The book of Kings charts the decline of the kingdom of Israel from the brief glories of the united kingdom under Solomon through the division into two kingdoms on his death and the subsequent accumulating apostasy and sin of firstly the northern kingdom of Israel, culminating in destruction and exile at the hands of Assyria in 2 Kings 17, and secondly the southern kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem finally taken by the Babylonians in 2 Kings 25.
Kings is overwhelmingly a tale of human sin. The reign of Solomon is indeed glorious, but there are question marks over it throughout his reign, even from the very beginning: his political manouevring in chapter 2, his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter and the worship at the high places, (I 3.1-3) before he is granted wisdom, wealth and honour by the LORD. But the absence of whole-hearted devotion (so much gold… and horses… and wives…!) in Solomon results on the judgment of the division of the kingdom.
In the northern kingdom, Jeroboam’s golden calves (this initial new Moses delivering the people from oppression becoing a new Aaron) set the tone for all the succeeding kings and mark Israel for judgment right from the start. (I 14.15-16) Virtually all the remaining kings “walked in the ways of Jeroboam son of Nabat” with the exception of the last king Hoshea, by which time it was far too late.
The second paradigm king in the northern kingdom, Ahab, outdoes Jeroboam by introducing Baal worship thus “provoking the Lord to anger more than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (I 16.33) But even Jehu’s zeal in destroying Baal worship from Israel, for which the LORD rewards him with a dynasty to the fourth generation, does not exempt him from a negative verdict for he too continues in the ways of Jeroboam.
The kings in the south are more varied. There are the bad ones and “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord”, there are the (relatively) good ones who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, enacting some reforms – but leaving the high places intact. And then there are the really bad (Ahaz) who went as far as sacrificing his son in the fire and the really, really bad (Manasseh) whose evil is so deep that the destruction of Judah is finally foretold as a certain thing. And not even the best kings’s (Hezekiah but especially Josiah) goodness is enough to prevent disaster. In the end, both kingdoms are judged and sent into exile for the accumulation of generations of apostasy and rebellion against the covenant.
In constant juxtaposition and interaction with this long, mostly sordid tale is the LORD and His Word: the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic promise, and many specific words utterred through the prophets all play crucial roles in framing what is going on and directing their interpretation.
In relation to the Davidic promise, the whole book is played out against the tension between its conditional and unconditional nature. The original promise (2 Sam 7) is unconditional: David’s kingdom will endure forever, and is sometimes treated as such in Kings (e.g. I 11.36, 39; II 8.19). At other times, though, it seems that the continuation of David’s house is dependent on the obedience of Solomon and his descendants (e.g. I 2.4; 3.6; 8.25; esp. 9.4-9).
This tension is played out immediately on Solomon’s apostasy, as the kingdom is taken away from him and given to Jeroboam, yet the house of David maintains one tribe, because of God’s promise to David.
God addresses Solomon directly on four occasions (I 3.5-15; 6.11-13; 9.1-9; 11.9-13) but after Solomon none of the words of the LORD come directly to kings (or soon-to-be kings) but via a prophet. And virtually all of the prophetic words are directed to the northern kingdom of Israel until the north is destroyed. It seems that the sin and judgment of the north is dealt with first before the buck is passed to the south.
In the early dynasties of the north, the Word of the Lord is always of judgment. The whole history is framed by the long-term promise of exile, predicted right from the start in the reign of Jeroboam (I 14.15-16). Jeroboam’s house is predicted to be cut off, which it is in the second generation, then the usurper, Baasha’s house receives the same word and fulfilment. Judgment on Omri and Ahab’s house takes a lot longer but is just inexorable: the extended Elijah narrative culminates with the word of judgment in I 21.17-24) although its fulfilment also has to wait another nine chapters towards the end of the Elisha narrative as Jehu comes onto the scene. Whether the timescale is short or long, God’s word will be fulfilled, and this shows us that final judgment on the northern kingdom will eventually come. There is even room for relief and grace in the reigns of some of the later northern kings (II 13.4-5, 23; 14.25) but once Jehu’s dynasty ends, the end comes quickly.
All that occurs in the north is also intended to be a mirror on the south. Will what happens in the north also happen in the south? Will the Davidic make any difference? Although many of the kings are better, many are not, and on the whole the relative stability and continuance of the southern kingdom would appear to be down more to God’s commitment to his promise to David than to the southern lot being better at the obedience thing. The judgment on Ahab’s house under Jehu almost overwhelms Judah too and would have done apart from an almost miraculous preservation of baby Joash. David’s line hangs by a thread. But 2 Kings 17.18-19 makes clear that the sins that Israel committed, leading to their judgment, were also committed by Judah. Will Judah survive? At last, under Hezekiah, a prophet appears in the south. Isaiah’s words are of temporary relief in the face of the Assyrian threat, but also of warning of the Babylonian cloud (II 20.16-18). The Word of judgment comes under Manasseh (21.10-15): “I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb-line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes out a dish, wiping it and turning it upside-down.” Not even Josiah’s reforms will save Judah. (II 22.15-20)
2 Kings 23.27 is devastating: “So the LORD said, ‘I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, “There shall my Name be.”’”
The kingdom was conditional on obedience, and so it has proved. The Word of the LORD of judgment is fulfilled. It has done so again and again throughout Kings. And in the largest possible scale it is fulfilled, even to the rejection of Jerusalem and the removal of Judah from the presence of the LORD.
And yet there is one final hint that the LORD has not forgotten his unconditional promise to David. Right at the end we, surprisingly, find Jehoiachin, the penultimate king, released from prison in Babylon, priviledged and eating at the king’s table. It is the merest hint, but there is hope still for God’s people and their line of kings.
What is the message of Kings for today?
- Obedience and trust, disobedience and unbelief, true worship and idolatry are all painted in vivid characters through the lives of so many of the characters in this narrative. They are all – like Elijah – “men just like us” (James 5.17) and thus examples from which to learn. We should avoid making character studies the main point of Kings, but they are certainly there! Kings gives us examples of obedience and godliness under intense pressure, and also a searching analysis of sin, both in the failures of the relatively righteous and the depravity of wickedness.
- The power of the Word of the LORD. It is always fulfilled throughout Kings. It comes through prophets in Kings, but is never controlled by them. Sometimes the fulfilment takes longer than we would expect, but it will be fulfilled. God works in quiet ways (I ch. 19) as well as spectacular (I ch. 18)
- We learn much about the nature of God in Kings: his holiness, anger, patience, grace. He will not allow sin to have the ultimate word, either by letting it go unpunished, or by allowing it to triumph over his grace and promise. This is what lies behind the conditional – unconditional tension.
- The conditional – unconditional tension is not fully resolved by the end of Kings. The book is thus preparatory for the coming of the true Davidic king through whom God’s promise of an everlasting kingdom to the house of David will be fulfilled.