Waiting for the return of the King: at the end of the First Testament

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Today’s is the third of three posts looking at the so-called minor prophets. It brings to a close my whistle-stop tour of the First, or Old Testament for those who are trying to understand better what they read in their Sunday assemblies. Today’s four prophets are Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Zephaniah

Zephaniah tells us that his ministry was in the reign of Josiah. Since he attacks polytheism and idolatry, and condemns priests for breaking the law, perhaps he not only prophesies before Josiah attempts his reform, but is one of those whose ministry makes that reform possible.1

For Zephaniah, the day of the Lord will be a judgement that will purify Jerusalem, and put an end to idols. He concludes with a hopeful promise of the restoration of Jerusalem in which God himself will be king, dancing in celebration with his people as he renews them. It is this final prophecy of joy which is read in both lectionaries.2

Haggai

Haggai is one of two prophets stirring the people to rebuild the temple after their return from exile.3 The political and religious institutions are rather shaky: neither the governor nor the high priest seem to be getting much done. God’s blessing on the returned exiles will not come while they are all putting the rebuilding of their own houses ahead of the rebuilding of the house of God. No Sunday readings come from this brief book.

Detail from a woodcut by Gustave Doré, via Wikimedia: Jesus enacting Zechariah’s prophecy

Zechariah

Zechariah is the longest of these minor prophets. He shares much of the same context as Haggai. His work falls into two main sections. The first, chapters 1-8, like Haggai, is concerned with the rebuilding programme. However, he also has more of a focus on the moral rebuilding of the nation, banning all those who steal and commit perjury from the land. His style is difficult, and he outlines his message drawing on slightly obscure visions. Just judgment is the root from which peace grows.

While there are hopes that the post-exilic rulers will be like a new David in the first section of the book, these messianic hopes become more evident in the second part. Chapters 1-8 contain precise dates and are more obviously about historical events. Chapters 9-14 lack such clear dates and are not organised around the interpretation of visions. Perhaps they are a later attempt to re-interpret the message of the first half as a universal vision of judgement.

Both parts end with a conviction that Jerusalem will be an international centre for the worship of YHWH, as even Israel’s enemies come to pay tribute. The only Sunday reading shared by both lectionaries includes the famous verse from early in this second part of the book. It was read by the early Christians as a prophecy of Palm Sunday, following the lead given them by Jesus, who may well be deliberately dramatising this scripture to say something about himself as king.4

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9.9 NRSV

Malachi

The final book of the Old Testament, Malachi, also comes from the period after the exile. The temple has been rebuilt, but what concerns Malachi is that the priests are not being faithful in their worship or their teaching. Malachi doesn’t simply want a rebuilt temple, he wants – God wants – a renewed one that shows faithfulness in all aspects of life. The priests could start by being honest with their sacrifices and tithes. But when God truly visits his temple, will they be ready for him?

Two key verses from Malachi, interpreted as messianic prophecies, drive the selection of two readings from this prophet in the lectionary. The first is the promise that the sun of righteousness will rise bringing healing.5 It is a powerfully poetic image, that just as the rising sun spreads it’s light out across the whole horizon, so God’s coming will spread healing over the face of the earth. The second is the promise that the Lord will suddenly come to his temple.6

The book finishes with a prophecy of the final coming of Elijah, before the final return of YHWH to his people in glory and judgment. It is this, I think, which ensured the Christian order of the Old Testament, moving the Prophets to follow the Writings instead of leaving them between Torah and Writings. John the Baptist seems to have portrayed himself in such a way that people might wonder if he was this Elijah-figure. Jesus seems to have affirmed that he was.

It means the Old Testament concludes with the prophecy that God will send Elijah first, before he himself returns. Then the New Testament jumps straight in with the messenger John, coming as Elijah to herald the return of the king.


Notes

  1. For a little more on Josiah’s reform, see this post on 1 & 2 Kings
  2. Year C, the Third Sunday of Advent. It is also the first reading for the festival of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.
  3. We looked at this time in history (and a little later) when reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is also the same period as the next book we shall look at: Zechariah.
  4. It is the Old Testament reading for Year A, Proper 9, the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Matthew, famously, interprets it rather woodenly, and seems to describe Jesus sitting on both donkey and colt at the same time.
  5. Year C, the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, or 2nd Sunday before Advent. (Based on differences between the Hebrew tradition and the Greek / Latin one, Malachi has different verse numbering in the ecumenical and Roman Catholic selection, but is the same reading.)
  6. The Feast of the Presentation, Years A, B & C. Malachi 3:1-4 may also be used by Protestants as an alternative reading to Baruch for Year C, Advent 2

One thought on “Waiting for the return of the King: at the end of the First Testament

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #167: December 2019 – Scribes of the Kingdom

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