After a pause of a month of Sundays, we return to our evening series in Kings, indeed, tonight we conclude that series, a series that began in April of last year, with the last two chapters of the book. This is our 48th sermon in this series. The revival under Josiah, related in the previous chapters, at last came to nothing and Josiah, foolishly and unnecessarily challenging the Egyptian pharaoh, was killed in battle. From this point events gather momentum rushing Judah to its divinely appointed destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. What we are to read tonight is an abbreviated summary of the last five kings of Judah, none of which deserved a lengthy report. Each was more of the dismal same. You’ll notice that the kings are given the standard introductory formula, but not the closing information we expect, or all but one, because four of them finished as prisoners of war either in Egypt or Babylon. The short reports give the impression of Judah moving quickly to its end. [House, 392]
v.31 Jehoahaz was probably his throne name as his personal name was Shallum, as we read in both Jeremiah and 2 Chronicles.
v.34 Jehoahaz’ ignominious reign ended with him a hostage in Egypt. His younger brother was put in his place as pharaoh’s stooge. The change of name was Egypt’s idea, not Eliakim’s. Off-stage at the moment is the king of Babylon who has been busy in the east taking the Assyrian empire apart. Consult the book of Nahum for a description of Assyria’s fall and dismemberment. [Provan, 278] Nebuchadnezzar would soon return to the Levant, subdue Egypt, and deal summarily with Judah.
v.35 While the people were heavily taxed to pay the tribute demanded by Egypt, we learn in Jeremiah that Jehoiakim was wasting resources on construction of a new palace with forced labor (Jer. 22:13-19). Jehoiakim reigned from 609 to 598 B.C. This is the king who, if you remember from your reading of Jeremiah, cut up and burned a scroll of Jeremiah’s prophecy because he didn’t approve of the prophet’s message (36:20-26).
24:1 That is, Jehoiakim was Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal for three years. But the Babylonian army, in the Levant to deal with Egypt, had returned to Babylon after a major victory over the Egyptian army at Carchemesh in 605 B.C., and it was then, apparently, that Jehoiakim was emboldened to rebel.
v.2 The Babylonians, rather than send a punitive force of their own encouraged their vassals in the region to make war on Judah. [Wiseman, 308] This too was from the Lord, the means of his judgment of his rebellious people. With Egypt conquered Judah was left without allies since the Lord was no longer willing to protect her.
v.6 Jeremiah had prophesied that Jehoiakim would have the burial of a donkey – dragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem. [22:9]
v. 7 It’s a very interesting scene and an interesting moment in ancient history and really in many ways explaining our modern history today. Egypt was one of the great nations of the world for thousands of years. She had a career as an empire longer than any nation in the history of mankind, in fact far longer than any other nation, but Babylon brought an end to all of that and Egypt was never the same and for the 2,000 years since she has been a punch line—tanks with back-up lights on them and so on. I have heard that joke many times. It’s the fate of Egypt.
v.10 This Babylonian siege and conquest is reported in a Babylonian chronicle as well. The year was 597 B.C.
v.13 We have come full circle. The gold that once flowed into Solomon’s coffers in fabulous quantities, or at least what is left of it after other kings had looted Jerusalem in previous years, was now flowing out into the treasuries of Babylon. The fact is, since Jerusalem had been looted by a number of previous conquerors, as early as in Rehoboam’s time if you remember, there would have been precious little of Solomon’s gold to take. The mention of Solomon, therefore, which we really don’t expect at this point, serves to underscore the theological point. The great blessing that attended Israel in the reigns of David and Solomon had now been thoroughly squandered because of Israel’s unbelief.
v.17 The Babylonian chronicle reads: “…Nebuchadnezzar appointed a king of his own choice and, taking vast tribute, brought it to Babylon.” The aim was to remove all the leading men of the country so as to preclude an organized and effective resistance to Babylonian rule. Jehoiachin’s captivity had been prophesied by Jeremiah (22:24-27) and is attested also in Babylonian materials, in tablets listing the oil and barley supplied to him and his family, naming him as the king of the Judeans. Mattaniah was Josiah’s third son. As with Eliakim before him, the change of name indicated that he was to be Nebuchadnezzar’s man. To give someone a new name was to make clear that one had authority over the person, as Adam named Eve and Adam and Eve named their children; and as we name our children today. Among the exiles carried to Babylon at this time was the prophet Ezekiel, whose prophetic ministry began a few years later in Babylon.
v.20 These verses are virtually a verbatim repetition of the opening verses of Jeremiah 52. Obviously by the time Zedekiah began his reign Judah had been much reduced. Zedekiah’s rebellion was prompted by the hope that Egypt would rebound against Babylon and Judah would be the beneficiary. Zedekiah’s rebellion was one last desperate gamble that Egypt would come through at last. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah not to rebel, but Zedekiah was a fool.
