-coming Millennium.
The last six chapters form the second part of Zechariah's prophecy, which is itself divided into two "burdens." The first burden spans chapters 9-11. It begins with a warning to surrounding nations that God will defend His people, and not only that, a King is coming to save them. Chapter 10 prophesies that Judah and Israel will be regathered and restored, and they will return to Him. This is followed by the enigmatic chapter 11, a prophecy or a parable that concentrates on the shepherds (leaders) of God's people, broadly indicating that God will hold abusive leaders accountable for their perfidy and their irresponsibility in doing their duties.
The remaining chapters (12-14) comprise the second burden. Chapter 12 foretells how end-time events will revolve around Jerusalem, but despite the madness surrounding them, God will save the people of Judah. He will show them grace, and they will respond by accepting the Messiah, the One "whom they pierced" (Zechariah 12:10), mourning what they have done. The next chapter continues their reform, as idolatry is eliminated throughout the land. It ends with a prophecy of the Shepherd who is struck down and His sheep scattered, yet in the end, after horrific testing, the people return to God. Finally, chapter 14 famously recounts the events of the Day of the Lord, when Christ descends to defeat His enemies and set up His Kingdom on earth.
Of all the Minor Prophets, Zechariah contains perhaps the most Messianic prophecies and allusions. In addition to those that have already been mentioned, Christ is called "My Servant the BRANCH" in Zechariah 3:8 and "the Man whose name is the BRANCH" in Zechariah 6:12. The well-known prophecy of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey appears in Zechariah 9:9-10. Though these references were not well understood at the time, we understand them as clear prophecies of Jesus Christ.
The short book of Malachi completes the twelve books of the Minor Prophets, and chronologically, he is most likely the latest of them. The prophecy is nowhere dated, but the subject matter—predominantly about the priesthood, but also about marriage and tithing—fix the book to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, thus to about 450-430 BC. Malachi means "my messenger," and after that, we know nothing about this prophet, not even if he was a priest. Jewish tradition claims that he was a member of the Great Synagogue, and the Targum of Jonathan asserts without further proof that Malachi was Ezra writing anonymously.
Most of Malachi's prophecy is a stern rebuke of the priesthood and the Jews for failing to honor God and follow His commands. Instead of revering God by conscientiously following His instructions, the priests were irresponsible in their duties to the point of profaning the altar with defiled offerings and considering their sacrificial duties to be wearying. God responds by promising to send a curse on these corrupt priests for causing the people to "stumble at the law" (Malachi 2:8-9).
Malachi then turns to the people, whose own practices were no better. They were treacherous toward each other, and in no place was this more evident than in their marriages with "the daughter[s] of a foreign god" (Malachi 2:11). The men of Judah were divorcing their Jewish wives to marry women who worshipped idols. God tells them "that He hates divorce" (Malachi 2:16) and that they should be careful not to break their vows because "the Messenger of the covenant . . . is coming" (Malachi 3:1) to refine them and purge them of sin. Now is the time to repent.
The prophet then reminds them that failure to tithe is tantamount to robbing God (Malachi 3:8). However, if they would once again give Him His portion, He would bless them. The people respond by complaining that they see no profit in following God, since the wicked seem to prosper. The third chapter ends with God's response, a prophecy that those who fear Him are His special treasure, to whom He will give true discernment (Malachi 3:16-18).
The final chapter is a short prophecy about the Day of the Lord. It promises to be a time of annihilation for "all who do wickedly" (Malachi 4:1), but those who fear God will see the return of "the Sun of Righteousness" (verse 2), who will bring healing, blessing, and exaltation. Malachi closes with an exhortation to remember God's law (verse 4) and to look for "Elijah the prophet," who will turn the hearts of both fathers and children (verses 5-6). In just a few words, this exhortation provides a link between the Old and New Testaments.
Preparing the Way for Christ
With Malachi's final words, the Old Testament canon closes, and no further words of Scripture will be penned for nearly five hundred years, when the earliest epistles of Paul inspired the Galatians and Thessalonians. This Intertestamental Period proved a tumultuous time for Judean Jews, as empires fought over Palestine, the strategic land-bridge between Africa and Asia.
Though the Persian Empire held sway over the land of Judah when Malachi wrote, its hegemony was already being challenged in Anatolia (Asia Minor) by the upstart Greeks. The battles of Marathon (490 BC), Salamis (480 BC), Plataea (479 BC), and Mycale (479 BC) marked the end of Persian expansion into Europe. Beginning in 412 BC, Darius II used political and monetary means to influence existing inter-Greek rivalries, supporting one city-state then another to keep them occupied at home. His heir, Artaxerxes II, and his successors kept the Greeks at bay while the Persian Empire declined amid its own infighting and rebellions in various places.
Matters changed drastically with the invasion of Greek armies under Alexander of Macedon in 334 BC. After subduing Asia Minor, he turned south, defeating Darius III at the Battle of Issus (333 BC) and taking possession of Syria and the Levantine coast down to Tyre, where he was forced to set up a siege. Though this delayed him, he overcame Tyre's resistance by building a causeway out to the island refuge and put all the men to the sword. Except for Gaza, which he besieged and defeated, the rest of Palestine capitulated, including Jerusalem, in 332 BC. By 330 BC, he had not only taken Egypt, but he had also conquered all the Persian Empire to the borders of India.
Alexander, however, died before he could set up a unifying government over all the lands he had subdued. After his death in June of 323 BC, because he had no legitimate heir, his empire soon fell into turmoil. Forty years of war ensued among the Diadochi ("The Successors") before a four-way division of his empire was settled: Egypt under Ptolemy, Syria and the East under Seleucus, Asia Minor and Thrace under Lysimachus, and Macedonia under Antipater and later Antigonus. These Hellenistic kingdoms dominated these lands for the next 200-300 years.
During this time, Judah lay between Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria, and between 323-166 BC, its possession was hotly contested, as Daniel 11 testifies. From about 175 BC, when Antiochus Epiphanes came to the Syrian throne, the Jews suffered many religious and military outrages. These led to the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC, led by the priest Matthias and his sons, who defeated the Syrians in a series of battles, securing the Jews' independence. The Maccabees—Judas, Jonathan, and Simon—and then the Hasmonean dynasty, Simon's descendants, ruled Judah until Roman dominance under Pompey overcame it in 63 BC.
This march of history set the stage for the birth of Christ, born late in the reign of Herod the Great, an Idumean (Edomite) client-king of Rome. During this time, the religion of the Jews had calcified into a judgmental, law-obsessed distortion of the way of life revealed by God in the Old Testament. It had also splintered into several major factions, among them the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Zealots, with which Jesus contended during His ministry. Because of the prophecies, many from the Minor Prophets as we have seen, the Jews were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, but due to their many misunderstandings, when He came, "His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11), condemning Him to Roman execution by crucifixion.
Just as Jesus Himself confirmed to His disciples that the Old Testament prophesied of Him (Luke 24:44), in meeting the Minor Prophets we, too, have been directed repeatedly to Christ. In coming to know Him, we have the promise of eternal life in God's Kingdom.