June 18, 2024

A Guide to Understanding the Minor Prophets

By Angela Ekstrum

Most of us are familiar with the epic life and legacy of Israel’s most renowned leader, Moses. We know him as the one who turned aside at the burning bush, when he received his divine call from God. He became God’s mouthpiece when he stood before Pharaoh and issued the infamous command to let my people go. As God’s chosen mediator, Moses marched the children of Israel right out of Egypt to the tune of ten nature-defying plagues. Through this incredible display of grace, God invited them into covenant relationship. Moses then scaled the mountain to meet with God and returned with the law, providing boundaries and clarity for life lived in the covenant.

We often remember Moses for his leadership and his role in Israel’s deliverance, but what about his role as Israel’s first and greatest prophet? While every prophet is unique, Moses set the standard of what to look for when the LORD promised that he would send prophets like him to communicate his word. (Ex. 34:10; Deut. 18:18).

What are Prophets?

Your first thought may be to think of prophets as predictors – those who foretell the future. Certainly, we do see predictions but that wasn’t their primary function. The term prophet refers to “one who speaks for another.” Remember when Moses tries to disqualify himself before God citing slowness of speech? Whatever the problem was, the LORD dismissed his objection but allowed Aaron, his brother, to speak for Moses and later calls him Moses’ prophet. (Ex. 3:10-14; 7:1).

The Prophets then, first and foremost, are a mouthpiece for God.

They operate as his representatives, which means their messages are constrained to what God wants them to communicate.

There was no public selection process to become a prophet, no community vote, and your resume and references wouldn’t have helped either. In fact, the prophetic call was the sovereign choice of God. He and he alone chose the prophet. But you might ask, how did people know if this person was truly sent by God? The test of their divine call rested solely on their prophecy coming true and if one dared to speak on behalf of God falsely, the consequence was death (Deut. 18:20).

Why would God need a representative?

The nature of prophecy all connects back to the stipulations of the covenant first established by God with the people of Israel. There, we see God as the gracious lawgiver and the one who outlines the terms of the relationship. Our first prophet, Moses, acting as God’s mouthpiece, gives us the paradigm for how the prophetic role functioned. He reminds the Israelites to be faithful to their part deal according to the covenant terms. In doing so, they would continue to experience the corporate blessings God promised. On the other hand, he also warns them that violations of the law will invite punishment. Moses was like a covenant watchdog for the sake of the people.

Now, apply all of this to the writings of the prophets. God might use his representative like a prosecuting attorney who is bringing before the court a violation of the law. The expectation is that people will listen to the attorney, recognize their sin, repent and turn back. Should the people ignore his representative, we can expect the violators to suffer the consequences. On the other hand, God might use a representative to remind his people of his character and the blessing he has in store for them. God sent prophet after prophet, fulfilling what he said he would do back in Deuteronomy 18, reminding his people of who he is and who they are in relationship to him.

While we all love Moses, the biblical prophets are, well… of the unique variety.

They likely didn’t make your invite list for the Sunday barbecue. Much of their “uniqueness” had to do with the way their message from God was communicated. Sometimes it was with words, and other times it was with “sign-acts” which were symbolic and non-verbal. Like when Isaiah walked naked for 3 years or when Ezekiel baked bread over human waste. Weird! Clearly, God used them to wake people up and get their attention, and like any good communicator, they used whatever means necessary to get the message across.

While there were hundreds of prophets active during Israel’s history, only sixteen had their writings recorded as Scripture. Four of those writings are lengthy, averaging upwards of 40+ chapters, which is why they came to be known as the Major Prophets. The twelve shorter works average more like 6 chapters which is why they are known as the Minor Prophets. Historically, they were grouped together on one scroll, and known as the book of the twelve.

How do we understand the minor prophets?

Understanding these writings can be challenging! Not only because of their dense, poetic language but also because of our historical and cultural distance to their lived experience. Let’s face it, when coming to the Bible, we should expect to go on a cross-cultural journey back in time. This is where you and I get to reach down into our hermeneutical toolbox and – wait, herma what? I know, it sounds a little intimidating, but it’s essentially talking about the process of interpreting the Bible. By learning and practicing these tools, we all can become better Bible readers and interpreters. So, which tool do we need first?

Exegesis: Understanding the Original Meaning

The first step is exegesis where we aim to uncover, to the best of our ability, the author’s original meaning. That means that we need to understand their historical context and to do that well we need to ask questions that help us close the gap. For the minor prophets, this little step is the entry point to grasping what these writings are all about.

We begin by asking three key questions:

  1.             When was this written?
  2.             Where did they live?
  3.             Who were they talking to?


This is where it can get a bit tricky because the writings of the Minor Prophets span 300+ years of Israel’s tumultuous history marked by political and social upheaval, division, military crisis, and repeated covenant violations – oh, and a couple of exiles too.

Navigating the Historical Landscape

With that said, we need a tool that will help us navigate the complicated historical landscape more easily. Let’s call it the “history GPS.” Here’s the trick: once you memorize a few key events, you will be able to quickly locate where this prophet’s writing fits in history.


Israel moves from the tribal culture seen in Judges and begins to unite under Saul, who is appointed as their first king. Unity is short-lived and lasts only for the first three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon.


Under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the kingdom is fractured by civil war and the tribes split into two distinct countries.

Israel (the northern kingdom) consists of ten of the tribes, who are ruled by a series of kings.

Judah (the southern kingdom) consists of two of the tribes, ruled by the Davidic dynasty.


In 722 BC, the Assyrians capture the capital of Israel and defeat the north. The ten tribes are relocated and never return home.


The Babylonian dynasty, now the strongest superpower in the area, becomes an instrument of God’s judgment. In 586 BC, after God sends numerous prophets and second chances, Judah is defeated, and the people are carried off into exile.


Babylon fell to the newest dominant political power led by Cyrus the Great of Persia. A faithful remnant is preserved in Judah and Cyrus permits the Jews to return home.

There is a lot of history wrapped up in these events, featuring a wide cast of political, military, and priestly figures.


Back to our key questions to cut through the historical weeds:

  1.             Did this prophet minister before or after one of the exiles?
  2.             Was this prophet from Israel in the north or Judah in the south
  3.             Who did the prophet direct their message towards?

Some other helpful questions might include:

  1.             What covenant violation are they accused of?
  2.             What are the predicted consequences?
  3.             What promise do they need to be reminded of?

    God’s Unwavering Commitment

In reflecting on the profound nature of the prophets as God’s chosen mouthpieces, it becomes evident that God’s faithfulness and compassion shine through even in the face of human forgetfulness and failure. It is this exact picture in view when Moses asked to see God’s glory.

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. -Exodus 34:6-7a NIV

This moment comes right on the heels of Israel’s disastrous covenant failure in the golden calf event and serves as a powerful reminder to us all of God’s unwavering commitment!

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