When the earliest of the Twelve (whoever that was) began their ministry in the latter part of the eighth century BC, God’s covenant people were almost two centuries into their time as a divided kingdom. The northern kingdom of ten tribes (referred to as Israel, Ephraim, or Samaria), had plunged into idolatry and numerous other crimes against God and their fellow man. From Jeroboam who introduced idolatry, to Ahab who perpetuated it, none of the northern kings are spoken of favorably by the biblical writers.
The southern kingdom of two tribes (and the Levites) known as Judah was only marginally better because they did have some good kings—men like Uzziah and Hezekiah. Still, they weren’t what they should have been, so God used prophets—men like Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Micah, to speak to both kingdoms during this period. Hosea (written primarily to the northern kingdom), speaks of Israel as an adulterous wife (chapters 1-3, 4:10-12, 5:3-4,7, 9:1).Micah (written primarily to Judah) attacks their idolatry, false prophets, and religious corruption (1:5-7, 2:6, 3:5,11), but spends most of his energy denouncing their deplorable treatment of others (2:1-2, 8-9, 3:1-3).
Sadly, the northern kingdom continued to be unresponsive to God. As a result, the Assyrians began a series of invasions where parts of Israel were captured, their inhabitants deported, and foreigners brought in to repopulate the land. This culminated in 721 BC, when the capital city Samaria fell to the Assyrians. Israel was without a king, a capital, and most of its inhabitants. It would never exist as an independent entity again.
But if things went terribly for the northern kingdom, in the end they didn’t go any better for the Assyrians. Jonah had traveled to Nineveh in the middle of the 8th century and delivered to them a message of judgment—but they repented and God spared them (Jeremiah 18:7-10). A century later, Nahum gave another message of impending judgment. This time there was no penitence on the part of the Assyrians and in 612 BC, the Babylonians and Medes captured Nineveh and sent the great empire into its death throes.
Babylon emerged as the new world power and as their stock rose, Judah’s plummeted. Sadly, they hadn’t learned from the northern kingdom’s exile and closed their heart to God as Israel did.
Zephaniah came on the scene during the reign of Josiah. Despite the great reforms initiated by the king, Judah continued to drift from God. Judgment was coming and Habakkuk wanted to know not only how God could allow Judah’s wickedness to go unpunished but how it was possible that He would use the even more ungodly (in his view) Babylonians to punish Judah. Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem three times between 605 and 586 BC. The last time he destroyed the city and deported its remaining inhabitants. The city was ransacked and looted and Edom had a prominent role. Obadiah was written to tell Edom that they would be punished for what they did to their brother Jacob.
Judah’s exile lasted for 70 years as Jeremiah had predicted (Jeremiah 25). The Persians defeated the Babylonians and their king (Cyrus), granted permission for the exiles to return to Jerusalem. In the first of three recorded trips, the exiles were led by Zerubbabel and Joshua (538 BC). Haggai and Zechariah addressed this group and encouraged them in their rebuilding of the temple. Ezra and Nehemiah led the other two returns. Malachi wrote around the time of Nehemiah and addressed issues pertaining to the returnees as well as speaking of the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus.
The twelve prophets wrote between 750-450 BC. They were written during the time of numerous kings, three empires, two exiles, one glorious return, and inspiring promises for the future. Their message is rich, profound, and challenging, and we neglect it to our poverty.