Lecture 24: Joel, Obadiah, Habakkuk and Zephaniah | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 24: Joel, Obadiah, Habakkuk and Zephaniah

Course: Old Testament Survey

Lecture: Joel and Obadiah


I. Orienting Data for Joel

We now turn to the prophet Joel. It is a short book and we can only give it a relatively short amount of time, but I would like to make the following comments.

A. Locust Invasion or Human Invasion?

First there is an interesting question. Is Joel really, really talking about a locust invasion? It certainly sounds like it. Or, is he metaphorically talking about the Babylonian invasion either of 598 or 588 and describing the Babylonians like locusts. It is hard to tell. People have taken both points of view. Anyway, there is an invasion by unstoppable “locusts”. The invasion continues, there is a call to repentance, a promise of hope, and then a judgment on the nations. It certainly looks like Joel is addressing the national, political, and international concerns in that he is not just talking about locusts. There are, however, scholars who have argued that he is just talking about locusts. One scholar who believed that said that “He is a minor cult prophet.” He is all worked up over a locust plague, which are not easy things. They are hard and part of the way God can judge.

However, it seems like something else may actually be his concern, especially considering 2:11: “The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” That sounds an awful lot more like a human army and a human invasion than a locusts plague.

However, you will see when reading about Joel that this issue is a pattern. This makes dating the book difficult. If it is a Babylonian invasion, fine, you are almost sure it is either 598 or 588. It just sounds like a human army. Then certainly, it comes that if it is a human army it is going to be one of the invasions we know about. If, on the other hand, it is a locust’s plague, we do not have any history of locust plagues. So, could Joel be writing in the ninth century, eighth century, seventh century, sixth, fifth, fourth, or third even. People have come up with dates for all of those possibilities. That is part of the challenge. It is a wonderful story of hope and of God’s hope for His people by reason of judgment on the nations.

B. Four big themes in Joel.

1. The day of the Lord.

In the ancient world there was a very widespread popular notion that when a truly great king went to battle, he could win his war in a day. If King X got into a war with King Y, if King X were truly a great sovereign than he would demolish King Y in a day. There are really many, many references to this idea that in one day you can overcome the enemy. I collected these and wrote an article back in 1976 called The Sovereign’s Day of Conquest in the Bulletin of the American Schools in Oriental Research. I just marshal all of the evidence, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hittite and so on, lots and lots of evidence for this notion.

This appears to be something that God inspired the prophets to pick up on because there is no greater sovereign than the Lord Himself. If there is a need to eliminate evil, to go to war against what is corrupt and the Lord chooses to do so, it is going to be over in a day. It is not going to be the week of Yahweh, the month of Yahweh, the year of Yahweh; it is going to be the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord. It will be a decisive day of divine intervention against injustice and in favor of righteousness. It will be a great reversal of everything that is improper. Joel really does talk about that. That is what he is talking about—A great invasion, a call to repentance, the expectation that there is a need to get right with God because that day of the Lord is dreadful, Joel 2:11. Who can endure it? Who can fight God? Who can think that he can stand up against the Lord? Will the Lord do what he does only by military means? No, of course not.

The ultimate victory is spiritual just like Zachariah says, another “day of the Lord prophet”. Zachariah says, “Not by might, nor by power but by my spirit, says the Lord.” Joel has a comparable message. We read in Joel 2:28, after a lot of discussion about decisive military intervention, great armies and so on, and he says, “Then I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

That time is of huge importance. If you make the wrong decision, boy is it a disaster. If you make the right decision it is fabulous. Because “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” The day of the Lord, decisive, decisive, which side are you on? If you are on the right side it is great; you are on the winning side and it is all over quickly. If you are on the wrong side, it is a disaster for you. That theme is here in Joel who is one of the day of the Lord prophets with a heavy “day of the Lord” emphasis.

2. Oracles Against Foreign Nations

He also certainly has oracles against foreign nations. He has some in general in chapter 3:1-8. He says, “I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat.” That is a convenient name because Jehoshaphat means the Lord will judge. So the Valley of the Lord will judge just works perfectly. “I will come into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, and I will deal with people who have abused and misused the people in any way.”

3. War Oracles

He also has war oracles. These are sometimes subcategories of judgement oracles. A great example the one in Hosea 5:5-8, but there are many other places where war oracles occur. In these war oracles you have predictions of battle. Joel 3:9, “Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weak say I am strong. Come quickly, all you nations from every side and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” So you have God coming with His angelic warriors against all the nations of the earth to judge them and it melts, thus, into a judgment oracle.

