1 & 2 Kings
The Biblical Story. First and Second Kings, as the title suggests, tells the story of the greater part of Israel’s monarchy. Political factors and figures fill the pages, but the most significant player is not the imperial ruler but the Lord, Yahweh, who orders history itself. According to 1 & 2 Kings, the single factor that led Israel from the glory of Solomon’s kingdom and temple to exile in Assyria and Babylon was Israel’s inciting the Lord to anger by failing to live according to Torah by loving God, serving God exclusively, practicing justice, and keeping covenant.
Because 1 & 2 Kings is the final epoch—not only in the story of Israel from its entry into the land following Moses’ valedictory instructions in Deuteronomy but also the final act in the grand story of humanity that begins with creation in Genesis and ends with the exile from the land (Genesis–2 Kings)—grasping the message of 1 & 2 Kings depends on understanding its role as the conclusion of the larger narrative. This conclusion is crucial to fathoming the fundamental value in the Old Testament’s engagement with the purpose for life. Israel’s failure to live according to the human vocation results in Israel’s demise in exile.
Genesis 1 expresses the human vocation in terms of being created in the image of God, to act as representatives of God, as stewards of the creation order, doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 1:26; 2:15; 9:1-17; 18:19). Humans are later forbidden to create idolatrous images which corrupt the human calling. To worship images, to practice idolatry, is to reject God’s values, the pursuit of justice and righteousness (Exod. 20:1-6).
In Deuteronomy the call to practice justice by caring for the marginalized is located within the mandate to love God, to live faithfully in covenant with God, to walk in the ways of God (10:12-20). Because humans have experienced God’s righteousness and justice, they are called to extend it to orphans, widows, and undocumented aliens. Deuteronomy also envisions a king who can succeed if he keeps Torah and refuses to accumulate wealth, weapons (horses and chariots), and worldly alliances (multiple wives; 17:14-20). Though Deuteronomy predicts Israel’s failure to keep covenant, it also anticipates their return from exile to the land (4:25-31; 30:1-5).
In 1 & 2 Kings, we begin with a united Israel led by the wise King Solomon, blessed with material abundance, and worshiping the Lord in a glorious temple. The Lord promises Solomon that his house, that is his royal lineage, and the house Solomon has built for God, the temple, will flourish if Solomon obeys Torah by doing justice (1 Kings 3:10-14). Solomon’s policies directly contradict the Deuteronomic Law of the King as he uses his wisdom not to pursue the justice of Torah but to accumulate wealth, weapons, and wives who turn his heart to other gods (1 Kings 11). The kingdom is torn asunder upon Solomon’s death. The northern tribes known as Israel reject the temple and establish a new capital in Samaria but with unstable royal leadership. The southern tribes retain the temple in Jerusalem and are led by the Davidic dynasty. At the center of 1 & 2 Kings, the prophets Elijah and Elisha oppose Baal worship and try to draw Israel back to the Lord (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 13). Growing instability led to the demise of an independent Israel and to deportation of the leading members of the land into exile; at heart, this was due to their idolatrous rejection of Torah by pursuing unjust policies (2 Kings 17). The smaller, weaker kingdom of Judah, despite extensive reforms led by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18–20) and Josiah (2 Kings 22–23) also is destroyed by a Mesopotamian empire and taken to exile (2 Kings 25). The primary reason for hope is that the book of Deuteronomy—before Israel enters the land of promise—anticipates return from exile. But the account in 1 & 2 Kings ends in devastation.