25:1 The siege began in late 589 or early 588 B.C and ended mid-year 587. It took as long as it did, nearly a year and half, to capture the city in large part because the Babylonians were busy elsewhere in the Levant at the same time.
It is an important change we note here. Time is no longer being reckoned according to the year of Israel’s king, but according to the year of the reign of Israel’s conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar. Defining the calendar is an act of sovereignty. As one scholar has pointed out, one sign of the church’s exile in the present Western world is the substitution of its ancient chronology for a distinctly secular one. BC and AD have been replaced by BCE and CE. In Europe there is a collective effort to expunge Christianity from its historical memory, witness the fury that greeted the newly minted Hungarian constitution that explicitly referenced Hungary’s Christian past and tradition. [Leithart, 276]
v.5 The site of Israel’s first great victory in her conquest of the Promised Land became the scene of her last defeat as she was forced from the land into exile.
v.8 A few weeks later, after the capture of Judah’s king and the defeat of what as left of Judah’s army, the full vengeance of the Babylonians was visited upon the city. The book of Obadiah is widely thought to reflect the distress of the Jews at this time. [Provan, 279]
v.12 That is, they were left to supply wine and food to the Babylonians.
v.17 Nebuchadnezzar stripped the temple of its metals, no doubt in payment of the tribute previously withheld in Zedekiah’s rebellion. Some of this wealth, later in the hands of the Persians, would eventually fall into the hands of Alexander the Great, as he brought his conquering army from Macedon into this part of the world in the fourth century BC.
v.21 The men named and executed in Babylon were likely leaders of the pro-Egyptian party in Judah. In other words, potential leaders of a resistance were eliminated. Now the book concludes with two short appendices.
v.26 A lengthier account of his history in found in Jer. 40-41. Gedaliah, the grandson of Josiah’s secretary and the son of a man who once intervened to rescue Jeremiah from death, was a good man with a reputation for being gentle and generous, traits his enemies exploited. [Wiseman, 316] Jeremiah had already prophesied a 70 year exile, so Gedaliah was in agreement with the Lord’s prophet in urging the people to settle down under Babylonian rule. He accepted that the Lord had brought the Babylonians against Judah to judge his people for their sins. Ishmael, whom Jeremiah warned Gedaliah about, was loyal to the pro-Ammonite faction and apparently had designs on the throne. The exodus has now been reversed. Israel once delivered from bondage in Egypt now fled to Egypt in terror of the Babylonians. What is clear is that even the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had not brought the Jews to their spiritual senses.
v.27 This second appendix reminds us that Jehoiachin was still in Babylon as the representative of David’s dynasty. His reversal of fortune indicates that the story of David’s house was not over. God was overseeing his people’s fortunes even in distant Babylon. As one commentator aptly puts it: “It is left to Josiah’s grandson, Jehoiachin, to offer such hope as we can find for the future of the Davidic ‘lamp,’ as the lights go out all over Judah.” Jehoiachin represents at least the potential of the continuation of David’s line and the fulfillment of the promise God made to David to maintain his throne forever. [Provan, 277] It is at this time only a hint of what may be to come, but at least it is that. There would never again be an earthly Davidic king reigning over Israel, but there was still a descendant of David to come and his kingdom would extend over the entire earth.
And so we have come to the dismal end of the history of Kings. Tonight it is our assignment to remember this history and to review its lessons. There are a number, though the great lessons are those that we have had occasion to note again and again as we have made our way from the end of David’s reign, through Solomon’s, to the divided kingdom, to Israel’s apostasy and destruction at the hands of the Assyrians, and now finally to the end of Judah, the remnant of Israel, at least as an independent kingdom.
