THE DIVIDED KINGDOM
After the reign of Solomon, the kingdom did not remain united. Jeroboam was one of Solomon's chief officials. One day the prophet Ahijah met Jeroboam on the road. He tore his cloak into twelve pieces and gave ten to Jeroboam, saying that God would take ten tribes away from Solomon's kingdom because of his idolatry, and give them to Jeroboam.
While Solomon was still alive, Jeroboam's life was in danger, so he fled to Egypt (1 Kings 11:26-40). When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam prepared to take the throne. Jeroboam returned and with representatives of the people he met with the new king, begging him to lighten the heavy burden of taxes and labor that Solomon had laid on them. Rehoboam rejected these pleas and raised the people's taxes. So the ten tribes of the north chose Jeroboam as their king; only the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam. From this time (about 930 BC) the northern kingdom was known as Israel, and the southern kingdom as Judah (1 Kings 12).
Despite God's promise of support, Jeroboam did not remain faithful to the true worship of God. Fearing that the people would return to Rehoboam eventually since he controlled Jerusalem and the temple, Jeroboam set up two golden calves in Bethel and Dan (far north). He told the people, "It is too much for you to go up* to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (1 Kings 12:28). He established an independent line of priests who were not Levites. A prophet from Judah came before Jeroboam at Bethel and cursed the altar. When Jeroboam stretched out his arm toward the prophet, ordering his arrest, his hand shriveled up. The altar then split in two. Terrified by what he saw, the king begged the prophet to intercede with the Lord to forgive him and restore his arm, which He did. Nevertheless, Jeroboam continued to practice idolatry throughout his reign of 22 years. In southern Judah Rehoboam behaved no differently, leading the people in worship to the Canaanite gods.
*Note: the Bible always uses the phrase, "go up to Jerusalem," because it was high in the mountains. This seems confusing when we look at a map, because Jerusalem is south of northern Israel.
History of the kings of northern Israel
In our contemporary culture with its emphasis on "today," many people may wonder what is relevant in a study of the history of kings who lived over 2500 years ago. We should keep in mind that the historical books of the Bible were not written primarily as a record of human achievements but are considered by believers to be the self-revelation of God and how He has worked within history to bring about His purposes. He chose this method of revealing Himself to us. "Do you want to know God? Listen to His story. ... This is not the study of the past -- this is the study of a Person" (Walton, Old Testament Today, 2004, 213).
The books of 1 and 2 Kings were originally one scroll, compiled in final form during the Babylonian exile, told at the end of 2 Kings (mid 6th century BC). They record the list of kings in both north and south, alternating between one and the other. For our survey we will cover northern Israel first, then return to southern Judah. We will not cover every king but only the most important ones. For a chronological chart of all the kings of Israel and Judah, see this site.
All of the kings of northern Israel were unfaithful to God, and led the people into idolatry and pagan living. "The book can seem a blur with king following king, but it could be argued that this is exactly the effect the author desired to create. One king blends into another as the pattern of [spiritual] failure falls into place. It is evident that the author was more interested in spiritual issues and the kings' relationship to God than in political events" (Walton, Old Testament Today, 2004, 194).
The first few kings after Jeroboam experienced instability. Dynasties changed rapidly. Three of the four kings after Jeroboam reigned less than two years, one only seven days. Each time the new king slaughtered the entire family of the previous ruler, so that no royal line remained.
The first dynasty to survive for any length of time in the north was the family of Omri, beginning around 880 BC. Omri moved the capital to the city of Samaria. Three of his descendants were kings until 840 BC, the most famous being his son Ahab (c. 874 - 853). This dynasty was so successful that Assyrian and Moabite texts (pictured here) refer to Israel as the "land of Omri." However, the Bible does not record many events of this politically successful dynasty, other than the numerous sins these kings committed. Neighboring countries considered Omri a powerful and influential ruler. From God's perspective, the Omri dynasty was a disaster. (more information on the Moabite stone)
& Read 1 Kings 16:21-34, 17-19, 21, 22:29-39 (Ahab and Elijah)
These chapters tell of the conflicts between king Ahab and his wife Jezebel with the prophet Elijah. Ahab married a foreign woman and accepted her worship of Baal. Elijah, whose name means "My God is Yahweh," brought the word of the Lord to Ahab that He would send a drought for three years to punish Israel. God provided a brook for Elijah from which to drink and miraculously, ravens brought him food. When the brook eventually dried up, God sent Elijah to a poor widow. At first she protested, saying that she had so little to eat that she could not even provide for herself and her son. But Elijah told her that God would provide. By a miracle, her meager supplies never ran out. Later her son became sick and died, but Elijah revived him. The Greek version of the text says that he "breathed into the child," perhaps describing what we call artificial respiration today.
