Historical Backdrop of the Twelve Prophets

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Historical backdrop

There is much debate about the background and dating of the prophets of Israel and Judah. See Introduction to the Prophets for an overall discussion of the major issues and context of their writings. With respect to the Twelve, let us give a brief outline. Within the first cluster, there is a broad consensus that Hosea, Amos and Micah were situated in the eighth century BC. By that time, the United Kingdom of Israel ruled over by David and then Solomon had been split for some time into a northern kingdom, known as Israel, and a southern kingdom, known as Judah. Micah was a southerner speaking to the south; Amos was a southerner speaking to the north; and Hosea was a northerner speaking to the north.

As the eighth century opened, both the northern and southern kingdoms were enjoying a prosperity and security of borders unprecedented since the time of Solomon. But the clouds were gathering for those with eyes to see, such as our prophets. Internally, the economic and political situation became ever more precarious as dynastic struggles preoccupied the ruling class. Externally the gradual re-emergence of Assyria as a superpower in the region would become an ever-growing threat to both kingdoms. In fact, the northern kingdom was effectively eliminated by the Assyrian army circa 721 BC. It never reappeared again as a political entity, although traces of its existence remain to this day in Samaritan identity (2 Kings 17:1-18). The prophets lay the blame squarely on the people of Israel, and to a lesser extent Judah, for abandoning the worship of Yahweh in favour of idolatry, and for violating the ethical requirements of the Law. Despite these failings, the people lulled themselves into a false sense of security because of their covenant with Yahweh to be his people.

The south, under King Hezekiah, somehow survived the Assyrian threat (2 Kings 19), but faced an even greater challenge in the rise of the Babylonian empire (2 Kings 21). Unfortunately, Judah did not repent of her idolatry and ethical violations after her close escape from the Assyrians. Final defeat came at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BC. This culminated in the destruction of Judah’s societal infrastructure and the deportation of its leadership into exile in the Babylonian empire (2 Kings 24-25). The prophets regarded this defeat as evidence of God’s punishment of the people. This is most sharply etched in the books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah amongst the prophets of the Twelve. They mirror the prophetic writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who also date from this period. Separate books of the Bible record their prophetic careers (see Jeremiah & Lamentations and Work and Ezekiel and Work), and we will not discuss them here.

The great Persian king, Cyrus, defeated Babylon and took over her hegemony. In line with Persian policy, the empire permitted the Jewish people to return to their land and, perhaps more importantly, to re-establish their temple and other key institutions (Ezra 1). All this took place, it seems, at the pleasure of the Persian empire.[1] The prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi did their work during this phase of Israel’s history.

In summary, the Book of the Twelve Prophets spans a wide range of background circumstances in the life of the people of God. Accordingly, it reflects several different paradigms within which faith at work needs to be expressed.