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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

1 Kings Overview




1. Character and Contents. The books of Kings take up the account of the Jewish people at the point where it is left by 2 Samuel. The division into two books is not original, and seems to have been introduced from the LXX, where they are termed the 'Third and Fourth books of the Kingdoms,' the First and Second being 1 and 2 Sam. Their contents embrace the history of the period between the last years of David's reign (about 980 B.C.) and the Fall of Jerusalem in 586, closing with the release of Jehoiachin from prison by Evil-Merodach in 561 so that the space of time covered is rather more than 400 years. Their final completion must be later than the date last mentioned, and their composition is separated from many of the events related by a considerable interval; so that for the bulk of the information which they comprise they are dependent upon earlier records. In the Talmud, the authorship is attributed to Jeremiah (perhaps on the strength of the general tone of the books, or of the recurrence in Jeremiah 39-42, 52 of parts of 2 Kings 24, 25), but the statement is improbable, so far at least as the present form of the books is concerned. Jeremiah, whose prophetic ministry began as early as the 13th year of Josiah (Jeremiah 1:2), i.e. about 627, can scarcely have survived till after 561.

2. Sources. In the course of the narrative reference is made to three different sources authorities for the history of the times described, viz. the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19, etc.), and the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:19, etc.), The mention of a Recorder among the officials of many of the Kings (1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 18:18) suggests that the several writings just named may have preserved information derived from the State archives, though the nature of some of the statements for which they are cited renders it probable that they were not themselves official documents (see 1 Kings 16:20; 2 Kings 15:15; 2 Kings 21:17). In certain instances they are referred to as supplying matter which the books of Kings do not furnish (see 1 Kings 14:19; 1 Kings 22:39); but it seems likely that much that is included in Kings is really drawn from them. There is no explicit statement, however, to show in what way these or any other sources were utilised in the compilation of the work, though certain conclusions respecting the nature of some of the written documents that lie behind our books and the method followed in the composition of them may be obtained from an analysis of their structure, which consists of the following elements:—(a) A detailed account of the last days of David (1 Kings 1, 2).

(b) Passages relating in detail the construction or repair of the Temple (1 Kings 6-9; 2 Kings 12:4-16; 2 Kings 16:10-16, etc.).

(c) Lengthy narratives dealing with the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19, 21; 2 Kings 1:2-17; 2 Kings 2; 2 Kings 4:1 to 2 Kings 6:23 etc.).

(d) Passages relating at length certain political events (1 Kings 20; 1 Kings 22:1-38; 2 Kings 3:4-27; 2 Kings 6:24 to 2 Kings 7:20; 2 Kings 18:13 to 2 Kings 20:20, etc.).

(e) Succinct accounts of many of the kings, written in stereotyped phrases, beginning with the date of each king's accession, the length of his reign and his character (certain other particulars being added in the case of kings of Judah), and ending with a reference to the 'Book of the Chronicles 'of the kingdom concerned, and a mention of the king's successor.

Of these (a) probably comes from the same source as the narratives contained in 2 Samuel 9-20, which it resembles in character; (b) may be assumed to be based on records drawn up by the priesthood; whilst (c) must have originated in prophetic circles (such as the communities of the 'Sons of the Prophets'). The passages classified under (d) and (e) may be derived from the annals to which reference is made. But the brevity and uniform phraseology characteristic of (e), which are in marked contrast to the picturesque and varied style of the longer sections, make it probable that these are epitomes constructed by the actual compiler of Kings out of his materials, whereas the other portions of his book are extracts made by him from the sources he used. As may be seen by a comparison of numerous passages in Chronicles with the parallels in Kings, Hebrew historians were in the habit of incorporating in their own compositions passages taken verbatim from other works; and the differences in style and vocabulary between various sections of Kings, the abruptness with which personages not previously mentioned are introduced (e.g. 1 Kings 17:1), and certain discrepancies in the narratives, all indicate that the course which the writer of Chronicles has pursued towards the books of Kings the writer of the latter has followed in regard to still earlier productions.

For the sake of convenience the writer of these books has been spoken of in the singular, and the completion of his work has been fixed as later than 561 b.c., and therefore some time after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. But in certain of the narratives phrases are used which imply that when they were written Judah existed as a state, and the Temple was still standing (see 1 Kings 8:8; 1 Kings 12:19; 1 Kings 19:3; 2 Kings 8:22; 2 Kings 14:11; 2 Kings 16:6; 2 Kings 17:18). Some of the phrases occur in sections which have probably been incorporated from previous writings (e.g. 1 Kings 19:3), and consequently the use of them only shows that the sources from which the author of Kings borrowed were composed before the exile; but there are others (e.g. 2 Kings 8:22) which are found in the short annalistic passages that have been assigned to the compiler. Consequently it is probable that the bulk of the book was composed before the exile; but that subsequently additions were made to it by a writer who lived after the Fall of Jerusalem, and who appended chapters 24 and 25. In the earlier chapters also there are a few expressions which could only have been written in Babylonia after the overthrow of Judah, e.g. 1 Kings 4:24 (see note); 2 Kings 17:19-20 so that the author of the supplementary chapters seems not only to have continued his predecessor's work, but to have introduced a few insertions into the body of it. But the spirit and style of the two writers are so much alike that except where specific allusions betray the date of the narrator, it is as unnecessary as it is difficult to distinguish between them.

3. Value. If the conclusions just stated respecting the probable sources of the narratives be correct, it will be apparent that Kings is a most valuable authority for the history of the times it deals with, especially in those parts which may reasonably be regarded as based upon the State and Temple records. Unfortunately the information respecting this period which is obtainable from other sources, such as the Egyptian and Assyrian monuments, is not as full as could be desired; but in general, what has been learnt from these quarters harmonises with, or plausibly supplements, the biblical account, even where it does not actually confirm it. In order, however, to estimate fairly the good faith of the writer and his merits as an historian, it is important to bear in mind the conditions under which he wrote. Neither the means at his disposal, nor the methods of composition that then prevailed, were calculated to secure the accuracy and precision of statement which are now expected in historical works.

(a) The materials employed by Hebrew writers generally are not expressly named, but there are allusions in various passages of the OT. to tablets (probably of wood) and rolls (of skin or leather): see Isaiah 8:1; Isaiah 30:8; Habakkuk 2:2; Jeremiah 36:2; Ezekiel 2:9. Materials like these must have rendered it difficult for mistakes once made to be corrected; and if the documents consulted by successive historians were of such a character, it is obvious that the process of verifying statements could not be an easy one. Moreover, the nature of the Hebrew writing, in which there were then no vowel signs, must have conduced to the production of various readings; and many of the differences between the Heb. original and the LXX version have arisen from this cause.

(b) The practice of reproducing the exact words of previous writers has led to the retention of many discrepancies and inconsistencies, which may have admitted of being harmonised by the compiler, through knowledge which he possessed, but of which the explanation is, in many instances, quite irrecoverable by us.

(c) In the absence of a fixed era an accurate system of chronology was almost impossible. In connexion with the kings of Israel and Judah, the accession of each king is generally marked by reference to the corresponding year in the reign of the contemporary sovereign; but whereas, in most cases, fractions of a year are counted as a whole year (e.g. Nadab is said to have reigned two years, though he came to the throne in Asa's second year and was succeeded by Baasha in Asa's third, 1 Kings 15:25, 1 Kings 15:33), in other cases this rule is not observed (e.g. Rehoboam is described as reigning only 17 years, though his successor Abijam came to the throne in the 18th year of Rehoboam's contemporary Jeroboam: 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 15:1). Owing to these different systems of reckoning or other causes, many of the chronological statements in Kings are inconsistent (as is pointed out in detail in the Commentary). The discrepancies apply to the totals as well as to individual figures, for whereas the sum of the reigns between Jeroboam and Jehoram of Israel, and between Rehoboam and Ahaziah of Judah, should be equal, the numbers are respectively 98 and 95 and similarly, whilst the years between Jehu and the Fall of Samaria, and between Athaliah and the 6th year of Hezekiah (when Samaria was taken), should be the same, they are respectively 143 years 7 months and 165 years. Moreover, the mention of certain Hebrew kings in the Assyrian inscriptions as being contemporary with particular events which are precisely dated shows that the length of some reigns is over-estimated by the Hebrew historian (e.g. those of Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea, which together seem to have amounted to 16 instead of 31 years).

But to regard the writer of Kings as a secular historian would be to mistake the purpose of his history. That his main object was not to chronicle political and social events is plain from two facts, (a) He treats with extreme brevity reigns which on his own showing were, from a secular point of view, of great importance, e.g. that of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25); (b) he expressly refers his readers to other sources for further information respecting wars and other occurrences of interest (1 Kings 14:19; 1 Kings 22:39). His principal aim was to set forth the religious lessons which the history of his countrymen afforded, to trace the ill consequences that followed upon disobedience to the divine laws, and the happy results of faith in, and loyalty to, the Lord. In pursuance of this aim, he selected from the narratives which his authorities supplied the incidents which illustrated the principles he sought to enforce. In particular, he gave prominence to the glory of Solomon, which confirmed the divine promises made to his father David, the misconduct of the same king and the chastisement that punished it, the words and works of the various prophets who appeared at intervals, and the final over-throw which overtook both branches of the house of Jacob for their sins. In the sections which he himself composed he briefly appraised the character of the several sovereigns according to their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Law; and at certain crises of the national history he reviewed at length the causes of the catastrophes described.

