Introduction to the Book of 1st Kings
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Brief Survey
- Key Verses
- Author, Date and Recipients
- Historical Background
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The two books of the Kings were originally one book in the Hebrew Scriptures, entitled Melakim (Hebrew for “Kings”). Like some other books in the Hebrew OT, it may have been named according to its first word (wehammelek), or it may have simply been named after its main contents, the reigns of the Kings of Israel and Judah. The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) divided it into two books, the “Third and Fourth Book of Kingdoms”. The division of the original book was located near its center, with the reign of King Jehoshaphat and the ministry of Elijah in progress. Therefore, the division was undoubtedly made for the convenience of copying this lengthy writing onto the scrolls and codexes of the era rather than for the purpose of dividing the content.
These books, along with those of Samuel (designated the “First and Second Book of Kingdoms”) cover the entire historical period of the transition and the monarchy of Israel. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (completed 405 AD) designated the books of Samuel as “First and Second Kings” and Kings as “Third and Fourth Kings”. Later Hebrew and most English versions retained the separations, but returned to the original names of “First and Second Samuel” and “First and Second Kings”. In the Hebrew Bible, Kings (along with Joshua, Judges and Samuel) is located in the Former Prophets (Nevi'im Rishonim). In the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canons, the Kings make up two of the twelve OT Historical Books (Joshua to Esther in the Protestant canon).
The Book of Kings, like the other historical books of the OT, is not just a chronological listing of political and sociological records, but a selective theological history emphasizing the events and characters that are morally and spiritually significant, particularly in regard to God's Covenant with His nation and people. Kings reveals the highest highs and the lowest lows of Israel's history, from the glory days of Solomon's early reign to eventual fall and exile of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In a larger context, the Hebrew books of the Former Prophets outline the history of Israel from their entry into the Promised Land to their exile from the land, chronicling the events and deteriorating spiritual conditions which led to their deportation.
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As the First Book of the Kings opens, we find ourselves in the final days of King David. In his final act, David appointed his son Solomon as his successor to the throne over the united nation of Israel. The first eleven chapters are thus devoted to the reign of Solomon, which began on a high note. When God offered Solomon a choice of any gift, he chose a discerning heart to wisely govern God’s people (ch 3). Because of his choice, God blessed Solomon by not only making him the wisest man alive, but He also blessed him with great wealth and power. Solomon then built the temple, and his prayer of dedication (ch 9) marked the high point of his reign. A description of Solomon’s splendor follows in the next chapter.
In chapter 11 however, Solomon’s life and reign begins to unravel and spiral downward. Solomon, who was born of his father’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, inherited David’s weakness and married hundreds of women, including many foreign women who turned his heart to foreign (false) gods. Because of Solomon’s unfaithfulness, the one true God raised up Jeroboam to lead the ten northern tribes of Israel in secession from Jerusalem. Thus the Kingdom was divided but because of God’ promise to David (2Sam 1-17), his descendants continued to rule over the southern Kingdom of Judah.
God made Jeroboam the same offer of blessing for obedience that He had given David and Solomon, by Jeroboam chose to set up golden calves as gods for him and his subjects (ch 12), establishing a pattern that would be followed by all succeeding kings of the northern kingdom. The worship of false gods (particularly Baal, the Canaanite god of weather and fertility) continued to increase until it reached its peak under the evil reign of Ahab and Jezebel. During this time, God raised up the prophet Elijah, who in direct refutation of Baal, called for three years of drought (ch 17). This led to the famous battle of the Gods on Mount Carmel (ch 18) with Elijah representing the true God against hundreds of prophets of Baal and Asherah. After the Lord is proven the true God, the people slaughtered the false prophets, but Elijah went into hiding after death threats from Jezebel.
In the final few chapter of the first book, God reassures and sustains Elijah, and commissions Elisha as his successor. Meanwhile, King Ahab fought three battles against the Arameans (Syria), the last of which would result in his death. At this point, the original book was divided and the narrative will continue in the second book.
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When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son. “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.'” (2:1-4)
The LORD said to him [Solomon, after his prayer of dedication for the Temple]: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them--that is why the LORD brought all this disaster on them.’” (9:3-9)
King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. (10:23-24)
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. So the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (11:9-13)
Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. (18:21)
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Author, Date and Recipients
The author of the Kings does not identify himself in the book. Jewish tradition identifies the prophet Jeremiah as the author. At the beginning of Folio 15a of the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra, we read that “Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations”. Many modern scholars have challenged this claim, particularly due to the book’s ending (2Kg 25-27) that records Judah’s King Jehoiachin’s release from Babylon, since Jeremiah was previously taken to Egypt (Jer 43:6-7), and it is assumed that he died there. There are some scenarios that could overcome this difficulty. First, a messenger could have reached Jeremiah with the news. Second, another Jewish tradition holds that Jeremiah was later taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar after his invasion of Egypt (Jer 43:8-13) where he lived into his mid-nineties. This would have been long enough to have recorded the final event of the book that occurred in 561 BC since Jeremiah would have been in his late eighties. Finally, the Holy Spirit could have revealed the account of Jehoiachin’s release to Jeremiah though a vision or dream (not uncommon among the OT prophets, and Moses would have required divine revelation to record the Creation account). Another possibility is that Jeremiah wrote all of the Kings except the ending. It could have been added as a sort of appendix similar to the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah. It’s also quite possible that the same writer completed both the Kings and Jeremiah.
If Jeremiah was not the author, the book was certainly written by someone well acquainted with Jewish history and was probably an eye-witness to many of the later events. He compiled the earlier historical information of the monarchy from various resources. Of these, three are named: the annals of Solomon (1Kg 11:41), of the kings of Israel (14:19), and of the kings of Judah (14:29), but many of the sources named throughout the Book of the Chronicles were probably also used. In addition, it’s quite likely that the author obtained the account of Judah's miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians during the reign of Hezekiah (2Kg 18-20) from the writings of Isaiah (what is now Is 36-39). He was also very familiar with the Debarim (Book of Deuteronomy). In fact, the author (or authors) was so deeply influenced by the book that many have referred to him (or them) as a Deuteronomist(s). Indeed, we find much Deuteronomist language in the Kings, and much historical explanation based on the covenantal theology developed in the final book of Moses.
The earliest possible completion date of the Book of the Kings is shortly after the release of Jehoiachin from prison in 561BC, although much of the content may have been compiled after the Judean exile in 586 BC. Since the author does not mention the release of the Jews from captivity by the Persian King Cyrus in 538 BC and their resulting first return to the homeland, the book was almost certainly completed prior to this event.
This latter date of completion has been challenged by some scholars on the basis of several “to this day” statements in the book. The author mentions certain pre-exilic activities, such as the poles of the ark in the Temple (1Kg 8:8), and states that “they are still there today”. This is easily explained by the author’s use of the aforementioned resources, in which the author simply quoted the source (there were no footnotes or copyright laws in those days, and using another source was considered a high form of flattery). This view is also supported by the fact that the author of the Chronicles, an indisputable post-exilic writing, uses the same language when referring to the same activities, either quoting the author of the Kings or a common resource. Therefore, we can date the completion of the Book of the Kings between 561 and 538 BC.
Based on this date, the books content, and its purpose (see below), we deduce that the author's original recipients were the Jews in exile.
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In the five Books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), we observed the formation of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people. After about four hundred years in Egypt, God raised up Moses to lead His chosen people out of captivity. After God sentenced the first generation (except for Joshua and Caleb) to wander and die in the wilderness for disbelief, the book of Joshua recorded the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land that God promised to Israel’s patriarchs. After the death of Joshua (~1375 BC), the Israeli people once again rejected God’s leadership and entered into the period of the judges, one of the darkest eras in ancient Israel’s history. Around the beginning of the eleventh century BC, God called the righteous Samuel to the priesthood. Samuel would also become Israel’s last judge.
