Tonight we begin a new series of sermons on the Book of Kings. I say “book” not “books” even though we are, of course, used to speaking of First and Second Kings. The division, however, is entirely a matter of convenience – having to do with the amount of material that could fit on a scroll – and has nothing to do with the actual organization of the book. For example, 1 Kings concludes in the middle of the Elijah narrative and 2 Kings begins where that narrative leaves off. It is not a natural break. We saw the same with 1 and 2 Samuel when I preached through those books several years ago. If you remember, the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible executed 200 years before Christ, reflects the Jewish custom and calls 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings First, Second, Third, and Fourth Kings. The four books very obviously form a connected narrative and the four-fold division is entirely a matter of convenience. The book of Kings is numbered among the prophets in the Jewish division of the books of the Old Testament. There are perhaps two reasons for this. First in the Jewish tradition it is traditionally thought to have been written by Jeremiah. We don’t know whether that is in fact the case, the Book of Kings is formally anonymous, but, if true, that would make it part of the prophetic literature. Second, it features a number of prophets and episodes from their ministries: Nathan, Ahijah, Micaiah, Huldah, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah all figure in the history recorded in Kings and others besides. Without question the ministries of Elijah and Elisha are the centerpiece of the book.
As to authorship, let me add that many scholars have argued that the same hand that wrote Kings also wrote Joshua, Judges and Samuel. Who can say; but there is no doubt that the author was a historian, a theologian, and a preacher of the first rank.
Kings, as you know, covers the same history covered in First and Second Chronicles. Kings and Chronicles are like the four Gospels in the New Testament, different accounts of the same history. There are significant differences between the two OT histories, as there are between the four Gospels. One very obvious difference, for example, is that Kings reports the history of both the northern and the southern kingdoms after their division under Rehoboam and Jeroboam while Chronicles concerns itself almost entirely with Judah, the southern kingdom and you learn almost nothing about what was happening in Israel, the northern kingdom, during the same time. But both books cover the same period of history. So Kings takes the history of Israel, begun in the book of Genesis, and continued through the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, on to the destruction of the northern kingdom at the hands of Assyria and the exile of the southern kingdom to Babylon. Kings covers a period of some 400 years, from the end of David’s reign to the exile of the Jews in the early 6th century B.C. Indeed, one purpose of the book is to explain how and why Israel lost its place in the Promised Land and why the royal line of David fizzled out with Jehoiachin.
Some of the Bible’s most memorable stories are found in this history. It is history told in a lively and compelling fashion. No wonder one of the great oratorios in the history of music should feature several chapters of its history, Felix Mendelssohn’s never-enough-praised Elijah. It is perfectly obviously music inspired by a tremendous story, the more tremendous because it is true! Some of the characters of this history have become so much a part of the lore of Christendom that their names have entered our vocabulary as adjectives. We speak of a deceitful, shameful woman as a Jezebel and we speak of the need for a political leader who is as wise as Solomon to get us out of our national troubles. Or we speak of a lone spokesman for a position as a “still small voice” from the history of Elijah.
We will, in the Elijah and Elisha material, also encounter the second of the three periods of miraculous activity in the history recorded for us in Holy Scripture. The first began in Egypt under Moses and lasted until the early stages of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. The second is concentrated in the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and the third begins with the miracles of the Lord Jesus and apparently ends at some point in the middle of the apostolic age, before the death of the Apostle Paul at any rate.
Kings is a history, to be sure. But as we have learned in our studies of other OT narratives, this is not history for history’s sake. The historians of the Bible write their history with a very specific purpose and it is not merely that Israelites would know all the names and dates. The authors of these biblical books are intending to teach us our faith, to show us the will and the work of God, to reveal his character to us, to teach us to trust in him, and to instruct us in the life of faith. This is, we might say, “preached history,” or “prophetic history,” history meant to sanctify the people of God. Rarely is the lesson the historical narrative intended to teach explained explicitly. It is more often shown than said and often the author makes his points with some subtlety, though no less powerfully for that. We will see this again and again as we read this fascinating history. It covers 400 years but, for that reason, it must be a very selective history and the selection is made according to the author’s purpose to work in our hearts a living faith in the Lord, to teach us wisdom, to convince us of the blessing that attends those who trust the Lord and obey his law and to warn us of the judgment that must await those who are unfaithful to God’s covenant with his people.
A recent book by a senior evangelical Old Testament scholar is titled Story as Torah (Gordon Wenham, T & T Clark). The principle thesis of the book is that the historical narratives of the Old Testament teach us all the great doctrines of our faith and the ethics that are consistent with those doctrines as surely as do the Gospels or the Epistles of Paul.
But Kings is history. It is a book that gives an account of what happened in the world. It connects the history of Israel with the history of other states. It references times and dates that can be corroborated by other means from ANE sources. It is history in the ordinary sense of the term. One commentator points out that only Israel, of all the peoples of the ANE, defined herself by history rather than by mythology. And so today. We are Christians, by which we mean that we look back to one person – Jesus Christ – and to events in history – especially the cross and the resurrection of the Lord – that determine the meaning of our lives, that define who we are and what we are about. And Kings is theological history in the same way and for the same purpose. It is an account of God at work in the world. Unbelievers may not credit this, but no Christian can think of human history – anywhere at any time – that is not as well the history of God’s activity in salvation and in judgment in the world. When people refer to the “real world” they often mean the world as it appears to unbelievers, the world as they imagine it to be. But the real world, the actual world, is the world as God controls it, in which his will is brought to pass, in which his people walk with him by faith. It is the world that lies under the specter of divine judgment, the world that is heading toward the Last Day, the world in which people are either being saved or fixed in a course that must lead them to everlasting doom. That, in fact, is the only world there is! Any other world is a fantasy. That is, in fact, a major theme of Kings; the way in which people remain so ready to embrace fantasy rather than reality.
And from the vantage point of faith, life in this world, because it is God’s world, is both tragic and comic (comic, not in the sense of a funny story, but of a story with a happy ending). That too is the lesson of Kings. It spins a great tragedy that ends nevertheless on a note of hopefulness regarding the future. It tells of a broken covenant and a lost people upon whom fall all the curses that God threatened in his covenant to those who failed to trust in him, on the one hand, but on the other it tells the story of God’s abiding faithfulness to his covenant. [House, 62-63] The line of David is brought to an end at the end of Kings and yet the hope endures of the eventual appearance of the descendant of David still to come.
I’m going to read only the first eleven verses of chapter one, hardly the entire episode of Adonijah’s effort to mount a coup d’état. But the eleven verses serve, I think, quite well as something of an introduction to the way we are going to read the book.
2 Samuel ends with a series of chapters that, as it were, wrap up the narrative of David’s forty year reign as king of Israel. As 1 Kings begins David is still king and the succession has not been formally announced and arranged. David’s dawdling puts Solomon’s succession in jeopardy.
David was approximately 70 years of age at this point (cf. 2 Sam. 5:4-5).
As disreputable as this custom seems to us and, indeed, as it is, it was by no means unusual in the ANE. If you remember, something like this was also a feature of Gandhi’s life as an older man. Several things are worth mentioning in this regard to help complete the picture. Apparently Abishag had the status of a concubine, a secondary wife. That explains Adonijah’s gambit to marry here reported later in chapter 2. Adonijah asks for her hand, as one of David’s wives, in an effort to lay claim to David’s privileges and authority as the king. Marry a concubine of the king and you become the king! So Abishag is obviously more than a household servant. By the way, there is no evidence anywhere in the Bible to support the long popular suggestion that Abishag is the young woman of the Song of Songs.
The fact that David did not have sexual relations with this beautiful young woman is obviously an important point because it is mentioned explicitly. Otherwise the woman doesn’t need to be introduced into the story, we don’t need to know anything about her and she doesn’t figure in the story after this except as a means for Adonijah to lay claim to the throne. The point however is not that of David’s chastity, as if, somehow, he had learned the lesson of his catastrophic adultery years before. If Abishag were his concubine, it would have been expected and uncontroversial that the king would have relations with her. Rather the point is that the king is failing. If even a most beautiful young woman cannot stir his blood [House, 87], his virility is gone. And that fact spurs Adonijah to attempt his coup to gain power. He feels his father is no longer able to exercise an effective leadership and won’t stop him. Indeed, David’s passivity toward Abishag foreshadows his passivity towards Adonijah’s attempted coup. [Leithart, 30]
Adonijah, now about 35 years of age, was the fourth but now apparently the eldest surviving son of David. Absalom had killed Amnon, David’s firstborn, and was killed himself in his own revolt against his father. David’s second son, Kileab, disappears from the narrative after the mention of his birth in 2 Sam. 3:3, and must either have been dead by this time or a figure of no consequence. Adonijah, on the other hand, was handsome, charismatic, and eager to rule. In other words, he was very like Absalom, whose similar effort to wrest the throne from his father led to disaster. Adonijah, like his older brother, was not a spiritually minded man. He showed no interest in the fact that both Saul and David had been chosen by God; neither had sought the office. What is more, the call of both men to be Israel’s king had been confirmed by a prophet. No prophet had told Adonijah that he would be the next king of Israel. Adonijah was prepared to take what did not belong to him and had not yet been offered to him. And so he began to act like a king, always accompanied by a military entourage.
Adonijah did what we would nowadays call some “networking” and enlisted two powerful supporters, both of whom had been with David from the beginning of his political career. Joab was a complicated man, a man of action, a dangerous man who often saw things clearly as worldly men will do, but also often acted with utter disregard for the will of God. Abiathar the priest was likewise a longstanding associate of David.
Adonijah was without the support of other powerful men of the court, as, you may remember, Absalom had also been, a fact that contributed mightily to his downfall.
This was not simply a dinner party. This was a formal announcement of his intentions. We would perhaps describe it as a campaign kick-off dinner.
It is no mere historical detail that the plot is uncovered by Nathan, the Lord’s prophet. The Lord is at work to prevent Adonijah’s coup d’état.
I said that I thought these opening verses would serve well as an introduction to the book as a whole. I think this because the book, we will find, serves us on two levels, at least two levels. There is, for want of a better term, the upper level or the macro-level, in which the book relates the great story of Israel, her kings, their apostasy or faithfulness, and increasingly their apostasy, and eventually the nation’s spiritual decline to the point that it became necessary for God to invoke the curses of the covenant as they are listed in Deuteronomy 27-28. Kings is the story of how Israel became powerless before her enemies, lost the promised land, and shriveled into insignificance among the nations of the ancient world, and all of that in defiance of the Lord’s patience and mercy repeatedly shown to her, in defiance of the hard lessons that Israel’s unbelief and disobedience ought to have taught her, and in defiance of the Lord sending to her prophets who taught her clearly what wrong she had done and what she needed to do to obtain once again the Lord’s blessing upon her life. Kings is an account of the apostasy of the church. It is also an account of God’s faithfulness to his covenant even in the face of such apostasy. The book ends hopefully, reminding us that even if the Davidic line seems to have come to an end, God has not forgotten his promise that there shall forever be a successor sitting on David’s throne. The great empire of David and Solomon may have withered away to nothing, but the kingdom of God remains and ever shall remain. All of that and much more is the great story told in this fascinating theologically-minded history of the people of God. The great themes of the Bible are all here vividly and memorably. It is an account that belongs to the great history of redemption given us in Holy Scripture and like all the rest of the Bible it points us forward to the eventual consummation of God’s kingdom in the world.