4. Democratization of the Spirit

Certainly one of the wonderful, special contributions of this book is its emphasis on the democratization of the Spirit, not merely the coming great judgment of the Holy Spirit. What do we mean by that? In Old Testament times, prophets have the Spirit of God. The Spirit might specially guide them. They could even be described as filled with the Spirit. A couple of the craftsmen who build the tabernacle are described as filled with the Spirit. Moses and the elders of Israel are described as filled with the Spirit. But generally, people were not. Most people just had to learn God’s covenant, learn His law, learn what was right and wrong and do their best to live by it. The New Covenant that is predicted by Joel and other prophets is looking forward to a time when the least of God’s people, the newest Christian, the most uninformed Christian, the Christian having the most trouble trying to live the Christian life, will have a relationship to God through His Spirit better than anybody in the Old Covenant every had. That is a really fantastic thing. We call this the democratization of the Spirit, the Spirit on everybody, on all the people.

Jesus says it this way, “I tell you the truth, of men born of women, John the Baptist is the greatest, but the least in the kingdom of heaven in greater than he.” Even a prophet as great as John the Baptist is not in the same relationship to God that any of us are in Christ. It is a wonderful thing. So the role of the Holy Spirit is powerful. Note what is said here, “I’ll pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” Not one gender or the other but both, they are linked together. It is not gender limited. “Old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” It is not age limited. “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” It is not status limited. The Holy Spirit is given without regard to gender, without regard to age, without regard to status, therefore, how foolish to say, “He’s too young, we can’t let him go on our evangelistic team.” That is bad thinking. Parents might say, “He is too young, he is still in third grade,” you do not want him to go to Costa Rica for four months during the school year. That is another reason, but that is not saying that he is too young to be led by God’s Spirit. “This kid is too young to accept Christ as Savior, only two and a half years old, no way.” If the kid says yes and appears to be real, by all means consider it.

Nor should we ever say somebody is too old. “Sorry, you’re in your eighties now, you ought to retire, just relax, let other people carry on the work of the kingdom.” Bad, bad advice. Nor should we say, “You’re not of the right social status. This is white-collar church, you don’t belong.” Do not do that kind of thing. Nor should we say, “You’re a woman, therefore…” There is never a “you’re a woman therefore,” as far as I can tell in Scripture. There is never a “you’re a man therefore,” either in Scripture. It is not that the gifts and calling of God are gender limited, not in the age of the Spirit. This is a wonderful text about the democratization of the Holy Spirit and the significance that has for us and seeing the power of God operate in our world.

II. Obadiah

Now to Obadiah, even smaller book, even quicker look.

A. Oracle against Edom

There are more oracles against foreign nations directed against Edom than any other foreign nation, a very interesting statistic. If you count them up as I have done, you will see that there are more anti-Edom oracles than against any other foreign nations. Edom was not a very big nation. If you look at a map and you see Edom down kind of south of and around the Dead Sea you say, “Gee, it is a tiny, little place.” Rough, hard scrabbled wilderness area. Not very nice farmlands there or anything. No really big cities. Not a huge nation at any time. Why then do God’s prophets spend so much time? They are inspired to do it. But why do they spend so much time and attention on Edom? More anti-Edom prophecies than against anyone.

B. Edom During the Babylonian Siege of Jerusalem

Even against Babylon, Egypt, or Assyria, there are not as many as against Edom. The answer is that Edom had this absolute, consistent, constant, traditional enmity toward Judah. It starts way back in the Book of Genesis with the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, and the ancestors of each nation had a rivalry. That continues as you read stories in Exodus and Numbers, especially Numbers, about how the Israelites want to go through the territory of Edom just to get to the Promise Land. “Look, we don’t want to give you grief, we aren’t going to give you trouble, we just want to walk through.” The Edomites will not even let them do that. They give them grief and threaten to fight with them so the Israelites have to skirt the territory. It continues on and on.

