At the beginning of the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son and successor, the northern tribes (that is, all but Judah itself and the small tribe of Benjamin) rebelled (I Kings 12:24) because of the new king’s highhandedness, and from then through the Babylonian exile there was never again a united kingdom. The account of this period is found in I Kings chapters 12-22, II Kings, and II Chronicles chapters 10-36. Apparently II Kings is choosing the most important — from God’s perspective, according to my NIV study Bible — events from history; note also that Second Chronicles virtually ignores the northern kingdom.
What we have is mostly a series of fairly short accounts of one king after another, and we are told how most of them failed to follow God’s law. I thought of listing the various kings, for both the northern and southern kingdoms, with a sentence or two on each king and a reference to where each is discussed in Kings and Chronicles, but of course I quickly discovered that it’s been done already, better than I could. One example is here [link: http://docplayer.net/27709124-Timeline-divided-kingdom-of-israel.html ]; this table also indicates which prophets were active under which king, which is handy.
So instead I’m going to write some about what seems to me to be the major theme of these books — that is, the failure of these kings — followed by notes on particular passages in each of the three books that I found, well, noteworthy.
The big recurrent sin for the Jews was idol worship. And so the question arises whether this diminishes the relevance of much of this history for us. For all our faults, after all, isn’t this one sin we avoid? I recall a joke in which a man listens to a sermon on the Ten Commandments and leaves, downcast. Then he brightens, and says to his wife, “Well, I’ve never worshiped a graven image!”
But of course it depends on what you mean by idol worship. We often do not make worshiping God our top priority, and doesn’t it follow from this that we are, or at least might be, worshiping something else? — and that something is inevitably manmade. Money, to give an obvious example, or status in some other way. In Colossians 3:6, Paul warns that coveting is idolatry.
And while the focus in the history of the divided kingdom on idol worship (and temple upkeep) may seem odd, that emphasis might be viewed in a Protestant way: It’s not works in and for those in this world that matter so much as having a God- and faith-centered life. And so idol worship, neglecting the temple, not tithing — all can be seen as ways of neglecting God and faith. If you’re worshiping the right God, then everything else falls into place, and if that’s more likely to happen when the temple is kept in good repair, then so be it. Conversely, God may well be right that the slope from worshiping an idol to child sacrifice is slipperier and shorter than people know.
By the way, note that King Uzziah’s great sin was apparently that he tried to usurp the priests’ role (26:16-20). Perhaps this is because a king was more likely to be tempted to put worldly things ahead of God, and so it was important that priestly authority be maintained.
But here’s something to wonder about: How could the kings — both as individuals and between immediately adjacent generations — go back and forth so easily from Judaism to paganism? That is perplexing to me. But of course I live in a world where monotheists are in the majority and one almost never meets a figurine-worshiping pagan, whereas the Jews were all alone and so more open to pressure and temptation.
One last point before turning to some additional, specific notes: This is, no doubt about it, depressing and often tedious reading, but the general veracity of this history is supported precisely by the facts that it is unflattering to the Jews and generally quit straightforward and meat-and-potatoes, with even the supernatural events sometimes rather random (see, e.g., II Kings 7:19-20). And the cross-reverencing throughout to other historical books (“As for the other events of so-and-so’s reign, are they not written in” etc.”) further suggests veracity, does it not? And, finally, so does the fact that each king has a mixed record and many of them start out bad and improve, or vice versa.
Additional notes on I Kings:
- Bear in mind, gentle reader, that references to “Israel” and “Israelites” during this period of division refer not to all Jews but just to the tribes of the northern kingdom — that is, it does not include the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (my NIV study Bible says the two “were often mentioned as one tribe because they shared the same border”). The split is first formally noted at 12:20. Tribal jealousies were not new, but it seems to me that the “continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam” (II Chronicles 12:15) was likely precipitated because each thought the other was making fun of his name.
- Ahab is the Old Testament’s Macbeth, and I’m sure the parallels were not lost on Shakespeare. Each was a bad man, with an even worse wife (Ahab and Jezebel must be the most evil couple in the Bible by far; she may be the most evil woman). But Ahab and Macbeth each died in a manly way, unflinchingly entering the fray in the face of adverse prophecy. Ahab must know he’s done for, but bleeds to death after a day-long battle while propped up in his chariot facing the enemy. See I Kings chapter 22 and II Chronicles chapter 18.
- The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel (18:16-40) is a great one, and with some humor at verse 27.
- In 19:12, the Lord speaks to Elijah in “a still small voice.”
- I liked this note for 19:15-16 from my NIV study Bible: “God asked Elijah to anoint three different people. The first was Hazael, as king of Aram. Elijah was told to anoint an enemy king because God was going to use Aram as his instrument to punish Israel for its sin. Aram brought Israel’s external punishment. Israel’s internal punishment came from Jehu, the next man Elijah was to anoint. As king of Israel, Jehu would destroy those who worshiped the false god Baal (2 Kings 9- 10). The third person Elijah was told to anoint was Elisha, the prophet who would succeed him. Elisha’s job was to work in Israel, the northern kingdom, to help point the people back to God. At this time, the southern kingdom was ruled by Jehoshaphat, a king devoted to God.”
