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Introduction to the Books of Kings

Roger Hahn


First and Second Kings originally appeared as a single book in the Hebrew Bible. The earliest evidence of the Hebrew Bible shows that the single book of Kings was the final book in the group of books called the Former Prophets. The Former Prophets consisted of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Immediately following the Former Prophets were the Latter Prophets, consisting of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve, a collection of our Minor Prophets on a single scroll. Thus from earliest days the Jewish understanding of 1 and 2 Kings placed these books as the center of the books of the Prophets.

That single book of Kings was first divided into two books when the Old Testament was translated into Greek probably during the third century B.C. The division into two books took place for very practical reasons. At that time Hebrew was written without any vowels and the most common conjunctions and relative pronouns were one and two letter words. Greek, on the other hand, tended to have as many vowels as consonants in a word and used longer conjunctions and relative pronouns. The result was that the single book of Kings in Hebrew could be copied on a single scroll, but the translation of Kings into Greek required about twice the space - two scrolls and thus two books.

The same was true of the book of Samuel and the early Greek versions of the Old Testament used the name 1 and 2 Kingdoms for 1 and 2 Samuel and 3 and 4 Kingdoms for 1 and 2 Kings. Most of the early translations divided Samuel (1 and 2 Kingdoms) from Kings (3 and 4 Kingdoms) at the same place that is used in our English Bibles - that is at the end of 2 Samuel 24:25. However, one influential translation done in the fourth century A.D. divided Samuel and Kings at 1 Kings 2:12. This made the death of David the dividing point between the books. A few copies divided the books at the end of 1 Kings 2. This finished the transition of the monarchy from David and his supporters to Solomon. All modern English versions use the traditional division though the death of David might have made a more natural transition.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament also moved 1 and 2 Chronicles from the final position in the whole Hebrew Bible to follow 1 and 2 Kings. The Latter Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets were moved to the end of the Greek version of the Old Testament Bible. The books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles were then called the historical books. Thus 1 and 2 Kings were a significant part of the Historical Books in the Greek Old Testament that became the Bible of earliest Christians. The dual background of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and history in the Greek Bible reflects two very important aspects of understanding 1 and 2 Kings (see Canons of the Hebrew Bible).

First and Second Kings are drawn from several sources. Three books are mentioned by name. The Book of the Acts of Solomon is mentioned in 1 Kings 11:41. Frequent reference is made to the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. Casual Bible readers often assume that these refer to the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles that appear in the Old Testament. However, that is not true. The biblical 1 and 2 Chronicles were written later than 1 and 2 Kings, and may have used 1 and 2 Kings as a source rather than the other way around. Also, 1 and 2 Chronicles, though emphasizing the kings of Judah, dealt with both kings of Israel and Judah. The books used as resource material by 1 and 2 Kings refer to separate works for the kings of Judah and the kings of Israel. Most Bible scholars also believe that there was a written "Succession Narrative" describing the transition of power from David to Solomon. Parts of 2 Samuel as well as 1 Kings 1-2 reflect the Succession Narrative. Other than their influence on 1 and 2 Kings nothing remains of any of these books today.

The author of 1 and 2 Kings also made use of many stories. Perhaps some of them were part of the oral tradition of stories about kings and prophets that passed along through the generations of Israelites. A Jewish tradition in the Talmud (fourth century A.D.) declares that Jeremiah was the author of 1 and 2 Kings. Most Old Testament scholars believe that 1 and 2 Kings were edited into their final form between 565 and 550 B.C., several years after Jeremiah's death. Many scholars believe that a preliminary edition of 1 and 2 Kings was written between 630 and 610 B.C. It is possible that Jeremiah was the author/editor of that work - if it was ever written. However, the Jeremiah tradition was probably just a guess by Jewish rabbis who recognized that he and 1 and 2 Kings had much in common. Both share a common view point, as seen in the fact that Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 25 are almost identical. It is not likely that we will ever be able to identify the author of 1 and 2 Kings by name. Though probably his name will not be discovered, his legacy will live on. He powerfully combined an overview of a major period of Israel's history with the confidence that God was working out His will in the life of His people, Israel.