And so these early chapters of kings. The great story here, to be told in chapters 1 and 2, is of the accession of Solomon as the third king of Israel. Solomon is the fulfillment of the promise that God made to David regarding an heir and a successor, or, at least, he is the first installment of that promise. It will be Solomon who will build the temple, the embodiment of Yahweh’s presence with his people, and Solomon who will reign wisely and become the paradigm of the righteous king. It will be the huge disappointment of Solomon’s latter reign that will lead to the catastrophe to follow and will prove to us that no mere earthly king can fulfill the promise that God has made to his people. That is the book of kings and that is how it begins. Kings is a large chunk of the history that prepares the way for John the Baptist and the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ as the King of Kings! Messiah, remember, is a term that means King. Indeed, as you know, John the Baptist is presented in the NT as a new Elijah, the principal hero of the book of Kings; Jesus even refers to John as the Elijah who was to come (Matt 11:14; 17:12.)
But, as I said, that is all on the macro-level of the book. As always in the historical narratives of the Bible there is a micro-level, a lower level of teaching and revelation as well. We have the life of individuals, for better or for worse; we have the good and bad examples that they set for us; we have the light and shadow of even the most faithful life in this world, we have the struggle to believe in the promises of God in the face of doubt, often exacerbated by open opposition, we have the nature of believing life as an alternation of blessing and trial, we have the mystery of God’s ways as they are experienced by individual believers, we have judgment imposed and delayed, and so on. This too is the book of Kings from beginning to end. This too is its teaching and its revelation and so its importance to us today. This is a book to nourish our faith, to encourage us to trust the Lord and his Word, to teach us wisdom, and to warn us against the standing temptations of this world. James cites the history of Elijah as an encouragement to pray. Paul cites the same history to remind us that true believers are often a minority even within the church. The lessons of personal faith and pilgrimage are all around us in the Book of Kings.
We might put it this way. We could entitle the book “The Gospel of Kings,” because it is a revelation of the impotence of man to save himself and a revelation of the mercy of God toward sinners. It points to the king who will be and who will do what the many kings of the Book of Kings were not and could not. But we could just as well entitle the book “The Epistle of Kings” because, like the Epistles of Paul, it so well describes true faith as opposed to its imitations, because it shows us what it means to trust in the Lord and live by faith in the world, and because it explains in a variety of ways the many obligations of someone who claims to believe in Jesus Christ. Just as the New
Testament Scriptures teach us both the way of salvation – and are themselves a history of salvation – and the way of true discipleship, so Kings teaches us both things.
Take these opening verses. An effort is going to be made to seize the throne and to prevent the succession that God intends, that is, the succession from David to Solomon. A usurper, a pretender appears on the scene, a false king, a false messiah, as it were. This effort is undermined as a result of intelligence brought to David from Nathan the Lord’s prophet, so immediately we witness God at work preserving his kingdom in the world. The Lord will choose his people’s king! And their king being loyal to Yahweh and their being loyal to the Lord’s king and to no other will be the essential prerequisites of Israel’s salvation. There is a reason, after all, why the book is called “Kings” not prophets, not people, and here is a reason why the Lord Jesus is so often presented to us in the Bible as our king!
But there is certainly something else here. There is, in fact, at the center of all of this history and as an essential ingredient of it, a dysfunctional family. Any reader of 2 Samuel knows how dysfunctional David’s family was in the latter part of his life. His sons were a disgrace. One was a rapist. Another murdered a brother and then sought to wrest the throne from his father. What is more, another son, just an infant, Solomon’s older brother in fact, died because he had been conceived in David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Throughout the latter part of David’s reign we find him an indifferent, indulgent, ineffective, uncommitted, and inept parent. And he and his kingdom reaped the whirlwind caused by his failures as a father of children.
And, lest we miss this point, it is the narrator’s explanation for what comes to pass. Why did Adonijah rebel? Why did this handsome young man, so full of promise, care so little for the things his own father believed so deeply? Because he had been raised badly. His father David, for all his virtues, had been dismally unfaithful to his calling as the nurturer of his children’s faith in God and love of God’s law and hope in God’s promises.
