1, 2 Kings
1, 2 Kings Introduction
Title and place in the canon
The two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings were originally meant to be read as one. 1 Kings continues the account of David’s reign begun in 2 Samuel, and the first two chapters provide the conclusion to the court history of David (also called the succession narrative), which breaks off at the end of 2 Sa. 20. The break between 1 and 2 Kings interrupts the account of the reign of Azariah and the ministry of Elijah.
The original unity of the four books is reflected in the title which they bear in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT, made in the third and second centuries bc)—1–4 Basileiai, the four books of ‘kingdoms’ or ‘reigns’. We cannot be sure when the division into four books first occurred or why, but it has been suggested that it was the work of an editor who divided the OT into lectionary rolls of roughly equal length.
In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Kings conclude the section known as the Former Prophets (i.e. Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), the historical books which span the period from the Israelites’ arrival in the promised land to their eventual loss of the land and Judah’s exile in Babylon. In understanding the message of the books of Kings this wider context should always be borne in mind.
Date and authorship
Date of Kings in its present form
In its present form, Kings cannot have been written before the release of King Jehoiachin from prison in 561 bc, roughly midway through the Babylonian exile. This is the latest event recorded in the work, which therefore seems to have been composed sometime between that date and the first return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem in 538 bc. The work was evidently not a free composition of the exilic period, however, since the author makes use of a variety of older sources, some of which he names (see below).
Recent theories of the composition of Kings
In the 1940s Martin Noth brought a new perspective to the study of 1 and 2 Kings. He argued that Kings should be seen as part of a larger work, beginning with Joshua and ending with 2 Kings, produced by a single author during the exile. Although this writer used older sources, he was more than simply an editor or compiler; he was an author who welded his sources into a unity which expressed his own understanding of Israel’s history. In particular, Noth argued that the whole work was strongly coloured by the theology and style of Deuteronomy. Hence it has been dubbed the ‘Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) history’. Noth’s ‘Deuteronomistic historian’ stresses that cultic worship should take place only in the Jerusalem temple (even kings who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ are criticized for not doing away with alternative places of worship, ‘the high places’; e.g. 2 Ki. 12:2–3). He is also strongly critical of idolatry, seeing it as the cause of the ultimate disaster of the exile (e.g. 1 Ki. 14:15–16; 2 Ki. 21:13–14).
Some scholars who accept Noth’s case for a Deuteronomistic history have adapted his theory to include two or more editions of the work. Several who take this view argue that the first edition, written before the exile, came to a climax with the reforms of King Josiah. The sudden and unexpected reversal of Judah’s fortunes after Josiah’s reign, leading to the catastrophe of the exile, made a second edition necessary. However, most arguments in favour of two or more editions of the work depend on assumptions about how an original author would have compiled and structured his history. Recent studies of ancient methods of composition have cast doubt on these assumptions, and currently there is a trend away from the two-edition view. For example, although 2 Ki. 25:27–30 may strike a modern reader as an unlikely way for the original author to have rounded off his work, it is now appreciated that it could well have been perfectly acceptable in an ancient context. In short, there is no good reason to reject the view that Kings (if not the whole Deuteronomistic history) is the work of a single author, working in the second half of the exile.
In view of the range of sources he was able to draw on (see below), and his interest in the fate of King Jehoiachin, the author was probably one of the high-ranking civil servants (‘nobles’, ‘officials’ and ‘leading men of the land’) exiled with Jehoiachin in 597 bc (2 Ki. 24:12–15), ten years before Jerusalem was destroyed. He may even have been a scribe, whose profession (had the exile not intervened) would have been to record the affairs of the royal court. We may guess that he wrote primarily for his fellow-members of the exiled royal court who were searching for a theology that would make sense of the catastrophe which had overtaken them, their king, their city and their land. The theology which he offers, expressed in the form of a history, is rooted in the teachings of Deuteronomy and shot through with a high view of the prophetic word. He shows his readers time and again how God’s word, delivered by his prophets, has an irrevocable influence on events, warning, judging and bringing judgment to pass (e.g. 1 Ki. 11:11–13, 31–39; 19:15–18; 21:17–29; 2 Ki. 9:1–10, 36–37; 17:7–23; 21:10–15).
