Interview (Part 1) with Richard Alan Fuhr Jr., and Gary E. Yates, authors of THE MESSAGE OF THE TWELVE: HEARING THE VOICE OF THE MINOR PROPHETS

Published on February 14, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

B&H, 2016 | 384 pages

What do you know about the Minor Prophets? Have you read them more than once? What are they all about?

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today to Drs. Alan Fuhr and Gary Yates, authors of the new book, The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets. It’s not every day we see a new book on this portion of the Bible, and we’re happy to have these men with us.

Al, Gary – welcome! And thanks for talking to us today.

Fuhr & Yates:
Hello, Fred, glad to be with you.

 

Zaspel:
What was the role of the prophets in Old Testament Israel?

Fuhr:
We cover that briefly in the second chapter of the book on the role of the 12, and of course this applies as much to the major prophets as it does to the minor prophets. There’s not much of a distinction so far as their role in ancient Israel is concerned. The way that we divided it up is very simply as two broad categories: the prophets as forth-tellers, and the prophets as fore-tellers. I think this comes as a bit of a shock to some folks who are new to the Bible, who expect the prophets as prophets to simply be foretellers of the future. They certainly do that and we see plenty of examples of them doing that even among the 12 minor prophets, but I think we first need to think of them as preachers in their day, as forth-tellers who would come out and call out Israel and the people of Israel and Judah for their sins and proclaim God’s judgment against them and God’s anger or his displeasure for their behavior. So they come as preachers in that regard and they speak to a contemporary audience in their ancient context in that way. And I think they function in the same way today as preachers of truth, preachers of justice and such; and many of their messages in that sense can be applied directly to our environment and our situation, our contemporary audience of this day.

Yates:
I think the other thing that I would add is that all of a sudden we have these writing prophets that appear in Israel in about the eighth century. The nation been disobedient to God for hundreds and hundreds of years. They are calling the nation to account for their covenant unfaithfulness to God and in some sense, in a last-ditch effort, God is sending these prophets to try to get the people to realize that if they don’t repent, judgment is on its way. So they have this role, their message is very emotional, very urgent and I think that’s partly and due in light of the historical setting in which they come, calling the people back to the Lord and they basically ran out of opportunities. If repentance doesn’t come now, then the Lord is prepared to judge his people by sending them away into exile.

 

Zaspel:
How did the Jews originally refer to what we call the Minor Prophets? And where did we get the label, “Minor Prophets,” for these 12 books?

Yates:
I think, in the chapter that we did on the canonical unity of the 12, I believe it was Augustine that first used the term Minor Prophets. That term has basically been used by Christians, I think, just because of the size of the books. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the importance or the role these prophets played in ancient Israel. When Jeremiah looks back at the ministry of Micah, he attributes Hezekiah’s repentance, in Jeremiah 26, he attributes Hezekiah’s repentance to the preaching of Micah, not to the preaching of Isaiah. So I think that reflects their importance and their role. It was Haggai and Zechariah that actually encourage the rebuilding of the Temple after the people come back to the land. So this idea of minor Prophets should not be taken to mean relatively unimportant. Their message is very important, the books are just brief. And the Jews tended to use terms like the book of the 12 to refer to the prophets that are in this collection. Part of that was, even before the time of Christ, a couple of hundred years before Jesus, there is evidence that they were reading these prophets as something of a single book or a literary unity and they understood that there was a cohesive message behind all 12 of these prophets.

Fuhr:
I would only add that, I think, for contemporary audience we tend to not think of them as a cohesive unit. As a matter of fact, when we set out to write a book on the minor prophets, and we decided title it The Message of the Twelve, we were surprised to find that a lot of people were asking us the question, “why is it that you are writing a book on the 12 disciples as two Old Testament guys?” The reason for that, of course, is because Christians tend to think of the 12 disciples when they think of any 12 figures in the Bible. And this just speaks to the fact that the 12 minor Prophets tend to be neglected, I think, within the church today.