It is put simply here:
“His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’”
It is a synecdoche surely, part for the whole. It would be pedantry for the Bible always to explain in exhaustive detail. A single piece of evidence is offered to identify the problem: David was an unfaithful father and a completely ineffective parent. He explicitly failed to discipline his boys, but, no doubt he was unfaithful in other ways as well. He failed to teach them the faith and he failed to set a good example for them. Indeed, he set a miserable example for them as we know. He was himself an adulterer and a murderer and so it is not a surprise that his sons followed their father in murder and adultery. This was all the more predictable because David was such a complacent father. We read in II Samuel that he was angry about Absalom’s murder of Amnon. You think? Your third son murdering your first son, it makes you angry; but, astonishingly, he didn’t do anything about it! He had a murder committed in his own family, one son the victim, the other the perpetrator and he did nothing about it. David, the man of action, was a man of no action when it came to his own children.
Now remember, Kings is the account, the history of God’s covenant with his people. At the end of the book it is the unfaithfulness of Israel to God’s covenant that will bring upon her the curses of the covenant, including conquest by enemies and exile to foreign lands. But that same covenant requires believers who are parents faithfully to undertake the nurture of their children, their instruction in the faith, their discipline or correction when behaving badly, and the setting for them of an example of devotion to the Lord, confidence in his Word, joy in his salvation, and obedience to his law. More than once already we have seen the failure of parents to be true to their calling in the covenant result in spiritual disaster in the rising generation of their family. Think of the house of Eli, for example, another faithful man who failed his children and whose children then led Israel astray. In Eli’s case as well, the Bible draws explicit attention to Eli’s failure as a father. He too failed to restrain his sons or correct them or discipline them. [1 Sam. 3:13] He was an indulgent father and his family reaped the whirlwind caused by his indulgence. No doubt this happened in other families as well as in Eli’s or David’s. We hear of their failure because it had such public consequences.
The mess that was Eli’s family is significant, obviously, in the way it led to the disaster of the capture of the ark of the covenant and the spiritual fall of Israel in the period of the judges. We hear of David’s failure as a father because of its consequences for Israel’s political and spiritual life. But there is, of course, another dimension to all of this. There is the significance of Eli’s failure and David’s failure for their own sons and their own families. In Eli’s case two sons died in battle and a daughter-in-law died giving birth to a son she felt compelled to name Ichabod, “the glory has departed.” In David’s case, another failed coup resulted in the violent death of still another of his sons. All of this is, of course, so true to life.
Our lives are at one and the same time being lived on the macro-level – where we are part of the kingdom of God in the United States and in the world at this moment in history – and on the micro-level, where our own small lives are lived out from birth to death, where we bear and raise children, where we serve the Lord in the ways we are given to serve, and where we leave this world to enter the world to come largely to be forgotten by the world we have left behind. We are not kings. We are not figures of historic importance to the story of redemption in the world. We are, like most Israelites who lived in the four hundred years covered by the book of Kings, ordinary folk whose lives came and went, who walked with the Lord in the frailty of their faith or who did not walk with the Lord at all. These folk, the folk like us, figure in Kings, but largely behind the scenes. They are the mass of people who neither speak nor act, at least not in ways that Kings takes notice of.
But they are there. They are the barren woman who was hospitable to Elisha the prophet and who, as a reward, received a baby from the Lord. They are the people who either made their peace with the false sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan or the folk who refused to do so and made the long journey to Jerusalem three times a year. And they are the people – some unfaithful, some faithful – whose families were murdered or carried off into slavery by the Assyrians or Babylonians. They don’t figure in the story of Kings very directly, but they are the real object of the story. They are Israel, the church of God, whose story is the story of the world and whose fortunes are the great fact of world history at any time or place. This is so even if in the biblical narrative the body of God’s people – that is, people like you and I – lie largely in the background.
