1 AND 2 CHRONICLES Introduction
Originally Chronicles was a single book, and its Hebrew name was ‘The events of the days’—i.e. in the strict sense, ‘journals’, though we should more probably have called it ‘annals’, the events of the years. The lxx, the Greek version of the OT called it ‘Paralipomenon’, the ‘book of things left out’, since at first glance it seems to retell the histories of the books of Samuel and Kings, adding information which they omit. As we read it we quickly realize that that is an inadequate name, because Chronicles clearly does more than fill in gaps. It also leaves out much that Samuel/Kings puts in, and where the two histories do tell the same story they often tell it very differently. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin, said that this book was in fact a ‘chronicle of the whole of sacred history’, and from him comes our present English title. It does, as Jerome indicates, cover not only the span of time dealt with in Samuel/Kings but the entire OT story from Adam through almost to the people of the writer’s own time.
Following the rise to power of Cyrus, king of Persia, who conquered Babylon in 539 bc, many of the Jews living in exile in his territories returned to their own land. Since Chronicles more than once takes that event for granted, it must obviously have been written after it. Many have believed both that Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were all written by the same person, and that that person was Ezra himself, writing fairly soon after the return from exile. But there are also good grounds for dating Chronicles some time later, probably in the fourth century bc. If this is right, then we do not know who its author was. He is usually simply called ‘the Chronicler’. His book was in any case intended for the Jewish community which had settled back in the area around Jerusalem, with a rebuilt temple and priests of Aaron’s line (though no longer with a throne for the kings of David’s line, since it was now part of the Persian empire).
Although Chronicles covers a tremendous sweep of history, it concentrates on the period of the monarchy, when for about 450 years Israel was ruled by a succession of kings, from Saul (c. 1050 bc) to Zedekiah (c. 600 bc). Samuel/Kings was certainly its main source, supplemented by other books now lost to us. So far from romancing when he recounts events not found in the older history, as some have thought, the Chronicler may well be following different sources of considerable accuracy. In 1 Ch. 1–9 he has compiled name-lists, most though not all of them family trees, which bind together the story of God’s people since the beginning of Bible times. 1 Ch. 10–29 covers the reign of David, and 2 Ch. 1–10 that of Solomon. 2 Ch. 11–36 deals with the royal line that descended from them—the kings, that is, of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah—until it ends in exile in Babylon.
Chronicles presents history differently from Samuel/Kings. The differences, the distinctive features of Chronicles, have to do with the Chronicler’s theology—truths about God and the people of God which are his special concern. He assumes throughout that his readers know the facts already, and his object is to interpret them.
One of the most obvious of these features is his concentration on the royal line of David, and therefore on the kingdom centred on Jerusalem. (The kings who ruled the breakaway northern kingdom from 931/30 bc onwards do not in themselves interest him.) Another matter to which he devotes a great deal of space is Solomon’s temple, its priesthood and its worship. This special interest, some have thought, arose from his desire to encourage his contemporaries to be wholeheartedly involved in the activities of the ‘second temple’, their own much less grandiose replacement for Solomon’s. But when we realize how constantly he draws his readers’ attention not only to the temple of Solomon (which did have a visible equivalent in their own day), but also to the throne of David (which did not), we are on the way to a wider and deeper understanding of his message. It is not really about religious observances, any more than it is about political structures. The Chronicler’s twin emphases on throne and temple, on kingship and priesthood, are relevant in all ages, because the first is about how God governs his people, and the second is about how they relate to him.
This in turn helps to explain the Chronicler’s view of the divided kingdom. So far as everyday names were concerned, the north was called Israel and the south Judah. But the real ‘Israel’ meant all those for whom the true kingship was expressed through the sons of David and the true priesthood through the sons of Aaron. That meant southerners (unless they rebelled), but could equally include northerners (if they would return). 2 Ch. 13 is a key chapter in this respect (see especially vs 4–5, 8–12). The Chronicler therefore frequently uses the phrase ‘all Israel’, speaks of the possibility of its reunification and renewal, and presents a picture of an ideal Israel—not a photograph of the nation as it would have appeared at any given time, but a kaleidoscope or montage of glimpses pieced together from various times and sources.
In a similar way he pictures at the heart of the ideal Israel an ideal kingship, in the form of the successive reigns of David and Solomon. As we have noted, his first readers were very familiar with the stories of these two men, and knew how human they were, with great failings as well as great virtues. So we, like those earlier readers, are to understand the Chronicler’s depiction of David and Solomon as the ‘official’ portrait, complementing (not contradicting) the warts-and-all human one in Samuel/Kings. It is not inaccurate—simply selective. It draws attention to those aspects of their reigns which show us something of God’s regular ways of governing his people’s lives.
The Chronicler’s hopes for his own age and his message for later ages include all this, and three other features also. One is continuity. This is brought out by the name-lists of his first nine chapters, binding the people of God together across the generations, and at a deeper level by his constant interest in unchanging principles. He would want to tell us that there is no reason why (making allowances for changed circumstances) the same principles should not apply to the life of God’s people now as then.
Another feature is what some call ‘retribution’, meaning that ‘if I sin I shall be punished’ (though also that ‘if I obey I shall be blessed’). Scripture recognizes elsewhere, and so does the Chronicler himself, that in practice things are usually more complicated than that, but this principle of spiritual cause and effect remains true as a basic fact. One of its consequences is that there is always new hope for each new generation: to simplify this aspect of it also, that ‘if I repent I shall be forgiven’. The NT simply clarifies the principle. The Christian, like his OT counterpart, finds that both obedience and disobedience have inevitable effects; and the unconverted person, for his part, will be punished for the basic sin of rejecting Christ, and blessed when he obeys the gospel.
Finally, there are the Chronicler’s surprising statistics. Amounts of money, the size of armies, and so on, often differ from those in Samuel/Kings, and often appear to be improbably large. Many of the discrepancies can in fact be readily reconciled, and many of the seeming exaggerations may be due to a misunderstanding of words like ‘thousand’, which frequently means a fighting unit of much smaller size, or to the kind of copying error which in our own day might add an extra zero or miss out a decimal point. But a good many queries of this kind remain unexplained. It is quite proper to leave them that way, so long as we bear in mind that the Chronicler was in other areas an accurate writer; that his concern with the regular principles by which God works in the world was served better by fact than by fiction; and that both he and his first readers, well acquainted with the older history (Samuel/Kings) and much closer than we are to the world that both these histories describe, obviously took in their stride such matters as the figures we find difficult.
M. J. Wilcock, The Message of Chronicles, BST (IVP, 1987).
J. G. McConville, Chronicles, DSB (St Andrew Press/Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
R. L. Braun, 1 Chronicles, WBC (Word, 1986).
R. B. Dillard, 2 Chronicles, WBC (Word, 1987).
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
OT Old Testament
c. circa, about (with dates)
NT New Testament
BST The Bible Speaks Today
DSB Daily Study Bible
WBC Word Biblical Commentary