How and Why to Read 1 Kings in 2023
A divided nation, declining influence, and leaders who range from flawed to awful — that describes the state of ancient Israel in the book of 1 Kings — and the state of America today. Israel expectantly awaited a king from David’s line who would establish an eternal kingdom, in fulfillment of God’s promise (2 Samuel 7:13), but that king didn’t come. Instead, the nation suffered decline and calamity as turned away from the Lord. America doesn’t occupy Israel’s special place in redemptive history, but we too await the return of the Son of David who reigns forever, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we too watch our nation suffer as it turns its back on God and his Word.
This book of history is still relevant in our far-removed context because of the important lessons it teaches about God and how we should follow him.
1 Kings is the first of two parts (originally one book) in what could be called The Decline and Fall of the Kingdom of Israel. It covers roughly 120-130 years of history. The first section covers the reign of Solomon and the building of the temple. Next comes the division of the kingdom and the reign of nine more kings. The final section covers the reign of Ahab and the ministry of the prophet Elijah.
1 Kings 1-11 describes Solomon’s reign as a chiasm. In the center is the temple: its resources (5:1-18, 9:10-22), construction (6:1-7:12), and furnishings (7:13-51). In the very center, the priests carry in the ark, and God comes to dwell in the midst of his people (8:1-11). Solomon’s mediating prayer and offerings (8:12-66) correspond to the temple furnishings the priests would use to mediate. And the Lord promising to build a house for Solomon (9:1-9) corresponds to Solomon’s building a house for God.
On both sides of the temple narrative are accounts of Solomon’s wisdom, riches, and honor, as God promised (4:1-34, 9:23-10:13). However, these gifts ultimately misled Solomon, who went from asking for wisdom (3:5-28) to demonstrating folly (10:14-29) by disobeying Deuteronomy 17:16-17, acquiring gold, silver, and horses. Solomon then aggravated his guilt by acquiring many foreign wives who turned his heart away from the Lord (11:1-8), in contrast to when he married one wife and loved the Lord (3:1-4). The narrative ends with God raising up adversaries against Solomon (11:9-43), just as he had raised up Solomon as king (1:1-2:46). Solomon’s establishment as king tied up loose ends from 2 Samuel, while the adversaries open new plot lines that will quickly lead Israel to unravel.
1 Kings 12:1-16:28 narrates the division of the kingdom and the kings that followed in rapid succession. Solomon’s son Rehoboam drove most of the tribes to revolt through his folly and oppression, though it was actually from the Lord (12:1-24). God set Jeroboam as king over the 10 northern tribes (12:25-33), although he forfeited God’s favor by building golden calf idols see Exodus 32). Then the narrative abruptly slows for a strange, lengthy interlude featuring three separate prophets (13:1-14:18). With unfaithful kings popping up everywhere, God raises up prophets to pronounce his judgment, although even a disobedient prophet will be judged.
Jeroboam and Rehoboam both died, leaving Israel weak, divided, and in chaos (14:19-31). Their sons, Nadab (15:25-26) and Abijam (15:1-8), had brief reigns and accomplished little. Then the kingdoms diverged; David’s great-great-grandson Asa restored a measure of righteousness and prosperity to Judah and reigned for a whopping 41 years (15:9-24). But Israel’s throne was taken over in a coup; a commander named Baasha wiped out Jeroboam’s entire house but retained his sins (15:27-16:6). But Baasha’s son Elah was slain, and his family wiped out in another assassination. Israel was thrown into such chaos that it had four rulers in one year, until strongman Omri established his rule (16:7-28).
1 Kings 16:29-22:53 narrate the reign of Israel’s terrible king Ahab and great prophet Elijah. Ahab was Omri’s son, and he multiplied Israel’s sin by instituting full-scale Baal worship (16:29-34). Then, for three chapters, Ahab took a backseat to Elijah, who prophesied a three-and-a-half year (James 5:17) drought (17:1), was fed miraculously in the wilderness (17:2-7), provided for a believing Gentile widow (17:8-16), and brought a dead person to life (17:17-24). Elijah then confronted Baal’s priests and proved beyond dispute who was the one true God (18:1-40), but immediately he was forced to run for his life, fleeing all the way to Mount Horeb or Sinai (18:41-19:8). There God instructed to him to appoint a new generation of figures who would proclaim God’s Word and carry out his judgment on Israel, beginning with Elisha (19:9-21).
