What the Kings teach us: how not to. -John Davies-
The book of Kings gives us a window on a period of Israel’s history from its second monarch through to its last. “So what?” we may say. “What if we are just not into ancient history? How does knowing about Solomon’s architectural grand designs, or the Judean fleet which was embarrassingly shipwrecked before it set sail, draw us closer to God, or instruct us on how to live in the 21st century?”
One way I learned to read the Bible as a young person was to ask, is there a good example to imitate, or a bad example to avoid? The book of Kings gives us plenty of these, mostly the latter. But is that all there is? Is that principally why the Bible was written? Most of us are never likely to construct a palace complex, or commission a merchant navy. And we could learn more about some of the events of the period covered by Kings from other sources of information (we know some things about Omri and Hezekiah, for example, from other ancient texts).
History is not just what happened. It is the selected and stylised and interpreted account of what happened, written with an agenda by a biased historian. The Bible gives us a particular bias on the events it portrays, a prophetic perspective. Kings forms part of the coherent account of God’s dealings with His people and their response to Him — the continuous story from Genesis to 2 Kings. It is an account that God Himself wants us to read and digest as being profitable at a number of levels.
In particular it presents a long case study of how the gracious covenant that God established with His chosen people at Mt Sinai — a royal priesthood — then reaffirmed and gave particular focus with King David, a never-ending dynasty with universal implications, works out in the real world.
David is a shadow of his former self when the book of Kings opens. He has let his responsibilities slide, and the nation is in turmoil over the succession. When Solomon emerges as the winner, and is given David’s blessing, our hopes are raised that this new ruler will preside over a glorious fulfilment of the longing of God’s people for a secure and prosperous and peaceful kingdom under God. Solomon both does and does not bring about this Camelot. At one level he has every advantage. Endowed with wisdom (he would win any pub general knowledge quiz), he launches a massive trading and building venture —Israel’s golden age.
Yet right from the start, we are encouraged to read between the lines. The kingdom does not survive beyond Solomon’s death; it splits in two and eventually both halves are driven into exile, the dignity and independence of the nation gone forever. We observe the quickening momentum of decay such that by the time the book ends, the grand temple, the centrepiece of Solomon’s magnificent palace precinct, is no more. Worse, its sacred objects end up adorning the temple of a pagan king.
So we, like Israel in exile, search for reasons. They are not hard to discover. Even if we ignore the intrigue and the ruthless treatment of rivals that consolidate Solomon’s reign in the first couple of chapters of 1 Kings, we are soon informed (3:1) that Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter and his behaviour seems more like the oppressive Egyptian ruler of the exodus period (his people are subjected to forced labour while he lives in pampered luxury) and much of his activity (from the prophetic perspective of the writer of Kings) promotes his own aggrandisement.
There is a lot of double entendre in the way the episodes are told. For example the visit of the queen of Sheba, at one level, tells us that Solomon wins in their diplomatic and trading rivalry. At another level, this pagan queen utters a subtle rebuke that Solomon may have been neglecting the exercise of true justice (1 Kings 10:9).
There is much about Solomon that reminds us of Adam. He is said to be able to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). He lives in a luxurious “paradise” but is it a fool’s paradise? Several times the condition of faithfulness if the royal line is to continue is reiterated (1 Kings 2:4; 6:12; 8:25; 9:4-5). Yet the catalogue of sins Solomon commits is precisely those that are identified as no-nos for any Israelite king (Deut. 17:16-20; 1 Kings 10:25-29).
Much of the blame for the demise of the kingdom then lies at his own door. Subsequent kings are evaluated according to whether they follow in the footsteps of his father David (overlooking for the moment one significant lapse on the part of the founder of the dynasty). Those in the south (Judah) are particularly assessed in terms of their action or inaction on the “high places” — local shrines where the worship of God got mixed up with elements of Canaanite paganism, the feel-good religion of success and happiness. While there are a few reforming kings, even the best of these, Josiah, does too little too late to avert the looming catastrophe.
The book wrestles with a theological conundrum. What now happens to the covenant commitment God made, never to remove His blessing (2 Sam 7:12-16), while at the same time insisting on the conditional character to the promises and implementing the threatened judgment? Since Israel, following the lead of its kings, has turned its back on God, what alternative is there but rejection and expulsion from the land (a sort of rerun of the garden of Eden debacle)?
Is the book of Kings then one of unrelieved gloom and doom, or is there a glimmer of hope peeping through? While some writers on Kings regard it purely as a somber account of “where we went wrong” (and it certainly includes that), there is a lot that we can point to that informs us of the character of our gracious God and of the hope that is ours.
Kings presents glimpses of an ideal: a golden age, a fulfilment of the Abrahamic promise of a land where God’s people could be secure and prosperous under His rule, now mediated through His earthly representative, His royal “son”. The building of the temple marks the climax of the escape from Egypt and establishment of the nation (1 Kings 6:1). The prayer of Solomon on the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8) envisages the repentance, restoration and future blessing, not only of the people of Israel, but of foreigners as well. The ministries of Elijah and Elisha, with their miracles of abundance, healing and restoration of life, serve as foretastes of what is possible for God’s people as a whole.
At the end of the book, we see the last king of Judah dining at the table of the king of Babylon (there is a bit of a gastronomic theme running through Kings!). Perhaps this is a signal that the monarchy will be restored? It wasn’t. Not in any political sense, at least. But the New Testament sees the coming of Jesus as renewing and fulfilling the hopes of God’s faithful remnant for the end of exile and the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth.
In Jesus, we have one greater than Solomon, the King who truly ushers in God’s rule on earth. Since Jesus spoke of His own ministry in terms of fulfilling what was written in the prophets (Luke 18:31; 24:25, 27, 44), can we point to passages in Kings which Jesus may have had in mind? There is a danger here in trying to find allegory and hidden meaning in every incident. That is not the point. The point is to see God’s purposes being worked out through His people against the backdrop of the world (His ultimate concern). Yes, to heed the warnings of what can happen when God’s people under their leaders become complacent and fit in with general trends in society which cut across the call to distinctiveness, but also to renew our confidence in the God who has, despite our rebellion, provided the ideal King, the source of all true wisdom, and called us to be citizens of his eternal kingdom.
History, that is the interpreted drama, matters because it is one connected, unfolding story of which God is the author. We are the once-wayward kings; we are also the restored and future kings, those destined to “reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5) with the only true King of Kings.
John Davies is the former principal of the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney.