Overview of the Book of 1 Kings

Question
Overview of the Book of 1 Kings
Answer

Overview of the Book of 1 & 2 Kings

Note: The Overviews for 1 Kings and 2 Kings are identical.

Author: The author is unknown.

Purpose:

To demonstrate the justice of the exile, to affirm continuing hope in David's house, and to call for repentance so that Israel might return from exile.

Date: c. 560-550 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • Despite the severity of the exile of Israel and Judah, God was fully justified in his wrath because of the repeated and severe apostasy of the nation.
  • God's promises to David's family continued despite his sons' failures.
  • God called for his exiled people to repent of their sins.
  • Restoration from exile was offered to Israel upon condition of repentance.

Author:

The books of 1 and 2 Kings were originally one book whose author is not identified. Indications are that he was a compiler of historical sources who worked during the Babylonian exile.

Time and Place of Writing:

Second Kings ends with the last king of Judah, Jehoiachin, being accorded special favors by the king of Babylon while in exile (2 Kings 25:27-30). Since the book ends at that point and there is no mention of the return of the people from exile in 538 B.C., it may be inferred that the final composition of this work dates to the midpoint of the Babylonian exile (560-550 B.C.).

Not all of the material in Kings stems from the exilic period. First, the author had access to a variety of sources, both royal and prophetic. Three of these sources are explicitly named: "the book of the annals of Solomon" (1 Kings 11:41), "the book of the annals of the kings of Israel" (1 Kings 14:19) and "the book of the annals of the kings of Judah" (1 Kings 14:29). Second, statements scattered throughout the book of Kings depict actions or institutions that the writer said continued "to this day" (e.g., 1 Kings 9:21; 12:19; 2 Kings 8:22) but that had disappeared or ended by the time of final composition. These and similar statements indicate the perspectives of sources that were incorporated into the text of Kings. Third, the last two chapters of the book of Kings are distinguished by their detailed chronology of events by day, month and year. As some interpreters have argued, it is possible that before the exile an earlier form of this book existed and formed the basis of the canonical form as we have it. If this is so, the book still offers a unified perspective.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The book of Kings is concerned with the history and demise of the monarchy in Israel from the last days of David (c. 970 B.C.) until the exile to Babylon almost four centuries later (c. 586 B.C.). The books of 1 and 2 Kings comprise one unit within a larger group of books - Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings - designated traditionally as the Former Prophets and more recently as the Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History. Since these books naturally follow from one another, the recognition of an essential unity is justified.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings were originally one book. Whereas in older Hebrew manuscripts, 1 and 2 Kings are one literary work (like 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicles), in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT), the Vulgate (Latin translation) and most other versions, the work is divided into two books. The division is artificial, occasioned more by how much papyrus roll could fit on an ancient scroll than by dictates of content. The reigns of Ahaziah (1 Kings 22:51-53; 2 Kings 1:1-18) and Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:41-50; 2 Kings 3:1-27) overlap both books. Similarly, the prophetic ministry of Elijah appears in both volumes (1 Kings 17-19; 2 Kings 1-2).

Kings as History. Characteristic of this Biblical writer is a fondness for recording in detail many features of his nation's past. This genuine interest in the dates, figures and institutions of monarchial Israel is manifest in his careful recording of the preparations for the temple (1 Kings 5), its dimensions (1 Kings 7:1-12), and the furniture and vessels placed within it (1 Kings 7:13-51). The writer's penchant for detail is also manifest in his presentation of individual reigns. Not only did he state the length of reign for monarchs in both Kingdoms, but he also frequently synchronized their reigns.

The book of Kings is filled with chronological data. The author dated the building of the temple 480 years after the exodus (see note on 1 Kings 6:1). Aside from providing figures for the length of David's and Solomon's reigns, the author gave explicit information on the tenures of all the Judean and Israelite kings. During the period of the divided Kingdom, he synchronized the start of each king's reign with the regnal year of the king in the other kingdom. Finally, for Judean kings the author listed the king's age upon accession and the name of his mother.

The author's organization and periodization of Israel's experience with the monarchy reveals his concern to provide an orderly and meaningful account of his nation's past. Beginning by characterizing and evaluating the united monarchy under Solomon (1 Kings 1-11), he carefully depicted its dissolution (1 Kings 12:1-25) and the formation of two separate entities: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. He then proceeded to present the parallel, yet independent, history of each realm until the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:1-41). This consistent alternation between the Northern Kingdom (usually called "Israel") and the Southern Kingdom (usually called "Judah") can be confusing, but it is central to the author's purpose to present a unified history of all the Israelite tribes.