After three years Elijah comes to Ahab to tell him that God will finally provide rain. When the king sees the prophet, he calls him "you troubler of Israel," but Elijah points out that Ahab is the one who brings trouble on Israel because of his idolatry. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest to see who worships the one true God. They meet on Mount Carmel and build an altar. Despite their pleas and physical self-abuse, Baal does not send fire down for the sacrifice. Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, suggesting that their god is asleep or "gone aside" (traveling), an expression literally meaning he's off relieving himself. Then Elijah calls on God who sends fire to burn up the sacrifice even though it is soaking in water. The people acknowledge Yahweh as God, and kill the prophets of Baal. Then God sends the much needed rain.
Despite these mighty proofs, Ahab and Jezebel continue to follow Baal. Jezebel orders that Elijah be found and killed. The prophet fears for his life, but God appears to him in a whispering voice to reassure him that there are many others who remain true to God, and that their faithfulness will not be in vain.
Ahab and Jezebel continue in their wicked ways. Despite his great wealth, Ahab desires a vineyard owned by Naboth and Jezebel arranges to have him killed. Elijah confronts him and prophesies that his dynasty will end. He tells Jezebel that she will be eaten by dogs. In ch. 22 Ahab meets his death on the battlefield, and just as Elijah foretold, the dogs lick the blood from his chariot.
Events in ch. 22 probably follow the historic battle of Qarqar (853 BC) in which Syria and Israel joined with ten other kings to fight off the major empire of Assyria. Ahab's contribution of 2000 chariots is mentioned on the Kurkh Monolith of Shalmaneser III (left). The Bible does not mention this battle.
This royal seal (right) with the letters JZBL in ancient
Hebrew may perhaps have belonged to queen Jezebel. Discovered in 1964 and dated to the
9th century BC, the seal bears symbols that designate a royal female
Evidence of the corrupting influence of pagan religion on Israel can be found outside the Bible as well. Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a settlement in southern Israel from 800 BC where they have found several inscriptions mentioning blessings "from Yahweh and his Asherah." Asherah was the name of a Canaanite goddess and also the sacred poles which were used in fertility rituals. Either the people of this settlement believed that God had a mate (as did most other pagan deities) or that he was some kind of fertility god.
& Read 2 Kings 2, 5 (Elisha)
In 1 Kings 19 Elijah chose Elisha to be his successor. At the end of Elijah's life, God chose to take him up in a fiery chariot rather than experience a natural death. Elisha witnesses this miracle. Then he begins his prophetic mission, picking up where Elijah left off, performing several miracles to prove that he is God's messenger. Read the story of Naaman and Elisha's faithless servant Gehazi.
& Read 2 Kings 9 (Jehu)
About 11 years after the death of king Ahab, Elisha anoints Jehu to be the next king of Israel. Jehu is the only northern king to receive at least a partial commendation from the author (10:30-31). His killing of the entire royal family (ch. 10) ends the four-king dynasty of Omri, as God had promised. Jehu throws Jehoram's body on the field that his father Ahab had stolen from Naboth. When Jezebel sees Jehu coming, she refers to him as Zimri, a previous usurper of the throne (1 Kings 16). Her death is particularly grisly, fulfilling the prophecy of Elijah.
Personal note: any time my sister is driving too fast (which is usually the case), we say she is driving like Jehu (9:20).
When he was king, Jehu became a vassal of Shalmaneser III, paying him tribute. On the Black Obelisk (British Museum) we see Jehu kneeling to kiss the Assyrian emperor's feet, the earliest portrait of any biblical character.