Due to the lack of national identity and structures at the time, most authority was dispersed among the various independent tribes and clans. Rather than trust in God’s leadership, the people asked for a king so they could be “like the other nations”. God had anticipated this request, so He had given requirements for a king at Moses’ farewell address on the plains of Maob (Dt 17:14-20) just prior the entrance into the Promised Land. The ideal king was to guard the covenant and be subject to God’s ultimate rule, but all human kings would fail to various extents. At God's direction, Samuel would anoint the Saul, the people’s choice for their first king, who would fall out of God’s favor due to his disobedience. Ironically, much of the nation continued to function as individual tribes during Saul’s kingship.
Thus, the stage was set for the transition from the judges to the reign of Saul, the people’s choice for their first king, who would fall out of God’s favor due to his disobedience. Samuel then anointed God's choice David as king, but he would not ascend to the throne until after Saul's death a couple of decades later. Ironically, much of the nation continued to function as individual tribes during Saul’s kingship. God then used a group of maritime immigrants known as the Philistines to protect David, end the reign of Saul, and unite the nation under King David’s leadership.
The events of David's reign are recorded in the Book of 2nd Samuel. The Book of 1st Kings begins with the elderly David turning over the Kingdom to his son Solomon. During Solomon's reign, the nation greatly expanded its territories. Archeological evidence shows that the city of Jerusalem tripled it's acreage with a large increase in population as well. These expansions were aided by the relative weakness of the traditional powers at the time. Assyria had been weakened by continual wars with the Syrians, and with the Hittites who broke up in several small states. Egypt was also relatively docile regarding military activities.
After Solomon's reign, the nation divided when the Northern Kingdom of Israel seceded, but the house of David continued to rule over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom alternated between fighting with Egypt and allying themselves with Egypt against the Syrians. The Assyrian Empire was strengthening but did not threaten the Israel until events in the second book.
For more Information:
See OT History Books for the position of the Kings within the context of the OT historical periods.
See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.
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See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.
First Kings spans the approximate 120 years from the beginning of Solomon’s reign (971 BC) over the United Kingdom of Israel through Ahaziah’s reign over the Northern Kingdom of Israel (852 BC). Most dates in this list can be accurately fixed within a year or so.
|971-931 BC||Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah|
|967-960 BC||Building of the Temple|
|931 BC||Rehoboam becomes King of United Israel and Judah|
|931 BC||Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms|
|931 BC||Jereboam becomes King of Israel|
|911-870 BC||Asa King of Judah|
|874-853 BC*||Ahab King of Israel|
|873-848 BC||Jehoshaphat King of Judah|
|~870-850 BC||Elijah Prophet to Israel|
|853-852 BC||Ahaziah King of Israel|
* By integrating Biblical data with Assyrian records during the the reign of Shalmaneser III, we can establish the year of Ahab’s death (853 BC) and the first year of Jehu's reign (841 BC) using astronomical calculations based on an Assyrian reference to a solar eclipse. With these fixed anchor dates, we then work both forward and backward to establish dates for kings of Israel and Judah and other related events. Other Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian documents can also be used to verify the dates. See the “Conclusion” of Challenges of Dating the Reigns of Kings for more info.
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
The author’s purpose in writing the Book of the Kings was not only to provide a historical record of Israel’s Monarchy period, but also to provide an interpretation of the events. His primary emphasis in preserving the historical record lay in evaluating the various King’s reigns according to the Mosaic standard, particularly as revealed in the Debarim (Hebrew name for the Book of Deuteronomy – meaning “words”) of Moses. Since the Book of the Kings was written to the Jewish people in exile, the author intended to answer the prevailing question, “Why are we in exile?” As he traces the ups and downs of the various kings within the continuing overall decline of both kingdoms, he teaches the lesson that obedience to God brings blessings while rebellion brings judgment, thus explaining the reasons for the nation’s decline and encouraging the people to repent and remain faithful. For the varying purposes of the historical books of the kingdoms, see Harmony of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
The two overriding central themes running through the Bible’s history books are the sovereignty of God and the covenants. The Book of the Kings is certainly no exception, as we witness God in control not only of Israel, but the surrounding nations as well. The prophets, as God’s spokespersons, often announced the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms. We also see each kingship evaluated based on the king’s compliance (or lack of) to the Mosaic covenant. The extensive narratives are reserved for those kings who either greatly adhered to or deviated from the covenant stipulations. The kings were singled out since, as the king related to the covenant, so did the people. If the king was righteous and faithful, the people worshiped the Lord, but if the king worshiped false gods, so the people did likewise. Yet the people rightfully shared in the judgment.