Theological Themes in 1 & 2 Kings. The message of 1 & 2 Kings is expressed through four theological themes: One, justice is the generous way of Yahweh in creating structure to protect the marginalized (Deut. 10:12-21), contrasted with royal justice, the grasping ways of the nations and their gods (2 Kings 17:24-41). Two, idolatry, illicit idol worship on high places and in Baal temples, is more than cultic unfaithfulness. Idolatry is the ideological base for royal accumulation of power, wealth, and human resources, including forced labor, military service, and large harems. Three, covenant presents justice as the primary mandate for covenant people. Human behavior is rewarded with blessings or curses, depending on covenant faithfulness. The covenant offers life, anticipates exile, and promises return from exile for repentant people. Four, provoking the Lord to anger, a frequent term in 1 & 2 Kings, attributes imperial invasions and natural disasters to the Lord’s wrath. This perspective recognizes Yahweh’s sovereignty over history, including powerful empires. If it is the Lord’s wrath that brings exile, Israel need not fear imperial deities. Further, if exile results from God’s reaction to human injustice, human repentance and obedience promise life; human agency influences outcomes. The theology of Kings may appear problematic because of its teachings of retribution (reward and punishment) and the frequent reminder that human evil provokes divine wrath. This perspective recognizes both that human actions have real consequences and that God’s sovereignty limits human injustice even by employing evil imperial powers to bring judgment. Political rulers are held accountable for policies of violent domination.
Date, Setting, and Author
The final form of 1 & 2 Kings cannot have taken shape before about 560 BCE, the approximate date of the final note in 2 Kings 25:27-30 about the place of Judah’s King Jehoiakim at the imperial table. In 1957, German scholar Martin Noth theorized that a Palestinian survivor of the exile used written records to write a Deuteronomistic History, the books that are grouped together in the Hebrew Bible canon as the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), to explain Israel’s failure in the land due to their failure to keep covenant with the Lord (Noth). In the 1970s, American scholar Frank Moore Cross revised Noth’s theory, positing an earlier optimistic history written during the reform of King Josiah (Dtr1), then rewritten by a later editor during exile (Dtr2) (Cross). A later Scandinavian school offered yet another possibility, identifying at least three major editions, a primary historical account (DtrH), an account featuring the prophets (DtrP), and a third edition featuring the Law (DtrN—nomistic) (Smend; Dietrich; Veijola). Yet others identify earlier editions or collections of stories attributed to various authorities (a prophetic school of the followers of Elisha, a defense of the Israelite dynasty of Jehu, the reform of Hezekiah, as examples). Still others point to the paucity of archaeological evidence of great kingdoms in Palestine and suggest a later literary production written to defend powerful interests in the land. Scholars have generally argued that 1 & 2 Chronicles uses and revises 1 & 2 Kings for its own purposes of defending postexilic Temple interests. Focusing on the significance of justice as a theme in 1 & 2 Kings, Doorly has argued that Jeremiah or his secretary Baruch wrote the book, a theory he defends as an explanation for the absence of Jeremiah as a character in Kings, though he appears in Chronicles (Doorly). Predictive prophecy and its fulfillments are tracked through the eras.
Form, Rhetoric, and Structure
First and Second Kings is written as historical narrative, routinely citing the annals of the kings of Israel and Judah as sources that help establish verisimilitude, a sense of reliability or authenticity. The absence of these sources in archaeological investigation neither disproves their existence nor supports the plausibility that the authors had such records available. Starting with the divided kingdom in 1 Kings 12, the book of Kings opens and closes “files” of the kings of the two competing kingdoms of Israel and Judah, dating the opposing king in the biographical record of his rival. Typically, the summary of each king includes the name of the king’s mother (or father for the kings of Israel), length of term, and an assessment of the king’s rule (unvaryingly, the kings of Israel do “evil in the sight of the Lord”). In summary, the structure of Kings is as follows:
- 1 Kings 1–11 (ca. 960–920 BCE) the death of David, and the united kingdom under King Solomon
- 1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17 (920–722 BCE) the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah from the time of Jeroboam to the Assyrian exile
- 2 Kings 18–25 (722–560 BCE) the final years of the kingdom of Judah in Jerusalem until the Babylonian exile, with a later concluding note
Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE; Judah’s three deportations into Babylonian exile took place between 597 and 581 BCE.
