The book of Kings has been broken down into 1 Kings and 2 Kings in the modern Old Testament Christians now use but it was originally one book. I’m treating it as a single book in this summary because it really is one long story, that continues from 1 Kings right into 2 Kings. Or rather, a long series of small stories that add up to one lone story.
To oversimplify, that story is one of God’s people consistently failing to live up to His standards, with the following, very high level plotline:
- The book begins at a high point in the nation of Israel with the reign of Solomon, but after his death things go downhill immediately: as soon as he’s gone the majority of the nation rebels against the line of David (Solomon’s father), splitting off to form their own country (but keeping the name Israel), leaving the smaller, southern part of the nation to name itself Judah.
- Through the rest of the book the nation of Israel never has a faithful king. Eventually God sends the Assyrians to conquer Israel and carry its people off into captivity.
- The nation of Judah—which keeps the line of David as their rulers—has a number of good kings but also has quite a number of unfaithful ones. In the end they don’t live up to God’s standards either and He sends the Babylonians to conquer them and carry them off into captivity.
I believe there are a number of prophets active over the course of Kings, but few are ever mentioned other then Elijah and Elisha. (And, reading through the stories of these two prophets, I was surprised to see how reluctantly Elijah served and how amazing Elisha was, when you consider that Elijah gets mentioned a lot more than Elisha for the rest of history!)
Sprinkled throughout the book are a number of stories many Christians are familiar with; we have stories about Solomon’s wisdom and wealth, stories about Elijah (including a personal favourite of mine when he confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel), and Elisha (who was an even greater prophet than Elijah!), stories about the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, the story of Joash repairing the Temple (and Josiah doing the same years later), and finally, as mentioned, the stories of the conquers of Israel and Judah. It’s a lot to read, so by the time I got to the end I was already forgetting what happened at the beginning! (It took me almost a complete year to get through Kings for this blog; given that I was going back and forth between Kings and Acts, a lot of time elapsed between the time I wrote my first Kings post and the time I wrote my last!)
To be clear, though, coming back to the larger point, when I say the people failed to live up to God’s standards I don’t mean they failed to live up to the finer points of religious procedure and custom that were to be followed in worshipping Him, or failed to observe the Sabbath, or lacked concern for the poor. All of these are called out by God as things His people did wrong through His prophets – we’ll get to this in the prophetic books later in the Old Testament (if God spares me that long), yes, but any of these failures could have been—and often were!—forgiven. The failure of the people of God was more fundamental than that.
We have to remember that God was not asking the Israelites to obey Him in order to be his people; they were already His people. He’d already chosen them; He’d already saved them out of Egypt; He’d already given them the Promised Land; He’d already promised to be their God. At the point where Kings begins He had made them into a mighty nation even though they’d started as the smallest, weakest group of people around! No, instead of asking the people to obey Him in order to become His children, He made them his children and then commanded them to obey Him out of love.
Throughout the book of Kings we are witnessing the breaking of a father’s heart for his wayward children. (Or, to use a metaphor that I don’t believe occurs within Kings but occurs within a number of His prophets: the breaking of a husband’s heart for his cheating, adulterous wife.) They had everything they needed in order to be happy and to have a loving relationship with their God, but they threw it away – mostly to pursue “gods” who were not gods at all!
As a Christian I read the book of Kings and see my own life (and failings) presented back at me. I couldn’t even pretend to have followed God as faithfully as I should have, but He didn’t ask me to obey Him in order to become His child. Instead He chose me, He saved me—through the death and resurrection of Jesus—He did all the work, just as He had done with His people in the Old Testament. When he asks me to obey Him, it’s not in order to earn anything, it’s out of love for what He has already done for me.
I say this all the time when I’m blogging about the Old Testament but it bears repeating: we should never read the stories in the Old Testament and think to ourselves that those people were stupid and unfaithful; we should read it and see our own hearts and desires reflected back at us, and be thankful that He doesn’t require obedience in order to be His child, or none of us would be saved.
Passages from 1 Kings
Passages from 2 Kings: