Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 15

In this chapter, a parade of kings go through Israel and Judah.

In some ways, this chapter is really the meat and potatoes of the book of Kings.  The way that I like to think of the book of Kings is this: it is a long sequence of regents, with a few interesting stories interspersed.  Fortunately for everyone involved, the stories are pretty long and also pretty interesting, but I want my readers to understand that a progression of kings is what sets the tempo for this book.  Hence the name: "Book of Kings".  What do I mean by "tempo"?  I mean that the book of Kings is defined by God's interactions with the succession of rulers in the kingdom period, rather than a single individual.

Let's take a moment to review what we have read in the Hebrew Bible up until this point.  Beginning with the book of Genesis, we saw the creation of the world, the fall into sin, and the emergence of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, positioning the descendants of Jacob as inheritors of a covenantal relationship with God.  In Exodus through Deuteronomy, we saw the covenant powerfully renewed and reshaped at Mount Sinai, as Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt and sent on their path towards the promised land.  In Joshua, they entered into the promised land, which was their inheritance and a big part of the fulfillment of the covenant from Genesis.  In Judges, we saw a pattern of repeated sin, repentance and deliverance that showed the frailty of Israel's faithfulness.  Ruth is a bit of a footnote: although it fits in the progression, it is not a major element in the overall story.  Lastly, in Samuel we saw the long political crisis that brought Israel's first and second kings into power (Saul and David), and all of the bloodshed surrounding that process.

Now we are in the book of Kings, which covers the longest era in Israel's history as a people, since it stretches from the life of David (perhaps 1000 BC) to the Babylonian exile (about 600 BC).  Since Israel has been planted in the promised land and now has an established royal dynasty, which is the thematic purpose of all the previous books, how should we understand this book?

First of all, the progression of kings sets both the pacing and the historical background for the action.  The "action", of course, is God's relationship with Israel.  The book of Samuel is about as long as Kings, but it only covers two or three main figures: Samuel, Saul and David.  In the same length, the book of Kings goes through some forty different rulers.

I think the book of Kings is best understood as showing us how God interacts with the nation of Israel over many generations.  For the most part, this is not a book about how God interacts with a person: it is about how God interacts with a nation, over a long period of time.  And not just any nation, but a nation that he has sworn to take as his own people.  We can use this chapter to understand the way that God relates to people by analogy, but it is most of all a story about generations, and each generation is exemplified by the king who ruled it.

With all of that as context, we will spend the rest of this book studying the details of how God manages this relationship through situations both good and bad.

This chapter begins promptly enough, telling us that Abijam walked in many sins, but God did not destroy them for the sake of David.  This is going to become a familiar refrain; we already heard that God left Judah in the hands of Rehoboam "for the sake of my servant David" (1 Kings 11:32).  This is itself emblematic of the older covenant with Abraham: God promised to make Abraham a father of nations, and we should understand that God is committed to making Israel his own people and his own nation.  Even in the midst of their sin and idolatry, God refuses to abandon them for the sake of his promises to earlier generations.

There are a couple other things worth mentioning.

First, verse 6 tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war for most of their respective reigns, which continued in the time of Abijam (v. 7).  I found this a little strange because 1 Kings 12:24 told us that Rehoboam backed off from attacking Jeroboam.  It's possible that Jeroboam is attacking him, or I don't know what.  Whatever the reason, peace between these two kingdoms was brief, contrary to what the LORD said through Ahijah just a little while ago.

Second, while Rehoboam led Judah into sin, and Abijam leads Judah into sin, Asa is largely a righteous king and he leads Judah back to the LORD.  What we will typically see in Judah (the southern kingdom) is some good kings and some bad kings, leading Judah up and down, while Israel (the northern kingdom) is typically just a lot of bad kings.  Both the northern and southern kingdoms are recipients of the covenant and the promises, but for the most part it is the southern kingdom, home of the temple and house of David, that stays closer to the LORD.  These ups and downs were part of the Judges cycle, and they continue in the kingdom era.  Overall, they are a defining characteristic of Judah's history.

Third, we see Asa make a treaty with the Arameans to attack the northern kingdom of Israel, which is morally suspect because in this case he is depending on a foreign nation to save him from Baasha, when he should be depending on the LORD.  We also learn that "he was diseased in his feet" (v. 23), which is the author's way of alluding to the ignominious end to his life.  In fact, even though Asa is presented very positively here, later in the book of Chronicles we will learn that Asa sinned in a couple different ways and the disease in his feet was how God punished him for his pride.

Lastly, I want to point out how Jeroboam and all his family was destroyed in a coup by Baasha, fulfilling the prophecy about Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:10-11.  This is another one of the trends we will observe over the book of Kings, which is that the northern kingdom has a lot of bloody coups, while the southern kingdom is mostly a peaceful succession from father to son, even in the cases when the king was evil such as Rehoboam and Abijam.  These are also defining characteristics of the northern and southern kingdoms.

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