Summary and Comment
Upon the death of David, the narrative establishes Solomon as the unrivaled, blessed, wise, wealthy, powerful king of a united kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem. After any threat to Solomon’s claim to throne is eliminated (1 Kings 1–2), the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream, offering him whatever the king desires. Solomon recognizes his lack of experience and asks the Lord for the capacity to discern justice. The Lord blesses Solomon’s request, offering him not only wisdom but also wealth and length of days (1 Kings 3:1-15). Immediately, Solomon demonstrates faithful exercise of wisdom to do justice by resolving an apparently insoluble puzzle, protecting the rights of a mother, and extending justice even to the lowest members of society (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Having been established as a king whose wisdom results in peace and prosperity for all (1 Kings 4), Solomon turns to the central task of his reign, the construction of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5:1–9:9). After carefully planning and carrying out construction of the ornate house for the Lord, Solomon dedicates the temple with throngs of worshipers, thousands of sacrifices, and a lengthy prayer in which the king praises God for establishing him as the son of David as king and through a series of six separate petitions asks the Lord to hear prayer spoken from this temple or even from exile in the direction of the temple (1 Kings 8). Following a second appearance of the Lord to Solomon in which the Lord promises an unending dynasty to Solomon if he and his descendants keep Torah and warns of destruction of the temple if they do not (1 Kings 9:1-9), the narrative itemizes opulent royal policies and practices without comment but in conflict with the Deuteronomic Law of the King (Deut. 17:14-20; 1 Kings 9:10–10:29). Finally, the narrator quotes the Lord as judging Solomon’s idolatry that results from his love of a thousand wives and concubines and recounts the prophetic initiative to remove the northern tribes from the house of David in punishment of Solomon’s failure to keep covenant (1 Kings 11). The kingdom is torn from Solomon and split between Solomon’s overseer of forced labor, Jeroboam, and his son, Rehoboam.
In 1 Kings 1–10 the narrator does not condemn Solomon’s policies or give negative evaluation. There is merely juxtaposed notation, for example, that the Lord’s temple was seven years in construction while Solomon’s palace took thirteen (1 Kings 6:38; 7:1). The absence of direct judgment suggests that the condemnation of Solomon for idolatrous rejection of the Lord’s Torah is a sudden event at the end of Solomon’s life and the result of his many marriages to foreign women. The narrative embeds more subversive details throughout the Solomon story that alert the reader that all is not well. On his deathbed David calls on Solomon to faithfully follow Torah (1 Kings 2:4-5), then orders him to use royal wisdom to eliminate his rivals (2:6-9). Though the narrative reports that the kingdom is “firmly established” (2:12 NRSV passim), Solomon’s bloody purging of rivals concludes with the more subdued assessment that the kingdom is “established” (2:46). Solomon loves the Lord unconditionally yet marries Pharaoh’s daughter and offers sacrifices at the forbidden high places (3:1-4). The report of peace and prosperity throughout Israel and Judah (4:20-25) is framed by two references to administrative officials. The list of Solomon’s officials precedes the report of peace (4:1-19). Following the report of prosperity attributed to foreign tribute, the text adds that the Israelite officials deliver monthly supplies extracted from the people to maintain Solomon's unrivaled military might (4:26-28).
Solomon’s glorious building projects are constructed with forced labor, identified first as Israelite laborers (5:13-17 and later as lower-class aliens who do not enjoy the full rights of citizens (9:15-23). When the Lord speaks to Solomon about the temple that the king is building, instead of an expected word of affirmation, the Lord simply tells Solomon to keep Torah without a word about the temple itself (6:11-13). The primary craftsman of the temple furnishings is Hiram, a man of mixed Phoenician-Israelite lineage (7:13-14), just as the temple itself mixes worship of the Lord with an ostentatious and costly structure that the Lord had previously prohibited when David proposed it (2 Sam 7). As noted previously, following the temple dedication the Lord appears a second time to Solomon to declare that his name is associated with the temple, but that failure to keep Torah will result in destruction and exile (1 Kings 9:1-9). The reports of building projects, accumulation of wealth and weapons, and the accounts of royal excess appear superficially to glorify Solomon (9:10–10:29), but not only do these actions transgress the Law of the King (Deut. 17:14-20), but the pagan queen of Sheba herself reminds Solomon that the Lord has placed him on the throne to “execute justice and righteousness” (10:9). The Lord’s judgment on Solomon includes not only condemnation of pagan temple worship but also failure to be faithful to Torah which calls for justice to be exercised for the marginalized (1 Kings 11:9-13; Deut. 10:12-21).