The author evidently had sources at his disposal from which he derived information such as the length of each king’s reign and (for the period of the divided monarchy) synchronisms between the reigns of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. Such information was probably contained in king lists and chronicles of the sort which we know were kept by the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Such sources sometimes contained brief accounts of selected events and achievements of a king’s reign and so may have supplied the writer with, for example, his account of Solomon’s building projects (1 Ki. 9:15–19). However, there is much material in Kings, particularly the numerous stories of the words and actions of the prophets, which must have come from other kinds of sources.
Sometimes the reader is referred to another work for further information, e.g. ‘the book of the annals [rsv, ‘acts’] of Solomon’ (1 Ki. 11:41), ‘the book of the annals [rsv, ‘Chronicles’] of the kings of Israel’ (1 Ki. 14:19) and ‘the book of the annals [rsv, ‘Chronicles’] of the kings of Judah’ (1 Ki. 14:29). While the writer’s original readership presumably had ready access to these, they have unfortunately not survived for us to study. (The biblical books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, written after the return from exile, are not to be confused with the ‘Chronicles’ mentioned in 1 Ki. 14; however, they may occasionally preserve some additional information from those lost works.)
Occasionally the writer leaves the perspective of his pre-exilic sources unchanged, e.g. in 1 Ki. 8:8, where the expression ‘they are still there today’ stems from a time before the temple was destroyed.
Biblical history writing
It is an impressive achievement of the author that he has produced a work which preserves the variety of his sources while welding them into a powerful unity. But what kind of writing is it? Even a first impression of the work is enough to tell us that, although it deals with history, it is not history writing of the kind produced by modern historians. The very fact that the writer refers us to other sources for further information shows that he has given us only a selection of the material available to him. In other words, he has chosen to include only that material which serves his aims. This is also suggested by the very uneven and selective treatment given to the long procession of kings. The treatment of Solomon’s reign occupies seventeen times as much space as that of Joash’s reign, although both reigns lasted forty years.
Furthermore, the writer’s view of what made a king important is very different from that of a modern historian. Thanks to archaeological discoveries we know that Omri was a king of some importance on the international scene, yet the brief and disapproving account of his reign in 1 Ki. 16:23–28 gives us no hint of this. Perhaps his true political stature was reflected in ‘the book of the annals of the kings of Israel’, to which we are referred, but the writer of Kings was not interested in telling us about it. To him, Omri’s significance was that he ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, leading Israel deeper into apostasy.
Indeed, no king is judged by the writer of Kings according to his success or failure in the political arena or on the battlefield. The single most important criterion for the author is what a king did or did not do for the cultic worship of his people. Kings who upheld its purity are praised (though even they are censured for failing to ‘remove the high places’) while those who fostered idolatry are condemned. And kings who sponsored idolatry to a sufficiently serious extent are held responsible for the eventual destruction of their kingdoms. It is true, of course, that all history writing involves interpretation as well as the reporting of events. But the degree of selectivity and interpretation found in Kings (and in other OT history writing) is striking by modern standards.
In short, what we have here is not a straightforward history but a history which contains its own theological commentary on events. The author’s intention was not so much to record the events themselves as to explain their significance.
If there is a careful arrangement of the material in 1 and 2 Kings, it is not immediately obvious, and the structure of the work has been discerned in a variety of ways.
It is perhaps most helpful to see a basic threefold structure. The first part deals with Solomon’s accession and reign (1 Ki. 1–11); the second deals with the period of the two separate kingdoms, Israel and Judah (1 Ki. 12–2 Ki. 17); and the third deals with the time after the fall of Israel when Judah survived alone (2 Ki. 18–25). There is a clue that the writer himself may have had some such division in mind, in that the first two parts conclude with extended theological comments (1 Ki. 11:1–13; 29–39; 2 Ki. 17:7–23, 34–41).
