The 2001 Commentaries

The 390 and 40 years of Ezekiel chapter 4

In Ezekiel chapter 4, the prophet was told to lie on his left side for 390 days to show the number of years (a day per year) of IsraEl’s rebellion against God until the entire nation (IsraEl and Judah) was to be destroyed by Babylon. He was also to lie on his right side for 40 days to symbolize the 2-tribe nation of Judah’s ‘unrighteous ways’.

There is some difficulty with the chronology of working out exactly when these periods begin.

Firstly, most people assume that the 40 years is added to the 390 years, for a total of 430 years. However, this doesn’t seem to be possible because the length of the reigns of the kings simply do not add up that far. The 40 years must be the last part of that same 390-year period.

The final 40 years of this 390-year period could represent the time since the Jews found of the scroll of God’s Law in the 18th year of righteous King JosiAh’s reign. This appears to have been God’s final warning to Judah before JeruSalem’s destruction. We do not know for sure because the Bible does not say, but it was probably obvious to listeners at the time.

Anayway, what’s the problem with the 390 years? Well, notice the chronology:

Kings of IsraEl:

JeroBoam 22-yrs (1 Kings 14:20)
Nadab 2-yrs (1 Kings 15:25)
BaAsha 24-yrs (1 Kings 15:33)
ElAh 2-yrs (1 Kings 16:8)
Zimri 7 days (1 Kings 16:15)
Tibni (brief period)
Omri 12-yrs (1 Kings 16:23)
Ahab 22-yrs (1 Kings 16:29)
AhaziAh 2-yrs (1 Kings 22:52)
JehoRam 12-yrs (2 Kings 3:1)
Jehu 28-yrs (2 Kings 10:36)
JehoAhaz 17-yrs (2 Kings 13:1)
JehoAsh 16-yrs (2 Kings 13:10)
JeroBoam 41-yrs (2 Kings 14:23)
ZechariAh 6 months (2 Kings 15:8)
ShalLum 1 month (2 Kings 15:13)
Menahem 10-yrs (2 Kings 15:17)
PekahJah 2-yrs (2 Kings 15:23)
Pekah 20-yrs (2 Kings 15:27)
HosheA 9-yrs (2 Kings 17:1)
TOTAL = 241 years, 6 months, and 7 days.

Kings of Judah:

The King of Israel Hoshea started his reign in Ahaz King of Judah’s 12th year (2 Kings 17:1). Hoshea ruled for 9 years before the Northern Kingdom of IsraEl was destroyed in the 6th year of King HezekiAh’s 29-yr reign, which lasts 23 more years (2 Kings 18:1-12)
ManasSeh 55-yrs (2 Kings 21:1)
Amon 2-yrs (2 Kings 21:19)
JosiAh 31-yrs (2 Kings 22:1)
JehoAhaz 3 months (2 Kings 23:31)
JehoiAkim 11-yrs (2 Kings 23:36)
JehoiAchin 3 months (2 Kings 24:12)
ZedekiAh 11-yrs (2 Kings 24:18)
TOTAL = 133 years and 6 months

GRAND TOTAL: 241.5 + 133.5 = 375 years

As you can see, this doesn’t add up to 390 years (15 years short), and it certainly doesn’t add up to 430 years! So the final 40 years must overlap with the 390 years and be the final part of it. Why, though, do the kings not add up to 390 years?

There are two possibilities. It could be that some of the reigns of the kings of IsraEl were rounded down somehow, and this created a 15 year discrepancy. Indeed, if we instead only count the reigns of the Judean kings for the entire time period, they add up to 398.5 years. Why? We’re not sure, but we do know that the two nations used different counting methods, also scholars believe that due to this, 6 Judean kings had overlapping reigns, while only 3 Israeli kings overlapped. So could the reign of IsraEl’s kings be rounded down in some manner, while Judah’s had lots of overlapping? It seem so. The Judean kings list is certainly close enough to the 390 years to be right.

The second possibility is that we’ve got the start date wrong. Since the 390 years are for IsraEl, it’s assumed that the 390 years must begin when the Northern 10-tribe Kingdom of Israel was created, when the nation split in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. However, the text in Ezekiel does not explicitly say this, it only says that he must ‘go to sleep on your left side [...] You must bear their ‘unrighteous ways’. Now, when did their unrighteous ways begin? We could go all the way back to Moses’ day if we wanted! However, at first Solomon was a faithful King. So if these unrighteous ways actually began during the reign of King Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-13) when he turned to other Gods, then we don’t actually know the exact start date. The 390 years of IsraEl’s unrighteous acts could have begun with him. The Bible calls Solomon ‘King of Israel’ (1 Kings 1:36; 2:35; 4:1; 4:7; 6:1; 11:42; 1 Chronicles 22:9; 23:1; 28:5; 2 Chronicles 1:13; 8:11; 9:30), and he reigned for 40 years. So there is more than enough time to fill in the gaps.

Of course, if this latter theory is true, it adds more uncertainty to Biblical chronology, since we couldn’t then use the 390 year prophecy to establish the length of this time period!

So it seems that we have several possibilities:

The truth is we can’t be dogmatic about it because it all requires some guesswork.

Note that none of this aligns with secular chronology, which places Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BCE and Rehoboam’s reign starting in 931 BCE – just 344 years earlier, not 390. Even adding on all of Solomon’s reign (which would not make sense) brings us to 384 years, 6 years short. So clearly there are either some errors somewhere or a misunderstanding.

For more information about the difficulties of measuring the Israelite kings, see this page. There’s also a good description of the different ways kings were counted at this page.

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