The Divided Kingdom
When Solomon’s son Rehoboam goes to Shechem to claim sovereignty over Israel, the people led by Jeroboam demand an end of unjust labor and taxation policies (1 Kings 12). When Rehoboam rejects the advice of the elders and declares that he will intensify royal administrative demands, the people of the northern tribes reject the rule of the Davidic dynasty and choose Jeroboam as king. Though the prophet Ahijah has offered Jeroboam a long-lasting dynasty if he were to choose Torah justice, Jeroboam acts like a second Solomon, building and dedicating a new cultic center, and extending royal injustice, a policy that leads to the death of his sons and the end of his dynasty (1 Kings 13–14). A period of brief dynasties in Israel and constant conflict with Judah ensues (1 Kings 15–16). The kings of Israel are invariably characterized as evil. Even the kings of Judah in the south who receive more favorable evaluations compromise their faithfulness with alliances with non-Israelite rival powers.
The chaotic interim of brief dynasties in the two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:1–16:20) gives way to dramatic change on two narrative planes. One, King Omri establishes a royal dynasty, forges an alliance with Tyre and Sidon, and constructs a new capital city in Samaria (1 Kings 16:21-28). Omri’s son Ahab marries the Sidonian princess Jezebel and supports the Baal cult (16:29-33). Archaeological discoveries establish King Ahab’s military prowess (greater than that suggested in the biblical narrative) and extensive building activities (22:39). The house of Omri and Ahab forges an alliance with Judah (22:2) that extends multiple generations (2 Kings 8:25-29). Two, the prophet Elijah, and later his successor Elisha, challenges the royal compromise that includes worship of Baal and Asherah, military violence, and social policies that violate Deuteronomic land ownership (1 Kings 17:1–2 Kings 13:21).
Though readers readily recognize Ahab and Jezebel as villains in the story of God’s people, the characterization of the prophet Elijah (his name means “My God is Yah[weh]”) is more problematic. On one hand, Elijah speaks for the Lord, opposes the evil Ahab and Jezebel, confronts compromises with the Baal cult and idolatry, and stands against unjust royal expropriation of land. But Elijah’s contest with Baal worshipers culminates in the slaughter of 450 prophets (1 Kings 18:40). When Ahab’s son King Ahaziah sends soldiers to arrest Elijah, he calls fire from heaven and destroys more than one hundred persons. When Queen Jezebel threatens Elijah’s life, he runs away in fear, claiming to be the only faithful prophet, though his servant Obadiah has been feeding other prophets during the drought-induced famine for which Elijah claims credit. Though Elijah brings life to the widow of Zarephath and her son (1 Kings 17:8-24), his violent, murderous actions raise questions about Elijah’s reliability as God’s prophet. By contrast, Elisha (“my God saves”) fares better. Though his curse results in the mauling of forty-two young men (2 Kings 2:23-25), Elisha provides water to Jericho and the armies of Israel and Judah (2:19-22; 3:1-27) and food and shelter for bereft members of the prophetic company (4:1-7, 38-42; 6:1-7). He also restores life to a young boy (4:8-37), heals a foreign general (5:1-27), and brings peace in times of war (6:8-23) and food in times of famine (6:24–7:20). When Elisha directs the young prophet to anoint Jehu to replace the dynasty of Omri and Ahab, the young prophet, citing the prophecy of Elijah, calls for violent overthrow that far exceeds his instructions from Elisha; Jehu himself exceeds even the violence of the prophetic word in overthrowing his predecessors and opposing Baalism (2 Kings 9:1–10:36).
