Like the books of Samuel, the books of Kings were originally one book but divided into two by the Greek translators of the original Hebrew. While 2 Samuel leaves off near the end of David’s reign, 1 and 2 Kings take us from the reign of Solomon to the catastrophic division of Israel into northern and southern factions. The northern kingdom was made up of ten tribes and often referred to in the Old Testament as Ephraim, the name of the largest tribe, or Israel. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and was typically referred to as Judah. Even more unthinkable than the divided monarchy and the civil war that ensued was the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria in 722 BC and then the fall and exile of the southern kingdom to Babylon in 586 BC.
The story of Solomon is marked by his famous wisdom, which aided his ability to consolidate power amid the succession struggles through David’s old age and death. Solomon’s most important accomplishments were his building projects: the palace and the temple. But like his father, Solomon had a fatal flaw: he surrounded himself with foreign women, who led him to build altars to Chemosh and Molech, the gods of Moab and Ammon. Solomon also had many adversaries, one of whom was Jeroboam, the son of one of his officials. Jeroboam managed to lead a rebellion against Solomon and his son Rehoboam, convincing the northern tribes to follow him and set up an alternate capital in the ancient city of Shechem in Ephraim. Throughout this rebellion, Rehoboam did not help matters by his heavy-handed style of leadership.
All in all, Israel and Judah combined to have forty kings, twenty from each nation. Some reigned for as long as half a century, others for a year or so. One king of Judah, Jehoiachin, lasted only three months. All of them had to deal with some level of domestic or international strife. Many of them were even murdered. All but two—Hezekiah and Josiah of Judah—received negative evaluations by the writer of Kings for failing to lead the people according to God’s law, especially concerning the worship of idols and foreign God. As we see in Exodus, the law given on Mt. Sinai pertains to both the proper worship of God and Israel’s behavior toward God and others. Israel’s kings failed on both counts.
Hezekiah was king during Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem, and God spared the city. Hezekiah was faithful to destroy the high places (altars) and the Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles to honor the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Hezekiah was also responsible for collecting some of Solomon’s proverbs (Proverbs 25:1). Within 1-2 Kings, Josiah is also a very important figure. It was under his reign that “the book of the law” was found. Upon reading it, Josiah realized why Judah had been under such a cloud of God’s displeasure: they were not following God’s commands. This resulted in a reform that was intended to bring Israel back to faithfulness.
Most biblical scholars see here a key to the entire book and to the Deuteronomistic History (see essay on Joshua). The “book of the law” is Deuteronomy, not the entire Pentateuch, and it was likely not found during Josiah’s reign but also written during that time period as an attempt to instigate faithfulness to God. The writers of the Deuteronomistic History, which was not completed until the exile or later, were writing to give an explanation for why they had wound up in Babylon, a nation without land, king, or temple. This explanation was fairly straightforward: God was angry at Israel for neglecting God’s law. The problem of the exile, therefore, lies entirely with Israel and not her God. In that ancient world, it was common to attribute victories to the favor of the gods for obedience, and defeat to the displeasure of the gods for disobedience. 1 and 2 Kings plays out this theme from front to back, and the book ends with Judah in exile with no suggestion that an end is insight.
Other information about the divided monarchy is found in the prophetic books. Both the northern and southern kingdoms had prophets who were appointed to call their people back to faithfulness to God. Judah’s return from exile is referred to in Isaiah 40 and following, that portion of the book typically referred to as Second Isaiah. The story of the return is also picked up in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
One theme that continues through these books is the matter of violence and killing that was an everyday part of Israel’s life, and apparently taken in stride by God since God either condones or orders much of it. As we saw in the book of Joshua, Israel portrays God in a manner that reflects the culture in which Israel lived and which it shared with other ancient peoples (who portrayed their gods in similar ways). Throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament, we see this same principle at work—God, who transcends history, allows himself to be described in ways that are bound to the point of view of the authors of the Bible. This is an important principle to keep in mind for modern readers as they attempt to understand Scripture and its relevance for today.
– Peter Enns