Good Kings, Bad Kings

 

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.  He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.  He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.  He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.  Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command.

The books of Kings pick up where the books of Samuel leave off. David dies, and his son Solomon becomes king after a brief power struggle with his older brother. Solomon starts off fairly well, asking God for wisdom to effectively govern his people, but then things start to go downhill. He builds an elaborate temple for God and palace for himself, along with a number of other ambitious projects requiring a great deal of taxation and conscripted labor. His primary method of international diplomacy seems to have been marrying into the families of the surrounding nations, and he did quite an astonishing amount of that. He also seems to have not fully bought into the idea of monotheism and decides to cover his bases by building places of worship for gods other than Yahweh. So Solomon, who ruled the united kingdom of the twelve tribes at its zenith at about 1000 BC, is given rather mixed reviews. The nation splinters in two after the death of Solomon; and over the next few hundred years, Judah and Israel are ruled separately by kings of varying competency.  Israel falls to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. (click here for a bit more of this history)

For the writers of Kings, good kings were those who were unwaveringly committed to the God of Israel and actively discouraged the worship of other gods, often by quite violent means. Most of them, with a few notable exceptions like Hezekiah and Josiah, failed miserably at this task. From this perspective, Israel and Judah were conquered not because of bad leadership on the part of their monarchs, or because of the greater strength of the invading armies, but because the people had strayed from following the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

So what’s the good news in the sad story of the decline and death of a nation as told in the books of Kings? I think it lies mostly in the fact that we know what happens next. The concept of monotheism is developed and refined in the crucible of exile. Prior to this time, most people understood that gods were not only many, but also localized. Yahweh was the god of the Israelite people, just as Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Molek were the gods of the peoples who occupied the surrounding lands. Sometimes there were divine territorial overlaps, resulting in several dramatic  “my god can beat your god up” stories, the most famous of which is probably Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. If gods are limited to particular territories, then it follows that God wouldn’t leave his home territory and accompany the exiles to Babylon.

Somehow, sometime, somewhere in Babylon the exiled Israelites began to understand that God was bigger than they thought. God wasn’t limited to the land of Israel, but was with them in Babylon. The dwelling place of God was not a place in space and time, but a place in the heart. There is no where they could go, or be taken, where God would not be with them. As Paul expressed it so beautifully many centuries later,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And that’s good news.