History (part 2) – from Kingdom to Exile
(1 Kings 8:14-26; 2 Chronicles 36:11-21; John 2:13-22)
I’m going to focus on 1 Kings and 2 Kings today, instead of 1 and 2 Chronicles. The reason: Chronicles basically re-tells the whole story of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, with a slightly different slant.
So let’s go to 1 Kings. The greatest King of Israel – David, is on his deathbed. One of his sons, Adonijah, decides he should be king. But David had chosen Solomon (Bathsheba’s son). So a loyal group brings Solomon into the city on a mule, shouting, “Long live the King Solomon!” and Zadok the Priest anoints Solomon king. If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was such a powerful and controversial thing to do, there’s one reason.
Where David had military skill and charisma, Solomon has wisdom in spades. A key moment (chapter 3) is when Solomon prays not for riches or long life, but for wisdom, which so impresses God that he grants his prayer in abundance, and people travel for miles for Solomon’s advice.
Next (chapters 5–8) Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem. So the portable tabernacle that the Israelites first built with Moses and carried through the wilderness, is now a permanent structure in Jerusalem: massive, immaculate, beautiful, wonderfully decorated; full of colour, incense, ritual and reverence.
The Old Testament teaches us that the buildings in which we worship God should help us worship God, and that our bodies and our senses are involved, and that ritual, symbol, and reverence are important. At St Michael’s, our liturgy, colours, robes, gestures, music, and our building all follow in that tradition. However, those things don’t automatically mean our worship will have reverence or integrity. That’s something we each have to work at.
The climax of Solomon’s building (chapter 8) is perhaps the monarchy’s finest hour in the Old Testament. He dedicates the temple with a very long, important, and wise prayer. “Please Lord,” he says, “keep your eyes and ears on this place, because, here is a place for people to pray–not just Israelites, but everyone”, a house of prayer for all nations, as Jesus will later remind 1000 years later when he cleanses the temple.
Solomon built the temple as a house for God, but even he realised God is beyond it: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house I have built!” (8:27). Remember that when you feel a long way from God, or when you think that God only hears you, sees you, loves you in certain buildings. He is beyond these walls. He is with you in all places, and sometimes God is more easily found on the streets or around a dinner table, or in the woods, than he is in a church building.
1 Kings 10, Solomon is visited by the Queen of Sheba, with great flattery, ‘seeking his wisdom’. Oh dear. Solomon begins to change at this point, and apart from a few highlights, everything goes downhill for Israel. Solomon amasses vast amounts of treasures, chariots, women, and gods. To sustain this, he imposes a very heavy tax on the people. When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam succeeds him, but makes the taxes even worse, and tensions reach breaking point: the Kingdom which had united under King David now splits in two, so that now there’s –
- the northern tribes, referred to as Israel with their capital in Samaria;
- the southern tribes, known as Judah (because it’s mainly the tribe of Judah), with Jerusalem as its capital, and it’s these people that would later be known specifically as the Jews.
- (Please remember this – it’s an important detail!)
The tragedy for Solomon is that he was so incredibly gifted. But there was a few simple temptations and desires that he gave into, which grew stronger and took over. And that is something that can happen to any of us. We thought about this a number of times in Lent with Finding Sanctuary – how we must choose what we will be obedient to: the calling God has for us, or the negative influences that want to dominate us. Jesus taught us to pray
lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
From this point on, we have a rapid succession of kings in the north and the south, and the rest of 1 and 2 Kings tell their story, a bit like a photo album. It’s fast-paced narrative and never a dull moment, so I do encourage you to read through it. Some important characters to look out for:
Elijah (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 2). He’s the archetypal wandering prophet who appears from nowhere, and is fed by ravens. His task is to confront the bad king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, who seem to be responsible for the fact that Israel have all but forgotten the God who saved them from Egypt, and are worshipping the Canaanite god Baal instead.
There’s an epic contest between Elijah and 400 prophets of Baal (chapter 18). They each prepare an offering on an altar. The contest: whichever god answers by fire – that’s the true God. The prophets of Baal hear nothing, and Elijah goads them: “Come on, wake him up, perhaps he’s asleep?”
But then the true God of Israel answers by fire and Elijah is vindicated. That doesn’t stop him running off, terrified of Jezebel’s wrath, and falling into a depression.
He hides on Mt Sinai, and God shows him a tornado, an earthquake, and a fire, but says, “Look, I’m in none of these.” And instead, Elijah hears God in a still small voice, and gently sends him on his way to carry out his next mission.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in panic, adrenalin, or depression that we frantically look for God in the wrong places, when actually we need to simply stop, bathe in silence, and wait for the still, small voice.
Elijah’s time ends with him departing to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2), and that’s the last we see of him until about 900 years later, when he’s talking with Jesus at the transfiguration (Luke 9).
Elijah hands over his mantle to Elisha. Significantly, this important transition takes place at the Jordan river, where Jesus would be baptised by John the baptizer, and take over from him. Elisha gets up to all sorts of interesting things, like raising a widow’s dead son, healing non-Israelites from leprosy, and feeding 100 people with a handful of food. There are lots of echoes of Elisha in Jesus’ own ministry.
Throughout 2 Kings, there’s a repeating formula that goes something like this: “Here’s king so & so; he ruled for X amount of years and did this and that and on the whole was either pretty good or pretty bad!” Apart from two very good kings in Judah (Hezekiah and Josiah),most of the kings seem to be appalling, leading the people away from God, responsible for all sorts of corruption, lack of political wisdom, and getting into trouble with superpowers far bigger than they can handle: two in particular:
In 722 BC, they invade Israel (the north) and take the survivors off into exile, leaving Judah isolated in the south (2 Kgs.17).
Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon sweeps across the Ancient Near East. They destroy Jerusalem in 586 BC, flatten the temple, and anyone left alive with any skill is carried off to Babylon.
From David and his glorious kingdom last week, to complete destruction and exile this week. We cannot underestimate how tragic the exile was for Israel & Judah – the Jews of today still carry its scar.
It’s important to remember the exile, as it will help us make sense of most of the prophets, and a lot of the New Testament, especially Jesus’ early ministry. The exile made the Jews question everything they thought they knew about God, and everything they knew about themselves.
Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion.”
Sometimes, we experience a crisis in our life that crushes us or shakes us to the core, smashes our dreams, and we think it’s the end, “That’s it; no hope; I give up; I’m lost.” That’s where 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles seem to lead to, except right at the very end, just when it seems darkest, it’s as though a match is lit and there’s a spark of hope… telling us that despite all appearances, God never abandons us, and in fact when we land in the pit of despair, we might just find that God is already there, waiting for us, ready to do something amazing.
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on 5th July 2015