 

Zaspel:
How about each of you highlight a book for us – one of the twelve that you’ve worked with perhaps more than others that stands out in your mind for whatever reason?

Yates:
Well, I’ll start us off and I’ll go to the back end of the minor prophets. I think one of the books that impacted me a lot when I was writing this and doing our study, was the book of Zechariah. Part of it is just the variety of the message that’s there. In the first opening chapters you have these night visions that are very apocalyptic in nature or have some rather strange symbolism, like a flying scroll that is 30 feet high flying through the air, or a woman being put in a basket that has stork wings and fly off to Babylon. So it’s an intriguing book and I think all of these night visions are dealing with the promises that God is making to the people as they are rebuilding the Temple; that the Lord is preparing to restore them, he is preparing to bless them. If they will be obedient and faithful in building the Temple then God is going to bless them as well. So that’s the first part of the book. Then in the middle part of the book they get into questions of what God is really looking for, in terms of the repentance from his people. The people had a series of fasts that they observed to commemorate various events that had happened with the fall of Jerusalem. Zechariah doesn’t tell them to stop doing those things, but basically says that’s not the kind of repentance God is looking for. God is looking for more of the practice of justice, love for their neighbors, concern for the poor; and when they have done those things, when their repentance has been true and full and complete, then God will bless them. Rebuilding the Temple was a good first step, but the Lord is calling them to fully return to him. Then in the last section, chapters 9 to 14, which I think is very interesting to us as Christians, there’s a realization that the restoration that began in the post-exilic period is just the beginning, and the cycle of judgment, restoration, all of those things, is going to happen again at a future time in the distant future. And some of the really important Christological passages – the King riding into Jerusalem, or the King riding on a donkey and presenting himself as a humble, peaceful King, Jesus being viewed as the fulfillment of “they will look upon him as the one that they had pierced” – all of those things are found there in those last five chapters in the book of Zechariah. So I think the overall variety, focusing in on what was happening in his day, but looking to the future and ultimately how Christ is going to bring fulfillment of this restoration. A very interesting and intriguing book that I think sometimes we have ignored as Christians.

Fuhr:
I’m kind of jumping on this idea of books that are sometimes ignored by Christians. I think of the book of Nahum. It’s the kind of book where folks today might look at it and say that has nothing at all to do with us. We’re talking about the destruction of an ancient city, and that seems to be the only thing that the book is about. And yet, what I think about our world today, and the perception of God turning a blind eye to injustice on a global scale, and I’m thinking about tyranny, and I’m thinking about matters that pertain to nations that are under the thumb of dictators and such, and I think of the book of Nahum – I see that God isn’t turning a blind eye, that God does see injustice; and he doesn’t necessarily move immediately upon those things, but when he does move, he moves decisively. We see that in the book of Nahum; even though the Assyrians reigned and did terrible things to those that they conquered for many, many decades, even centuries. We find that when God does judge them, he does so in a very decisive way. And I think about that in the context of a North Korea, or, as we certainly saw, in the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain that God does act. I think that that provides hope today. While we were writing this, ISIS was running rampant over northern Iraq and Syria and they certainly haven’t been completely vanquished today, even as we speak, and yet that was always in my mind – thinking about the atrocities that we were reading about in the news. And yet, knowing that God wasn’t turning a blind eye to those things and I think we see that in the book of Nahum.

 

Zaspel:
That’s something that has often impressed me with the minor prophets, that we are accountable to God – not just individually, but on a national scale and societal scale as well.

Yates:
One of the things I appreciate about Al’s answer is that a lot of people would read a book like Nahum and just treat it as an historical lesson. But I think he’s helping us to see that there is a great deal of significance for these books in terms of things that are happening in the world today. The way that God dealt with nations then, I think, provides a paradigm and a model for how God deals with nations today. A lot of times people are reading the prophets and they are trying to find specific predictions about things that are happening in the news, or things that are going to happen in the near future, but I think the way that Al showed that there’s a relevance between God’s judgment of the ancient Ninevites and the things that are happening in the world today, that’s more the way that I think we can learn from the prophets how to look at our world from God’s perspective.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, let’s talk big picture. Just what is the message of “the twelve”? What are some of the unifying themes that hold these books together? We’ve already mentioned the matter of national accountability to God, and such – what are some of the big themes that hold the books together?

Yates:
The whole idea of the unity of the 12, I’d say over the last couple of decades, in studying the minor prophets, that’s been a major issue. Some scholars see them as very heavily redacted, and these books have basically been sort of made as a literary creation to provide some type of unity. We don’t try to go that far. We simply tried to show that there is unity in terms of certain themes. There are ways that the books have been drawn together and brought together as a unity. I think some of the themes that stood out for us – one was just the idea of how people respond to the word of God. There are constant calls for Israel to repent, to turn from their sin in order to avoid the judgment that God is about to bring. And in some instances – like in the book of Joel, or when Haggai and Zechariah called the people to rebuild the Temple, there is a partial response, but the repentance is never complete, it’s never enough. And as a result of that, there is usually some type of relapse and that ends up bringing the judgment of God. So you have these prophets ministering in Israel for three or four centuries and never fully seeing the response to the word of God that there should be. As a result of that, I think one of the other things that comes out is this recurring idea of the day of the Lord which are these various judgments that God is going to bring. The people don’t turn to God in the Assyrian crisis; that brings the exile of Israel in 722. The people do not turn back to God fully in the Babylonian crisis; that brings the destruction of Israel in 586. And even when they come back to the land, they have changed geography, but their heart and their relationship to God is not there. So this inadequate repentance means that there’s going to be more judgment in the future before the restoration ever occurs. I think how people respond to the word of God and the fact that it’s a life-and-death issue, that’s one of the things that definitely has been highlighted for me as I have studied through the prophets.

Fuhr:
One thing that I would mention is that it’s probably not that there’s a single message to the 12 but there are messages that are interrelated and, I think, complementary to one another. It’s not just that there’s a theological message or set of messages that we read from the 12 minor prophets, but I think that, and part of the reason that we titled it this way, I think that there is a relevant message for today. Again, highlighting this idea that it’s not just for them in the then-and-there, but it’s for us in the here-and-now. One of the things that permeates the minor prophets, so far as their call to repentance in their day, is this call to high ethical standards, justice, and righteousness. Obviously that preaches well to us today—it’s a practical message.

 

Zaspel:
What are some other dominant themes in these prophets? And let’s go ahead and talk about the Day of the Lord theme also. What does that entail?

Yates:
I think there is one other theme that I would certainly want to highlight. Because of the fact that we often view the prophets just as preaching judgment and they are just these angry messengers that have come from God, I would also want to emphasize the love of God, the faithfulness of God to Israel. In every one of these books, except for the book of Jonah, there is some aspect of the book that ultimately turns to the fact that God is going to restore his people; that beyond all of this terrible judgment there is a restoration. The prophets often described the judgment in the most horrible terms possible, but they also describe the love of God and the faithfulness of God in overwhelming ways. One of those passages that stands out for me – at the beginning of the 12, the Lord says through Hosea, “how can I give these people up? In spite of what they have done to me, I am not going to completely destroy them. I will not make a full end of them.” That’s in Hosea, Chapter 11. Then, at the end of the 12, after they been through all of these judgments, the Lord affirms through them that, “I have loved these people.” And they respond back to him, “well, how have you loved us?” But the reality is the fact that God had not consumed them or destroyed them in the midst of all this judgment and was offering a future hope to them. There’s nothing more that could more fully demonstrate his love to them. I think that’s a very important thing to bring in, that there is a message of grace and forgiveness and restoration that’s there as well as the message of judgment.

 

Zaspel:
And the Day of the Lord?