Theologically, the Book of the Kings teaches that God is a God Who reveals Himself, typically through His prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. Because God is both trustworthy and sovereign, He is willing and able to faithfully keep the promises of His revelation even when His people are not. God intended that the nation Israel be an example to all nations of how wonderful life could be when living under the government of God (Ex 19:5-6). So, God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation that was to be a blessing to the whole earth (Gen 12:1-3). In addition to blessings, the Abrahamic covenant also included land and descendants (Gen 15:18-21). God repeated this covenant to Abraham’s descendants on multiple occasions, and as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, He added the Mosaic Covenant with the stipulation that His people’s continued occupation of the land would depend on their faithfulness to the covenant (Dt 28-30).
While the motif of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are obvious throughout the book, we should not ignore the impact of the Davidic covenant, in which God promised to establish an everlasting dynasty from the house of Abraham’s descendant, King David (2Sam 7:8-16). In the first book of the Kings, God repeats the blessings (6:11-13) for obedience and curses (9:6-9) for rejecting His covenant rule to Solomon. Solomon also acknowledged God’s choice of Israel to be set apart from the other nations (8:53). God then revealed the future fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (the coming Messiah) through the Prophets Isaiah (Is 42:6) and Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34).
A related theological teaching of the book is the role that God’s prophets played in the OT kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In addition to the aforementioned revealing of God’s plans, the prophets also performed miracles, confronted the kings (and even the priests) over their apostasy as required, and ministered to the everyday physical and spiritual needs of the people. To illustrate these various roles, we provide a few examples.
The book opens with the prophet Nathan, who had previously rebuked David over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba (2Sam 12:1-14), playing a critical role in preventing Adonijah from usurping David’s throne (1Kg 1). In addition, the prophet Ahijah announced God’s intention to divide the kingdom, leaving only one tribe to Solomon’s son in order to preserve His promise to the House of David (1Kg 11:29-39). Ahijah later announced judgment against Jeroboam’s dynasty (1Kg 14:1-20) who had been granted rule over the Northern Kingdom. We then witness the prophet Elijah’s confrontations with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, including the famous showdown with the Prophets of Baal (1Kg 17-19), and his later pronouncement of judgment on Ahab and Jezebel (1Kg 21:17-28). Though not in the same exact sense of the OT prophets, many today are given a role as a prophet (Eph 4:11-13) to faithfully proclaim God’s word to others (2Tim 4:2).
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The first key to properly interpreting the Book of the Kings is to recognize the author’s purposeful use of selective history. A typical modern historian would primarily focus on a king’s political, military, building and economic accomplishments or failures. Yet, as we mentioned above, the author is primarily interested in each king’s obedience to the covenant. For example, King Omni of Israel ended a civil war, conducted successful military campaigns, and extensive building projects including the city of Samaria as his new capital. Indeed, many modern secular historians hail Omni as a great hero based on their standards, but the author of the Kings dedicates on a few verses to his reign (1Kg 16:21-28). In contrast, the author allocates several chapters to Omni’s evil son Arab who, along with his Queen Jezebel, did much to cause God’s judgment to fall on the Northern Kingdom.
We now examine a few of the most common questions and difficulties associated with the First Book of the Kings. Perhaps the most common difficulty is more of a historical challenge than an interpretive one, that of establishing a date for each ruler during the monarchy era that corresponds to our modern calendar. Challenges and methods are discussed in the final chapter of our Chronology of Israel / Judah’s Monarchy.
