The narrative of II Kings spans three troubled centuries from Ahab’s death (c. 853 B.C.) to Jehoiachin’s release from his Babylonian prison (c. 560 B.C.). The importance of this book can scarcely be exaggerated. First, it records the last days of Elijah and the ministry of Elisha (chaps. 1–13); secondly, it describes the fall of Samaria (chap. 17) and Jerusalem (chaps. 24–25); thirdly, it provides a clear picture of the historical and religious context in which the great pre-exilic prophets labored; and fourthly, it furnishes part of the background for the New Testament antipathy between Jews and Samaritans by showing the hybrid nature of the Samaritan people and their worship (chap. 17:24–40).
The problem of harmonizing the various chronological data in II Kings is a major one, especially for the period from 740–716 B.C. For instance, a comparison of 2 Kings 15:27, 30; 16:1–2; 18:1 will result in the discovery that Ahaz was 26 when his 25-year-old son, Hezekiah, began to reign! The difficulties are compounded when an attempt is made to synchronize the history of the divided monarchy with the fixed dates in Assyrian inscriptions, for example, Ahaz’ dealings with Tiglath-pileser III in 734–732 B.C. (2 Kings 16:7 ff.), the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:6), and Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C. (2 Kings 18:13 ff.). E. R. Thiele in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (University of Chicago Press, 1951) has grappled with these and many more problems and has proposed a helpful solution. The culprit was apparently Pekah who in 740/39 usurped the throne of Israel from Menahem’s son Pekahiah (2 Kings 15:25). Perhaps to enhance his prestige, Pekah claimed the regnal years of his two predecessors as his own, thereby crediting himself with 20 years’ rule instead of eight. When the scribes of Judah synchronized the reigns of their kings with those of Israel, they used Pekah’s reckoning. Apparently a later scribe, unacquainted with Pekah’s ambitious claims, edited the synchronisms of 2 Kings 17:1; 18:1, 9, 10 with hazardous results. Thiele’s discovery of “Pattern Twelve-Thirteen”—the addition or subtraction of 12 or 13 years depending on the nature of the synchronism—has proved exceedingly helpful in harmonizing the biblical dates with themselves and with the Assyrian fixed dates. John C. Whitcomb, Jr. has compiled a concise and useful chart of the Old Testament Kings and Prophets (Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana, 1959) by which at a glance one can correlate events in Israel and Judah with Near Eastern history.
CONFLICT OF CULTURES
The period in question was a junction of three ways of life: the ways of the nomadic herdsman, the settled farmer, and the city dweller. Herdsmen lived in close-knit clans, traveling together for mutual protection and roaming from place to place in search of forage. Israelites were encouraged to remember that the patriarchs were herdsmen (cf. Deut. 26:5: “a wandering Aramean was my father”). The conquest of Canaan brought a transition to a more settled way of life in which many of the clan customs were perpetuated. However, as Israelites left their villages to dwell in the Canaanite cities, clan bonds tended to break. The immoral and spiritual corruption of the sophisticated culture plus ruthless commercial practices were an offense to those Israelites who loyally clung to the covenant laws and customs. (There is a helpful description of the cultural tensions in chapter three of R. B. Y. Scott’s Relevance of the Prophets, Macmillan, 1953.)
Naboth’s refusal to sell or barter his vineyard is a graphic illustration of the strong tie between a true Israelite and his land (1 Kings 21:3). Property was not a saleable commodity in ancient Israel but was part of the inheritance passed from father to son. Jezebel’s ruthless scheme to do away with the recalcitrant Naboth typifies the Canaanite contempt for the deeply-ingrained traditions of Israel. Elijah and Elisha, like their successors Amos and Micah, were advocates of the old order, supporters of the covenant, and sought to safeguard the rights of the poor and underprivileged. When Jehu’s bloody coup (2 Kings 9–10) claimed Jezebel among its victims, observers noted that Elijah’s grim prophecy had been fulfilled (2 Kings 9:36–37). Such a fate was worthy recompense for her flagrant disregard of Israel’s ancient laws. Elisha’s sensitivity to these social problems is seen in his concern for the widow whose creditor threatened to enslave her two sons (2 Kings 4:7).
More important than this social tension is the religious conflict—the battle between Baal and Jehovah, symbolized in Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). There are good reasons for this conflict. Baal was represented in idolatrous form in a multitude of shrines throughout the land. These idols were so false a representation of deity that the prophets called them “lies” (cf. Amos 2:4). Like the Canaanite god of fertility, Baal was credited with the responsibility for the grain, wine, and oil—the staple products of Palestine (cf. Hos. 2:5, 8). A jealous God could brook no such brazen usurpation of his power and authority as Lord of heaven and earth. The drought predicted by Elijah (1 Kings 17:1), the consuming fire (1 Kings 18:38), the cleansing from leprosy (2 Kings 5), and the floating axe head (2 Kings 6:5) are among the miracles calculated to demonstrate God’s total sovereignty over nature.