Yates:
As Christians, we often associate that simply with the end times; that the judgments that are going to happen prior to the second coming of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets actually use the term a little differently because the day of the Lord for them were any of these judgments where God would directly intervene in human history to bring either judgment or salvation. The people of Israel, because they were God’s covenant people, were looking forward to the day of the Lord where God would deliver them, save them from their enemies. The prophets really kind of take that expectation and turn it upside down and say, “you are looking for God’s deliverance; you’re looking for the day of the Lord; but the day of the Lord is actually going to be a time of judgment against Israel.” So the Assyrian crisis – that’s a day of the Lord. The Babylonians marching on Jerusalem – that’s a day of the Lord. And in the book of Joel, even after all this has happened, there’s a warning that if people don’t turn from God, there is another day of the Lord in terms of immediate judgment. And all of these judgments that take place in history, I think, in the prophets, are anticipating the final day of the Lord. We see that in passages like Joel, chapter 3, or Zechariah 12 to 14. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re reading the prophets – are they talking about something that’s going to happen in the near future, or are they talking about something that’s about to happen, or is going to happen in the last days? I think sometimes in the revelation that God gives to them, that’s not even really clear to them.

 

Zaspel:
Are there any literary features of the Minor Prophets that you can alert us to that may help us in our reading and study?

Fuhr:
One of the things that I thought was important, especially for folks in the church who might not be aware of how literarily diverse and powerful the writings of the 12 minor prophets are, we wanted to highlight things like wordplay, the use of metaphor. I think of a book like Hosea and if you can’t appreciate his rich use of metaphor, I think you lose something in your reading of the book of Hosea. His message, in many ways, is a matter of not just knowing what he is saying in terms of content, but also getting a sense of the power and the impact that in the way in which he uses words might impact that reader or the listener, thinking about their original context of preaching these oracles. And so we wanted to highlight these kinds of things. I think of the rich use of wordplay, and there you have to, obviously, work with the original languages. We wanted readers of all backgrounds to be able to appreciate that, so we use informal transliteration there and we try to highlight those kinds of features throughout all 12 of the minor Prophets.

Yates:
I think that understanding the way that the Prophets used figurative language and imagery, more so sometimes then literal explicit descriptions, helps with interpretation as well. People are often looking for exact literal fulfillments of every aspect of a prophet’s message, but more often than not, they were using very vivid images and figures of speech as a way of trying to highlight the importance of what they were preaching. The judgment is going to be like the end of the world – we use terminology like that ourselves and hopefully when people see how terrible this is going to be, it motivates them to respond and they repent. Or when the salvation comes in the future it’s going to be such a time of blessing that the mountains are going to flow with wine and there’s going to be this rich abundance and everyone is going to be sitting under their vine and their fig tree. And I think understanding how those images work is very important to understand the prophetic message.

Fuhr:
I think it’s a matter of understanding the functionality of language. And again, we wanted to highlight that throughout our exposition of each of the minor prophets. It’s not just a matter of this means that; but we wanted folks to get a sense of the power of the prophets’ preaching in these books.

 

Zaspel:
Give us a bird’s eye overview of your book so we can know what to expect.

Fuhr:
We have four introductory chapters. And in those four introductory chapters we deal with the historical backgrounds. We believe that it’s very important for folks to understand the history and provide a historical context for the minor prophets. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say, to understand prophecy you need to understand history. So we wanted to make that very clear right from the outset of the book. Then we get into the role of the 12, dealing with them as forth-tellers and fore-tellers, preachers and prophets in that traditional sense. We get into their literary devices and the functionality of language. And then that chapter on the unity of the 12. And so those four introductory chapters establish a platform for how to read the minor prophets; and then we get into each one of the minor prophets with an exposition of the book. We deal more specifically with historical backgrounds and such with each of the 12, and we also highlight something about their relevance for today, both theologically and practically. So each one of the minor Prophets is dealt with that way. I like to think of the exposition of each as being serious and thorough; even though maybe not so thorough as to be exhaustive. It provides the necessary information for preaching these books or understanding these books for the reader, and yet might not get into every potential detail. Obviously we are dealing with the one volume book here.