The next difficulty comes from chapter 11 and involves the many wives of King Solomon. Many rightfully might question, “Does the fact that God allowed Solomon to have so many wives (700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1Kg 11:3) mean that He approves of polygamy?” We first must note that just because God temporarily allows something does not mean that He approves of it. This same verse also states that Solomon’s wives “led him astray”, so the book immediate notes the consequences of his actions. The issue of polygamy in the Bible is simple in that God’s original intention from creation was one man with one woman in a monogamous relationship. Yet, it is also complex because God appeared to allow the practice for a certain period of time. We address the subject in greater detail in our article, Why did God Permit Multiple Marriages in the OT?
After this verse concerning polygamy, we don’t have to travel very far to find the next common difficulty. In the very next verse (1Kg 11:4) we find the author, in contrasting the heart of Solomon to that of his father David, stating that David’s heart was fully devoted to the Lord his God. In light of David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his resultant role in the killing of her husband Uriah, we could question how the author can make this statement. First we note that even in the OT, a person’s acceptance or rejection by God is based upon God’s grace alone by faith alone (Eph 2:8-9) as affirmed by the account of Abraham and David in Romans 4. Next, even though David sinned greatly (like us all - Rom 3:9-11, 1Jn 1:8), he never worshipped other gods or turned his faith from the one true God (as did Solomon). I think one key is that upon being confronted by the prophet Nathan, David immediately repented and refocused on God's agenda. This pattern in David’s life is a good example for us all to follow whenever we are convicted of sin.
Finally, we look at an aspect of one of my favorite events in the book, the contest on Mt Carmel with Yahweh and his prophet Elijah against the 450 prophets of Baal. After Yahweh proved to be the true God (no contest since Baal didn’t actually exist), Elijah ordered the execution of the false prophets of Baal (1Kg 18:40). Many in our modern times will question, “Was the death penalty really warranted in this case”. Here, we’ll briefly address the legality of Elijah’s order, which was completely legal on several counts. According to the Law of Moses as given to the Israelites by God, false prophets must be put to death for speaking in the name of other gods (Dt 18:20). The prophets of Baal however, were also guilty of other capital offenses such as idolatry (Ex 22:20) and blasphemy (Lev 24:15-16). To these charges, we could add “spiritual adultery” for rejecting the true God and “spiritual murder” for leading their followers into eternal death (separation from God in hell). We must also note that God would never kill the righteous along with the wicked, but will always judge everyone rightly and fairly (Gen 18:25).
To fully answer our question, we will also need to address the cultural and political differences between our modern society and that of the Israelites in Bible times, along with the legal, moral and spiritual issues involving the false prophets. This is beyond the scope of this page, so please see our accompanying Death Penalty for False Prophets article for a fuller discussion. We also address how false prophets were dealt with under the New Covenant.
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The first book of the Kings can be divided into two sections. The first eleven chapters cover the rise and decline of David's son Solomon over the United Kingdom of Israel. The remaining chapters (12-22) chronicle the division of the nation, and the first 90 years or so of the resulting Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
|1:1 – 2:12||Solomon becomes King; Adonijah's Failed Attempt to Seize the Throne; Death of David|
|2:13 - 4:34||Solomon Receives Wisdom and Establishes his Kingdom|
|5:1 - 7:51||Building of the Temple|
|8:1 - 8:66||Dedication of the Temple|
|9:1 - 9-28||God's Warning to Solomon; Solomon's other Building Projects|
|10:1 - 10:13||Solomon Visited by Queen of Sheba|
|10:14 - 11:43||Solomon's Wealth, Wives, and Enemies; Death of Solomon|
|12:1 - 14:21||Division of the Kingdom; Rise of Idolatry; Predictions of Israel's Exile|
|15:1 - 15:24||Reigns of Abijah and Asa in Judah|
|16:1 - 16:28||Reigns of Five Kings in Israel|
|16:29 - 22-40||Reign of Ahab in Israel; Ministry of Elijah; Prophets of Baal; Crimes of Ahab and Jezebel; Death of Ahab|
|22:41 - 22:53||Reigns of Jehoshaphat in Judah and Ahaziah in Israel|
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