4. Summary of the History. The political history contained in the books of Kings may be conveniently divided into four periods:—(a) The reign of Solomon over the united people; (b) the period of about 200 years from the revolt of the Ten Tribes (about 937 b.c.) to the downfall of Jehu's dynasty in Israel and the reign of Uzziah in Judah; (c) the century that elapsed between the close of the last-mentioned period and the reign of Josiah; (d) the last fifty years of the kingdom of Judah, from about 630 b.c. to the Fall of Jerusalem in 586.

(a) The successful wars waged by David had secured for Israel control over many of the smaller Palestinian states, such as Moab, Ammon, and Edom; and garrisons had been placed even in Damascus. The position thus established was maintained throughout the pacific rule of Solomon except that Damascus regained its independence; but the interest of Solomon's reign centres not so much in the country's external relations, as in its internal development. It was marked by (i) the extension of foreign commerce through the help of Hiram of Tyre, (ii) the execution of great building schemes, intended partly to secure the safety of the kingdom against attack, and partly to foster religion and adorn the capital. The king's trade was conducted by sea with Ophir (probably S. Arabia) and perhaps Tarshish (Tartessus or Tarsus); and by land with Egypt, the Hittites, and the Syrians. It doubtless increased the wealth and advanced the culture of the nation; but the people nevertheless suffered much in consequence of the contributions exacted for the support of the royal court, and the system of forced labour imposed to carry out the king's building projects. The discontent thus created was a principal cause of the revolt of the Ten Tribes against the authority of Solomon's son Rehoboam.

(b) The period that succeeded Solomon's death began with a conflict between Israel and Judah, owing to a natural desire on the part of the early Judæan kings to recover the lost provinces of their house; but it was mainly occupied by a protracted war between Israel and Syria. Syria entered the war as an ally of Judah, but the hostility between the two Hebrew kingdoms subsequently gave place to better relations, and Judah became Israel's ally against the Syrians. The object which the latter people chiefly had in view in its struggle with Israel was the command of the roads, leading on the one hand to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt, and on the other hand to Arabia along the E. side of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. During this period the northern kingdom underwent many dynastic changes, but its foreign policy was not greatly affected in consequence, and the house of Jehu, no less than the house of Omri which it displaced, suffered from the attacks of its eastern neighbours. Another nation with which Israel at intervals had hostilities was Moab, which, after being severely handled by Omri (as the Moabite Stone declares) rebelled in the reign of Ahab and conquered several cities belonging to Reuben and Grad; but was again subdued by Jeroboam II, who extended his rule to the 'brook of the Arabah.' During this period Judah, besides helping Israel against Syria, was also frequently engaged in maintaining by force its authority over Edom, or else in recovering it when lost.

(c) The third period, which may be regarded as beginning with the reigns of Shallum and Menahem in Israel, was marked by the ascendency of Assyria. Israel had previously cotne into contact with the Assyrians in the reign of Ahab (who fought against Shalmaneser II in defence of Hamath in 854), and of Jehu (who paid tribute to the same monarch); but it was Tiglath-pileser who first seriously interfered with the Hebrew states. The advance of Assyria produced counter movements on the side of Egypt (which had left its Hebrew neighbours undisturbed since the invasion of Shishak in the reign of Rehoboam), and there consequently arose both in Israel and Judah parties which relied for help on one or other of these two powers against its rival. Egypt, however, proved a broken reed, and constantly disappointed those who reposed confidence in it. The common danger threatening from Assyria finally drew Syria and Israel together, and they sought unsuccessfully to force Judah to join a coalition against their enemy. Eventually both the confederates succumbed before the Assyrian arms; whilst Judah, which in the reign of Hezekiah, acting in conjunction with an anti-Assyrian faction in Philistia, revolted against Sennacherib, was only preserved by what was regarded as a signal interposition of divine providence. At a later date Egypt itself was successfully invaded by the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Asshurbanipal.

(d) The final period saw the downfall of the Assyrian power. This was accomplished by the Babylonians and Medes, who took Nineveh in 607. Egypt, which had regained its independence, attempted to assert claims to a share in the partition of the Assyrian possessions, and Nechoh, the Egyptian sovereign, advancing into Palestine, not only killed Josiah in battle but deposed his successor. He was, however, defeated at Carchemish by the Babylonians, who succeeded to the position previously occupied by Assyria. Disaffection on the part of Judah against Babylonian authority brought speedy retribution, and finally Jerusalem was captured and its population carried into captivity in 586.

