Six historical books are included in the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible. The lessons of fulfilled prophecy in these Former Prophets remain relevant today.
The Prophets section of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) is divided as follows:
- Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings.
- Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (also known as Major Prophets) and the 12 Minor Prophets.
Notice that the books of Ruth and 1 and 2 Chronicles, though grouped with the Former Prophets in English Bibles, were not included in the Prophets section in the Hebrew order. They were placed in the Writings section.
Synopsis of the Former Prophets
Authors William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush state the following in their introduction to the Former Prophets:
“The books called ‘Law’ (or Pentateuch) have carried the account of God’s actions from creation to the border of the promised land. That story is continued in the second main division of the Hebrew Bible: the ‘Prophets,’ which is subdivided into ‘Former Prophets’ and ‘Latter Prophets.’ The Former Prophets consist of four books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (later divided into 1-2 Samuel), and Kings (later divided into 1-2 Kings). Their record of divine activity spans nearly seven centuries from Joshua’s call to Jehoiachin’s release” (Old Testament Survey, p. 131).
Why are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings included in the Prophets section?
Why are these historical books grouped with the Prophets? Possible reasons include:
- As a teaching tool. The apostle Paul stated that events in the Old Testament were recorded as vital lessons for future generations (1 Corinthians 10:11-12; Romans 15:4).
- To show fulfilled prophecy. In the Law section the Israelites were repeatedly warned that if they did not obey God and His way of life, they would suffer terrible penalties, including national captivity and deprivation. Notice the example of the final warning Moses gave the nation just before his death (Deuteronomy 31:24-30; 32:29).
Unfortunately these predictions were fulfilled in the lives of the Israelites. If only the professing Christian nations of our time would not make the same mistakes—and suffer the same fate!
Overview of Joshua
The book of Joshua covers the exploits of the Israelites and their leader Joshua as they cross the Jordan River and begin the conquest of the land of Canaan.
The people make a covenant with God while encamped at Gilgal, and then most of the book describes the conquest of Canaan and the division of the Promised Land among the tribes. The book ends with an exhortation from Joshua before his death.
Overview of Judges
The book of Judges commences with the death of Joshua (Judges 1:1) at age 110, around 25 years after entering the Promised Land. After that time Israel began its decline into idolatry and sin. “Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals” (Judges 2:11). As a result, God allowed hostile neighbors to invade and plunder the land. When the people cried out to Him, He raised up judges to deliver them.
This monotonous cycle continued for the next approximately 350 years: Israel rebelled, and God allowed them to be conquered by an enemy king. They cried out to God, and He raised up judges to deliver them. Then the same scenario was repeated a few years later.
- Judges shows that Israel’s national existence depended upon its obedience to God.
- Without godly leadership, people take things into their own hands, leading to anarchy and confusion. This principle is succinctly summed up in Judges 21:25: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Overview of 1 and 2 Samuel
The two books of 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book. They give the account of the monarchy being established in Israel. The story begins where Judges ends, and Samuel ties together the period of the judges with the monarchy.
Samuel was one of the greatest Old Testament figures since Moses, and he plays a prominent part in these books. He acts as priest, prophet and judge (1 Samuel 1-7). He was a Levite, a descendant of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:16, 22-28), a God-fearing leader who was instrumental in shaping the future of Israel. It was Samuel who announced God’s choice of Saul as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 10:17-21), and he also anointed David to be Saul’s successor (1 Samuel 16:4, 13).
Much of the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel is focused on the lives of first Saul, then David, and the striking contrasts between the two.
Overview of 1 and 2 Kings
Kings was also originally one book, though it has been divided into 1 and 2 Kings in English Bibles. These books continue the history of Israel from the ascension of Solomon to his father David’s throne through the division of the kingdom 40 years later. This was followed by a constant rivalry between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This continued until the northern kingdom was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire when Samaria fell in 722-721 B.C.
The southern kingdom of Judah survived for another century before their rejection of God brought about their downfall. They were defeated by the might of the Babylonian Empire and were exiled in Babylon. Jerusalem and Judah so angered God because of their persistent disregard for His laws that He expelled them from His presence (2 Kings 24:20).
The books of 1 and 2 Kings introduce two of the most well-known and dynamic prophets in the Old Testament, Elijah and his successor, Elisha. God worked incredible miracles through these two individuals. They demonstrate how good can triumph over evil.
The examples of many bad kings and a few good kings also illustrate how a nation’s fortunes are greatly influenced by whether there is godly leadership and submission to God and His laws.
Lessons for today
Why do so many people today fail to take the Bible seriously? Even those who profess Christianity ignore or overlook that God intended the Bible to be a handbook for our voyage through life. Our Creator not only created us, He gave us guidelines and direction as we confront the joys, adversities, frustrations, discouragements, abundance and poverty of life.
Moses’ final warning before his death was clear: “Gather to me all the elders of your tribes … that I may speak these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 31:28-29, emphasis added throughout).
Tragically, this cycle of sin and its consequences occurred during the time of the Former Prophets, happening again and again in the history of the nations of Israel and Judah.
And today, increasingly the world is expressing fundamental doubts about the Bible and has rejected its authority in their lives. Once again, everyone is seeking what is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Maybe, without realizing it, they are actually rejecting knowledge, truth and understanding of the purpose of life inspired by the very mind of God their Creator. The result will be the same that befell ancient Israel, since God “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
It is up to each of us to put God’s Word—the Bible—to the test (1 Thessalonians 5:21) so that we can say with absolute trust and confidence: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
For more about how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches, see the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”