The Old Testament prophetic books are not in chronological order. They are divided into two groups: the Major Prophets and Minor Prophets. The Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel, Daniel) are called the Major Prophets because their books are longer. (Exception: Lamentations is technically a poetic book, but because it was written by Jeremiah, in the Christian Bible it tags along behind Jeremiah.)
The Minor Prophets are minor prophets because the books are shorter. Some even have just one chapter.
Since the prophetic books are not in chronological order, there are two dates from history that you need to know so you can quickly understand the prophet’s message.
This is the year that the nation of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was scattered and conquered by the Assyrians. This happens in the book of 2 Kings. But the nation of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was still in their territory around the city of Jerusalem until…
This is the year that the Babylonians exiled Judah, the Southern Kingdom.
Huh. But I thought that Israel and Judah were the same things?
They were at one point.
After Israel left Egypt, they lived in the wilderness for 40 years. Then they conquered the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership and settled down to live. Each of the 12 tribes or families of Israel received their allotted land. It was like each tribe received their own state within the country.
Then came the time of the Judges leading the nation of Israel as a whole. Next, Israel asked for a king and thus started the time of 1 and 2 Kings. First came King Saul, followed by King David, and then his son, Solomon. After Solomon was king, the nation of Israel split apart into the North and the South. The North was bigger and included 10 of the tribes. It was referred to as Israel from then on. The south consisted of only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin so it was smaller, but it included Jerusalem which was like the capital since it was the biggest city and it was where the temple was. This Southern Kingdom was referred to as Judah.
How does knowing these two dates help?
The dates give you an understanding of what is happening in Israel or Judah during the time of the prophet that you are reading or studying. A lot of study Bibles or study notes give you a date for when the prophet was writing, but if you don’t know when these two exiles occurred, knowing the date for the prophet doesn’t help you much for giving you historical context.
It’s like this. If you didn’t know when World War II happened and I told you that my grandfather enlisted in the army in 1942, you would have no idea what that really means for his experience other than it was a long time ago. But if you know that World War II happened from 1939-1945, and I told you that my grandfather enlisted in 1942, now you have a context his experience. You have a picture in your mind of victory gardens, rationing, drafts, fighting in Europe or the Pacific, and the horrors of Hitler’s regime.
So if you know that Israel was conquered in 722 BC and Judah was exiled in 586 BC, and you read that Zephaniah prophesied between 636-623 BC, now you immediately know that when Zephaniah was prophesying, Israel was already taken captive by Assyria, but Judah was still in their land.
In Zephaniah 3:7-8, the prophet says:
Of Jerusalem I thought,
‘Surely you will fear me
and accept correction!’
Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed,
nor all my punishments come upon her.
But they were still eager
to act corruptly in all they did.
8 Therefore wait for me,”
declares the Lord,
“for the day I will stand up to testify.
I have decided to assemble the nations,
to gather the kingdoms
and to pour out my wrath on them—
all my fierce anger.
The whole world will be consumed
by the fire of my jealous anger.
Now you know that Zephaniah is speaking to Judah since Israel has already been conquered and scattered. Plus, another clue, he mentions Jerusalem which is in Judah. So when is it that he is talking about assembling the nations to pour out his wrath? Could this be the current Middle East conflict?
No. Since you know that Zephaniah is writing shortly before 586 BC, now you know that God is warning them about the Babylonians (the nations) coming to exile them.
So much of the prophets is warning. “If you don’t straighten up, Israel or Judah, you are going to lose your land!” or for Judah “Don’t you see what happened to Israel? If you don’t start serving me, the same thing will happen to you!” Knowing when the prophet was writing in relation to 722 BC and 586 BC helps you pinpoint which impending doom the prophet is talking about.
Try it. Turn in your Bible to one of the prophets. Find in your study notes or introduction to the book when the prophet was writing. When was he writing in relation to 722 BC or 586 BC? Comment your findings below!