- In 19:19, Elijah passes along his mantle to Elisha — literally, which must be where this expression comes from.
- My NIV study Bible has an interesting military history note at 20:23 — “Since the days of Joshua, Israel’s soldiers had a reputation for being superior fighters in the hills, but ineffective in the open plains and valleys because they did not use chariots in battle. Horse-drawn chariots chariots, useless in hilly terrain and dense forests, could easily run down great numbers of foot soldiers on the plains. …”
Additional notes on II Kings:
- It’s not just about kings: This book begins with eight chapters on Elisha’s ministry and miracles. Speaking of which, Elisha’s feeding a multitude with only a little bread (4:42-44) foreshadows what Jesus would do (Jesus fed many more with much less bread, though He did have fish, too); there’s a similar parallel on a still smaller scale with Elijah (I Kings 17:13-16 — the bottomless jar of flour and jug of oil) but, to be fair to Elijah, there’s his more dramatic New Testament-like resuscitation of a dead child (I Kings 17:17-24).
- And speaking of Elijah, I should have noted that I Kings was not just about kings either, since much of Ahab’s story is interwoven with Elijah’s ministry (see chapters 17-21; note the abrupt introduction of Elijah as Ahab’s nemesis at 17:1). I like my NIV study Bible’s note for 17:10ff: “In a nation that was required by law to care for its prophets, it is ironic that God turned to ravens (unclean birds) and a widow (a foreigner from Jezebel’s home territory) to care for Elijah. …”
- In the middle of much prosaic history, I was taken aback to find verse at 19:21-34.
- It’s not stressed, but an important difference is implicit in the description of Assyrian versus Babylonian policy toward conquered peoples, in that the former apparently moved out them out more indiscriminately than the latter, who selected only the talented, and brought them to Babylonian cities. Compare 17:24-26 (don’t miss the way God uses lions!) with 24:14. As a result, the former created the despised, half-breed Samaritans, while the latter preserved a united Jewish elite that eventually returned to Jerusalem.
Additional notes on II Chronicles:
- It seemed remarkable to me that Judah would make an anti-Israel alliance with a gentile king (chapter 16).
- Christians interpret 21:7 (“Nevertheless, because of the covenant the Lord had made with David, the Lord was not willing to destroy the House of David. He had promised to maintain a lamp for him and his descendants forever.”) in light of the fact that Christ, our eternal king, was from the House of David.
- Jehoram (chapter 21) gets the prize for most wretched king: What an awful man and what an awful life! He starts by murdering all his brothers; otherwise “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (21:6), who aroused the Philistines and Arabs against him, and they plundered all Jehoram’s palace goods and carried off all his sons (except one) and wives; and ends … well, here’s how his life ends (21:18-20):
After all this, the Lord afflicted Jehoram with an incurable disease of the bowels. In the course of time, at the end of the second year, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great pain. His people made no fire in his honor, as they had for his fathers. … He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
- Jehoram receives a letter telling him what’s in store and why from Elijah, making a cameo appearance (21:12-15).
- Speaking of awful people, the worst woman in the Bible (Jezebel) had — no surprise — a bad daughter, Athaliah, discussed at 22:10-23:21.
- But the lesson of another bad king, Manasseh (chapter 33), is that God can forgive anyone.
- I thought it was interesting that, after Israel defeats Judah at one point and plunders the temple and palace, its army just returns home rather than claim to rule a reunited kingdom (25:20-24). For whatever reason, God did not want a reunification yet. See also 28:5-15.
- Most of the kings get fairly brief write-ups, so it’s noteworthy that four chapters are devoted to Hezekiah: Chapter 29 is all on purifying the temple and making offerings there; chapter 30 discusses a Passover celebration to which he invites the northern tribes (their territory is Assyrian-occupied by this time); chapter 31 is on tithing and other offerings; and chapter 32 is on his defeat of the Assyrian army (responding to a prayer from Hekekiah and the prophet Isaiah, “the Lord sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the leaders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king” — 32:20-21). But he was not perfect — too prideful (32:24-26) — and his son and successor, the aforementioned Manasseh, “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (33:2).
- One of the last Judah kings is Josiah, who has the distinction of being a king that the prophet Jeremiah actually liked (35:25). During his reign, a priest found “the Book of the Law that had been given through Moses” (34:14 — probably Deuteronomy). When the book was read out loud to him, the king tore his robes because he learned the Jews “‘have not acted in accordance with all that written in this book'” (34:21). I wonder if there were things in the book labeled sins that he thought were not sins, or whether his reaction was prompted by the book’s simply bringing home how definite and serious the sins were.
- I suppose we must say that the book ends on a high note, with the Persian king Cyrus supporting the rebuilding of the temple (36:22-23). Remember that the traditional author of the book is Ezra, who we will learn in the next book plays a leading role in the Jewish return from Babylon to Jerusalem.
One last observation: All Scripture is God’s word, and it’s all worth reading and pondering. That said, though, I’ll close by noting that, in terms of grabbing the reader and holding his attention, it’s good that the Bible begins with Genesis rather than the history of the divided kingdom.