The kingdom of Judah is overshadowed by reports of the kingdom of Israel in the years of Jehu and his successors, the final kings of Israel before exile (2 Kings 13–16). Despite their pursuit of evil ways, a militarily weakened Israel is saved by the hand of the Lord (2 Kings 13) and dominates the weaker kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 14:1-22). Though the account of King Jeroboam in 2 Kings 14:23-29 only briefly mentions his long and successful reign, it is during Jeroboam’s tenure that Israel enjoys its greatest economic prosperity, an era in which the luxury of the wealthy at the expense of the poor is condemned by the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah. The downward spiral of Israel accelerates until the last king Hoshea and the people of Israel are carried into exile by Assyria (2 Kings 15:1–17:6).
The narrator, who has reported without extensive evaluation or elaboration, offers an encyclopedic accounting of the reason for the exile, the people’s unremitting sin against the Lord, their worship (service) of other gods, and their provocation of the Lord to anger by walking in the customs of the heathen nations (2 Kings 17:7-23). Though the narrative is giving account of the exile of Israel, Judah and the sins attributed only to Judah in the narrative receive treatment as well. Judah and Israel rejected the Lord; the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel (17:19-20). The people did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam; the Lord removed them from the land (17:21-23). Though the people have the law and the prophets, they despise God’s covenant and reject the commandments. “So Israel was exiled from their own land . . . .” (17:23).
The report continues, explaining how it is that despite the exile, the land has not been emptied of people. The imperial policies of Assyria moved conquered peoples from elsewhere into the land. When lions sent by the Lord attacked the people who did not worship the Lord, the Assyrians sent a priest to teach them “the law of the god of the land” (2 Kings 17:27). The result was not faithful worship of the Lord but a hopeless mixture of royal justice and Deuteronomic justice, of selfish accumulation and care for the marginalized. The report reiterates the accusation of syncretistic accommodations which “to this day . . . continue . . .” (17:41).
The final century and a half in which Judah alone survives as a nation is marked by three remarkable reformer kings (722–586 BCE). First, Hezekiah is lauded as the king who trusted in the Lord the God of Israel “so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). The opening summary salutes Hezekiah’s faithfulness to the Lord and reports his rebellion against the Assyrian power that had exiled Israel (18:1-12). When the Assyrians attack Judah and destroy all Judah’s fortified cities and place Jerusalem under siege (18:13-37), Hezekiah is shaken, takes a posture of mourning, and requests assistance from the prophet Isaiah, who offers an oracle of encouragement (19:1-7). When a new threat is communicated from Assyria to Hezekiah, the growing trust of Hezekiah is evident in his own prayer directly to the Lord (19:8-19) and an oracle of salvation from Isaiah (19:19-34). Jerusalem and Hezekiah are saved by a divine miracle (19:35-37). Second Kings 20 reports a healing miracle in which Hezekiah refuses to accept the prognosis of death, appeals to the Lord, and is healed by Isaiah. The chapter concludes with a prophecy that Judah will be exiled to Babylon in the time of Hezekiah’s descendants, a prophecy that Hezekiah accepts because he will experience peace and security (20:12-19). The story of the healing is dated in the year of the Assyrian invasion, a juxtaposition that raises questions about the faithful Hezekiah.
Next, Hezekiah’s son Manasseh rises to the throne and initiates “reform” by following the evil ways of the nations, of Ahab of Israel, and in opposition to the Law. Manasseh’s unjust royal policies lead him to shed innocent blood that fills Jerusalem (2 Kings 21:16). The Lord declares that Manasseh’s sins are worse than his predecessors and will result in the total devastation of Jerusalem and exile of its inhabitants (21:10-15; 23:26-27; 24:3-4). Though the report of Manasseh’s subsequent repentance and flourishing is recorded in 2 Chronicles 33, no such restoration is narrated in 2 Kings where Manasseh’s sins make the final destruction of Judah inevitable.
