Short and Poetic Prophecy
It’s difficult to read through the Old Testament prophetic books: the images are either confusing or graphic, the geographical and cultural references are unfamiliar, and even the language and poetry can feel jumbled, confusing, and inaccessible. What’s worse, in some cases we know almost nothing about the author or even when the author is writing or preaching! Why bother with the energy and time necessary to understand such books when we could simply read the New Testament instead? In particular, why bother with the short and largely poetic prophecies of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah? Below, I suggest two initial reasons for studying the books of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah: because they teach us about the Day of the Lord, and because they teach us about Jesus.
The Day of the Lord
Put most simply, the Day of the Lord is the future day when God puts all things right again. It refers to the day when God comes to judge his enemies and to rescue his people. In these three books—Joel, Amos, and Obadiah—we learn of three distinct aspects to the Day of the Lord: first, God will judge his own people; second, God will judge his enemies; third, God will put the world right again.
First, the Day of the Lord includes judgment for God’s own people. The history of Israel could be summarized as a cyclical series in which God saves his people, but God’s people turn away from him in sin and rebellion; God disciplines them, but then God offers them grace and forgiveness when they repent. These three short books herald a message that the church today, especially in the Western world, needs desperately to hear: God will discipline those who wear his name but do not follow his commands. Wherever God’s people use power to take advantage of the weak, wherever the wealthy take advantage of the poor, and wherever worship becomes little more than empty ritual: beware the Day of the Lord. Judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
And if God disciplines his own people in judgment, how much more so those who refuse to acknowledge the sovereign rule of the Lord Almighty? Second, then, the Day of the Lord announces the future day when God will defeat all of his enemies, as well as the enemies of his people. The Day of the Lord is a day of final justice, when the violent, the corrupt, and the wicked will be struck down by the Lord of heavenly armies, and all nations will acknowledge that God alone rules the world.
That day will bring final and lasting peace. No more war; no more hunger; no more pain or suffering or sorrow or death. People will not worry about invading armies or terrorist attacks. We will not fear school shootings or auto accidents. There will be no more cancer or dementia. The world itself will be healed and made whole and right again, and God’s people will dwell in safety and lasting peace.
Here, then, these prophetic books teach us about Jesus. We see, for example in Joel, that God desires we know him (Joel 3:17) and that he intends to once again make his dwelling place among his people through the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28–32). In Amos, the prophet calls us to right worship: not with manipulations or token offerings by which we simply try to improve our standard of living, but rather with lives that demonstrate thankfulness to God for his salvation, mercy, and grace (Amos 5:14–15). In Obadiah, we glimpse the coming Savior who will defeat his enemies, who will heal the earth and restore it, and we see the coming King who will rule the world (Obadiah 19–21).
Perhaps most strikingly, however, we see that the salvation of God’s people comes not with chariots or armies but in weakness. In Amos, we see that the great salvation for which God’s people were longing comes through the fragility of a temporary shelter. How could the hope of deliverance from such mighty world powers as Assyria or Babylon come through something in a lean-to or a tent? Here, then, is the foolishness of the cross: deliverance would ultimately come for God’s people through the suffering, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ.
Joel, Amos, and Obadiah
Why study these short Old Testament prophetic books? Because the Lord gives us hope through his Word. Hope of the final Day of the Lord, when Christ Jesus returns to make the world right again and gather to himself a people from every tongue, tribe, nation, and language who will live in and rule over this world made right again. Hope of an end to injustice and terrorism and oppression in all their many forms. Hope that comes only through a Savior, crucified and buried, but risen from the dead to rule the world.