The middle section is by far the longest (twenty-eight chapters) and can itself be divided helpfully into three parts. The first, 1 Ki. 12:1–16:28, deals with the kings of Israel and Judah from Solomon’s death to the reign of Omri in Israel. The second, 1 Ki. 16:29–2 Ki. 10:36 deals with the dynasty of Omri and its horrific downfall and is concerned almost exclusively with events in Israel. There are only two brief interludes about Judah in the whole of this section (1 Ki. 22:41–50 and 2 Ki. 8:16–29), i.e. a total of only twenty-four verses out of more than sixteen chapters. The treatment of Omri’s dynasty has been extended by the inclusion of stories concerning Elijah and Elisha. Elijah dominates 1 Ki. 17–19 and 21 and 2 Ki. 1:1–2:18; Elisha is the major prophetic figure in 2 Ki. 2:19–8:15 (with further appearances in 9:1–3 and 13:14–21, the latter being outside the section we are discussing). Stories of other prophets also help to swell the account of this period (1 Ki. 20:13–43; 22:1–28). The third part consists of 2 Ki. 11–17 and once again deals with kings of Israel and Judah.
The message of 1 and 2 Kings
Kings begins with the monarchy at its high point as Solomon succeeded David as ruler over a united kingdom. In the first few chapters the climax of the whole of the Deuteronomistic history is reached with the building of the temple. But the glories of Solomon’s reign were short-lived. His own foibles led to the kingdom dividing as soon as he was dead. The sins of Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, set the north on the road to disaster, and the writer provides plenty of signs that Judah had the potential to go the same way. After Israel had fallen, Judah enjoyed the reigns of two reforming kings, Hezekiah and Josiah, who seemed likely to lift their kingdom to new heights and save it from the fate of Israel. But both reigns were followed by dramatic reversals, and it became plain that even a king of Josiah’s stature could not avert disaster. At the end we are left with the depressing conclusion that disaster was inevitable, given that no-one (and therefore no king) is sinless (cf. 1 Ki. 8:46). The writer admits that even David, his prototype for the good king, was not perfect (1 Ki. 15:5). If the prototype fell short, what hope could there be for any who came after him?
Kings thus demonstrates how it was that God destroyed his own people and sent them into exile. Its main purpose is to justify God’s terrible decision by showing that the kings of Israel and Judah, almost without exception, were hopelessly flawed. The kings were not alone in this, of course; the people as a whole possessed a chronic tendency to sin.
Is Kings, therefore, a history without hope? It certainly offers a negative assessment of human institutions. In this respect it concludes a theme begun in the book of Judges. That book ends with the failure of the judges as an institution and the hope that monarchy might have something better to offer (Jdg. 21:25). In Kings, monarchy is put to the test and likewise fails.
On the other hand, Kings illustrates God’s commitment to Israel and his involvement in the nation’s political life. It therefore warns us that political institutions are not to be treated as an arena where God’s writ does not run. He is shown to be active there in grace as well as in judgment. Indeed, the interweaving of human freedom and responsibility with God’s sovereignty is subtly portrayed throughout, discouraging a too simplistic view of their relationship. Both good and bad human actions are taken up by God and used to forward his overarching purposes. He is a God who works out those purposes in history, both by means of and in spite of sinful human beings.
Although there is plenty of emphasis on the fact that faithfulness brings blessing and faithlessness judgment, there is more to the writer’s theology than a cause-and-effect connection between actions and consequences. God’s freedom produces surprising turns of events. For example, Israel was not destroyed in the time of Jehoahaz, not because its kings showed signs of improvement but simply because God chose to show Israel mercy and grace (2 Ki. 13:4–6, 22–23; 14:26–27). But God’s freedom is not only freedom to exercise mercy. His determination to destroy Judah remained fixed in spite of Josiah’s unquestioned piety and far-reaching religious reforms. God’s freedom means that he cannot be manipulated by human beings. It is not the behaviour of kings which shapes history but the sovereign will of God.