Jehu's dynasty extended for five generations, lasting nearly a century, the most stable period of Israel's history. Jehu's descendant, Jeroboam II, extended the territory of Israel to include all the land in the north as in the days of Solomon. During this time of political prosperity (c. 790-750 BC), a class structure developed within Israelite society, creating economic inequities and hardships for the poor who were increasingly victimized. The prophet Amos condemned the lavish lifestyles of the rich, who exploited the poor.
& Read Amos 2:6-8, 3:11-15, 4:1, 5:11-27, 8:4-6
Amos prophesied to Israel during a time of great prosperity and great injustice. The wealthy thought these were good times, blessed by God, but Amos tells them God is not pleased with their lives. Material success is not a sign of God's approval. His book begins with prophecies of doom against Israel's enemies, but then his message of judgement turns ominously toward Israel. God saw the rich “trample the heads of the poor into the dust” (2:7). He saw that the affluent lifestyle of the rich was built on oppression of the poor (8:4-6). He denounced the rich women, calling them “cows … who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink’” (4:1). They enjoyed luxury while others starved. In the courts the poor had no justice, as the rich bribed the judges (5:11-12). For their selfishness, greed, and unconcern for those in need, God rejected their empty forms of worship and sent Israel into exile (5:21-24, 27). God does not accept our worship if our lives are not holy. Other passages in the prophets echo these condemnations of the rich who neglect the needy, see Micah 6:6-8.
Isaiah tells the people that God refuses to accept their worship if their lives are not righteous: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! ... Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed; take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:15, 17).
"According to Napoleon, 'The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.' That description could be applied to Israel’s prophets." In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann describes the prophet's role in similar terms: to criticize the present sinful reality and to energize the people to repent and move toward a better future as God intended it to be. False prophets, in contrast, uphold the status quo, telling the people what they want to hear and confirming their present lifestyles (Briley). True prophets are never popular as they point out all our flaws. Do we listen to our modern-day prophets or do we dismiss them as radicals, socialists, or heretics for challenging the way things are?
Fall of northern Israel
The kings of Israel continued to lead the people in idolatry until 722 BC when God allowed the Assyrians to conquer the land and take the people into exile. Prior to that time, in 734 BC Isaiah prophesied to the king of Judah that this destruction was coming.
& Read Isaiah 7:1-17, 2 Kings 16:1-9, 17:1-24
Some of you probably recognized one verse in Isaiah 7: "The virgin [young woman] shall conceive and bear a son and will call him Immanuel." In the NT Matthew applies this verse to Jesus. However, in its original context it means something entirely different and was not a prophecy about Jesus. We must pay attention to the historical circumstances in Isaiah's time in order to interpret this passage correctly.
The giant empire of Assyria was again threatening to invade Israel and its northern neighbor Aram (modern-day Syria). Together with a coalition of other states, these countries had fought off the empire a century before at Qarqar, and hoped they could repeat their previous victory. The kings of Syria and Israel wanted to form an alliance with Judah in order to fight back. When king Ahaz of Judah did not agree, Aram and Israel declared war on Judah (Isaiah 7:1-2; 2 Kings 16:5).
Ahaz was no better a king than his northern counterparts; he even sacrificed one of his sons to an idol. Nevertheless, God sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to assure him that events would work out in his favor. Ahaz wanted to make an alliance with Assyria to protect Judah (2 Kings 16:7), but Isaiah told him to wait on the Lord: "Do not lose heart. ... It will not happen. ... If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all" (Isa. 7:4, 7, 9).
God offered to give Ahaz a sign, but he didn't want to see one (probably because he lacked faith in God in the first place). Isaiah gave him a sign anyway, something that would happen in Ahaz's own time that he could observe (not hundreds of years in the future). Isaiah speaks of a sign that is not miraculous but one obvious to the king. Isaiah refers to a woman whom the king apparently knew (some think this was Isaiah’s own wife). Isaiah says that in the time it would take for this young woman to conceive, give birth to a child, and that child to become old enough to choose what he wants to eat -- in other words, about 2 years -- God would defeat the enemies of Ahaz (7:16-17).
Sure enough, within two years (732 BC) Damascus, the capital of Syria (Aram) had fallen and the threat to the southern kingdom was avoided. Unfortunately, the king did not heed this warning and made an alliance with Tiglath-pileser, ruler of the wicked Assyrians (pictured here), instead of trusting God (2 Kings 16:7-8).
