There are four “major prophets” in the Old Testament—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. While the first three major prophets are each associated with one prophet, the Minor Prophets (i.e., the Twelve) is a collection of twelve different prophets. Together, the twelve Minor Prophets compose a book of prophecy approximately the same size as the other Major Prophets.
Focusing our attention on the Minor Prophets, we can see that these twelve books originated over the course of four centuries (approx. 770 BC to 430 BC). Through this chronology, the Minor Prophets provide a unique perspective on the spiritual welfare of God’s people over time. While there are challenges to discerning the unity of the twelve, their chronology is especially important for understand God’s message.
Because the prophets are forth-tellers of God’s law, more than fore-tellers of God’s future, the prophets addressed the sinfulness of Israel/Judah, called for repentance, and promised mercy in a time to come. To rightly perceive their message, we must know the historical setting. Indeed, because prophets are given to Israel throughout their history (Jer. 7:25), it is vital to learn some basic events in Israel’s history if we are to learn the message of the prophets.
|Key Events in the History of Israel
|ca. 1400 BC||Moses: The First Prophet Speaks
From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. (Jer. 7:25)
|930 BC||The divided monarchy begins – 10 Northern tribes rebel against Judah (1 Kings 12)
|722 BC||Assyria Exiles Israel and repopulates Samaria with foreigners (2 Kings 17)
|609 BC||Neco II (Egypt) removes King Jehoiakim from the throne (2 Kings 23:33–34)
|597 BC||Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon) deports 10,000 exiles to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10–17)
|586 BC||Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon) destroys the temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 25, esp. v. 9)
|538 BC||Cyrus issues a decree to return Jews to Jerusalem (2 Chr. 36:23–24; Ezra 1:2–4; 6:3–5)
|536 BC||Altar for sacrifice is restored in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:10–13)
|515 BC||The Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 6:6–12; cf. Jer. 25:11–12; 29:10)
|430 BC||Malachi: The Final Prophet Speaks
After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the voice from heaven (Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b)
In addition to learning the history of Israel, we should see what the Twelve contributes that the other Major Prophets do not. In other words, whereas Isaiah responds to the events of Assyria’s threat on Jerusalem and foresees the coming judgment of Babylon, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel focus on the Babylonian exile with promises of restoration thereafter, the Minor Prophets address the people of Israel and Judah through every stage of history. Additionally, only the Minor Prophets (esp. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and maybe Joel) add God’s testimony after the people return from exile.
When we pay attention to this history, it helps us to see how God related to his people through the prophets, how the people sin continued to multiply, and how the promises of God in the Old Testament brought the need for Christ himself. Indeed, in the chronology of the prophets, we see an intensification of need. No measure of repentance could ever secure Israel’s longterm standing before God. Israel, along with all peoples, needed God Incarnate to come and inaugurate a new covenant. This is seen in each Major Prophet and it is found in the Twelve, as well.
Still, such promises of the future must be placed in their historical context. And learning the history of the Minor Prophets helps us do that. To that end, Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. and Gary E. Yates, offer insight into each period of the prophets in their book The Message of the Twelve. In a chapter dedicated to the historical background of the prophets, they provide all the necessary details to make sense of these servants of Yahweh.
Putting the Prophets in Their Historical Place
Aligning the prophets with the geo-political situation(s) of God’s people, they divide the prophets into the Assyria Period, the Babylonian Period, and the Persian Period. For those familiar with the history of Israel these three periods connect to the two exiles of Israel and Judah, respectively, and their return to the land under the political provision of the Medo-Persian empire. I’ve included a chart from their book, which outlines the periods of time (see p. 3).
|Prophets to Israel||Prophets to Judah|
* Hosea may have finished his ministry in Judah. His book includes mentions of Judah
** The date of Joel is unknown. Based upon a locust plague in 500 BC, there is reason for placing this prophet at that time. Joel’s prophecy begins with a vivid description of locusts devastating the land. (The Message of the Twelve, 17–18)
In the end, learning the historical background of the prophets helps us understand what they are seeing and saying. Learning their historical order is also necessary for discerning how the prophets relate to one another. Indeed, the prophets did not speak God’s Word in a vacuum; they spoke it in time to a people going through traumatic events of history. Moreover, they often cite, allude to, and interpret previous prophets. Hence, to read them together requires learning their shared history. Indeed, the more we consult that history, the better we will understand them and their Christ-centered message.
If you are wanting to know more about their history, The Message of the Twelve is a great resource. Reading the rest of the Bible is also necessary. For in consulting 1–2 Kings, Ezra–Nehemiah, 1–2 Chronicles, we find the historical events that explain why the prophets say what they do. Once again, the books of the Bible are the best resource for understanding other books of the Bible. And in learning their history, we are not just getting dates, we are finding necessary information for reading Scripture well.
To that end, let us continue to read the Prophets with a growing knowledge of Israel’s history. This will take some work, but it will be worth it, as it provides detail into the story of God’s redemption in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds