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I remember when I first read the Old Testament books that recount the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. David’s and Solomon’s reigns are epic. But then begins the long and oftentimes sordid story of about 40 successive kings, most of whom were “evil.” I remember thinking: This is hardly encouraging reading! Yet buried in the history is the story of God, and we must understand it.
In the middle of the story of the Old Testament is an era spanning five centuries in which we hear about the checkered history of the kings of Judah and Israel, the high points and low points of the people of God, and many lessons about integrity and faithfulness, sin and destruction. This is the era of the kings, a complicated narrative that is an important part of the word of God because it describes the crooked pathway that eventually led to the coming of the Messiah.
The era of the kings began with the people saying it wasn’t enough for God to be their king—they wanted a man to rule them, just like all the other nations. They did indeed become like all the other nations—but not for the good.
The era of the kings stretches from the reign of Saul, a thousand years before Christ, to the destruction of Judah and the exile of the last king in 586 B.C.
Before there was a king, the Israelite tribes lived in scattered, small settlements with judges like Gideon, Deborah, and Jephthah providing a degree of leadership. Then the period of the kings, as told in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, is divided into two parts. The first three kings—Saul, David, and Solomon—spanned more than 100 years in what is sometimes called the “golden age” or “the united monarchy.” After Solomon there was civil war, and the 12 tribes of Israel divided themselves into a northern kingdom, called “Israel,” which included 10 of the tribes, and a southern kingdom made up of the remaining two tribes, called “Judah.”
After the disappointing narrative of the reign of Saul, the mostly optimistic accounts of the golden era under David and his son Solomon describe Israel as a rapidly expanding empire that eventually enjoyed a period of peace and stability. David established Jerusalem as the capital, and the center point of the spiritual life of the nation. Solomon advanced that with the building of the temple.
But faithfulness to God is a fragile thing. After Solomon’s reign, civil war split the kingdom in two, and for hundreds of years the bitter fruit of unfaithfulness shaped life in Israel and Judah. As we read the books of Kings and 2 Chronicles, we are struck with almost monotonous patterns: bad kings, good kings who become bad kings, a few good kings who kept their integrity and even introduced reform and revival to the people.
We also learn about the spiritual dynamics behind these movements. Those kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and brought bad times on the people were guilty of the worship of foreign gods, of sacrificing outside the rules defined in the law, and sometimes of stooping to the low level of the foreign religions, including human sacrifice. Whole generations lived in complete violation of the Ten Commandments. They forgot their heritage and their God, and they didn’t even know there were Scriptures that had defined them as a people.
So the stories of revival and reform under kings like Hezekiah and Josiah are like sunbursts breaking through a heavy overcast sky. Josiah smashed the sites of idolatrous worship and removed the illegal shrines and priests, mediums, and spiritists. He removed pagan statues that previous kings had put at the entrance to the temple, of all places. And he reinstituted the celebration of Passover for all the people of Judah, which had been neglected for centuries.
Here is the sum of it:
“Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” (2 Kings 23:25)
And in this narrative we have one more proof of the power of the word of God in Holy Scripture: Josiah’s revival began after his officials discovered the long-lost and forgotten Book of the Law while carrying out Josiah’s orders to repair the temple of the Lord. This was the turning point. When Josiah heard the words read to him, everything suddenly made sense. Generations of corruption. Spiritual confusion. Aimlessness. Josiah tore his robes in repentance. This is one more example of the power of the written word to release people from longstanding spiritual paralysis. It is a lesson for us.
So how should we understand the era of the kings? We must read these books as history, but not just political history. These narratives show us spiritual movements downward and upward. Most of the prophets fit into this story by interpreting how God’s people could sink low, but also where there was restoration.
We must not artificially lift verses out of context and claim them as our own. These are the stories of real people in a real place. History does offer lessons. History tells us what happened in the past so we can understand what happens in our world, because human nature remains a constant, for good and for ill.
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.