The Historical Context of 1 and 2 Kings

First Kings begins with the events leading to the coronation of Solomon as king of Israel just before the death of David. Second Kings ends with the release of King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison in Babylon thirty seven years after the Babylonian captivity had begun. Thus 1 and 2 Kings spans a period of history from about 965 B.C. to about 550 B.C., approximately four hundred years.

Those four hundred years spanned a very tumultuous period of Israelite history. The reign of Solomon represented the height of Israelite political, military, and economic power. The borders extended to their greatest boundaries ever, south to Egypt and north into the middle of present day Iraq. But at the death of Solomon the kingdom was divided. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin became what Bible scholars (though not the Bible) call the Southern Kingdom. The Bible refers to the Kingdom by the term "Judah" or by the capital, Jerusalem. The Southern Kingdom was ruled throughout its history by descendants of David.

The other ten tribes are called the Northern Kingdom by biblical scholars. 1 and 2 Kings refers to the Northern Kingdom by the term "Israel." This creates some confusion since the word "Israel" is used of the single nation of twelve tribes under David and Solomon. It is also used of the political entity of the Northern Kingdom - the ten tribes. The term "Israel" was also used to refer to the covenant people as a whole without regard to the political circumstances at any given time. The Northern Kingdom went through a succession of family lines, each terminated by assassination. The capital was located in several different cities until Ahab's father, Omri, made Samaria the capital around 875 B.C. The Northern Kingdom was also called "Ephraim" by some Biblical authors.

After the division of the kingdom at Solomon's death in 922 B.C. the people never again regained the material prosperity and military security of the Golden Age under Solomon. The two nations dwindled in influence and size. By 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom was swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire. The ten tribes were dispersed and lost their identity as Israelites and as part of the historic people of God. The remaining Southern Kingdom, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, survived until 587 B.C. when it was captured by Babylon. The most of the productive citizens were either taken captive to Babylon or fled to Egypt. The land was left desolate with few inhabitants and no local leadership. Thus 1 and 2 Kings describes four hundred years of the gradual dissolving of the nation of Israel.

Another way of looking at the historical period of 1 and 2 Kings is as the period of the Temple. The First Temple was built during the reign of Solomon, probably between 962 and 955 B.C. It is described in 1 Kings 5 and 6. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in 587 B.C. when they captured Jerusalem. The destruction and desecration of the temple is described in 2 Kings 25. The temple was rebuilt between 520-516 B.C. and existed until it was destroyed in A.D. 70. It is often called the Second Temple by Biblical historians. Thus 1 and 2 Kings presents a history of Israel during the time of the First Temple.

The political fortunes of the Middle East also varied greatly during the period described in 1 and 2 Kings. During the reign of Solomon Egypt was at a low point in its political and military history. Likewise, no major power ruled in Mesopotamia. Most of the history of Palestine has been shaped by the push and pull of great political and military powers in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Usually Palestine has been the middle as the more powerful of either Egypt or Mesopotamia tried to control the other. 1 Kings begins when both Egypt and Mesopotamia were weak. That allowed Solomon's Empire to expand to largest dimensions ever enjoyed by Israel. However, the following four hundred years saw the return of power to Egypt and two great empires arising from Mesopotamia. Egyptian influence probably contributed to the division of the kingdom at Solomon's death. Assyria emerged from upper Mesopotamia in the late eighth century B.C. with the intention of capturing Egypt. The northern kingdom fell to the mighty Assyrian war machine in 722 B.C. and only Jerusalem stood between the Assyrians and Egypt. The author of 2 Kings makes it clear that only the miraculous intervention of the Lord saved Jerusalem and halted the Assyrian invasion of Egypt.

Internal problems in Assyria crippled the empire-building intentions of that nation for a generation or two. But it appeared that Assyria might regain its power in the middle of the seventh century B.C. However, Assyria rapidly declined from about 630 B.C. on and in 612 B.C. was soundly defeated by Babylon. The Babylonians, from the lower part of Mesopotamia, seemed to move rapidly into great power and was seen by Egypt as a military threat. The Egyptians sent a great army north in 609 B.C. to try to re-establish Assyria against Babylon. For whatever reasons, Josiah, the king in Jerusalem, took his small army and tried to cut off the Egyptians at Megiddo. He was killed in battle though the Egyptians failed to halt the Babylonian expansion. Jerusalem and the southern kingdom became the battle ground of Egypt and Babylon for the next fifteen years. Finally, in 587 B.C. Babylon gained full control of Palestine and 2 Kings ends with Babylon as the dominant power of the Middle East.

Though 1 and 2 Kings clearly have an important historical background, the books are not written in the way that modern historians write history. For example, although 1 and 2 Kings covers a four hundred year period of history, all sixty six verses of 1 Kings 8 are devoted to the dedication of the temple and Solomon's dedication prayer. Thus one afternoon service receives a whole chapter of 1 Kings while years of history are passed over in silence. There is obviously some principle of selection determining what the author of 1 and 2 Kings believes is important. That is, he is not just writing history for the sake of information. 1 and 2 Kings has a purpose that is revealed by the way the author interprets history theologically. The evidence of this will be presented below.

Another unusual aspect of the history writing found in 1 and 2 Kings is the way events and lives of kings are presented and dated. The author does not always proceed chronologically. The division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms is described in 1 Kings 12. Starting at 1 Kings 12:25 the author deals with Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom. Jeroboam began to serve as king in 922 B.C. and ruled until about 901 B.C. 1 Kings 12:25-14:20 describes the life and kingship of Jeroboam. Then at 1 Kings 14:21 the author moves back to 922 B.C. and begins to describe the reign of Rehoboam, king of the Southern Kingdom. Rehoboam died in 915 B.C. and his son Abijam became the king for two years which are described in 1 Kings 15:1-8. His son Asa became the king of the Southern Kingdom in 913 B.C. and ruled forty years until 873 B.C. Those forty years are described in 1 Kings 15:9-24. At 1 Kings 15:25 the story jumps back to the Northern Kingdom and back to 901 B.C. and the reign of Nadab, the successor to Jeroboam. Thus rather than proceeding chronologically the author presents all his material on one king and then moves back to the other kingdom and presents all the material on that king or kings. One result is that it is very easy to loose track of chronology, dates, and even what kingdom (Southern or Northern) is being treated.

The confusion is made worse by the summaries of each king that is given as they are introduced. Each king is introduced with the statement that he began to reign in such-and-such year of the reign of the king of the other kingdom. Then the total years of each king's reign is given. Since this pattern is used for the kings of both the Northern and Southern Kingdom one can add up the years separately for both kingdoms. Unfortunately, the totals do not agree. Whatever the reasons for the discrepancy, we are not always certain what the dates of certain kings should be. As a result we find different scholars (writing different books) that present different dates. When the evidence of 1 and 2 Kings is combined with the evidence of 1 and 2 Chronicles and of archaeology and other ancient historical sources, we can come pretty close. However, different scholars will evaluate different evidence in a way that may cause them to disagree on the date (see Israelite Kings Date Chart).

If we believed that the purpose of 1 and 2 Kings was to provide the exact dates of the kings of the Southern and Northern Kingdoms we would find these very confusing and unreliable books. However, the purpose is not to provide exact historical dates. The author of 1 and 2 Kings wants to show that the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdom unfolded according to the plan of God presented in Deuteronomy.

As nearly as we can tell 1 and 2 Kings were written between 570 and 550 B.C. to the Jews living in exile in Babylon and Egypt. The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel imply that the people were very bitter about the fall of Jerusalem and the loss of the temple. They believed that God had not treated them right. They believed God should have protected them from the Babylonian invasion and granted them blessings and prosperity. Some of them were ready to abandon faith in God because He had not done as they believed He should. 1 and 2 Kings was written to show these bitter and discouraged people that God had not mistreated them. It was Israel that had mistreated God; He had been more than faithful to the covenant He had made with them through the many years of their disobedience.

If we remember that 1 and 2 Kings was written to the Jewish people in the time of their deepest discouragement and unhappiness we will have a clue of how to interpret these books. The work of God through 400 difficult years tells us of the love, faithfulness, and patience we can expect from the Father.

The Theology of 1 and 2 Kings

1 and 2 Kings are the final section of the Old Testament that most Bible scholars now call the Deuteronomic History. Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings form the Deuteronomic History  Though they cover very different times in Israel's history and have very different characters and stories, these books all share a common point of view. That common point of view is called "deuteronomic" because it is directly in the book of Deuteronomy (see "Source Analysis in Joshua and Judges").