Baal tried to compete with God in the arena of history as well. Injured Ahaziah sent messengers to Baal-zebub, god Ekron, to find out if he would recover from his wounds (2 Kings 1). Many of the ancient peoples held that to predict the future was to control its course (cf. Num. 22:6). For this reason all types of divination are sternly opposed in the Mosaic law (Deut. 18:9 ff.). For the prophets of Baal to forecast the outcome of Ahaziah’s injuries would be a seizure of the rights of God to determine the outcome of this and all other historical events; hence Elijah’s trenchant opposition to Ahaziah’s plan.
The practice of sacred prostitution in Canaan is well attested. The yearly cycle of fertility in agriculture was attributed to the sexual union of Baal and his consort, Anath or Ashtart. The worshipper of Baal could aid the productivity of his land by engaging in sexual ceremonies with cult prostitutes. By this act of sympathetic magic he took part in the cosmic intercourse which gave annual birth to crops and flocks. Hosea (4:13–14) informs us that this practice was common in the Northern Kingdom, while 2 Kings 23:7 indicates that the Jerusalem temple sheltered sacred harlots. We need only to add the mention of human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 17:17) to complete the awful picture of perverted worship and warped religion which evoked prophetic censure and divine judgment.
The famous Moabite Stone alludes to a series of conflicts between Omri’s dynasty and the Moabite kings, especially Mesha, the author of the inscription. He claims to have triumphed over Israel so thoroughly that “Israel perished forever.” This grossly exaggerated account is possibly to be correlated with 2 Kings 3:4–27 which mentions the retreat of the Israelitish troops who apparently were panicked by the gruesome sight of Mesha’s heir being sacrificed upon the wall. This offering to the god Chemosh (cf. 1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 23:13) coincides with the view expressed in the Moabite Stone that Moab’s victories and defeats were dependent on Chemosh’s blessing or wrath.
The revolt of Moab was made possible by the series of battles between the Arameans (Syrians) and Israel, which distracted and weakened the Northern Kingdom (cf. 1 Kings 20; 22) and cost Ahab his life (1 Kings 22:34–35). A detailed account of the turbulent relationships of Israel with the Aramean capital of Damascus is given by M. F. Unger in his Israel and the Arameans of Damascus (Zondervan, 1957). This survey will help to disentangle the perplexing power politics of this period: at times Judah and Israel joined forces against the Arameans (cf. 2 Kings 8:25–29); on occasion the various states allied themselves to withstand the threat of Assyrian invasion (cf. the inscription of Shalmaneser III and 2 Kings 16:5 ff.).
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III gives a different picture of Jehu from that in II Kings. The hard-driving (2 Kings 9:20), swash-buckling destroyer of the house of Ahab (2 Kings 10) is portrayed kneeling before his Assyrian lord. Shalmaneser has unwittingly helped to illustrate the verdict of 2 Kings 10:31: “But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord … with all his heart.” Assyria, no less than Egypt, was a broken reed, an unworthy substitute for the Lord’s rod and staff (cf. Hos. 5:13; 12:1). Menahem (c. 752–742) and Pekah (c. 740–732) failed to learn from Jehu’s example. Both were forced to capitulate to Tiglath-pileser III (called Pul in 2 Kings 15:19) although Pekah and his ally, Rezin of Damascus, tried to resist. Ahaz of Judah (c. 735–715), fearful of the coalition between Israel and Damascus, ignored Isaiah’s instructions (Isa. 7) and joined the list of kings who contributed to Assyria’s welfare (2 Kings 16:7 ff.) and received credit for their contributions in Tiglath-pileser’s annals.
When Hoshea courted Egypt and withheld tribute from Assyria (2 Kings 17:4), Shalmaneser V laid siege for three years (c. 724–722 B.C.) to Samaria, the last Israelitish stronghold (most of Israel had been conquered earlier by Tiglath-pileser III). Whether it was he or his successor, Sargon II, that took the city is not quite clear. Second Kings makes no mention of Sargon II, whose annals attribute the fall of Samaria to him. Thiele (op. cit. pp. 122 ff.), following A. T. Olmstead, concludes that Shalmaneser V was Samaria’s conqueror and that Sargon’s scribe had incorrectly claimed the victory in order to increase Sargon’s prestige. The mass deportations and importations which help to account for the Jewish hostility toward the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24 ff; cf. John 4:9) are part of a program by which Tiglath-pileser III and his successors tried to weaken local and national loyalties in an attempt to forge a world empire whose citizens pledged their troth only to Assyria.
