They “have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” – 2 Kings 19:18-19
The Purpose of Kings
“The books of Kings focus on the reliability of God’s word, showing that those who reject that word are judged, while those who rely on it are saved…God shows astonishing mercy by forgiving those who repent and delivering those who call on him, [nevertheless] his judgment falls.” So Kings also serves as a defense of God’s justice to exile Israel and Judah after the covenant breaking.
The Historical Background of Kings
“The books of Kings represent a selective history of Israel from the closing days of King David’s reign until the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.”
Why use the word ‘selective history’? Well, a “coherent scheme for the chronology of the books of King’s has remained elusive” for bible scholars, namely because Ancient history was written with a different purpose and structure. (see the section below titled How to Read Kings)
By way of chronology we can at least determine that the books of Kings follow the history of Israel for about 370 years, beginning with the transition of power from King David to his son King Solomon in the united kingdom, the exile of Northern Israel to the Assyria, the exile of the Southern Judah to Babylon, and ending with the release of Jehoiachin from prison during the Babylonian captivity. Simply put, “the Kings history surveys the Israelite ‘golden age’ of the united empire under King Solomon, the split of the monarchy during the reign of Rehoboam, and the ebb and flow of the political and religious fortunes of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah until their collapse.”
How To Read Kings
We must see the books of Kings as Israel’s history in theologically driven narrative.
“The books of 1 and 2 Kings provide a theologically laden interpretation of the history of the Israelite monarchy from the death of King David until the end of the monarchy itself.”
In the modern Western world we often think of ‘history’ as a linear progression of natural occurrences following a man oriented timeline. But for the people of the Ancient Near East, history was understood and organized in patterns of supernatural activity. Hill and Walton argue that “Israel’s historical narratives are motivated by theological concerns. The purpose of the historical literature of the Bible is to show the ways in which the Lord has acted in history to fulfill his covenant promises and carry out his agenda.” These narratives reveal that Israel’s God as the one true God who has a plan for history and who intervenes to ensure that the plan is executed. With this in mind, here are some tips for interpreting these books:
- Think of the books as theological teaching using history rather than merely linear historical records.
- Remember that the main focus of the literature is God and his covenants, not people or events.
- The historical ‘cause and effect’ is seen largely in terms of God’s actions rather than the actions of people.
- Rather than extracting character studies (“lessons from the life of…”) it would be wiser to look for patterns, themes, and motifs that reoccur throughout these books by way of compare and contrast as the primary point of the text.
- Think on how each story recorded in Kings direct us to the greater story of God’s redemptive history ultimately fulfilled in Christ first, thus allowing us to make proper application through Christ as a response to grace.
Central Theological Themes in Kings
Here are some of the major theological themes found throughout the books of Kings:
1. The One True God
Provan argues that the “primary theological theme in Kings is Israel’s God as the true and only God.” The Lord God of Israel is distinct and cannot be confused with the false gods worshiped inside and outside of Israel. False gods are futile and powerless, they are simply human creations. This is demonstrated clearly in God’s victory over false gods and their priests.
2. Worship of God Alone
Since there is only one true God, the God of Israel, he deserves exclusive worship. There are many examples of illegitimate worship throughout the books of Kings. Worship must not confuse God with other gods by way of over idolatry, worshiping images, or reflect any aspect of the cultic and foreign religions. There are implications of false worship that effect every aspect of life, in other words “worship and ethics are two sides of the same coin.”
3. God’s Relation to His Covenant People
God’s covenant promises are at the heart of God’s grace towards his people. “God has entered into covenant with them, and their responsibility is to remain faithful to him and refuse the worship of foreign deities. Thus, God promises retribution- punishment for those who turn away from him and blessing to those who follow him. The two covenants most clearly discernable are those to the Patriarchs and the covenant to David, which God upholds despite the disobedience of the people. This is significant for understanding why Jehoiachin lives; God is still at work even though he has severely punished Israel and Judah.
4. Judgment and Grace
God has brought his people into a covenant relationship and revealed to them how to live in relationship to him with the law. “As giver of the law which defines true worship and right thinking and behavior, the Lord also executes judgment upon” the rebellious and destructive. This extends to all of God’s people – kings, prophets, Israelites, and Judeans. Now, there is no ‘neat’ formulaic correlation between sin and judgment, ultimately God is compassionate and extends grace and mercy where he is pleased to do so, withholding final judgment upon his people. God’s grace is found all over the books of Kings.
Jesus Christ – The True and Greater King
“God’s purpose in establishing Israel had been to bring blessing to the world through the people’s covenant faithfulness. [God] instituted the Davidic dynasty to lead the people in their faithfulness. [Yet] the history of Israel is full of tragedies.”
The books of Kings relate to the history of the united and divided history of God’s people in their covenant failure. The narrative primarily focuses on the figures primarily responsible for covenant keeping in Israel – the kings and prophets. See, “the history of the Hebrew nation is told through the lives of the Israelite and Judean Kings as representatives of the nation, because their fortunes as king and the plight of the people are entwined.” In other words, the rebellion of the king brings divine retribution upon the people, while obedience of the king brings about God’s favor. Throughout the Kings to line of David, from which the messiah would come, is threatened. Yet, all is not lost; God will not fail in his purpose.
The closing verses of 2nd Kings seem to leave things hanging in difficult circumstances. The book concludes with Jehoiachin alive and well in exile in Babylon. Thus, both hope and God’s anointed remain and can be found…the promise of the Messiah is not lost.” God’s people are left waiting, looking forward to the ideal King who will rule justly over God’s people. That one true King is Jesus Christ, “who is himself the righteous Son of David (Messiah) for whom Israel has been looking, and the one in whom all God’s promises are focused.” What does this mean for the ‘main themes’ I listed above?
- Jesus is the one true God revealing His glory and purposes most fully.
- Jesus alone worshipped the Father perfectly and leads his people in true worship.
- Jesus lived in perfect harmony with God, in perfect covenant relationship, something we cannot do.
- Jesus consumed the just wrath of God against sin on the cross. He rose from the grave defeating sin and death, and graciously offers salvation to all who repent and turn to him.
- James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 187.
- Thanks to Derek Radney for this observation.
- Andrew Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 231.
- Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 177.
- Hill and Walton, 231.
- Richard S. Hess, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 119.
- In reality, all historical narratives include some mixture of motives on the part of the narrator. Motives for historical narrative could be to teach, to entertain, convince, etc.
- Hill and Walton, 211.
- 1 Kings 11, 18; 2 Kings 5, 17.
- I.W. Provan, Kings, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 183.
- 1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 17.
- 1 Kings 8:41-43, 60; 2 Kings 5:15-18, 17:24-41.
- Provan, 184-185.
- 1 Kings 4:20-21,24, 8:22-53, 18:36;.2 Kings 13:23.
- 1 Kings 11:36, 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19.
- 1 Kings 9:44-53.
- 1 Kings 11:9-13, 13:7-25, 14:1-18, 20:35-43; 2 Kings 5:19-27, 7:17-20.
- Provan, 184.
- Iain W. Provan, Introduction to 1-2 Kings, The ESV Study Bible, 588-589.
- The record of the King’s implicitly balances the notion of human responsibility and accountability for those in covenant relationship with God, and God’s sovereign hand in Israel’s covenant history. There are examples of both admonishment for covenant keeping and warning for covenant disobedience.
- Hill and Walton, 237.
- Hess, 123.
- Provan, 187.