Let me remind you, as we begin, of one very important feature of all biblical historical narrative. In Kings as in Genesis or Joshua, history is theology. It is, of course, a recital of events as they occurred, a chronology of Israel’s rise and fall. Kings is a recital of facts, to be sure. But because God is the Lord of history, because it is the outworking of his purpose, and because he has woven into history the inerrant truth of his Word, history such as we have it in Kings is as surely the revelation of God and his will, his grace and his judgment, as is Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the book of Revelation. Kings is “preached history,” or history told to reveal the logic, the principle, the truth of the kingdom of God. We have noticed time and again that the account we are given in Kings is confirmed in records from Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. But the lesson of this history, its theology, was missed by those foreign observers and participants as surely as it was missed by so many in Israel and Judah. However, it is a wonderful privilege for a Christian to be able to discern in the life and history of the human race both the divine hand and the meaning, the eternal meaning of human affairs that are revealed in events as they occur. Much of the whys and wherefores remains unknown, but there is much of immense importance that is perfectly obvious, however unwilling men and women may be to see it.
So what is the theology of Kings? What are the lessons of the history of this book of the Bible? Remember, it is one book. It is divided into two, First and Second Kings, in our Bibles only for convenience sake.
I. First, what we have in Kings is the confirmation, the demonstration of the truth of the Word of God; in this case, of the revelation of God’s covenant.
As you know, God had drawn Israel into covenant with himself. He had made the descendants of Abraham his own people. He had promised to be their God and to bless them as his beloved children. In his covenant he had promised every manner of blessing – from the forgiveness of their sins to his blessing upon their children, their vocations, their commerce, their international relations – if only they would prove faithful to him, trust in him for their needs, and live by his laws and commandments. In that same covenant, however, he promised to judge, punish, exile, and reject Israel if she rebelled against him; if she proved unfaithful to his covenant with them. Kings is the enactment of those covenant promises, at first and occasionally thereafter, from good king to good king in the southern kingdom, the blessings of faith, and eventually more and more the misery that must eventuate when God’s covenant is broken on the human side as first Israel and then Judah broke it.
There is a great deal in the Bible – in the OT and the NT – that serves to illustrate this same reality: that God stands by his Word and his covenant and will treat his people according to the stipulations of that covenant – the gospel if you will – but in Kings we get that demonstration and that illustration on a large scale and over and over again. Indeed it is not too much to say that most of the Bible is composed of these two great subjects: the gospel itself, the revelation of the covenant God makes with those who trust in him, and the narrative of the outworking of that covenant in the life of the church, in weal or in woe.
Or put it another way. Kings is a commentary in flesh and blood on Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, the two passages in the Torah where we are given a long list of the blessings that will follow upon faith and obedience and the curses that will befall those who disobey. We have both blessing and curse in Kings, as you remember. Faithful kings leading the people into faithful living brought blessing upon the nation – the very blessings enumerated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy – unfaithful kings leading the people into unfaithful living brought upon them from the Lord the very curses that the Lord had promised in his covenant and enumerated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Conquest and exile were the final curses threatened in those passages in the Law of Moses and here in the last two chapters of Kings we observe just those being executed by the vengeance of the Lord.
And lest we doubt the relevance of all of this for us today, remember that the forecast of the very same blessings and curses is found again in the New Testament and suspended upon the same conditions. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things – food, clothing, shelter – shall be added to you.” “Jesus also said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.’” And other texts like those. And in the negative to those who did not do his will the Lord says, “Depart from me I never knew you.” That’s exile, what he is here saying to Judah.
So, the first great emphasis of the theology of Kings is this:
“The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” [Isa. 40:7]
We can count on the Lord being true to his Word and keeping his promises to those who are in covenant with him.
II. Second, there is the doctrine of the remnant, a key element in the Bible’s philosophy of history.
All through this history we have found that even in times of what seem to be the triumph of unbelief, there were those who remained faithful to the Lord. Even in Israel, which as a nation and as a succession of royal houses, quickly and permanently abandoned the covenant of the Lord and forsook the gospel of grace and salvation, there remained a faithful community. There were Israelites (northern kingdom people) who made their way south to Jerusalem for worship, no matter that in doing so they were risking the wrath of their king and the pseudo-priesthood he had created. These were men and women who would never have darkened the door of the false sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, created for no other reason but to wean Israelites away from the true worship of God in Jerusalem.
There were men like Naboth who knew their responsibilities under the Law of Moses and intended to fulfill them even if it meant incurring the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and, eventually, even at the cost of his life. We are not told a great deal about these faithful believers in Kings – we are given a bit more information about them in Chronicles – but enough to know that the Lord always had a true and faithful people, the 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. And so it was in Judah later. The connections with Jeremiah that we find in the last two chapters of Kings remind us of his faithful ministry and the men who supported him: Gedaliah’s grandfather, father, Gedaliah himself, and others.
