The narrator continues the chronological account of Israel and Judah’s kings. Each of Israel’s kings is more evil than the previous, and Northern Israel gradually loses its territories to Assyrian pressure from the northeast. Assyria finally invades the northern kingdom of Israel entirely and captures the Israelites, removing them to Assyria. God’s presence leaves the people of Israel, and scattered Near-Eastern groups populate the promised land, worshipping their own gods.
A handful of Judah’s kings make a brave attempt at reform in the southern kingdom. Two kings embark on repairing the decaying Temple in Jerusalem. When Hezekiah assumes the throne, he destroys all of the altars and idols in Judah—the first such policy since Rehoboam introduced the idols into the land. With the help of the great prophet Isaiah, Judah thwarts heavy economic and military threats from Assyria. Finally, Judah’s king Josiah directs a national program of spiritual renewal. He reads the Laws of Moses in front of all the people, and the people reaffirm their commitment to God’s covenant, celebrating the Passover for the first time in centuries. Despite these attempts to turn the religious tide in Judah, however, evil rulers regain power after Josiah’s death. The king of Babylon invades the southern kingdom of Israel, burning Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. Like their northern brothers, the people of Judah are exiled, settling in Babylon far away from their homeland.
The two volumes of Kings continue the story of Israel’s tumultuous monarchy begun in Genesis and continued in the books of Samuel. The history spans almost four hundred years of events in ancient Israel. From the beginning of Solomon’s reign in around 965 b.c. to the fall of the northern and southern kingdoms in 722 b.c. and 567 b.c., respectively, the nation of Israel dominates the international affairs of the Near East. As a result, many of the events described in the biblical account of Israel’s divided kingdom can be authenticated historically. However, the authors of Kings do not simply list Israel and Judah’s kings, but arrange their stories in a way that highlights the direct connection between Israel’s religious infidelity and its radical political demise.
Solomon’s temple is a monolithic symbol that changes to reflect the changing fortunes of the Israelites. The author interprets the temple’s construction as a sign that Israel, the land originally promised to Moses, has arrived. By noting that Solomon builds it in “the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt,” the narrator suggests that all of Israel’s struggles to enter and conquer the promised land have prepared this moment (6:1). The Temple’s large, solid structure is a physical manifestation of Israel’s secure position in the land. God proves a spiritual manifestation of Israel’s security when he promises to reside in the temple, placing his “name there forever” (9:3). The fact that the Temple is a man-made object that can decay foreshadows the eventual spiritual decay of Israel. Furthermore, the importance of a physical object to Solomon and the people contrasts with the importance in earlier biblical books of incorporeal spiritual elements. The temple also reflects the downfall of Israel. After the author spends four chapters detailing its construction and dedication, the Temple disappears from the narrative just as Israel’s religious commitment to God fades from the minds of its rulers. Its final destruction at the hands of the Babylonians mirrors Israel’s total neglect of God’s covenant.
Part of the purpose of the books of Kings is to provide a cultural history of Israel that the Israelites can read to understand the history of their people. The authors and compilers of the books use rhetorical devices to reflect this purpose. One such device is the simultaneous telling of the histories of Israel and Judah. Accounts of Israelite kings always accompany accounts of contemporary kings in Judah. The narrator then describes how God views each king. This rhetorical device labels each king’s reign as good or evil, and provides a moral evaluation of Israel and Judah’s history. Judah appears generally more good than Israel since it has more good kings, a trend that reflects God’s promise to Solomon that he will bless Judah because it is the site of King David’s legacy in Jerusalem. On the whole, however, both Judah and Israel have a majority of evil kings. In spite of Hezekiah and Josiah’s laudable reforms in Judah, the attacks by Assyria and Babylon appear to be punishment for the religious deterioration of the Israelites.
As the books’ religious protagonists, Elijah and Elisha illustrate that the nature of prophets has changed throughout the Old Testament. Moses, Joshua, the judges, and David are all leaders of the Israelites, and, as the people’s representatives, they meet with God on mountains or in religious centers to intercede on behalf of the people for their wrongdoing. Elijah and Elisha, however, are located on the outskirts of communities, and they utter mystical warnings or oracles to Israel that are fatalistic at best. Rather than leading the people to greatness, Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal is merely an attempt to diminish the people’s ongoing evil, and Elisha’s healing of the peasant boy only helps to ease pain. The narrator mentions Elisha’s death only in passing, and Elijah is not actually buried in Israel. He is, instead, taken straight into heaven by supernatural means, an event that suggests that the land is too evil for God’s prophets. Whereas God formerly presents himself to Moses using thunder and lightning, God’s small, gentle whisper to Elijah shows that the people’s worship of other deities has effectively quelled God’s voice in Israel.