Deuteronomic theology can be summarized in this way. When Israel obeys the covenant God gave to her on Mt. Sinai the nation will enjoy good weather, economic prosperity, and military security or victory. When Israel disobeys the covenant she will experience drought, failing crops (and thus failing economy), and she will be invaded and harassed by foreign nations and armies.

Because of the Deuteronomic influence there are certain key ideas that are absolutely foundational for 1 and 2 Kings. First, God is the central and controlling figure in these books. Thus 1 and 2 Kings are not history in the sense that we usually think of history - the story of human events. They are theological history - the story of God's actions. Many commentators have noticed that prophets are often more important than kings in 1 and 2 Kings. Some modern authors find that strange. However, it simply reveals that what God was doing was more important to the author than what Israel was doing. God demanded Israel's total commitment. He punished her unfaithfulness to the covenant relationship established on Mt Sinai between Himself and Israel. He rewarded obedience and loyalty to the covenant. Repentance could turn away God's punishment but it would not happen mechanically. As a later Rabbi would eventually say, "To sin and then say, 'I repent,' and to sin again, and again say, 'I repent,' repeatedly means that there is no repentance." Only God could truly discern the hearts of the kings and the people and know if the repentance should or should not lead to restoration. As Richard Nelson states, "God keeps promises, but is not bound by human expectations."

Another significant theological theme is God's faithfulness to the special promise he made to David. Second Samuel 7:8-16 seems always to be in the background of 1 and 2 Kings. The sins of the Southern Kingdom were often just as bad as the sins of the Northern Kingdom. However, because the king of the Southern Kingdom was always a descendant of David, God delayed the punishment of the Southern Kingdom. The author of 1 and 2 Kings is sure that the fall of the Northern Kingdom when the Southern Kingdom survived was evidence of God's special promise to the descendants of David. Even at the end of 2 Kings (25:27-30), Jehoiachin, the king of the Southern Kingdom, was released from prison and granted status in the court of the king of Babylon. Thus the book ends with a descendant of David freed from captivity and there is hope that the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 will be fulfilled.

Other important theological themes in 1 and 2 Kings have their roots in Deuteronomy. The importance of the temple as the centralized place of worship where sacrifices are made is introduced in Deuteronomy 12:5-28. First Kings echoes the language of Deuteronomy 12 when it describes the temple as the place God can cause His name to dwell. The anger of the author of 1 and 2 Kings from 1 Kings 12 through 2 Kings 17 felt over the bull shrines that Jeroboam built in Dan and Bethel reflects the concerns of Deuteronomy 12.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:21-22 lay the groundwork for the way 1 and 2 Kings deal with prophets. The message of the prophet is understood to be powerful and trustworthy, but there is always a concern about false prophets. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 laid out the expectations of the king that would eventually be anointed in Israel. Throughout 1 and 2 Kings it is clear that only David lived up to that picture painted earlier. The failure of the kings to lead in the way outlined by the covenant is the ultimate reason for the destruction of Israel.

Although the general tenor of 1 and 2 Kings pessimistically surveys the four hundred year decline of God's people, there are rays of hope. The same Deuteronomic theology that explains the decline and the growing foreign domination as punishment for disobedience also declares that obedience will bring deliverance and restoration. The promises of God were seen to be reliable and unchanged through four hundred years of history. Surely we can also count on God today. Part of the application of 1 and 2 Kings will be the application Deuteronomic theology to the life of the church today. Disobedience leads to decay. Obedience leads to restoration and renewal. We cannot force God's hand and sometimes the retribution for sin is not stopped by last minute repentance. Nevertheless, there is a fearful price to be paid for disobedience in our nation, our church, and our personal lives. There is great benefit for our nation, our church, and our personal lives if we will be obedient and live by the covenant of love and grace extended to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hints for Interpreting 1 and 2 Kings

Most of 1 and 2 Kings is written in the literary form called narrative. At the casual level we sometimes speak of narrative as story or history. Here are ten principles given by Fee and Stuart (How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth) for interpreting narratives like 1 and 2 Kings (see Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narratives).

1. Narratives rarely teach doctrine directly.

2. Narratives usually illustrate doctrinal truths that are taught directly elsewhere in the Bible.

3. Not every narrative has a "moral of the story." Some narratives present - without comment - behavior that is the very opposite of what we should do.

4. What people do in Biblical narratives may not be a good example. Just because a Biblical character did something does not mean that it is right.