Creating a written record of two kingdoms that existed simultaneously presented complex challenges to the writer. To set events that occurred concurrently in a text, he chose to alternate between events in the north and in the south. The pattern for this alternation is evident from the following chart:

Israel/Judah
Date(s)
Reference
In Israel
930-909 B.C.
1 Kings 12:25-14:20
In Judah
930-869 B.C.
1 Kings 14:21-15:24
In Israel
909-853 B.C.
1 Kings 15:25-22:40
In Judah
869-848 B.C.
1 Kings 22:41-50
In Israel
853-841 B.C.
1 Kings 22:51-2 Kings 8:15
In Judah
848-841 B.C.
2 Kings 8:16-29
In Israel
841-814 B.C.
2 Kings 9:1-10:36
In Judah
841-796 B.C.
2 Kings 11-12
In Israel
814-782 B.C.
2 Kings 13:1-25
In Judah
796-767 B.C.
2 Kings 14:1-22
In Israel
793-753 B.C.
2 Kings 14:23-29
In Judah
792-740 B.C.
2 Kings 15:1-7
In Israel
753-732 B.C.
2 Kings 15:8-31
In Judah
750-715 B.C.
2 Kings 15:32-16:20
In Israel
732-722 B.C.
2 Kings 17:1-6

This chart indicates that the writer shifted from one Kingdom to the other each time he reached the end of a king's reign in one Kingdom that extended beyond the end of the reign of the last king previously mentioned in the other Kingdom. For instance, Pekah of Israel reigned from 740-732 B.C. (2 Kings 15:27-31); his reign extended beyond the first year of Jotham of Judah in 750-735 B.C. (2 Kings 15:32-38), so the writer shifted to Judah at that point. Ahaz of Judah, who followed Jotham, ruled from 735-715 B.C. (2 Kings 15:32-16:20), and his reign extended beyond the end of Pekah's reign of Israel in 740-732 B.C. (2 Kings 15:27-31). For this reason, the writer shifted back to Israel and began with Hoshea of Israel who reigned 732-722 B.C.(2 Kings 17:1-6).

In portraying the divided Kingdom, the Biblical writer points out important differences between the two realms. Whereas kingship in Judah was relatively stable, the throne never departing from the descendants of David, kingship in the Northern Kingdom was characterized by instability and a succession of dynasties. Nine different families and 20 kings ruled over the Northern Kingdom during its approximately 200-year existence. In contrast, one family and 20 kings ruled over the Southern Kingdom through approximately three and a half centuries. The Biblical writer concluded his coverage of the Northern Kingdom with a lengthy commentary on what he saw as its major shortcomings (2 Kings 17:7-23). The author then chronicled the last 150 years of Judah's history alone.

The historical value of Kings should not be underestimated. In composing a coherent and meaningful account of his nation's past, the Biblical writer provided an invaluable service to anyone wishing to understand this momentous era in Israelite history.

Kings as Theology. Aside from manifesting a profound interest in Israel's past, Kings is also a work of theology, a reflection on God's ways with the people he had delivered from the "iron-smelting furnace" of Egypt to be his "own inheritance" (1 Kings 8:51-53). In composing a work of theological history, the writer drew lessons from the past that served God's people in his present and future. There are a number of central tenets that undergird the overall perspective of the book of Kings:

(1) The People as God's Elect. Central to the theology of Kings is the assertion that Israel (and later Judah) was not in itself better than that of any of the other nations. The Israelites did not first choose God; rather, God "singled them out from all the nations of the world" according to his unfathomable grace (1 Kings 8:53). Holiness results not from any intrinsic merit on their part, but from God's election (1 Kings 8:51, 53; Deut. 7:6; 26:18-19).

There is also an emphasis in Kings on the solidarity of Israel. In his coverage, the writer exhibited a concern for all Israelite tribes. Although he severely critiqued the Northern Kingdom and its monarchs for their pervasive idolatry, the writer still considered these tribes among the covenant people and demonstrated a sustained interest in their history. Even after the northern tribes were exiled by the Assyrians, the author did not lose interest in their fate, commending Josiah for reforming Samaria.

(2) The Prophetic Word. Prophets play a major role in this history of the Israelite monarchy. In writing about the prophets, the writer was interested in their message and ministry as bearers of God's word. The prophets passionately and uncompromisingly insisted on total and undivided allegiance to the Lord, steadfastly opposing any alliance or political posture that might jeopardize the distinctive attributes of Israelite religion. Not surprisingly, this strict adherence to the covenant often set the prophets against kings and queens who were willing to compromise politically and religiously with Israel's neighbors. Although he gave most of his attention to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, the writer mentioned the activities of many other prophets throughout the era of the monarchy: Nathan (1 Kings 1:22), Ahijah (1 Kings 11:26-39; 14:1-18), Shemaiah (1 Kings 12:21-24), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:8-28); Jonah (2 Kings 14:25); Isaiah (2 Kings 19:1-7; 20:14), and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20).