It comes to one of its many foci with Obadiah. When the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem for two years, from 588 to 586 BC, thousands upon thousands had to hold up in Jerusalem; they were surrounded, they could not get out. That meant that almost nobody could be out generally in the countryside farming and taking care of their flocks and so on. That means that Judean farmlands were basically sitting empty. The Edomites, perennial enemies of the Judeans, of Israel in general, but they are nearest the Judeans, said “Look, there it is, the Babylonians are dealing with these people, they have made themselves odious to the Babylonians. We capitulated right away.” The Edomites were among the groups that said, “We won’t fight. Whatever you make us pay we’ll pay, we’re not going to fight.” So they capitulated immediately to the Babylonians and did not resist so that had great freedom but had to pay the heavy tax, toll, and tribute. One way to do this is simply to take over Judean farmlands.

So large numbers of Edomites filtered up into empty towns and villages all over southern Judah, and that is made reference to here in Obadiah. He says in verse 12 talking directly to Obadiah, “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune,” that is the Babylonian conquest, “nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble. You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster.” That is what was happening. The Edomites said, “Hey, ours for the taking, no Babylonians around to bother us, nobody else, and no Judeans.” So they just took over the Promise Land. They actually invaded and captured some of the Promise Land. This is why they have offended God; they deserve well to be criticized.

In addition, they also curried favor with the Babylonians by rounding up Judean refugees and turning them over to Babylon. You have this in verse 14, “You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives,” that is Judean fugitives, “nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble.” What is going to happen to Obadiah? Day of the Lord again. Verse 15, “The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. Just as you drank on my holy hill,” meaning that Edomites actually came in and plundered even Jerusalem itself, they drank on God’s holy hill, that would mean plundering of Jerusalem “so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been.” In other words, they will sort of drink into oblivion. “But on Mount Zion will be deliverance…The house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; the house of Esau will be stubble…” It is like that line that Danny DiVito delivers brilliantly in the movie The Jewel of the Nile where he says to Michael Douglas, “You’re a rear end and I’m a lawnmower.” That is the modern equivalent of “I’m fire and you’re stubble.” They took advantage of the Babylonian attack, they grabbed farmlands, turned fleeing refugees over, and then sold refugees into slavery. That is not nice. Obadiah is talking about that, condemning them, saying that God will do the same kinds of things to Edomites, “Your time will come, you’ll suffer.” They did. The Edomites, in history, faded fast as a people and were possessed by others.

C. What God Will Do for Israel

Then it ends with what God will do for Judah and Israel. He will improve their lot, make things get better and better, bring people back from exile, and deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau and the kingdom will belong to Yahweh; the kingdom will be the Lords. What we have in Obadiah, in a way, is not at all unusual. It is just like the oracles against foreign nations and that big block of material from Jeremiah 46-51 or the oracles against foreign nations in Isaiah or Ezekiel or elsewhere. It is just like that except that Obadiah gives us is just one foreign nation oracle. He may have prophesied plenty of things, but this was the thing he was known for. This is the one that got written down, preserved, and made a whole book.

Here is his relatively small out-written output and it is all on a single theme. It happens to be a single foreign nation oracle against Edom that becomes a book. In other cases that would be just a small part of a great, big major prophet. For Obadiah, that is it. That is the topic of his book. It is not a different thing; it is just the kind of thing you find elsewhere. In this case one book; all by itself constituting a book. In a way we do not do justice to the many interesting and effective themes that we have in a book like Obadiah, but that is part of the challenge and benefit of a rapid overview. You sacrifice some precision and certainly a lot of detail in favor of the big picture which is what we are always trying to give. So I hope that you are not discouraged by the fact that we spent 4.8 minutes on Obadiah and that is it because that is the way it should be and it is appropriate.

Habakkuk and Zephaniah

I. Habakkuk (Starts at 22:33)

Here is Habakkuk. It is pretty likely we can date Habakkuk. There is some debate but he is clearly talking about the Babylonians coming in and we know when the Babylonian Empire was, 609-540. When did the Babylonians invade? The answer is it could have been the first invasion in 605; that is very minor. More likely it is the invasion of 598 or even more likely the invasion of 588. That is was Habakkuk sees. Habakkuk says to God, “How can this be? God, I don’t get it. I see the Babylonians, a very evil, corrupt people. They are not godly. They do not have any covenant; they are not keeping a covenant. They are not pleasing you. They are idolatrous. They are wicked. They are brutal. They are cruel. They kill anybody in their path. When they capture a nation, they bleed it financially. How can this be? How can You let this happen?”

