III. Literary Structure And Purpose
Even a casual reading of Kings will suggest that the editor had interests other than simply preserving the past. What is found here makes no pretenses about being historical in the modern, scientific sense of the term. Indeed, the fact that additional sources are so willingly referred to indicates a selectivity in choosing materials deemed appropriate for a particular purpose. Beyond this, the amount of attention given to various individuals is also instructive. Omri, as a most notable example, is known from extrabiblical sources to have been one of the northern kingdom's most influential kings. How unusual, then, that Kings devotes only eight verses to his reign (1Ki 16:21-28)! Similar comments could be made concerning Jeroboam II, whose reign for many must have represented a renaissance of sorts (2Ki 14:23-29). By way of contrast, several chapters are devoted to such kings as Hezekiah and Josiah as well as the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The reason, in one word, is “theology.”
In understanding the perspective and purpose of Kings, it is important to keep in mind that the southern kingdom of Judah had recently been destroyed by the Babylonians. That Jerusalem, Judah's capital city, could ever fall was in the minds of many a theological impossibility (La 4:12, 20). Jerusalem, after all, was God's chosen city. Yet fall it did, and its destruction raised perplexing questions that begged for answers. Questions of this sort receive attention in Lamentations, where we find an emotional response similar to a mother crying over a dying child. In a similar fashion, Kings presents in a more journalistic style an account that attempts to trace both the major events that ultimately shaped Israel and Judah as well as their causes. For the editor, those causes were not so much poor political decisions, nor were they the unknown and uncontrollable chances of life. Rather, such causes were theological in nature, and the resulting account is “history” from a theologically reflective perspective.
As an illustration, were an atheist and a Christian to write histories of the United States, chances are that the end products would be drastically different. Even more so, were these same two individuals instructed to set aside the contemporary emphasis upon “scientific objectivity” and to write accounts that reflected their own world views, imagine the outcome. What the atheist sees as a mere natural occurrence might very well be seen by the Christian as an act of God. Does this mean that either or both accounts are necessarily unhistorical? No. It simply suggests that those events and experiences that were included in the finished product had been selected for a specific purpose and interpreted from a particular point of view. The ultimate intention, then, is not merely to preserve information, but to use that information to make a point. In describing the book of Kings from this perspective, De Vries suggests that “the facts may speak for themselves, but [the Deuteronomist] is not going to let them speak for themselves, lest someone misunderstand” (p. xlvii). As a result, these same facts are housed within a theological framework.
In pursuing this framework, various significant themes can be identified in Kings. These include:
1. The primacy and continuity of the Davidic dynasty (see, e.g., 1Ki 2:2-4; 3:6; 6:12; 11:12-13; 15:4-5; 2Ki 8:19; 22:2). Yahweh's faithfulness to the Davidic covenant serves to explain his subsequent faithfulness to Judah, ruled by David's successors. Furthermore, David himself becomes a positive standard by which later kings are evaluated (see below).
2. The centralization of worship in Jerusalem, Yahweh's chosen city (1Ki 11:13, 32, 36). Post-Solomonic kings are then frequently denounced for their failure to comply with this regulation (1Ki 12-13; by way of contrast, note 2Ki 22-23).
3. The ultimate accountability of the royal leaders of both Israel and Judah to Yahweh and the Mosaic covenant. While David serves as the positive standard, such a standard exists at all only insofar as it coincides with the Mosaic tradition reflected in Deuteronomy. As von Rad points out, “The king is now regarded as the responsible person to whom has been entrusted the law of Moses and who has the duty to see that it is recognised in his kingdom” (p. 339). To place confidence, then, in the Davidic line without complying with Mosaic expectations (e.g., Dt 17:14-17) was theological shortsightedness.
4. The importance and reliability of the prophetic word and the consistent failure of many of the kings to listen to the true prophets among them (1Ki 11:29-39; 17:24; 18:16-46; 2Ki 6:8-23; 9:25-26; 17:13-14). According to Dt 18:14-22, prophets had been graciously promised in order to deliver the word of Yahweh to his people in Palestine. Such a promise finds fulfillment in Kings, and the frequent dismissal of the prophetic presence by those in power was to the editor a fundamental rejection of an avenue of guidance, correction, and hope.
5. The overarching conclusion is that, given these standards and expectations, Yahweh blesses those who walk obediently before him but judges those who do not. Rooted deeply in the blessings and curses motif of Deuteronomy, the kings of Israel and Judah are evaluated on the basis of covenantal faithfulness rather than political prowess. Subsequently, the events and experiences of these nations are seen as blessings or curses from Yahweh, whatever the case may be.
These major themes can be clearly seen when the literary structure of Kings is analyzed. On the surface, the editor weaves together materials from both the northern and southern kingdoms. In so doing, he discusses in a rough chronological fashion each of the kings, providing basic information regarding their reign (for a discussion of the chronological difficulties associated with the book of Kings, see Gray, 55-75). While occasional variations are noticeable, this information includes (1) the date when the king came to power and the length of his reign, (2) the place of his reign, (3) a theological evaluation, (4) mention of significant accomplishments, (5) sources from which additional information can be obtained, and (6) a reference to the king's death and burial. Of particular importance is the fact that, in the theological evaluation, the northern kings are consistently condemned whereas the southern kings receive mixed reviews.
But beyond this surface structure it is fascinating to note the manner in which additional theological ideas are incorporated. Once again, it is clear from the start that David was the exemplary king (1Ki 2:2-4; 3:14), a role attributed by Wesley primarily to the fact that David avoided habitual and continual sins (Wesley, 1146; cf. 1Ki 15:5). His son Solomon, then, was commissioned to follow his lead. In spite of his various accomplishments, however, he failed to do that, and the editor concludes that he “did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done” (1Ki 11:6). Solomon, however, does not become a negative example to be contrasted with his father. Among other possible reasons, this no doubt is related to the editor's high regard for the Davidic dynasty.
The “privilege” of serving as the negative example is reserved for Jeroboam I, the first ruler of the northern kingdom. Jeroboam disregarded Jerusalem as the center of Israelite worship, establishing competing shrines at Dan and Bethel. This deviation, according to the editor, led to Jeroboam's downfall (1Ki 13:34), and it would also serve as a stumbling block for his successors. From this point on, northern kings are condemned for walking in the ways of Jeroboam (e.g., see 1Ki 15:25-26; 16:19; 2Ki 13:2), and the many difficulties facing Israel are due to these sins (1Ki 14:16). For the northern kingdom, interestingly enough, there is no positive example!
In Judah, however, David continues to serve as the pattern although the majority of his successors fall far short of the standard. For this majority, the northern king, Jeroboam, is not mentioned in any comparative way. Apparently his sins were too severe to associate with the southern kingdom, even in the case of Manasseh, whose wickedness is compared instead to the pagan nations who had earlier been expelled from Palestine (2Ki 21:2)! Typically, evil southern kings are simply described as being either “unlike” David (1Ki 15:3; 2Ki 16:2) or “like his father,” as in the case of Amon, who was like his evil father, Manasseh (2Ki 21:20). Even the worst of the southern kings cannot be compared with their northern neighbors who abandoned the Davidic cause.
This structural scheme can be traced through Kings until it reaches two climactic points. First, the northern line continues to follow Jeroboam until Israel is ultimately destroyed by Assyria (2Ki 17). Then the editor provides a summary statement in which he reinforces the motif (2Ki 17:7-23). Israel suffered defeat, not because of a military mismatch, but because her people had sinned. Briefly, her sins involved following the ways of Jeroboam and refusing to listen to the many prophetic warnings (17:22-23).
With respect to the southern kingdom, the line continues somewhat longer. Judah enjoys the reigns of selected good kings, and her direct tie to the Davidic dynasty encourages Yahweh to preserve her from certain defeat during Hezekiah's reign (2Ki 20:6). Nevertheless, these Davidic ties are insufficient to prevent eventual destruction, for Judah has all too often rejected covenantal expectations (2Ki 23:26-27; 24:20). As such, a second climactic point is reached when Judah herself is taken captive by the Babylonians (2Ki 25).
In short, the editor arranges the material in order to demonstrate that destruction has come upon the people of God because they failed to follow his covenant with them. Yahweh had indeed been faithful to his word, and he had provided continual opportunities for reform. Nevertheless, his commandments were broken and his gracious overtures rejected, making judgment a justifiable outcome. That such judgment need not be Yahweh's final word, however, is suggested by the fact that the very same covenant had provisions for repentance, even in a foreign land (1Ki 8:46-51). Similarly, the closing release of Jehoiachin (2Ki 25:27-30) is perhaps but a foretaste of things to come. In this sense then, the purpose of Kings is both confessional and, to a lesser degree, kerygmatic (Nicholson, 75). While acknowledging guilt, Kings subtly invites the community of faith to envision a future of hope.