1. The book of Kings was written during the exile to explain why Israel and Judah were in exile.
In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Kings—understood as 1 and 2 Kings together—is the last book in the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). These books narrate Israel’s history from her arrival in the land God had promised to her removal from the land during the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. The earliest that Kings could have been composed in its final form was after King Jehoiachin’s release from prison in 561 BC (2 Kings 25:27), and because it does not mention the return from exile, it likely was written at some point in the second half of the Babylonian exile.
Kings is theological history, explaining why God gave His people over to foreign nations. The answer is oft repeated: from the time of the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s reign, God’s people and their rulers “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed” (1 Kings 14:22). Even when a godly king occasionally arose, his descendants continued the spiritual decline of Israel/Judah. The extended theological commentary in 2 Kings 17:7–23 summarizes the message of the whole book: “And this [exile] occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced” (vv. 7–8).
There are no explicit promises or prophecies of any return from exile in Kings, yet Jehoiachin’s release at the end of the book foreshadows a happy ending. As we read in Deuteronomy 4:25–31 and throughout the writing prophets, that ending would indeed come, ultimately in the arrival of great David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, who sits eternally on David’s throne.
2. Kings isn’t just about kings; it’s also about prophets.
The rise of Israel’s monarchy brought in its wake the flowering of the prophetic office, and for good reason: rebellious kings needed to hear God’s words of warning, and faithful kings needed to hear God’s words of encouragement. Throughout Kings, various prophets counsel, instruct, warn, and foretell the future to remind the Israelite rulers (and the reader) that God’s Word was the supreme authority and power in Israel.
Many named and unnamed prophets play significant roles in the narrative, but Elijah and Elisha take center stage. They were raised up by God during the reign of Ahab’s house (Israel’s deepest period of apostasy) to call the Northern Kingdom in particular to return to God and His word. These two godly and courageous men were the leaders of the “sons of the prophets” who first gathered during Samuel’s prophetic ministry. The declarations and miracles of Elijah and Elisha foreshadow Jesus’ ministry of word and deed as the Prophet greater than Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18.
3. Elijah wasn’t a fearful, self-pitying prophet in 1 Kings 19.
Many commentators view Elijah in this chapter as a complaining coward, fearfully and faithlessly fleeing from Jezebel to pour out his egotistical “woe is me” tale to the Lord. But Paul’s explanation of Elijah’s words points us in a different direction: “he appeal[ed] to God against Israel” (Rom. 11:2). The view that Elijah fled faithlessly should be rejected for several reasons, according to commentator Dr. Dale Ralph Davis.1
Though the Hebrew in 1 Kings 19:3 can be read “and he was afraid,” the traditional Hebrew text reads “and he saw.” The latter reading best explains the former. Elijah saw—he realized—that the defeat of the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:17–40) had accomplished nothing: the Baal-worshiping Jezebel was still running the show in Israel. So, Elijah set off to commit himself and Israel’s situation to God.
The map shows that Elijah’s journey was not one of panic or dereliction of duty, but of purpose and plan. He would have been safe in the kingdom of Judah, yet he traveled all the way to Beersheba, one hundred miles south of Jezreel, and from there he went another day’s journey into the wilderness (1 Kings 19:3–4). God’s angel urged him to eat and be strengthened for an even longer journey (1 Kings 19:7), the destination of which was Horeb, where God wanted to hear from him.
The parallels with Moses also lead us to view Elijah’s words as Paul did. Moses first received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Horeb/Sinai, and while he fasted for forty days and nights, Israel violated the second commandment and was spared only when God heard Moses’ covenant intercession. In Elijah’s day, Israel had been even more egregiously unfaithful to God’s covenant, worshiping other gods altogether. Elijah spoke to God not as an intercessor, but as a covenant lawyer, laying out evidence for the prosecution.
Rather than quaking in anxiety or wallowing in self-centeredness, Elijah traveled to Horeb as a brokenhearted prophet, groaning in disappointment over Israel’s unrepentant, hard hearts. God did not rebuke him for being on Horeb, but compassionately and righteously drew near to His despondent servant to listen to him levy a covenant accusation against Israel. The Lord encouraged His prophet with words of judgment and hope, and gave him a new direction in ministry, thus setting the stage for the narrative that follows.
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.
- See Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008) and 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2011).↩