A. First Complaint

He gives what is traditionally called “his first complaint”. Complaint just describing the misery that these Babylonians are taking over the known world. “They are coming. They are awful. We see them. How O Lord can you allow this to be so? I don’t get it.” God gives a reply and his reply is, The Babylonians are My agents to do exactly what I want because they are wiping out and punishing injustice in all kinds of forms.” That is an answer, that I’m using them, that is all purposeful. That is why they are having such success.

B. Second Complaint

“Well, how can you let them then have this success?” The answer then is, “Well, it is only temporary.” Habakkuk says what Jeremiah says or what Isaiah said implicitly without naming Babylon or what any number of other prophets also say, “Babylon also will fall.” In the middle of this there is really an amazing message that God provides and that is the message about how you live when all this is happening. It is one thing for God to help Habakkuk to understand that this is all part of a great historical process and that when one looks back from eternity upon the history of the world, one will see that God never let injustice go completely out of hand. He always had means of punishing and of changing and of defeating an oppressor nation, sometimes most often by another oppressor nation, but He always will do that kind of thing. That is one message but there is the other question, what do you do in the meantime? How is it that you are supposed to somehow survive. What do you do in this wicked world. We are not seeing Babylonian invasions per say and so on but we are seeing all the deterioration in our culture, all the kinds of crummy things that people listen to in music or see on television or in movies, all the pornography, all the junk, everything. We just see so much decline, so much deterioration. What do you do? How do you live when all that is taking place, when it seems like everything is getting worse, not better? That is the wonderful message almost buried in Habakkuk. It is not really that way but to the casual reader it can seem that way.

As you know, this message about how the righteous live by faith became a turning point message not merely for Paul who preached it and exposited it in books like the Book of Romans but also for people like Martin Luther. It was Martin Luther who said, “That’s it.” He had grown up in this very sad, medieval and following tradition of the church, this is just the way all Christians were thinking that you had to please God by your good works. That is what it was. Amazingly people basically could not see what the New Testament says plainly. They really could not see that; it was not visible to people. A culture can so permeate your thinking that you do not even have recognition categories for what the Bible is actually saying to you plainly.

C. The Just Shall Live By Faith

The whole concept of works righteous was rampant. Luther finally said, “No.” It is what Paul says in Romans quoting Habakkuk, “The just will live by faith.” That is the principle, it is salvation by faith. That is what you have got to get. Are works important? Absolutely, they come immediately thereafter. They should come, they are positive, and you do want to live a righteous life but righteous, actual life that God gives you, is obtained by faith, not works. Therefore, as Paul says, “Nobody can brag. No way you can ever say I earned it. Nobody can ever say that. God will not allow anybody to say I earned by salvation. It cannot happen. The church during the next thousand years tries to help people earn their salvation. That is how bad things went, how off the wall theology drifted. Habakkuk is the basis of that and you can easily miss it. Here is the thing—with all this trouble, how do you live, what do you, what do you do in a wicked world, a fallen world with all its faults? God says to Habakkuk in 2:2, “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets,” then it says in the NIV which I am reading from, “so that a herald may run with it.” Then it gives a footnote, “So that whoever reads it may run with it.” I think it actually says so that even somebody running by can read it. It is so big, like a billboard, that even if you are zipping by you can say, “I saw what that said.” Write it big. “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks to the end and it will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it certainly will come and not delay,” and this whole thing about what God has in mind. “Look, he is puffed up: his desires are not upright—but the righteous will live by his faith.” Then it goes on to talk more about the Babylonians, how greedy the Babylonian nation is and all that but just stuck there virtually like a parenthesis is the statement, “By the way, the righteous live by faith.” It is a great statement and in the midst of all the garbage that the Israelites have to endure in these hard times comes the statement, “The just, or the righteous will live by faith.” Chapter 3 then is very interesting because, what is God’s ultimate solution? It is always deliverance; God is a rescuer, He is a Savior, He is a deliverer; that is who God is. He is always evangelizing, bringing people to faith and saving them from sin and from death. In the third chapter of Habakkuk this is portrayed as a new exodus. Habakkuk is not the only one to have such a theme.

