My church’s women’s Bible study just completed Angie Smith’s Seamless: Understanding the Bible as One Complete Story. It was perfect for small groups that have a mix of new believers and mature Christians (more on that next week). Several women told me they’d love to understand the Old Testament even better, especially where the prophetic books fit in with the histories. They also wanted to dive deeper into their understanding of the entire story of the Bible. So I’m offering a two-part series on tools to help you do just that.
Here I offer
- A free downloadable Bible outline
- Six timelines to help you understand the Old Testament
- Tips on using those tools to read the Old Testament chronologically
- A short explanation of how the Old Testament prophetic books fit with the books of history
Old Testament and New Testament Outline
The Bible’s books are arranged by genre. You need to know a book’s genre to understand what you’re reading. If your Bible’s table of contents doesn’t outline the books for you, you can use this Bible Outline to add headings to your contents page.
As the Bible Outline shows, the Old Testament books of Joshua through Esther are histories. Reading the histories chronologically gives us a better understanding of what happened. The histories are listed chronologically with three exceptions:
- Ruth takes place somewhere within Judges.
- 1,2 Chronicles were written around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, but they chronicle King David’s reign and the reigns of his descendants.
- Chapters 1-9 are genealogies starting with Adam. Part of chapter 9 goes with Nehemiah 11.
- The rest of 1,2 Chronicles goes with 1 Samuel 31 to the end of 2 Kings.
- Esther goes with Ezra 4:6.
How to Read 1,2 Chronicles Chronologically
Saul, David, and Solomon reigned over all of Israel. After Solomon, the kingdom split into two kingdoms: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. David’s descendants ruled over the south. While 1,2 Kings summarizes the reigns of both kingdoms, 1,2 Chronicles summarizes only the reigns of David and his descendants. Therefore, to read Kings with Chronicles, use two bookmarks. When you finish reading about David, Solomon, and any king of Judah, hop over to Chronicles and read about the same king.
Timelines for Reading the Old Testament Prophets with the Histories
Timelines that show historical events and when the prophets ministered will help you understand what events the prophets were talking about. They’ll also help you coordinate reading the histories and prophetic books together.
How the Prophetic Books are Arranged
The books of the prophets are divided into two groups:
- The Major Prophets ministered over decades so their books are longer (“major” means long)
- The Minor Prophets ministered for shorter times so their books are shorter (“minor” means short).
How to Read the Prophetic Books with the Histories
To read the prophetic books with the histories, keep timelines at hand. My NIV Zondervan Study Bible has timelines that show key historical events, the kings’ reigns, and the ministries of the major prophets and half the minor prophets. I wrote five additional minor prophets’ names on the timeline approximately where they go (see figure). Two prophetic books are missing from this timeline: Lamentations, which Jeremiah wrote so it belongs with Jeremiah’s ministry on the timeline, and Joel, whose date is unknown. If your Bible has timelines, use the figure to the right to fill in any missing prophets.
I often create additional timelines that zoom in on time periods that have a lot of related material. Here are six timelines I created for The Story: Personal Journal and Discussion Guide. The timelines show you at a glance where the main prophets fit within the histories.
- 1 Kings Of Israel and Judah 930 to 850 BC
- 2 The Beginning of the End 750 to 680 BC: The fall of Israel and the prophetic ministries of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah
- 3 The Kingdoms Fall 655 to 570 BC: The fall of Judah and the prophetic ministries of Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel
- 4 Daniel in Exile 620 to 530 BC: Daniel’s chapters chronologically
- 5 The Return Home 540 to 470 BC: The return from Exile, Esther, and the prophetic ministries of Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah
- 6 Rebuilding the Walls 480 to 430 BC: Esther, rebuilding the walls under Ezra and Nehemiah, and the prophetic ministry of Malachi
Understanding How the Prophetic Books and Histories Relate
The key to understanding how most of the prophets and histories relate is this cycle:
- When Moses brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, he warned them that if they ever turned away from God and started committing the sins of the current inhabitants (such as sacrificing children to idols), God would drive them out of the land.
- Whenever the people went astray, God sent prophets to call them to repent and return to God lest God drive them out of the land.
- Eventually the people quit listening to the prophets, so the prophets’ message changed to one of impending judgment via exile followed by grace; the messages of grace talked about a new King who would one day rule righteously.
The northern kingdom of Israel quit listening to the prophets first, so God sent Assyria to deport them from the land. Later, the southern kingdom of Judah quit listening to the prophets and God sent Babylon to deport them. After 70 years, God allowed the people to return to the land, but they were ruled by foreign powers. There they awaited the new anointed King, the Messiah. The New Testament tells us about him: Jesus Christ.
Tips About the Major Prophets
Here are a couple helpful points about the major prophets.
- All the major prophets are from Judah (the southern kingdom)
- Isaiah prophesied around the time of the fall of Israel (the northern kingdom); the rest prophesied around the time of the fall of Judah
- Judah’s exile happened in three stages, resulting in 3 prophets speaking from diverse places
- Daniel went to the Babylonian king’s palace in the first deportation; he served in government and showed God was in charge
- Ezekiel went to Mesopotamia in the second deportation; ministered to exiles
- Jeremiah stayed in Jerusalem until the third deportation and Jerusalem’s fall; he helped the people who ignored his warnings mourn
- Only Ezekiel is chronological
Tips About the Minor Prophets
- The Minor Prophets are clustered around 3 events:
- The time leading up to and surrounding Israel’s exile: The first 6 books except Obadiah and perhaps Joel (Joel’s date is unknown)
- The time leading up to Judah’s exile: Books 7-9 plus Obadiah
- Between Judah’s restoration and the end of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s reforms: The last 3 books
- They tell us a lot about social injustice and what God thinks about the rich and powerful taking advantage of the weak
- Want to know more? Here’s an article I wrote for Crosswalk: 6 Things Every Christian Should Know About the Minor Prophets
Next week I’ll review Bibles, books, and study guides that are helpful for understanding the Old Testament.7 free tools for understanding the Old Testament Click To Tweet The key to understanding how the Old Testament prophetic books relate to the histories Click To Tweet Free Bible outline and timelines Click To Tweet How to read the Old Testament chronologically (not as hard as you think!) Click To Tweet