The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the English Bible form a single book in the original Hebrew. It is called ‘Kings’ because the details of the name, descent, accession and death of each king of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah form the structure of the book. It is continuous with the preceding two books of 1–2 Samuel. With Joshua and Judges these constitute The Former Prophets in the earliest Jewish (Hebrew) version. Because of their close link with the book of Deuteronomy by which Israel’s leaders and kings are judged, modern scholars describe the entire work as the ‘Deuteronomistic History.’
1–2 Kings recounts the history of the kingdom of Israel from the accession of Solomon, just prior to the death of his father King David, until the final collapse of the remnant of the kingdom. 1 Kings includes the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon into the kingdom of Israel, which withdrew its allegiance from the house of David, and the smaller kingdom of Judah, which remained loyal to it (1 Kgs 12:1–13:34). 2 Kings includes the collapse, first of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE (2 Kgs 17), and then of Judah in 587 BCE. At that time, after a siege by the armies of Babylon, Jerusalem’s temple and royal palace were destroyed (2 Kgs 24:1–25:26) and the rule of the dynasty descended from David came to an end.
Date and authorship
Modern authors note that the book was compiled from earlier written sources, some of which are mentioned (e.g., The Acts of King Solomon, 1 Kgs 11:41; the Annals of the Kings of Israel, 14:9, etc.), and conclude that it acquired its present form in two editorial stages: the first took place during the reign of King Josiah, who is highly praised (2 Kgs 23:25) and the second shortly after Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE (2 Kgs 24:1–25:7). This major revision was supplemented by further additions, notably stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1 Kgs 17:1–2 Kgs 1:15) which show further how the worship of foreign gods contributed to the kingdom’s eventual downfall.
A subsequent revised presentation of the story of Israel’s first kingdom is presented in 1– which draws heavily on 1–2 Kings. This puts further emphasis on the religious significance of the royal dynasty of King David and adds further details of the royal role in the building and upkeep of the great temple in Jerusalem. The same basic sequence of events, with a different presentation of their political and religious significance is given in the Samaritan Chronicle preserved by the historic Palestinian-Samaritan Community.
The message of the book is twofold: the unique achievements and authority of King David, which made possible the building of a strong kingdom was the result of his unique God-given authority. 2 Sam 7:1-17 has explained how this privilege was conferred also on his sons ‘for ever.’ In accord with this promise 1–2 Kings shows how the tribes which withdrew their allegiance from this dynasty abandoned their religious commitment and were destroyed by Assyria as divine punishment (2 Kgs 17:1-6). In contrast, Jerusalem (for a time) and the tribe of Judah, which stayed loyal, were saved in fulfilment of the divine promise (2 Kgs 19:34). The second major theme of the book is the over-riding importance of the law-book recorded by Moses (as reported in Deut 31:9-13) which warns against the worship of foreign gods and repeatedly asserts that disobedience will be punished. Disregard for this law, especially on the part of most of Israel’s kings, is shown to be the cause of the later downfall of Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 13:34; 2 Kgs 17; 24:19-20).
This summary shows the central theme of 1–2 Kings to be the history and destiny of the royal dynasty of David; and it concludes appropriately by drawing attention to the survival of Jehoiachin, the last-but-one member of the dynasty to hold royal office. He was taken prisoner to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:15), from which misfortune he was released after 37 years (2 Kgs 25:27-30) when his subsequent favoured treatment confirmed the divine promise that ‘all the kings of the earth’ would respect and honour King David (compare Ps 72:11). This message, illustrated by this unexpected event, offers political assurance and hope for the future of all the exiled survivors of the ruined kingdom (compare Jer 29:1-9).
Events recorded in 1–2 Kings offer unrivalled information regarding the early history of one of the many minor kingdoms of the ancient Mediterranean world which flourished in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the shadow of the great power of Egypt. As Egyptian authority, upheld by royal alliances and marriages, weakened, Israel was compelled to transfer allegiance to Mesopotamian imperial rule, first of Assyria and subsequently Babylon. Several of the major events reported in 1–2 Kings, notably the Assyrian capture of Samaria, the capital of Israel, in 722 BCE, the sparing of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE are confirmed by royal records from these kingdoms and serve to relate the biblical narrative to a wider chronicle of world events. 1–2 Kings shows the important role played by kingship, maintained through powerful dynasties, in the political, economic, and cultural development of the Eastern Mediterranean region when the influence of Egypt declined. The submission of these minor kingdoms to Mesopotamian control marked a major shift in world history introducing new political alliances, opening new trade routes and preparing the way for the rise and dominance of the later Hellenistic and Roman empires.
The imprisonment and survival in Babylon of the last-but-one king, descended from David (2 Kgs 25:1-7) encouraged the hope of an eventual return of an heir of this famous royal dynasty (the Messiah; so Isa 11:1, etc.), or of God’s creation of a new similar dynasty. Belief in the divine election of royal dynasties, modelled on that of the dynasty of David as presented in 1–2 Kings, became paramount in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Some of these dynasties lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. Further influence from 1–2 Kings is shown by the interpretation of human wars as a means by which God punishes or rewards obedience to divine laws, especially those calling for exclusive commitment to worship of only one true God.
Cogan, Mordechai. I Kings. Anchor Bible 10. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Cogan, Mordechai, and Hayim Tadmor. II Kings. Anchor Bible 11. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Grabbe, Lester L. 1&2 Kings: History and Story in Ancient Israel. An Introduction and Story Guide. T&T Clark Study Guides to the Old Testament. London; Oxford; New York; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Gray, John. I & II Kings: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. 2nd fully rev. ed. 1970. London: SCM Press, 1977. 3rd ed.
Noth, Martin. The Deuteronomistic History. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 15. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981.
Römer, Thomas C. The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction. London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2005.