In its historical context, we see that Isaiah was not making a prophecy about the virgin birth of Jesus but addressing a contemporary problem with a sign that the king could see in his own time, an event which occurred within 2 years. Isaiah does not describe the mother as a virgin but as a young woman; in the original Hebrew, the word is not restricted to the meaning "virgin" (unfortunately, most translations have changed it to "virgin," confusing the meaning for modern readers). The prophet referred to an ordinary conception between a man and woman, not a miraculous one. This understanding of Isaiah's prophecy does not contradict the New Testament's teaching that Mary was a virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit (see further discussion below).
Ten years after the fall of Damascus (722 BC), Sargon II of Assyria completed the conquest of Samaria begun by his father Shalmaneser, and took Israel into captivity (2 Kings 17). The text makes clear that this was not merely a change in power in the middle east, but that Israel fell because they had forsaken God and the covenant. God was patient with Israel for centuries before He brought about this deserved punishment. The ten tribes would never return to the land as a nation. Assyria populated the territory with foreigners who worshipped their own gods. (As these people intermarried with the few remaining Jews, they produced the race of Samaritans who were so hated by Jews in the NT.)
This bull statue decorated the palace of Sargon II, and is now in the Louvre in Paris.
History of the kings of southern Judah
Unlike in the north, the throne of Judah remained under the rule of David's descendants. Most of the kings were wicked, but a few were faithful. Several years after Rehoboam, in the 9th century BC, a father and son, Asa and Jehoshaphat, were two kings who receive commendation from the author, saying "Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord ... Asa's heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life" (1 Kings 15:11, 14). "In everything [Jehoshaphat] walked in the ways of his father Asa and did not stray from them" (1 Kings 22:43). All together Asa and his son reigned 66 years in faithful service to God.
& Read 2 Kings 11-12 (Athaliah and Joash)
About a decade after Jehoshaphat (c. 840 BC), when Jehu assassinated Ahab's son Jehoram in the northern kingdom, he also killed Judah's king Ahaziah, who was a grandson of Ahab. His mother Athaliah, Ahab's daughter, had married into Judah's royal house for a political alliance. Seeing that her son was dead, Athaliah decided to take the throne herself. To eliminate any future rivals, she tried to murder all her grandchildren.
Ahaziah's sister hides her young nephew Joash in the temple. After six years the priest Jehoiada reveals Joash's existence to the temple guards and they crown him the rightful king. They kill Athaliah and vow to put an end to Baal worship. Joash orders that the temple be repaired which takes many years. The "Jehoash inscription" appears to record the king's orders to repair the temple in 2 Kings 12 (although some Hebrew scholars have called it a modern forgery).
Unfortunately, we read in 2 Chronicles 24 that Joash later returned to the worship of idols. When Jehoiada's son rebukes him for doing so, the king has him killed. For his evil ways, Joash was assassinated.
& Read 2 Kings 18-20 (Hezekiah)
Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz (whom Isaiah spoke to, discussed above). Unlike his father, Hezekiah was one of Judah's most faithful kings: "There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after him" (18:5). He reigned 29 years from about 716-687 BC.
The text mentions that Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent which Moses had raised in the wilderness to cure snake bites (Numbers 21:9). Unfortunately, the Jews had begun worshipping the object as an idol.
2 Chronicles 29-30 tells how Hezekiah repaired and purified the temple. He then set messengers to Israel to invite people from the northern tribes to come celebrate Passover. Many ridiculed them, but some came to Jerusalem to take part in the feast for the first time in centuries.
Hezekiah was king of Judah in 722 when the Assyrians conquered Israel (18:9-10).
Above you can see the royal seal of Hezekiah, stamped on clay (an impression called a bulla).
As the author continues to discuss Assyria, he skips several years, recording the next events out of order. The events of ch. 20, where Hezekiah almost dies from an illness, should follow 18:13. The prophet Isaiah tells Hezekiah that God will extend his life by 15 years, and shows him a miraculous sign as the sun seems to move in reverse. (Whether or not the earth actually reversed its revolution, or whether God produced an illusion for the sign, we cannot say.)