(3) One God, One Sanctuary. According to this history, Yahweh is Lord of the cosmos and ruler over the kingdoms of the earth (2 Kings 19:15-16). God led his people into battle, answered the prayers they directed toward the temple, honored their sacrifices, and displayed a special concern for the poor and oppressed, the widow and the orphan. Exclusive devotion to God is a hallmark of the covenant (1 Kings 18:21, 39).

Correlative to the existence of only one supreme God is the writer's commitment to the belief that there could only be one central sanctuary in Israel (Deut. 12:1-32). The construction of the temple by Solomon marked a major event in Israelite history. Accordingly, much space was devoted in 1 Kings to the preparations for, and construction of, this edifice, including detailed coverage of its dimensions and furnishings.

Consistent with this emphasis on one God and one Temple is the prohibition against idolatry and worshiping at other cult sites. As Kings depicts the deterioration in devotion toward God during the course of the divided Kingdom, the problem was not so much a wholesale abandonment of Yahweh for other gods as it was the combined worship of Yahweh and foreign deities. The influence of Canaanite worship was especially pronounced in northern Israel, which through the aegis of its monarchs promoted the use of Canaanite rituals, beliefs and idols. Syncretism was also a serious problem in Judah. The writer cited the worship of other gods as a major reason for the defeat and exile of both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7, 16, 19; 21:3-5).

The author also gave extensive coverage to loyalty toward God as manifested by unwavering support of the temple in Jerusalem. Of the eight southern kings who received praise, only Hezekiah and Josiah were singled out for their incomparable devotion to Yahweh (2 Kings 18:5; 23:25). Hezekiah earned highest praise for removing the high places in Judah and for his unwavering trust in God during Sennacherib's invasion (2 Kings 18:3-7). The author accorded highest honor to Josiah for his refurbishment of the Temple and for his sweeping reforms in both the south and north (2 Kings 22:2; 23:25). Among the northern kings only Jehu won any commendation, which he received because he purged Israel of Baal worship (2 Kings 10:30).

(4) Covenant and Kingship. Two major covenants figure prominently in Kings: the Mosaic and the Davidic covenants. The writer evaluated the conduct of king and people alike on the basis of the covenant established at Mount Sinai.

Viewing the relationship between God and Israel as covenantal meant that no human institution attained an absolute status. Every institution was subject to the authority of God. Hence, although the monarchy was God-ordained, its power was by no means absolute. King and people alike were responsible for keeping covenant with their God. Each king was evaluated according to whether he kept the Torah (or law).

The writer of Kings was also committed to the principles of the Davidic covenant. In effect, the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:1-29; Pss. 89; 132) identified David's dynasty as the permanent royal family for God's people. Although individual kings would be punished severely for covenant violations, the family of David would never be permanently removed from power. God's love for David prompted divine patience toward his descendants (see 1 Kings 15:4), and it explained the grand significance of the last scene of the book-when Jehoiachin was released from prison in Babylon-as a hopeful sign that God had not given up on David's royal house (2 Kings 25:27-30).

Christ in Kings:

The history of Kings points to Christ in a number of ways. At least two matters come to the foreground in the book of Kings. First, the history stressed the family of David as the centerpiece of Israel. All hopes of victory and salvation-even return from exile-were found in God's mercy shown to and through David's royal house. The New Testament teaches that Christ is the great Son of David through whom God fulfilled all the promises he made to David and his sons (Matt. 1:1-17; Acts 2:22-36).

Second, kingship and temple worship stood together in the center of this history. In fact, the kings of Israel and Judah were judged largely in terms of their loyalty or disloyalty to the temple in Jerusalem and to the purity of worship there. This motif is also fulfilled in Christ. The New Testament teaches that he is the eternal high priest for God's people (Heb. 3:1; 4:14-15), whose own blood atoned for their sins (Heb. 2:17; 9:25-28). He brings his people together into a holy sanctuary on Earth (1 Pet. 2:4-5,9), as he ministers in the heavenly palace of God (Heb. 6:19-20; 8:1-2; 9:24). The importance of exclusive fidelity to worship in Solomon's Temple corresponds to Christ's call for his followers to rely on his priestly mediation alone for their salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) as he ministers in the heavenly sanctuary now and ultimately replaces the earthly sanctuary in the new earth (Rev. 21:22).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Historical Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).