The third great reformer, King Josiah, oversaw the repair of the temple, the recovery of the book of the covenant, celebration of the Passover, and turning to the Lord with all his heart that was unlike any other king (23:21-25). Josiah consulted the prophet Huldah, humbled himself in repentance, and led all the people in covenant renewal (22:11–23:3). Josiah cleansed the temple, removed the high places, and fulfilled the ancient prophecy by desecrating the altar at Bethel erected by Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Kings 23:4-20). When Josiah encountered Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, Josiah was killed, the renewal was thwarted, and the announced inevitable judgment against Jerusalem ensued (23:26-30). Four descendants of Josiah were placed on the throne of Jerusalem by the rival empires of Egypt and Babylon. Rebellion against the imperial powers eventually led to successive exiles of the leading people of the land and ultimately the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem (24:15; 25:13-17). The text attributes the cause of the exile not to the imperial powers but to the judgment of the Lord on the sins of Manasseh (24:3-4). First and Second Kings conclude with a note that King Jehoiachin was released from Babylonian prison and elevated to the Babylonian king’s table (25:27-30).
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
First and Second Kings narrate the reign of Solomon in Jerusalem, the kings of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah until the exile of Israel, and the final years of Judah until the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The narrative is set within the framework of the book of Deuteronomy which calls for Israel to follow the Lord by protecting the marginalized (Deut. 10:12-21). Though Solomon is given untold wisdom and wealth, his reign ends in disaster because he rejects the justice outlined in Deuteronomy. The Lord offers Jeroboam son of Nebat an unending dynasty if he will be faithful to the Lord, but the sins of Jeroboam set a pattern that is unbroken in Israel, the northern kingdom.
Violent prophetic actions and divinely inspired violence raise troubling issues for Anabaptist readers who follow Jesus’s way of peace. The biblical text itself reports military actions without condoning violence. The violent coup of Jehu is contrasted with the relatively nonviolent overthrow of Queen Athaliah and the priest of Baal in Jerusalem where fatalities are limited to the two leaders of the opposition (2 Kings 11–12; Hos. 1:4-5).
First and Second Kings are the final chapter in the great narrative from creation to exile. In the end, the divine purpose for humanity—to live in the image of God by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 1:26-31; 18:17-19; Deut. 10:12-21)—prevails. What matters is not human power structures, whether judges, kings, priests, or prophets, or even wisdom, Torah, or covenant, but pursuit of the Lord’s justice.
The ministry of the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha, calls the people and their kings to repent and practice justice, but both Israel and Judah provoke the Lord to anger and end in exile. Future hope for the people is found in the book of Deuteronomy which promises that even in exile the Lord’s compassion is active and will offer the people renewed hope (Deut. 4:25-31; 30:1-10).
Jesus fulfills the human vocation to do justice and thus reverses Israel’s exile. Jesus ends the exile and fulfills the human vocation (Matt. 1:1-25; Gen. 18:19). Jesus is the new and faithful reformer king (Matt. 1:23). Jesus announces the arrival of God’s reign, citing Elijah and Elisha to demonstrate that the year of the Lord’s favor extends beyond ethnic boundaries (Luke 4:17-30). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses those for whom God makes justice: the poor in spirit are the orphans, widows, and strangers (Matt. 5:3; Deut. 10:17-19). Jesus contrasts the worry associated with Solomonic royal justice with pursuit of God’s righteous rule, which stores up treasure by giving alms (Matt. 6:19-34). Jesus claims to be greater than Solomon and recalls the queen of Sheba, who reminds Solomon that God has placed him on the throne to do justice (Matt. 12:38-42; 1 Kings 10:9). The human vocation of doing justice for the marginalized remains unchanged today.
Horses and Chariots
Law of the King
Provoke the Lord to Anger
Violence in Kings
Women in Kings
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