The tide of Assyrian aggression did not ebb after the inundation of Israel but flowed south. In 701 B.C. Sennacherib (c. 705–681) ravaged Judah, capturing (according to the Taylor prism) 46 walled cities and numberless villages. Sennacherib’s inscription describes the siege of Jerusalem—Hezekiah, “like a caged bird, I shut up in Jerusalem”—but is silent as to the outcome. Second Kings 19:35 tells why. The angel of the Lord decimated (perhaps by a plague as Herodotus seems to hint) the Assyrian army. Sennacherib’s silence is not surprising: warriors ancient and modern are loathe to chronicle their setbacks. Sennacherib has left a detailed pictorial account of his attack on Lachish (2 Kings 18:14): siege engines are rolled up earthen inclines; archers, slingers, and spearmen follow the engines which are manned by shielded archers.
When Josiah fell at Megiddo (c. 608 B.C.), the last and best hopes of Judah perished with him (2 Kings 23:29). Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, gained his independence from Assyria (c. 626 B.C.), and with help from Medes and Scythians he destroyed Nineveh (612 B.C.). His son, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptian army at Carchemish in Syria (605 B.C.), and Judah’s days were numbered. Twice, at the instigation of Egypt, Judah’s kings rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (despite Jeremiah’s protests; cf. Jer. 27:12 ff.) with devastating results. The city survived the Babylonians’ first punitive attack (c. 597 B.C., cf. 2 Kings 24:1 ff.) in which Ezekiel was captured (Ezek. 1:1–2); but the second onslaught (c. 587–6 B.C., cf. 2 Kings 25:1 ff.) brought the total eclipse of the Southern Kingdom. Zedekiah, blinded, bound, and bereft of his sons (2 Kings 25:7), plodded to Babylon, a tattered remnant of David’s dynasty. D. J. Wiseman’s Chronicles of Chalden Kings, (British Museum, 1956) gives the Babylonian accounts of some of Nebuchadnezzar’s exploits.
Hilkiah’s discovery of the book of the law (2 Kings 22:8) paved the way for a return to the principle of canonicity. Ruled usually by royal whim and occasionally by prophetic word, the people of Judah led by pious Josiah pledged their loyalty to the ancient covenant contained in the new-found book (2 Kings 23:1–3). The watchword of the great eighth century prophets had been “Back to Moses.” Undoubtedly a remnant had responded. Josiah’s reform, in contrast, was an official act recognizing the binding authority of the Mosaic law. The detailed account of Josiah’s reform (2 Kings 23:4 ff.) is an index of the extent to which corrupt Canaanite practices had infiltrated Israelitish life and worship. Only a wholehearted renewal of the covenant relationship could be a successful antidote for such poison. Both revelation and response were necessary: the book of the law reminded the people of the objective divine authority necessary for their spiritual welfare, and their pledge of homage to the covenant was their only hope of salvation.
But the people had passed the point of no return, though not all would be lost, as a perplexed Habakkuk learned (Hab. 2:4). Josiah’s tragic death was the earnest of pending judgment. The message of II Kings is clear: righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Internal corruption—flagrant and constant—brought in its wake external domination. Assyria and Babylonia were hired razors (Isa. 7:20) wielded by a God whose holiness had been outraged (2 Kings 23:26–27). If II Kings puts more stress upon correct religion than upon moral rectitude, it is because social righteousness best stems from a proper relationship to God. This involved loyalty to the true sanctuary at Jerusalem and sincere use of the means of worship prescribed in the law. Their abject failure left no course but judgment which was thorough but not total. Even in the dark pages that close the books, one detects a faint glimmer of hope: the release of Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:27 ff.) seems to augur of a better day. The God of the covenant is faithful, though his people prove faithless.
The books of Kings are part of the preparation for the King. Each ruler was judged by the standards expressed in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:12–17) and the Royal Psalms (e.g., 2; 20; 21; 45; 72; 110; 132) which clarify the king’s role as God’s anointed ruler and representative. Each king fell short, though Hezekiah and Josiah are singled out for praise (2 Kings 18:3; 22:2). As God’s adopted son, the king was to rule with righteousness and justice, if there were to be internal prosperity and external security. The nation’s judicial, economic, military, and spiritual well-being were all dependent on him; and he, in turn, was to be totally dependent on God. Failure to exercise or even recognize this responsibility brought the fall of the monarchy and heightened the prophetic longing for the King on whose righteous shoulder the government would rest with Messianic majesty.
TOOLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
In addition to the books mentioned in the article on I Kings (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 20, 1959), the following works should prove helpful: N. H. Snaith, I–II Kings in Interpreter’s Bible; James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East—An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton University Press: 1958), a condensation of the more important materials from his two larger works; John Bright, History of Israel (Westminster Press, 1959); D. J. Wiseman, Illustrations front Biblical Archaeology (Eerdmans, 1958), a collection of outstanding pictures with commentary; and W. F. Albright’s classic Archaeology and the Religion of Israel.
DAVID A. HUBBARD
Chairman, Division of Biblical Studies and Philosophy
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