5. No Biblical characters apart from Jesus were perfect, nor were their actions.

6. Narratives do not always tell whether an action or word was right or wrong. We are expected to be able to figure that out from other passages of Scripture.

7. No narrative gives all the information about what happened. Only enough information is given to accomplish the author's purpose.

8. Narratives will not answer all our questions. They are constructed to accomplish the author's purpose, not to answer our questions.

9. Narratives may teach directly or indirectly.

10. Finally, God should be understood as the hero of all Biblical narratives.

1 and 2 Kings as the Word of God

First and Second Kings are not easy books for most modern American Christians to read. They describe events that took place 2500 to 3000 years ago. The customs, names, places, and people are strange to us. There is little on the surface to which we naturally relate. Furthermore, the author is more concerned to make his case by the cumulative effect of all the material in the two books. We tend to want to find meaning in every verse, but many verses are simply part of a larger plan. The approach the author takes is to interpret history. Many of us have had bad experiences with history. We come to 1 and 2 Kings with a built-in bias against hearing a word from God in these books.

However, when we affirm that the Bible is the Word of God, we are also saying that 1 and 2 Kings is the Word of God. We cannot truthfully proclaim the whole Bible as the Word of God if we never hear God speaking to us through 1 and 2 Kings. Our only choices are to deny that the Bible is the Word of God, or deny that 1 and 2 Kings should be in the Bible, or to open our hearts and lives to a message from the Lord to us through 1 and 2 Kings.

It is my confidence that if we will let 1 and 2 Kings teach us in their own way we will hear God speaking to us as much as we are ready to hear and obey. This study will attempt to let 1 and 2 Kings speak for themselves. The useful historical, literary, cultural, and theological background will be provided to make the words of these books come alive. May God help us to hear His word in 1 and 2 Kings. May He help us to obey also.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

These are study and reflection questions to facilitate a weeklong devotional journey into the Books of Kings. As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will breathe spiritual life into your heart through your study and reflection.

First Day: Read the notes on the introduction to 1 and 2 Kings. Look up the Scripture references.

1. Identify one or two new pieces of information that seem important to you.

2. Select one or two insights that offer you hope for spiritual growth in your study of 1 and 2 Kings.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to use this study to surprise you with the joy of new insights and a deeper relationship with Christ.

Second Day: Read 1 Kings 1:1-40. Focus in on 1 Kings 1:1-10.

1. What picture of David's competence to rule comes from verses 1-4?

2. How does that picture of David's competence influence your understanding of verses 5-10?

3. What mistake or mistakes did Adonijah make in verses 5-10? Jot down any application you can make for your own life.

Third Day: Read 1 Kings 1:1-40. Now focus in on 1 Kings 1:11-27.

1. In what way did Bathsheba's speech to David go beyond Nathan's instructions to her?

2. What motivation do Nathan and Bathsheba appeal to on David's part? How do they think he will respond to their appeal?

3. Read 2 Samuel 12:1-15. What characteristics enabled God to use Nathan there? List some characteristics of Nathan that you would like God to use in your life.

Fourth Day: Read 1 Kings 1:1-40. Turn your focus to 1 Kings 1:28-40.

1. How does David describe God in verse 29. What had God delivered David from? What has He delivered you from?

2. What blessing does verse 37 provide for Solomon?

3. What kind of blessing do you wish you had received from your human father? What blessing would you like to pass on to your children?

Fifth Day: Read 1 Kings 1:41-2:12. Focus in on 1 Kings 1:41-53.

1. What emotions does the Bible say were felt by Adonijah and his friends at the news that Solomon had become king? What additional emotions do you suppose he might have felt?

2. From verses 50-51 what would you suppose that it meant in Old Testament culture to take hold of the horns of the altar?

3. Do you think verse 52 was a comforting word to Adonijah? Why or why not? Would it be a comforting word for you to hear from God? What course of action would you like to follow when you think about such a word from God?

Sixth Day: Read 1 Kings 1:41-2:12. Especially focus on 1 Kings 2:1-12.

1. List some bits of advice David gave to Solomon in these verses.

2. Which two are the most important pieces of advice? Why do you think so?

3. If you knew you were about to die, what is the most important advice you could share with your children? Would your life convince them that it was really important to you? If not, what needs to change?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright 2013, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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