For us, as for most of those people in the days of the kings of Israel and Judah, to be honest, we are less interested in what is happening in the church as a whole – in America or in the world – than we are in what is happening in our own lives and our own homes. We are less interested in the fortunes of the kingdom of God than we are in whether our own children – whom we love more than life itself – are laying hold of the Lord Jesus for themselves and beginning to walk with him. We are less concerned, if the truth be told, about the Second Coming than we are with whether the gospel is doing its great work in our own hearts and the hearts of those we love. It is a matter not of indifference, but of comparative indifference to us, what is happening across this far-flung world if only the Lord is blessing us and ours.
We are, perhaps, aware that the larger condition of the kingdom of God is of immense practical importance to us and to our children, and will indirectly but surely bear mightily on our own spiritual fortunes and even more on the lives our children will live in their adulthood and their children after them. But the connection with those larger issues and our own lives is less obvious and immediate as it would have been in the days of the Kings. We can see our children every day. We know our own struggles and we live with them every day. For us, in largest part, our walk with the Lord, our faith in him, our obedience to his commandments are matters of our own individual life and experience. And that is as it ought to be and must be. We are not players on the great stage of this world and what matters most to us the Bible itself teaches us ought to matter greatly. Indeed, it is also biblical to say that the kingdom of God, the great worldwide kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, advances, it waxes and it wanes as it advances in the hearts and families of individual believers. The two are always connected in the Bible: the small stage and the great, the lower level and the upper, the micro and the macro.
So we have in the first paragraph of Kings, both perspectives, both dimensions, both levels, if you will, of the biblical structure of salvation history. We have a succession of kings leading eventually to the King of Kings and we have a particular family in spiritual disarray, a child lost to heaven because his parents neglected the nurture of his faith. And it will be so throughout this book as it is so throughout the Bible.
In a recent edition of Christianity Today a prominent Reformed theologian was interviewed with respect to a book he had recently written criticizing the American church for a failure, he said, to be driven by the gospel itself. And in answer to one of the questions put to him he said:
“The gospel isn’t ‘Follow Jesus’ example’ or ‘How to raise good children.’ The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners – even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus.” [Michael Horton, CT (Nov. 2009) 47]
Now there is a sense in which we certainly can understand that and agree with that. But there is also a false disjunction there. The gospel is about the salvation of sinners, to be sure, but bad parenting can lead to covenant children failing to obtain God’s salvation. The Bible says that many times in many ways and shows us that very thing happening in Adonijah’s case. It tells us why Adonijah went wrong. In the words of Cecil Frances Alexander’s lovely hymn the Lord Jesus “died that we might be forgiven”, but he also died “to make us good.” He died to make us good parents because it is God’s will that by the Lord’s blessing of the nurture they receive from us our children will embrace the gospel for themselves and go to heaven with us. The covenant is not only God’s promises to his people but the obligations he expects them to meet by his grace; not only outcomes but the means he has appointed for the securing of those outcomes. We are going to see that all the way through the book.
Solomon became king but Adonijah lost his soul. Indeed Adonijah had lost his soul before he ever attempted his coup d’état. And David had a great measure of responsibility for that, sad to say. It was Adonijah’s responsibility chiefly. You can’t say the fathers’ have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. You can’t blame your parents. Nevertheless the Bible blames David because of his failure to do what the covenant requires of its members who are parents of children. A great man, a faithful man in many ways; the Bible itself says a man after God’s own heart, but an unfaithful and miserable father.
This is Kings: the history of the royal line in Israel, the nation’s spiritual fortunes as Israel’s kings followed the Lord or failed to do so, but, at the same time, the private lives of God’s people, their joys and heartbreaks, their struggles and their victories of faith, their failures – sometimes very consequential failures – and God’s grace and mercy to them nevertheless. Such is Kings and such is life. We are part of the great history of the kingdom of God and each of our lives is its own separate, smaller but also eternally significant story.
We are going to read Kings in both ways: as a part of the great history of redemption told in Holy Scripture and as an exposition of the life of faith relevant to every believer who is committed to walking with the Lord and serving him while he or she is in the world. That the book functions so magnificently on both levels at the same time is the proof of the genius of the human author and, still more, of the divine author who lies behind the human, whomever he was.