It is partly this emphasis on God’s freedom that holds out some hope for Judah at the end of 2 Kings. Because God is free to act as he pleases, exile may not be his final word. But hope also exists because, as the writer reminds the exiles, if God’s people repent and seek him, he may forgive them and cause their conquerors to show them mercy (1 Ki. 8:46–51). The book is never any more explicit than this in suggesting what may lie beyond exile. There is no promise of a return to the land, nor of a restoration of the Davidic dynasty. (What hope could be pinned on the latter anyway, following its catastrophic failure to bring salvation?) The Christian reader may see the dynasty finally restored in the person of Jesus, the second David, but such a hope is nowhere expressed in Kings; for that we must turn to the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The historical background
The books of Kings cover a period of slightly over 400 years, from Solomon’s accession in (or slightly before) 970 bc to the freeing of the exiled king Jehoiachin from prison in 561 bc. Only a brief sketch of the history of this period can be provided here. It is divided into three parts corresponding to the three major divisions of Kings as discussed above.
Solomon’s reign (970–930 bc)
Solomon benefited from the peaceful conditions bequeathed to him by David. For at least the first half of his reign he enjoyed good relations with Egypt in the south and Hiram of Tyre in the north. Both were important trading partners. There were no major powers to threaten the security of Solomon’s small empire. Egypt had ceased to be a great power in the Near East nearly two centuries before his accession. The Pharaohs of the Twenty-first Dynasty (1089–945 bc) undertook no foreign policy except to maintain secure borders and good relations with Egypt’s neighbours. It was probably with Siamun of this dynasty (978–959 bc) that Solomon entered into an alliance sealed by his marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Ki. 3:1).
However, the latter part of Solomon’s reign saw a deterioration of his foreign relations. There is a hint that his relationship with Hiram of Tyre became less cordial (1 Ki. 9:10–13), and he faced hostility from Edom in the south and Damascus in the north (1 Ki. 11:14–25). A change of dynasty brought Shoshenq I (Shishak) to the throne of Egypt in 945 bc; he gave asylum to Jeroboam when Solomon tried to kill him (1 Ki. 11:40) and attacked Jerusalem a few years after Solomon’s death (1 Ki. 14:25–26).
The divided monarchy (930–722 bc)
Shishak’s invasion of Palestine in the fifth year of Rehoboam (925 bc) was not followed up by any attempt to consolidate Egyptian control of the region. The days of Egypt’s empire were past. Long-term threats to Israel and Judah lay elsewhere.
Israel’s King Omri (885–874 bc) achieved considerable international standing, though we learn nothing of this from the biblical account. On the Moabite Stone (or Mesha Stele), an inscription by King Mesha of Moab c. 850 bc to commemorate his successful rebellion against Israel (see 2 Ki. 3:4–27), Omri is named as the king who had earlier conquered Moab and made it Israel’s vassal. As late as 722 bc, Israel is referred to in Assyrian sources as ‘the land of Omri’.
Aram (‘Syria’; rsv), a city-state ruled from Damascus, became a threat to Israel in the ninth century bc. Under Ben-Hadad it attacked Israel to aid Asa of Judah (1 Ki. 15:18–20), perhaps around 895 bc. Another Ben-Hadad (probably the son and successor of the first) was the almost constant enemy of Ahab and his sons and twice besieged Samaria (1 Ki. 20; 2 Ki. 6–7). A brief period of peace between Ahab and Ben-Hadad (1 Ki. 22:1) was probably prompted by the emergence of Assyria as a common enemy. Threatened by the western advances of Assyria under Shalmaneser III (858–824 bc) a number of small kingdoms formed a coalition to oppose him. Shalmaneser’s own account of the battle of Qarqar (853 bc) names Ahab and Ben-Hadad as members of this alliance and records that Ahab fielded 2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot-soldiers—one of the largest forces in the coalition. Although Shalmaneser claimed a victory over the alliance, Assyria’s interference in the west was temporarily halted.
Hostilities with Aram were renewed as soon as the threat from Assyria had passed (1 Ki. 22:2–3). Around 843 bc Ben-Hadad was assassinated by Hazael who ruled in his place (2 Ki. 8:7–15). Israel barely survived the attacks of Hazael and his son Ben-Hadad III (2 Ki. 13:3–7), and even Judah was threatened (2 Ki. 12:17–18). However, military and economic revival came to both Israel and Judah under their respective kings, Jeroboam II (782–753 bc) and Azariah/Uzziah (767–740 bc).