It is fascinating to me that the history of the gospel as it unfolds in Luke will remind us of this fact of human history and the history of redemption. Luke begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, two godly souls who had kept the faith when virtually the entire church had abandoned it for another gospel, another covenant, another plan of salvation; and then Joseph and Mary after them and Simeon and Anna after them. One commentator describes this cast of minor characters this way:
“Simeon and Anna are representatives of the holiness which, in a time of great spiritual deadness, still survived among the men and women of Israel. They are instances of that ‘spontaneous priesthood’ which sometimes springs up, and often among the lower orders, when the regular clergy have become corrupt and secularized.” [Plummer, Luke (ICC), 65]
That too is the story of Kings. The Lord never leaves himself without a people. Scotland today has a very small believing community compared to what was the case not so long ago, but it is a community of sturdy Christians, made the more sturdy by the necessity of standing against the onslaught of unbelief in the church. The same could be said of the church in Holland or France or Germany. And soon, perhaps, it may have to be said of Christians in the United States. Who can say?
But the Lord knows how to deliver the godly from temptation and as the Scripture often reminds us; he knows who are his!
III. Third, and briefly, there is the constant testimony in Kings that the danger to our souls and to the soul of the church most often comes from the culture surrounding the church and from the power of the desire in all our hearts to conform to what is generally acceptable to people in our time.
It may seem so obvious to us that we don’t notice the point but in Kings from beginning to end it is not some innovation that undoes the people of God; it is not some idea arising unbidden from the heart of Israel’s life. No, it is always the ordinary custom and ways of thought of the people round about. That was always Israel’s temptation and it proved her undoing. She wanted to be like everybody else.
Kings is an elaborate warning to us today of the toxic influence of an unbelieving culture, of the need to stand against that culture with faith and with argument – as the prophets did – and to recognize how subtle, how unrelenting its pressures really are, eating away as they do at our faith and our obedience. Christianity in our own time is repeating the history of Kings once more, as this history has been repeated many times since the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. The lessons of the past are forgotten and generations of churchmen and entire churches are rushing to go the way of Israel and Judah, no matter the judgment that befell her. What do we find in many churches today but an eagerness to agree with the unbelieving world around and what do we find them doing but following in lockstep a society that has utterly repudiated the law of God and the gospel of Christ. It is the irrationality of this that surfaces so often in the narrative of Kings!
IV. Fourth and finally, we notice the striking finale of the book, the word of hope that is sounded in the last paragraph.
There is only a hint of things to come, better things, much better things – Jehoiachin who might well have been executed, is not only still alive, but now being feasted at the Babylonian court’s expense – it is only a hint to be sure, but hint there is and in the total context of Holy Scripture, it is not hard at all for a interested reader of the Bible to trace the thread from 2 Kings 25 to Luke 1 and 2. In the same way that the whole grand structure of sacrifice awaited its fulfillment in the lamb of God who will take a way the sin of the world, so the history of Israel’s kings lays the foundation for a future king, the anointed one, who would establish the kingdom of God forever and rule over the world in righteousness and peace. Remember, the term messiah refers to a coming king. It is a royal term. The promise God made to David of a king who would sit forever on his throne is by no means null and void. That’s the message of that final paragraph, that final appendix.
From Kings we learn above all other things that the fortunes of the people are bound up with their king, with his righteousness, with his authority exercised in obedience to God. God’s people will be as their king, just as the unbelieving world is as their master, the Devil.
And all of this is the more striking and full of hope precisely because the other kingdoms and empires of this world are all short-lived and doomed to an early death. Assyria destroyed Israel, but was then destroyed by Babylon. Babylon was in turn and not so many years later destroyed by Persia which was destroyed in turn by Alexander, who died early and whose kingdom was broken up and finally taken over by the Romans. And round and round it goes. And in the meantime once-vaunted Egypt had been rendered an insignificant and minor power on the landscape of the world’s political history.
