We in the Reformed tradition acknowledge the richness of having not just one witness, but four —Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—telling the gospel story of Jesus Christ. But as an Old Testament enthusiast, I often wonder if we’ve been neglecting a similar richness in the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles (henceforth referred to simply as “Kings” and “Chronicles,” as they were one book each in the original Hebrew). Perhaps considering both versions of this one political history might help inform our own political discernment today.
To begin, what makes these two stories “different” from one another? The book of Kings strikes a negative tone. It begins with the violent rise of Solomon to the throne as the ailing King David gives Bathsheba’s son specific orders about whom to kill in order to solidify his reign over the 12 tribes. The story ends with the kingdom of Judah falling to Babylon, the temple looted and burned, Jerusalem destroyed after a devastating siege, and multitudes dead in the streets with the rest either abandoned or carried off into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 25; also see Deut. 28 and the book of Lamentations)—all following the same steps as the kingdom of Israel to the north, which had been exiled to Assyria over a century before (1 Kings 17).
Between these two graphic points, the anonymous author of Kings strives to convey why this traumatic national tragedy occurred by narrating the individual stories of the kings of Israel and Judah and noting with disapproval how most “did evil in the eyes of the Lᴏʀᴅ.” The northern kingdom of Israel is plagued by assassinations and coups as generals murder their kings, slaughter their descendants, and take their places as rulers only to see themselves or their descendants suffer the same treachery. The southern kingdom of Judah does not fare much better: Solomon’s idolatry had led to the division of the united monarchy to begin with, and although God keeps his promise never to forsake the house of Judah out of his love for David (1 Kings 11), the southern kings also ultimately fail. Hezekiah and Josiah are among the covenantal bright spots in what otherwise begins to feel like an inevitable death march toward Babylon.
But when we turn to Chronicles and read carefully, we find an overall more positive tone. The writer (also anonymous, but often called “the Chronicler”) modifies the existing account of Kings in order to speak hope to his audience. Rather than beginning with a hit list of settling old scores, Chronicles opens with nine chapters of genealogies tracing Judah’s lineage all the way back to Adam, the first man. And instead of concluding with the horrific fall of Jerusalem, the Chronicler closes with Persian King Cyrus’s decree that any of the exiled Jews who wish to return to rebuild the temple “may go up” (2 Chron. 36).
Between these more hopeful beginning and ending points, Chronicles also reshapes the narrative of the kings of Judah—ignoring the disgraced Kings of Israel—to fascinating effect. Two of these ways of reshaping the narrative deserve highlighting.
First, while the author of Kings narrates all of the shady misdeeds of Solomon (and David, in 1 and 2 Samuel), missing in Chronicles is nearly every trace of wrongdoing by either ruler. Gone are the sordid tales of adultery, murder, mercenary service for Philistines, prisoner of war executions, and forced labor. In their place we find an extended description of the preparations David made for building the temple (1 Chron. 22-29), which Solomon dutifully carries out after he is crowned king (2 Chron. 1-9). In Chronicles, then, David and Solomon represent the golden age, a model for returned exiles to strive for as they rebuild the temple.
Second, where the author of Kings usually presents more succinct (and negative) summaries of the reigns of individual rulers, the Chronicler often elaborates on how even the “good” kings sometimes failed to measure up completely to its reimagined David/Solomon standard and on how even the worst of the “evil” kings could still repent. For example, where Kings goes so far as to blame the excessive wickedness of King Manasseh himself for the exile to Babylon (2 Kings 24:3), Chronicles narrates the amazing story of how Manasseh actually repented while a prisoner in Babylon, even commanding Judah to serve the Lord alone after God heard his prayer and allowed him to return home (2 Chron. 34).
What can we take from these two approaches as God’s new-covenant, returned-from-exile people today? The church is a multinational family united in Christ alone, so we should never attempt to draw a direct connection between Old Testament Israel and any modern nation-state. But the book of Kings teaches us that it’s helpful and even necessary to critique our own leaders in secular government. Yes, we are called to respect those in authority over us (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 1) as God-ordained leaders. But a healthy respect for leaders also includes a willingness to challenge them when they are failing at their task. It includes calling out idolatry and social injustice wherever we see it, as modeled by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Whether we identify as conservative, liberal, or somewhere in the middle, our political leanings should not blind us to the faults of our elected leaders, even the ones we may have voted for.
But it’s equally important to remember the positive, hope-filled witness of Chronicles in our current divisive political climate. For from that beautiful post-exilic, returned-home perspective, even David—an adulterous, murderous, vengeful ruler—can be viewed anew as the model king for all the others descended from his line. As Christians casting ballots, participating in civic life, and evaluating our leaders, we also should be encouraged that God’s purposes can be accomplished in and through even the most depraved of leaders as we await the fullness of his kingdom. Just look at King Manasseh’s change of heart to see the possibilities.
In Scripture, the Holy Spirit offers two versions of the same reality. We modern Westerners don’t usually like this way of thinking, preferring “either/or” thinking with which to bolster our own opinions and put down others in heated personal conversations or agitated Facebook posts. But given this biblical reality, can we acknowledge that our evaluations of certain candidates and policies might not be the same as our neighbor, family member, church member, friend, or coworker—and that those differences might be okay? Maybe part of the way forward through the present political mudslinging lies in remembering that as Bible-reading Christians, we’ve inherited not just one “correct” perspective with which to evaluate our leaders, but two.
I don’t pretend to have all the implications of this figured out. And I still have questions when I read these two accounts in Kings and Chronicles, much as I do when I read the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. But just as we rejoice in having not only one, but four accounts of the life of the Davidic Messiah, so we ought to give thanks that God granted us two versions of the royal lineage that, through all the twists and turns, brings us to King Jesus.
- What were your previous impressions or thoughts about the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles?
- Where do your own views fall between the more pessimistic view of Kings and the more hopeful view of Chronicles? Why?
- How should we challenge our leaders—in church and/or in government—when they fail and still hold to the hopeful perspective of God’s providential working?
- What other implications do you see from this overview of the differences between Kings and Chronicles?