Yates:
Our book is not a detailed exegetical commentary, but I think we give, as Al said, an exposition of the books that maybe goes a little deeper than your typical survey. We have tried to bring out some things from the original languages that might be relevant even for lay readers and people who are just trying to get a better grasp of what these books are trying to say.

 

Zaspel:
What audience did you have in view while writing this book?

Fuhr:
I tend to think that we are dealing with an audience that might not be brand-new to the Bible, but we’re dealing with folks that are interested in understanding something more of the Bible. Not necessarily scholars, although I do believe that scholars might be able to benefit from the book, maybe taking a glance at it here and there. We are thinking about students. Both Gary and I teach here at Liberty University, so we are dealing with both undergraduate students as well as graduate students. I think that the book would lend itself well to either entry-level seminarians or graduate students, or maybe some of the more advanced undergraduate students. But even a serious class on the prophets at a survey level I think would benefit from this book. We’re also thinking about pastors out there who are looking to preach the minor prophets. I think our book really emphasizes, not only the content of the books, but also how they might communicate well to a modern audience. So I think for pastors out there, this is an excellent one volume work. It might not be called a commentary, but it might function like a commentary for the minor prophets. Also, for any interested lay folks; folks who are just reading the Bible and interested in knowing it better, I think this book would benefit them well.

Yates:
I would just add that we are interested in getting a resource into the hands of people that are wanting to teach these books in the church. So we have try to help people, whether it’s pastors, or Sunday school teachers, or Bible-study leaders. I feel like the project would be a success for us if pastors would read this and decide, “I think I’d like to do a series of messages on the minor prophets. I think this is something that would be beneficial to my church.” Both of us are Old Testament professors so we try to emphasize to our students the importance of preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God; and I think sometimes that gets ignored a little bit in our contemporary evangelical culture at large.

 

Zaspel:
Yeah, when you’re in church and the preacher says, “Turn to … Nahum,” you know it’s time to pause for a coffee break.

Yates:
(Laughing) During the study, I at least learned the order of these books, so that was helpful for me.

Fuhr:
I think about all the years that I’ve spent in church, and probably Gary would echo this, I don’t know that I have ever heard a sermon out of the book of Nahum. I don’t know that I have ever heard a message or a sermon out of the book of Zephaniah. These are neglected books and yet they are extremely relevant. I think to myself that if we can just see pastors across the land considering these books and their relevance for today in maybe a new way, maybe getting a new vision for how these books might preach to a contemporary audience, and yet not neglecting the seriousness of understanding the historical backgrounds and some of the literary features of these books. I think we have a win if we can get that out to pastors and folks today.

 

Zaspel:
Well, I can tell you that if you had been our church you would have heard messages from each of the Minor Prophets.

Fuhr:
I hear. I do know that there are pastors who do that and God bless them, that is wonderful. But, unfortunately, we know that there are a lot of pastors out there who aren’t preaching these books. Either they might have a misconception that these books aren’t relevant or they might not believe that the folks in the pews, the folks in the churches, will receive them well. But I think that folks are wanting to hear what the whole counsel of the word of God has to say and how it might impact their lives, and I think this book highlights that very well.

 

Zaspel:
I think your book will be a great help to pastors in doing that. If that’s your goal I think you’ve accomplished it well.

We’re talking to Alan Fuhr and Gary Yates about their new book, The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets. It’s a valuable resource that will help acquaint you with these prophetic books.

Al and Gary, congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us about it today.

Yates & Fuhr:
Thank you very much. We’ve enjoyed the chance to share a few things that we’ve learned from writing it.

Buy the books

The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets

B&H, 2016 | 384 pages