1–2 Kings Among the Prophets: Learning to Read Ancient History as Gospel Literature

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If you have ever read 1–2 Kings, you may wonder how the two books hang together. What is the main message? And what does this ancient book have to say to us today? Is it simply an historical record of Israel’s kings? Or, being found in Israel’s canon as one of the Prophets, should we read 1–2 Kings as a book of prophetic literature?

Without denying the royal character of 1-2 Kings—“kings” is in the title after all—there are many good reasons for seeing 1–2 Kings as a book with a strongly prophetic message. Making this point, Peter Leithart in his Brazos Theological commentary on 1 and 2 Kingsmakes a number of compelling observations,

The book of Kings is prophetic in the obvious sense that it centers attention on the words and works of Yahweh’s prophets. Nathan is the mastermind behind Solomon’s ascension to David’s throne (1 Kgs. 1:5-53); Ahijah the prophet informs Jeroboam I that he is chosen to lead ten tribes (11:26-40); a lengthy prophetic narrative interrupts the account of Jeroboam’s reign (13:1-32); Micaiah prophesies Ahab’s death (22:5-28); Isaiah is a prominent figure during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kgs. 18-20); and King Josiah consults the prophetess Huldah when his priest, Hilkiah, discovers the book of the law in the temple (22:14-20). Lesser prophets dot the landscape throughout (1 Kgs. 12:21-24; 16:1; 20:35-43; 2 Kgs. 9:4; 14:25), and groups of prophets are referred to repeatedly—both true prophets (1 Kgs. 18:3-4: 20:35; 2 Kgs. 2:3-7; 4:1, 38) and false (1 Kgs. 18:19-20; 22:6, 12; 2 Kgs. 3:13). By my reckoning, ten prophets or prophetesses are named: Nathan, Shemaiah, Ahijah, Jehu, Elijah, Micaiah, Elisha, Jonah, Isaiah, and Huldah. The structural arrangement of 1-2 Kings reinforces this prophetic emphasis. Eleven chapters at the beginning of the book record the reign of a single king, Solomon, but then the book skims over the surface of several decades, devoting no more than chapter to any single king, until we reach the dynasty of Omri, to which the author devotes the entire central section of the narrative (1 Kgs. 16:21–2 Kgs. 11:20). In these chapters, kings recede into the background as the prophets Elijah and Elisha take center stage.

Treatment of prophets and the kings’ response to the prophetic word determine the rise and fall of dynasties and kingdoms. Yahweh enlists Jehu to destroy the house of Ahab in order to avenge the blood of his prophets (2 Kgs. 9:7), and both Israel and Judah fall because they refuse to listen to the voice of Yahweh’s prophets (17:13, 23). Equally important, the prophetic word shapes the destinies of the various kingdoms, a point the narrator makes by repeatedly noting occasions of prophetic fulfillments (1 Kgs. 14:18; 15:29; 16:12, 34; 22:38; 2 Kgs. 1:17; 9:26; 10:17; 14:25; 23:16; 24:2). For those who trust and honor the prophets, the word of Yahweh is a word of life and health (1 Kgs. 17:5, 15-16; 2 Kgs. 2:22; 4:44; 5:14; 7:16; 8:2); those who renounce the prophets face his wrath. (1 and 2 Kings, 17–18, emphasis mine)

So clearly, a survey of 1–2 Kings identifies many, important prophets driving the history of Israel along. Yet, it is not the just appearance or priority of prophets that make 1–2 Kings a prophetic book. It is also the book’s prophetic message of judgment and salvation. Proving this point and citing the work of Donald Gowan (The Theology of the Prophetic Books), Leithart continues,

The prophets to ancient Israel did not preach a legalistic message of moral reformation but an evangelical message of faith in the God who raises the dead. From the first days of the human race in Eden, the curse threatened against sin is “dying you shall die,” and the same curse hangs over Israel after Yahweh cut covenant with it at Sinai. The message of the prophets is not, “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel needs to get its act together or it will die.” The message is, “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel must die, and its only hope is to entrust itself to a God who will give it new life on the far side of death.” Or even, “Israel has sinned; Israel is already dead. Cling to the God who raises the dead.” This is precisely the prophetic message of 1-2 Kings, which systematically dismantles Israel’s confidence in everything but the omnipotent mercy and patience of God. (1 and 2 Kings, 18)

Here is the cash value of reading 1–2 Kings with an eye to the prophets. The book is not primarily about the historical failings of Israel’s king; it is about the unfailing faithfulness of Israel’s God. In Israel, the prophets delivered the Word of God to the people of God. And even when the people, and especially the kings, refused to listen, the prophets still spoke. As 1 Peter 1:12 declares, these prophets learned that “they were serving not themselves” nor the generation that refused to obey God’s Word. Instead, the prophets were serving the generations that would receive the gospel and the Spirit of God.

This explains why 1–2 Kings should be read as a book filled with gospel promises that bring us to Christ. It is more than history, 1–2 Kings is redemptive history. And though the book speaks honestly about Israel’s idolatrous history and the ways Israel’s kings abandon God’s wisdom, law, and temple, the prophetic message of 1–2 Kings teaches us to look forward to one who embodies the law, is full of wisdom, and becomes the meeting place between God and man. As Leithart puts it, the failures of law, wisdom, and temple in 1–2 King lead us to look forward to the One who fulfills all of these covenantal structures. He writes, “Even the critique of wisdom and Torah and temple is ultimately fulfilled in the gospel. What Paul sees in the history of Israel is already obvious to the deeply Pauline author of 1-2 Kings. Wisdom cannot preserve the Davidic dynasty, nor can Torah, nor can the temple. But what wisdom, what the law, what the temple cannot do, God has done in fulfillment of all his promises (Rom. 8:1-4)” (1 and 2 Kings, 23–24, emphasis mine). And these promises are the ones that the prophets spoke throughout the Old Testament, including 1–2 Kings.

In the end, the next time you read 1–2 Kings, keep your eyes out for the prophets and your ears open to their message of salvation and judgment. First and Second Kings is not just ancient history, it is ancient prophecy that finds fulfillment in Christ. And because our gospel hope begins with the words of the prophets (Rom. 1:2), we can read this Old Testament book with expectancy of seeing and hearing God’s Word in a way that promises good news to us. Such is the way that the Scriptures were written and why Paul can say to us in Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

Ultimately, 1–2 Kings gives us hope. But only as we learn how to read them. May the Lord help us read 1–2 Kings, so that we can see the King of Kings to whom it points.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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