Back to 18:14 -- the author records the events of 701 BC, when Assyria invaded Judah. They successfully captured and destroyed several nearby cities, such as Lachish. Archeologists in the 19th century found relief carvings of the siege of Lachish in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, now in the British Museum (see below). "The reliefs are remarkably detailed and realistic. They show a developed war-machinery. Upon a ramp that they built, the Assyrian soldiers approach the city walls in orders of archers, flanked by infantry, who in their turn defend carts which were used to pound the walls. Supplies were carried by camels. The Assyrians set the city on fire (in some place the archaeologists found 50 centimeters of ashes). Many inhabitants were exiled to Assyria to become slaves and servants. In the Nineveh relief, whole families are carried off, their goods looted; men are tortured and the Judean governor is seen kneeling before Sennacherib. Many people also died in the battle, as is witnessed by a mass grave which was later found by archaeologists, with 1500 human skeletons, mainly of women and children." http://www.jewishmag.com/56mag/lachish/lachish.htm
Next the Assyrians laid siege around Jerusalem. Hezekiah refused to surrender and trusted in the Lord. Isaiah prophesied the eventual downfall of the Assyrian empire: "Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!" (19:22, also recorded in Isaiah 37)
Several archeological finds shed light on this period. Hezekiah had a tunnel carved through solid rock from inside the city wall to a spring outside the wall, so that during the siege the people would have water (2 Chronicles 32:30). This remains an amazing feat of engineering, as the two teams dug from different directions in a weaving path and met in the middle. Tourists in Jerusalem not afraid of getting wet can crawl through the tunnel today.
At the center point of the tunnel, archeologists found an inscription, telling of the meeting of the two digging teams:
"... and this is the story of the tunnel while ... the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut ...the voice of a man ...called to his fellow, for there was a through-passage in the rock, from the right ... and on the day of the tunnel [being finished] the tone hewers struck each man towards his fellow, ax on ax, and the water went from the source to the pool for two hundred and a thousand cubits. And one hundred cubits was the height over the head of the stone hewers."
The Assyrians wrote their version of this siege on the prism of Sennacherib (now in the British Museum):
"As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by leveling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city."
Sennacherib boasts that he "shut Hezekiah up" in Jerusalem, but of course, does not mention that the Assyrians failed to take the city. 2 Kings 19:35-37 says that God sent an angel to destroy many in the Assyrian army. In describing this event, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that there was an infestation of mice in the camp, leading some to think that they might have carried a plague. In any case, God delivered Hezekiah and Jerusalem as He promised.
Verse 37 records Sennacherib's death, which happened 20 years later.
Unfortunately, Hezekiah's son Manasseh was one of the worst kings of Judah. When the country fell to the Babylonians in 587, God declared that this was punishment for the sins of Manasseh and the people of his time (2 Kings 23:26, 24:3-4).
& Read 2 Kings 22-23
The final good king of Judah was Josiah (641-609). Josiah became king at age 8 when his father died. In 622 BC Josiah set about to restore the temple, which had again fallen into disrepair. There they found the "Book of the Law" which was probably a lost copy of Deuteronomy. After reading the law, Josiah established many reforms to bring the people of Judah back into obedience to the covenant.
Notice (23:10) the reference to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, where child sacrifices had been offered to the Ammonite god Molech. In the NT this place became a garbage dump to the south of the city, which burned constantly. Hinnom or "Gehenna" is the term translated as Hell in the NT, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Josiah destroyed the high places, altars atop hills dedicated to pagan gods, that had stood since the time of Solomon.
In 23:15, Josiah fulfills the prophecy made 300 years earlier, in 1 Kings 13:1-3, by destroying the idolatrous places at Bethel.
In Jeremiah 22:13-19 the prophet condemns Josiah's son Jehoiakim for oppressing the poor, but praises Josiah because "he defended the cause of the poor and needy ... Is that not what it means to know Me? declares the Lord." Those that know God show concern for the less fortunate in society.
Unfortunately, Josiah became involved in a battle between Egypt and Assyria on one side and the rising power of Babylon on the other. In 609, hoping to contribute to the downfall of Assyria, Josiah led his army to intercept Egyptian armies rushing to the aid of Assyria. He was killed in the battle near Megiddo.
The fall of Assyria, the rise of Babylon, and the exile of Judah will be discussed in the next section.