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2 Chronicles covers a long span of time. It starts off with the reign of King Solomon and goes up to end of the Babylonian captivity in 538 BCE. That's a lot of ground to cover in just one book, although 1 Chronicles starts literally at the beginning of time so it wins the timeline contest.
In order to understand 2 Chronicles, you've got to understand the basic history of Israel according to the Bible. After all, the Chronicler doesn't fill us in on all the dates and details. He just assumes his readers will know this stuff. Here's a basic rundown of everything that's happened in the Bible up until this point.
Way back in Genesis, God makes a pact with Abraham and his sons—if they'll be his people, he'll be their God. He sends Abraham to the land of Canaan, which he promises to him and his descendants for eternity. Abraham's descendants—sometimes called the 12 tribes of Israel—leave their homeland of Canaan during a famine to buy food in Egypt. They settle there and become a large nation, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh eventually enslaves. A guy named Moses steps forward, telling Pharaoh to let his people go. Those people—called Israelites—flee into the Egyptian desert, where they spend the next 40 years wandering around looking to reclaim their land in Canaan, all while figuring out the proper ways to worship and obey God. At Mt. Sinai, Moses receives the laws by which the community will operate.
When God finally lets them into Canaan—the Promised Land—he appoints judges to rule over the people and chooses prophets to make sure his words get heard. When the people of Israel demand a king, God reluctantly gives them one: Saul. King Saul doesn't turn out to be so great, so God replaces him with King David, who would go onto become the greatest king of Israel and the founder of the dynasty of all subsequent kings.
2 Chronicles begins with the death of David. His son, Solomon, takes the reigns and Israel prospers. Solomon oversees the building of a massive house of worship known as the Temple in Jerusalem. This cements Jerusalem as the cultural and religious capital of the nation. The setting seems to be another golden age, with the wise and wealthy Solomon on the throne, respected by other nations and backed by You-Know-Who.
After Solomon dies, Israel splits into two nations—the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The rest of 2 Chronicles is set in this region of constant war and conflict. Both Israel and Judah are besieged by each other and countless local tribes and nations. Periods of calm (righteous kings and God's approval) are mixed with times of upheaval (bad kings and God's punishment).
Ultimately, in 722 BCE, the Northern Kingdom is attacked by King Sargon II, the ruler of the Assyrian Empire. The 10 tribes that lived up north scatter to other nations and never return. That's the reason they're sometimes called the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.
Judah doesn't fair much better. 2 Chronicles describes Judah's dealings with powerful conquering nations through the reigns of many kings over hundreds of years. Because most of these kings strayed far from God's law and engaged in various disgusting and alien practices, God eventually arranged for the Babylonian empire to destroy Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple around 586 BCE, a national tragedy of stunning proportions. Much of the population was carted off to Babylon; the rest starved, were butchered by the invaders, or were left to try to survive in the ruined city.
2 Chronicles ends on an optimistic note. The Babylonian reign ends when Babylon is taken down by the Persian Empire in 539 BCE. After decades in exile in Babylon, the Jews are allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild, thanks to King Cyrus the Great of Persia (moved by the spirit of God, of course). Construction on the new building starts in 536 BCE, which is pretty close to 70 years after the first attack on Jerusalem by Babylon, which is exactly what the Prophet Jeremiah predicted would happen. See "We told you so."
2 Chronicles covers a period of over 400 years—from the start of Solomon's reign around 970 BCE to the return to Jerusalem in 539 BCE. Obviously, this wasn't all written down as it happened. The author sits down at some point to put pen to paper. Or stylus to papyrus. So when is that? Scholars don't know for sure, but their best guess is that it's sometime between 460-320 BCE (source: The Oxford Bible Commentary, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 269).
It definitely has to be sometime after 538 BCE because that's when the Jews started to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. The Chronicler is clearly living in a post-exilic Israel, maybe even in Jerusalem. People are coming back to the capital city and they've even started on a project to design and build a whole new Temple. What a coincidence! The Chronicler has just the story to tell you all about the building of the original Temple. Imagine that.
The returned exiles have come back to a city reduced to rubble, occupied by foreigners, with no decent agriculture, no apparent leadership, and lots of bad memories. The Chronicler decides that a refresher course in the Golden Age of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be just the thing. Maybe it will encourage the people and give them some guidelines for establishing a new society under the laws God gave them. Not to mention some ideas about what the new Temple should look like. In 2 Chronicles, the Chronicler is tracking the events that led up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The message for the reader is clear—here's how we got into this mess. Let's not do it again.
If you read the Bible, you'd think that Judah was the center of the universe. But was this little country really such a major player?
Not really. There's not a whole lot of non-biblical historical evidence for the existence of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which probably means that its kings weren't that big of a deal. In fact, some of them may not have existed. Outside of the Bible, only (the House of) David, Hezekiah, and Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah are mentioned by any non-Jewish source. And those are ancient tablets recording their defeat at the hands of other kings. It's possible that there were about 20 different kings who ruled over Judah, but their reigns might have been shorter and less influential than the Bible says.
The important empires around this time period were actually the Egyptians and the Assyrians. Israel would have probably had closer relations with the Egyptians, but the Assyrians took over the region in the 8th century BCE. After that, this little nation would be under the thumb of one empire or another for the rest of its existence. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians (again), and the Roman Empire would all take turns running the show in Judah. Its strategic location along major trade routes made it a target for takeover by whoever happened to be in power at the time. Assyria and Babylon to the north, Egypt to the south—it didn't stand much of a chance.
Since this book was written hundreds of years after all this stuff actually happened, its historical reality is questionable. The Chronicler sees this era as critical in the history of the Jewish people. But it's also one that might have never existed, at least on the grand scale described in 2 Chronicles.
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