And as the great empires wax and wane God’s people, faithful to him and to his Word, trusting him to keep his promises, continue on, first looking for the king to arrive and now looking for him to arrive again. It is all about the king in the book of Kings. In Kings, as the king goes so goes the nation and none of the kings is good enough. Solomon started well but finished horribly and injected into Israel’s life a spiritual poison it was never able to rid itself of. Asa, Hezekiah, and Josiah were good kings, but could not undo the terrible damage that had already been done to Judah’s heart and they themselves had feet of clay. Even the good ones fail at last and there are more bad than good. But in the Book of Kings it is always the king’s reign that tells the tale. No wonder the book is called Kings! Even the word of hope with which the book ends concerns the king. What we need is a righteous king who will lead his people into righteousness and grant them victory and the coming of that king is suggested in that short notice about Jehoiachin’s reversal of fortune in Babylon. God has not forgotten his promise to David. There are always faithful people, even at the bitter end there are Jeremiah and Gedaliah, and there is always the coming King. That is the hope of Kings.
No matter how grim the prospects of the church in the West may become in coming years, you can absolutely count on those two facts: there will always be a true and faithful people of God and there is always a coming king who will finally put things right for his people and for the world. That is the theology of Kings. It reveals the nature of the church’s life in this world and the key to her hope, the coming king of kings.
When I am at our place in Colorado I am surrounded by memories that force upon me a sense of the passage of time. My children have grown up there, as I did. Two were unable to join us this summer because they are expecting the arrival of babies momentarily and couldn’t travel. But this summer all the more. We said goodbye to our dog Simon at the end of the month. He had a host of physical problems and we wanted him to enjoy one last month in the mountains, swimming in the stream, chasing prairie dogs, barking at horses; all the things he seemed to love to do. He was the second of our dogs and perhaps the last. That chapter of our lives has closed.
I read books at the cabin and this summer read several biographies: one of David Crockett, the American frontiersman and congressman – he apparently didn’t call himself Davy, but David! – one of Ulysses Grant, the Civil War general and later president and, no matter his bad press in the 20th century, probably the most popular figure in America in the 19th century, and one of Wyatt Earp, the sometime ne’er-do-well and later lawman of the American West. When you read a life from beginning to end, you cannot help but see your own in its all too brief compass. I also read – I am ashamed to say for the first time – Erich Maria Remarque’s classic of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, with its mournful account of a young soldier’s life, first disheartened and demoralized by war and then destroyed by it.
You cannot help but think of your life, its scope, it meaning, and what it will have proved to be when it is over as it will be over so soon. Our lives are but a breath. As the world turns they seem so insignificant. Somebody else will step in to do our job when we are gone. Somebody else will take our place. Very quickly hardly anyone will remember we were even here. Hardly any of the ordinary people or ordinary priests are even so much as mentioned in Kings. The great empires of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon had scarcely a thought of the faithful people of God or of the prospects of their royal house. But, as it happens, it is God’s people and their king that are finally the whole story and the great purpose of this world and the life of mankind. Assyria and Babylon are no more; only their ruins exist. But the living Church of Jesus Christ exists today in the hundreds of millions who confess Jesus Christ as the King of Kings. The kings of Assyria and Babylon are long forgotten; but everyone in the world knows the name of the King of Kings!
Nobody reads today the story of Assyria or Babylon. But millions read with care and interest the story of Israel and Judah because their king did come and because a faithful people passed on their faith from generation to generation. We are part of that same story today. Kings is but a single chapter; we are writing another one and our children will write still another, because we have a king who guarantees our life and confirms our faith.
We live amid wild flowers in the mountains of Colorado. There is one beautiful, delicate flower with five blue petals that literally blooms in the morning and is gone by the evening. Such a creation is a picture, the Bible itself says, of a human life: here in the morning, gone by the evening. But the Word of the Lord is not like that. It stands forever. It can be counted on to be true and to prove itself true through all the generations of human life and until the end of time. There is another flower, of the sunflower family but with more color than the ordinary sunflower. What is interesting about this flower is the way it follows the sun. It points east in the morning, straight up at noon, and west in the afternoon. It looks for the sun and keeps itself pointed to the sun. It draws its life from the sun.
Two flowers that beautifully and simply illustrate the theology of Kings and the lesson of this great history: our lives are as grass; they flower in the morning but wither in the evening; but the Word of the Lord stands forever. We can absolutely count on that Word to be true, always and everywhere true. And the secret of life, the power to live it as it ought to be lived and the freedom to live it still when we sin is found in the Son, the King, the king to whom all the kings of Israel were but anticipations, images, pictures either in the negative or the positive.
Kings is a summons to faithfulness, largely to be sure in the negative. It warns us what happens to the unfaithful in the church. It is also a summons to count on and look for and await the coming of the King, the King of Kings. How fortunate we are to live when we do. The King has already come; how much easier for us to look for his coming again.