Judah survived by nearly 150 years the sister kingdom of Israel, although the latter was the larger and more powerful of the two. From a secular point of view the chief reason for the earlier extinction of Israel is to be found in its position. The main roads leading from the Euphratene states (Syria and Assyria) to Phœnicia and Egypt passed through its territory and exposed it to the designs of its ambitious neighbours; whereas Judah lay off the route between the eastern and western empires, and it was only because Jerusalem was too strong a fortress to leave on the flank of an army invading Egypt, that its conquest became desirable. A contributing factor likewise was the weakness introduced into the northern kingdom by dynastic rivalries, whilst, on the contrary, Judah was undisturbed by internal commotions, the house of David occupying the throne without a break for more than 400 years, except during the brief usurpation of Athaliah. But to one who, like the writer of Kings, traced in the fortunes of men the judgments of God, the ultimate cause must have appeared to be the greater corruption of religion which prevailed in Israel as compared with Judah, and which brought upon it a swifter and more irreversible punishment.

5. The Religion of the Period. The religious history of each of the two kingdoms was characterised by distinct features. In Israel there was no preëminent sanctuary like the Temple at Jerusalem to suggest any restriction upon the practice of worshipping at local shrines ('high places'); and this practice prevailed as long as the kingdom stood. At certain of these shrines Jehovah was worshipped under the emblem of a calf or young bull; and the use of these symbols was maintained by all those kings who upheld the ancestral Hebrew faith. The 'high places,' however, were not always devoted to the service of the Lord, for both the historian and certain contemporary prophets imply that the worship of the Canaanite Baalim was sometimes practised at them (Hosea 2:13). And at two periods alien forms of religion were introduced from abroad and diffused through the influence of the reigning sovereign. The first was that of the Phœnician Baal, brought into Israel by the alliance of Ahab with Ethbaal, king of Zidon, and strenuously opposed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The second, imported at a later date, was due to connexion with Assyria, and consisted of planet- or star-worship, to the prevalence of which allusion is made by the prophet Amos (Amos 5:26).

In Judah the Temple built by Solomon naturally dwarfed the importance of all other sanctuaries, but the 'high places' were nevertheless long maintained even under the rule of pious kings. But in the reign of Hezekiah an attempt was made to suppress them and to confine all national acts of religion to the Temple; and a still more complete reform in this direction was effected by Josiah. The greater success that attended Josiah's efforts was largely due to the discovery of a copy of the book of Deuteronomy, in which the restriction of worship to a single locality is expressly enjoined. In Judah calf-worship never seems to have been practised; and though the worship of the Lord was often corrupted, its supremacy was never seriously disputed by any other religion during the first half of the history, except in the reign of Athaliah, who was a votary of the Zidonian Baal. Subsequently, however, Assyrian forms of worship penetrated into Judah as they had into Israel. Ahaz was attracted by the rites which he saw at Damascus when summoned thither by Tiglath-pileser, whilst Manasseh is described as having worshipped the 'host of heaven.' After Assyria had fallen before Babylon, Babylonian cults began to be imitated; and both Jeremiah and Ezekiel allude to the worship paid to the 'queen of heaven' (perhaps Ishtar) and to Tammuz, a deity adopted by the Greeks under the name of Adonis (see Jeremiah 44:18; Ezekiel 8:14).

6. The Prophets who appeared at intervals in the course of the history fall into 3 groups:—(a) Those who were contemporary with the war against Syria, such as Elijah and Elisha; (b) those who witnessed the rise and predominance of Assyria, viz. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah; (c) those who lived during the decline of Assyria and the early years of Babylonian supremacy, viz. Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. At all periods the prophets were statesmen no less than moral teachers, religion being viewed from a national rather than an individual standpoint. But the prophetic ideals and methods varied in different ages, those of Elijah and Elisha, for instance, offering many features of contrast to those of later times. Thus Elijah was content to maintain the claims of Jehovah to be the God of Israel without explicitly affirming Him to be the only God, and he seems to have tolerated the unspiritual conception of religion involved in the worship of the golden calves; whereas Hosea ridiculed such worship, and Isaiah expressly described by a term meaning 'nonentities' the gods revered by foreign nations and disloyal Israelites. And similarly whilst Elisha sought to bring about a religious reformation by means of a political revolution, and presumably sympathised with Jehu's action in exterminating by violence the family of Ahab, the later prophets, in trying to direct the policy of their countrymen into right channels, confined themselves to peaceful methods, and Hosea even declared that the Lord would visit upon the house of Jehu the blood shed by him in Jezreel.

7. Chronological Table. As has been already said, it is difficult to construct an accurate scheme of chronology from the statements furnished by the Hebrew historians, partly because they did not fix events by any era which can be determined with precision, partly because they used inconsistent methods of reckoning the length of reigns, and partly in consequence of miscalculations or textual corruptions. But the mention of certain Hebrew kings in the Assyrian and other inscriptions enables us to bring the biblical history into relation with that of the surrounding nations; and from a comparison of the figures given in the books of Kings with the dates obtained from the inscriptions, a table has been drawn up (see HDB. i. pp. 401-402), which may be taken as an approximation to the truth: see art. 'Chronology of the Bible.'


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on 1 Kings:4 Overview". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". 1909.

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