I once heard someone say, “When we read a prophetic book, it’s like stepping into the middle of a conversation.” This is so true. Have you ever felt lost due to the lack of knowledge of the historical context of their situation when reading the Prophets? Or have you wondered why Israel and Judah are judged so strongly?
First, grasping the theological message of the law, specifically through Moses’s words in Deuteronomy, can situate the reader to the why behind the judgments and exile. Second, it is important for the reader to grasp what is happening in the historical books because the Prophets are happening simultaneously with the historical books. In the Minor Prophets we see the specific sins plaguing both the Northern and Southern Kingdom, whereas the Historical books give us a broad bird’s eye view.
Before we discuss the theological and historical context of the Prophets, let’s review the storyline of Scripture. The historical books include the books of Joshua through Esther, narrating how the Israelites conquered Canaan and established themselves in the promised land. In the books of Samuel, we see the establishment of the monarchy through King Saul and King David. In the books of Kings, we see the division of the nation split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The kings led their people into sin which preempted the judgment of God through exile. Moreover, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and led into exile. Years later, the Southern Kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians and led into exile.
Biblical history culminates with the return of the exiles back into the promised land seventy years later. The books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah shed light on the historical context of the Minor Prophets which include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
First, for readers to understand the why of the exiles and judgments issued in the Minor Prophets, the theological context should be understood. We must understand that God was not acting impulsively in regard to punishing His people; He was acting faithfully, according to the covenant blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 27–30. The covenant stipulates if the people obey God’s commands they will be blessed; if they don’t, there is curse and exile.
How does this context apply to the Minor Prophets? Two examples are provided: (1) Joel is a prophetic book that is obscure in its historical time frame; however, the locust plague situates the judgment against its theological background of Deuteronomy 28:38, where the plague is prophesied by Moses as one of the covenant curses. The locust plague is a consequence of breaking the covenant and has its roots all the way back in Deuteronomy. (2) Amos, prophesied in Israel when the Northern Kingdom was engaging in idolatry and social injustice. However, the covenant of Deuteronomy spoke against such sins, binding the people of God to one another. Deuteronomy demonstrates that faithfulness to the covenant meant treating each other by His standards.
We see specific ways God commanded the people to treat each other in the promised land, including: fair treatment of workers (Deut. 24:14-15), there was to be no injustice in the court (Deut. 19:15-21), and care and concern for the widows, orphans, and foreigners (Deut. 24:17-22). Understanding God’s covenant with His people sheds light on the prophet’s message of exile or judgment. Of great importance is the incapability of the people to obey the covenant. This points us to the reason why we needed a New Covenant initiated by Jesus—a covenant written on our hearts.
Second, to be a good student of God’s Word, we must ask ourselves certain questions while in engaging in interpretation. Asking questions such as: Who is the author, and what is known about him? Who is the audience, and what are the circumstances of the audience? What is going on politically, religiously, and culturally?, provides the answer to these questions for the Minor Prophets. The Historical books and the Prophets can be situated historically around three key dates: (1) The destruction and exile of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC, (2) The destruction and exile of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and (3) The return of the of the exiles seventy years later under the Persian Empire in 516 BC. The only books that remain undetermined in their historical context are Joel and Obadiah.
THE ASSYRIAN CONQUEST
- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Jonah are set within the Assyrian Period. They lived and worked during the time of the Assyrian expansion concluding with the conquest and removal of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC. The historical books explain the alternative religious cult that Jeroboam established in Israel when Israel separated from Judah after the time of Solomon (1 Kings 12:25-33). Israel’s first king led the people into apostasy by setting up alternative sanctuaries that cente red on the worship of golden calves. (I hope this reminds you of Aaron and the golden calf in Exodus.) The Israelites had a convenient and political religion. This religion kept the Israelites from traveling a long distance and sustained political control by protecting the Israelites from allegiance with the Southern Kingdom.
- Unfortunately, Israel would continue down this path for her entire history, following in the footsteps of Jeroboam, eventually leading the nation into Baal worship. For example, Micah, a prophet in Israel spoke to the injustices concerning the exploitation of the weak and the worship of idols. The Israelites carved their own images (1:7). Their whole religion was based on an “alternative” religion that sustained their comfort and kept them politically “secure.” Israel’s “comfortable” religion led her to treat God and neighbor in a manner contrary to God’s command, as evidenced in the message of Micah.
THE BABYLONIAN CONQUEST
- The prophets to Judah during the Babylonian period are Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Obadiah. This group existed in the transition of power from Assyria to Babylon, resulting in the exile and destruction of the temple. The judgment of exile through the Babylonians is the backdrop to the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk asked God why He was not dealing with the injustices of His people, but when God answered Habakkuk, He replied that He was raising up the Babylonians to judge Israel. Habakkuk was shocked at God’s reply, not understanding why God would bring a wicked people to destroy God’s people. However, the Lord assures him that He would punish and judge Babylon after He used them for restorative purposes in disciplining His own children.
- During the postexilic period, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Malachi worked and preached. The prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah are situated historically during the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. They begin their prophetic ministry during the disappointments experienced by the returnees to Jerusalem. The Jews needed encouragement and admonishment to complete the temple.
In conclusion, both the Historical books and the Minor Prophets highlight the pattern of sin and destruction found within His people. God’s character does not change, yet God’s people were stuck in a cycle that no king or prophet could remedy. These books get us ready for the hope of a Savior—Jesus Christ.
About DeeDee Williams
For over twenty years, DeeDee Williams has served in ministry in a variety of roles. She has served as a girl’s minister at Champion Forrest Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, has written devotionals in the Psalms and Proverbs Devotional for Women, and has written and taught Bible studies in various churches over the years. DeeDee has also served as an adjunct professor for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In an effort to equip herself to serve the church well, DeeDee has a Masters of Divinity in Biblical Languages through Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is currently in the final stage of earning her PhD in Biblical Theology through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
DeeDee is married to Andrew Williams and has three children, Kenzie (15), Wyatt (11), and Maddie (9). She has served alongside her husband as a pastor’s wife for over a decade. Currently, she and her family now reside in New Orleans where her husband works as the Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services and Operations and is also the Assistant Professor of Expository Preaching for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They are thrilled to be a part of what God is doing on the campus and to be involved in the student’s lives as they pursue God’s calling through theological education.
Above all, DeeDee loves Jesus and desires to see Bible literacy grow and produce fruit as theological education empowers and equips the local church.