However, Assyria was soon to change the face of the Near East. The campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 bc) began a drastic expansion of the Assyrian Empire, into which Israel was rapidly absorbed. Through the voluntary submission of Menahem (see on 2 Ki. 15:17–22), Israel became an Assyrian satellite state, probably in 738 bc. Following the abortive rebellion of Pekah, its territory was reduced and it became a vassal (732 bc), subject to greater Assyrian interference but still allowed its own king. When Hoshea rebelled, Samaria was destroyed (722 bc) and the district became an Assyrian province under the control of a military governor. Part of the population was deported to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and replaced by foreign settlers. Thus the northern tribes lost their identity, and Israel ceased to exist.
Judah alone (722–587 bc)
Judah had submitted to Assyria under Ahaz in 734 bc (2 Ki. 16:7–8), but Hezekiah reversed his father’s policies and rebelled. The Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 bc) invaded Judah in 701 bc and reduced its territory, capturing forty-six fortified cities and deporting 200,150 captives. Jerusalem almost suffered destruction at his hands but was miraculously delivered (2 Ki. 18–19). Judah continued under Assyrian control throughout the long reign of Manasseh, who is mentioned as a vassal by Sennacherib’s successors Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. Under Ashurbanipal (668–630 bc) the Assyrian Empire reached its greatest extent. He invaded Egypt and captured Thebes in 663 bc. But towards the end of his reign Assyria’s hold on the western parts of its empire began to crumble. Josiah was able to extend his reforms into the old territory of Israel without interference.
Judah’s independence was, however, short-lived. Josiah died in 609 bc while trying to prevent Neco, king of Egypt, from aiding the last king of Assyria against Babylon (see the commentary on 2 Ki. 23:29–30). Egypt briefly moved into the power-vacuum left by the collapse of Assyria, laying claim to Syria-Palestine. Judah thus became a vassal of Egypt. However, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar defeated Neco at Carchemish in 605 bc, and Judah became part of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In the same year Nebuchadnezzar succeeded his father Nabopolassar on the throne of Babylon.
Judah twice rebelled against Babylonian rule. The first attempt resulted in the deportation of King Jehoiachin and the cream of Jerusalem’s population to Babylon (597 bc). The second attempt was better organized but just as ill-fated. It involved Zedekiah acting as a member of an anti-Babylonian alliance and looking to Egypt for support. Egyptian help was late and ineffective. In 588 bc, when Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Jerusalem, the army of Pharaoh Hophra set out to aid the city, and the siege was briefly lifted (Je. 37:5–8). The Egyptians, however, were soon dealt with, and the siege was renewed. In 587 bc Jerusalem was destroyed, and a second group of exiles made their way to Babylon. Although the exiled Jehoiachin was later treated with respect by Nebuchadnezzar’s successor (2 Ki. 25:27–30), the rule of Judah’s kings was finished.
Scholars attempting to reconcile biblical data on the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah with the dates provided by Assyrian and Babylonian sources have faced many difficulties. This is not the place to outline the problems (for one example see the commentary on 2 Ki. 18:9–12) or their possible solutions. A good brief discussion can be found in W. S. LaSor, D. A. Hubbard and F. W. Bush, Old Testament Survey (Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 288–297. For a detailed treatment see E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3rd edn. (Zondervan, 1984). The table in Biblical History adopts Thiele’s scheme with some minor emendations.
D. J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings, TOTC (IVP, 1993).
A. G. Auld, Kings, DSB (St Andrew Press/Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986).
G. H. Jones, 1 and 2 Kings, 2 vols., NCB (Eerdmans, 1984).
R. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1987).
J. G. McConville, ‘Narrative and Meaning in the Book of Kings’, Biblica 70/1 (1989), pp. 31–48.
OT Old Testament
rsv (New) Revised Standard Version
c. circa, about (with dates)
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
DSB Daily Study Bible
NCB New Century Bible
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Re 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.