Prepare for the Day of the Lord
Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Malachi 3:16–4:6; Mark 9:2-13
Nahum, written in the late 7th century BC, is a message directed against the city of Nineveh and its forthcoming downfall. The imagery is violent and graphic – unpleasant reading!
Cast your minds back to the stories of 1 and 2 Kings. Remember the kingdom split after Solomon, with northern tribes of Israel and Judah in the south. Who destroyed the north and took them off into exile? Assyria.
The Assyrians were all about brute strength and violence. The way they tortured their victims was horrific. Nineveh was their capital city. So in Nahum’s harsh prophecy against Nineveh it’s as if he’s saying, “You’re going to get a taste of your own medicine.”
But the purpose of Nahum’s message is to comfort his own people. “You’re violent oppressors will get their comeuppance.” Nahum means ‘comforter’, and like Daniel, he’s saying the nations are accountable for their actions. Nahum believes in God’s protectiveness of his beloved people, and that he takes a stand against those who hurt them.
Habakkuk’s book is full of questions: Why do the righteous suffer? What qualifies as wickedness?
Even more interesting, Habakkuk is not afraid question the traditional interpretations of why disasters came upon Israel and Judah: “Was it really God who sent foreign armies to punish us for our crimes? The crimes of those armies are worse than those of Israel and Judah, so how can this be called God’s just judgement?”
People who ask today, “Why is their so much suffering and injustice in the world?” are in good company with Habakkuk. But not when they use that question as an excuse to avoid God.
Habakkuk turned his questions into passionate prayer, calling on God to act as he had done in times past (3:2), ‘O Lord, I’ve heard of your renown,and I stand in awe of your work O Lord. In our own time, revive it – make it known!’ He pictures this as a great future event called the Day of the Lord (chapter 3) on which the Lord, like a mighty warrior, will come to save his people.
The very last line is an instruction to the choirmaster to use stringed instruments, which indicates Habakkuk was sung liturgically as a hymn – showing, like the Psalms – that the language of the Bible is a constant resource for our own prayers.
Zephaniah was active during the time of Josiah – one of the good kings who reigned in Jerusalem around the year 622 BC (see 2 Kings 22).
On an epic scale, Zephaniah describes the climax of all things (chapter 1) in preparation for the great Day of the Lord, which Zephaniah sees as a huge judgement scene – everyone is brought together and is held to account for all they’ve done.
But that’s not all there is to the Day of the Lord. Zephaniah ends with a beautiful hymn to the city of Zion, calling her ‘beloved daughter’, telling her to sing & shout for joy because all her enemies have gone away, and a startling image the Lord (3:17) bursting with joy and singing loudly over her.
Haggai is set in the days after Babylon has fallen, and Darius rules most of the middle east as king of Persia. So this is the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (around 520 BC), and the exiles are returning from Babylon back to Jerusalem, deliberating about building the temple. And Haggai’s message is simply, “Yes, of course you should rebuild the temple! Get on with it!”
(1:4) ‘Is it a time for you to live in your panelled houses while this house [the temple] lies in ruins?’
Churches often use Haggai when they want to do a grand building project. I’m not convinced that’s what Haggai is meant for (!), but his message does challenge us about our priorities with regards to our own houses and our places of worship. If we spend time and money on our own houses, do we take the same care of our churches? If we don’t, who’s going to?
Zechariah was around about the same time as Haggai and addresses similar issues. He’s one of the most influential of the Minor Prophets on the New Testament, quoted or referenced around 71 times.
The first half of the book has eight visions, all occurring at night, and lots of their content will appear later, in John’s Revelation (such as the four horsemen).
Zechariah sees visions of fire, clouds, and glory which remind us of Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai. He sees golden lamps and olive trees (chapter 4) symbolising new anointed leadership; and a flying scroll (chapter 5) which is the word of the Lord in materialized form.
He sees a priest, Joshua (chapter 3) accused by Satan of being unclean and unfit for his job, but God dresses him in clean robes, which means he’s saved, purified and vindicated. That’s why many times in the New Testament (especially in Revelation), the people of Christ are depicted in white robes. That’s another reason why people were traditionally baptised in white robes.
The second section of Zechariah (chapters 9–14) depicts significant world events in dramatic imagery. The big theme again, is the great ‘Day of the Lord’, which means all the earth is judged, and God’s people saved. It’s no accident that in this section, we see a host of texts which inform some key moments in Jesus’ ministry:
- (9:9) the triumphant, humble king, riding on a donkey; who brings peace to the nations, and rules from sea to sea. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, he knew what he was doing. So did everyone else!
- (12:10) a vision of Jerusalem mourning because of the one they have pierced.
- (13:7) a vision of the Lord’s shepherd struck, and his sheep scattered – cited in the gospels when Jesus is arrested.
Malachi (his identity is somewhat a mystery), is concerned about the spiritual health of his people. His oracles address the questionable practices of God’s people who really aren’t putting their heart into their worship, their offerings, or their marriages.
But underlying all this is God’s great love for his people (‘I have loved you! – 1:2), and that’s why he’s concerned about them. In fact, the Lord himself is going to visit them, he will suddenly come to his temple (3:1) and it will be (again) the great ‘Day of the Lord’, and when that day comes it will be like ‘the sun of righteousness risen with healing in its wings’ (4:2 – a line which finds its way into the carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing).
But a messenger will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his way. Malachi calls him Elijah (which is why Jews often leave a spare seat at the dining table for Elijah). So the Old Testament ends on a huge cliffhanger! When will this messenger come, heralding the Lord’s day?
We open the New Testament and there’s John the Baptist is preparing the way of the Lord. He is the Elijah-messenger, says Jesus.
The big theme of these last six Minor Prophets is ‘the Day of the Lord’, and it’s so often about the Lord’s taking vengeance and judgement in power and might.
But what I find most compelling, is the that when it came to Jesus and him enacting the Day of the Lord in his ministry, it didn’t involve him taking up the sword or raising an army or inflicting worldwide vengeance.
- It meant him bringing an end to the cycle of violence by taking it all into himself, sucking in the poison as it were;
- absorbing the judgement and vengeance in himself on the cross,
- and exhausting it in the power and epic scope of his own love.
- His throne of judgement was the cross, and with his arms stretched wide, it’s as if he says: this is what the world does to true goodness… but Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
- But then he rises from the dead, vindicated, and his followers are told to deliver this message to the world, that Christ is the place in which we are judged, forgiven, cleansed and healed, and in which we find our peace.
- We will return to these themes more in our New Testament series!
Sermon by Rev James Pettit on 23rd August 2015