D. New Exodus

There is a lot of new exodus language in Isaiah and in some of the other prophets as well but Habakkuk has it in a very beautiful way. If you read his prayer, it really comes around to being what we would call a history hymn. It is just like that category of hymns, the history hymn. Verse 3, “God gave from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.” Those are locations down in the general Edomite area around which the Israelites marched. “His glory covered the heavens and his splendor and so on like this. Plague went before him; pestilence followed him. He shook the earth, made the nations tremble, the ancient mountains collapse. He goes up through Midian, the angry rivers. He crosses, he splits the earth. The sun and the moon stand still.” Read about that in Joshua chapter 10 and so on. You just follow the story and it is God leading His people in a great new exodus up from the south into the Promise Land. Thus, there is encouragement. What do you do? Do you say, “Yeah, that is all theoretical?” No, in the present time when things are hard, you still trust in the Lord. The righteous lives now by faith. In this particular hymn it is put this way, verse 17 and 18 of the last chapter, though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, all the crops fails, fields produce no food, no sheep in the pen, no cattle in the stalls, I am going to rejoice in the Lord. I am going to be joyful in my Savior. You can have real joy says Habakkuk in this fallen world. You do not have the joy from the fallen world, however, that is not where the joy comes. The joy comes in spite of the fallen world. It is a great message.

II. Zephaniah

Zephaniah, another short book. Zephaniah is a day of the Lord prophet visibly and openly so.

A. Historical Setting

It appears that Zephaniah is preaching in a time contemporaneous with Jeremiah, from everything that we can figure out. It says he preached during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah. That is when Jeremiah started too. It appears that he did preach also in those few years prior to the great revival of 622 BC. Jeremiah started in 627 and preached for five years before the revival. Apparently in that same time period also Zephaniah preached. Here are two prophets that we know about who were pushing the same kinds of things, “Watch out! Judgment is coming unless you repent.” They were helping pave the way for the Josiah revival. That is kind of the historical setting.

B. "Day of the Lord" Prophecy

In chapter 1 and on into part of chapter 2 there is a very powerful day of the Lord prophecy and it actually contains much what we would call hyperbole. Hyperbola is exaggeration for effect. You overdo in order to be sure that the impact that you want to make is made. Here is how he says it, Zephaniah 1:2, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord. I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth.” That looks like at least as bad as the flood under Noah. It is literal? No, not really. It is not really what is being described but it is a description of cataclysmic judgment. God is going to eliminate evil and make a big difference in this world and so the possibility of repentance is always in the background. “Gather together before the appointed time arrives says chapter 2:2. “Before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you, before the day of the Lord’s wrath. Seek the Lord, seek righteous, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered from the day of the Lord’s anger.” This is an angle on the day of the Lord that is useful to get. Day of the Lord, great judgment, it sounds horrible and horrific, who can endure it, who can stand it, it is dreadful, it is this it is that. But the prophets are also saying, “But you know, no matter what happens physically to you in this world, if you can be right with God you’re okay, it all bypasses ultimately, then you are in a separate track and you are protected and blessed from God.” They are always calling people to be rescued, to get out of the danger zone and to be in the right position. Zephaniah then gives a number of oracles against foreign nations but does not have one against Edom. He must have forgot because it is so popular. No, not necessarily. But he does not happen to have one; most prophets do.

Then when he is attacking Assyria he shifts neatly into attacking Israel. It may even be that when people heard him preach this they did not even notice the transition. In his attack on Assyria at the end of chapter 2 he is saying, “This is the city that thought itself safe. She said I am and there is none besides me. What a ruin she has become; a lair for wild beasts! All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists.” Then he goes on to say, “Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, accepts no corruption.” Well, it sounds like it is still Assyria maybe. Then he says, “She does not trust in the Lord, does not draw near to her God.” You have to say he is talking about Jerusalem now. But same kind of judgment language now against Jerusalem. That means he is really hitting hard the corruption of that day.

But God never leaves this story untold. He does not say, “That’s it, I’m going to punish everybody and good for them.” There is always a hope, always a prediction of the good things to come. So this book ends with some wonderful predictions about a great future. He says in the very last verse, “At that time I will gather you; I will bring you home; I will give you honor and praise among the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes says the Lord.” That is the restoration promise for the time after the exile and of course, the time of Christ until the time of the New Covenant until the time we ourselves are in.

Let’s close in prayer. Thank you Father for a chance to look further in Your Word. Thank you for the encouragement it gives. Thank you for the ways in which we can see in Your Word the things that really relate directly to us and are genuinely practical in the best sense. If we really know what life should be about, these are truly practical books for us. Help us as we try to assimilate all the material, to do so in a way that shows real respect to the quality of what You have done and as we learn from it also remember it is a precious trust and we are not just to enjoy what we know, we are to use that knowledge to help others as well. We pray that for Christ’s sake. Amen.