Back in Ahab’s domain, Syrian raiders constantly afflicted Israel, but God delivered Israel by Ahab’s hand (20:1-30), despite his idolatry and his unsatisfactory conduct (20:31-43). Elijah then prophesied the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty (21:17-24) after Ahab unjustly seized property belonging to his neighbor, whom his wife had executed on false charges (21:1-16). Surprisingly, Ahab repented, and God relented (21:25-29). Yet Ahab soon died in battle after ignoring and mistreating God’s prophet (22:1-40).
At the conclusion of the book we find King Jehoshaphat of Judah (22:41-50) and King Ahaziah of Israel (22:51-53). Jehoshaphat reigned in Judah concurrently with Ahab; he did good and kept Judah going steady but didn’t wholly turn her back to God. Meanwhile, Ahab’s worthless son Ahaziah was just as bad as his father.
Lessons about God
1 Kings teaches us about God’s power, his faithfulness, and his goodness.
God is sovereign, divine kingmaker throughout the book. Solomon’s brother Adonijah “exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’” (1:5). But the Lord declared, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). In a sudden reversal, Solomon was declared king before Adonijah. God gave Solomon “rest on every side,” sending “neither adversary nor misfortune” (5:5). Then the Lord told Solomon that for his idolatry he would “tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant … but I will give one tribe to your son” (11:11-13), and it happened as precisely as God foretold it. God sent prophets to declare the destruction of the dynasties of Jeroboam (14:6-16), Baasha (16:1-4), and Ahab (21:17-24), and it happened just as God said. God even disposed of foreign thrones, raising up Rezon to be king of Syria (11:23-25).
God is constrained by the limited information we possess. Several characters attempt to deceive God in hopes of manipulating the outcome in their favor, but none succeed. The prophet Ahijah was not deceived when Jeroboam’s wife comes to him, pretending to be another woman (14:5-6). After God foretold Ahab’s death in battle, he disguised himself as a common soldier (22:30). The ruse deceived the Syrian charioteers assigned to target him (22:31-33), but he was slain when “a certain man drew his bow at random” (22:34). He couldn’t outwit God.
God’s power is displayed most dramatically when fire from heaven consumed Elijah’s offering on Mount Carmel, utterly shaming the priests of Baal (18:38). Moses had warned Israel, “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:23-24). They had made a forbidden carved image, so God literally sent fire that consumed.
Next, God is faithful to his word throughout the book. Eight times in six chapters, the book’s author records something that happened “according to the word of the Lord.” Ten tribes divided from Judah (11:31, 12:24), a disobedient prophet was killed (13:22,26), Israel buried and mourned Jeroboam’s son (14:13,18), Jeroboam’s house was exterminated (14:13, 15:29), Baasha’s house was exterminated (16:3,12), the man who rebuilt Jericho lost his first son when he laid the foundation and his youngest son when he set up its gates (16:34, see Joshua 6:26), and the widow sheltering Elijah did not run out of flour or oil (17:14,16).
The narrative also gives many occasions where a prophetic word is immediately fulfilled. The idolatrous altar at Bethel was torn down (13:3,5), the Lord stopped the rain (17:1, 7) and sent rain (18:41,45), and a disobedient soldier was slain (20:36). God gave Ahab victory over Syria once (20:13, 21), warned him of a renewed campaign (20:22,26), and gave him victory again (20:28, 29). God gave Solomon unrivaled wisdom and riches (3:12-13, 10:23).
1 Kings also records prophesies fulfilled on a grand, historical scale. God made Israel as many as the sand by the sea (4:20, Genesis 22:17) and gave them rest (8:56, Exodus 33:14). He raised up Solomon as king after David (2:45-46, 1 Chronicles 22:9) and had him build the temple (7:51, 1 Chronicles 22:10). He expelled Eli’s house from the priesthood (2:27, 1 Samuel 2:30) but retained David’s offspring as rulers over Judah (11:13, 2 Samuel 7:16). In summary, “Not one word has failed of all his good promise” (8:56, see Joshua 21:45).
Throughout 1 Kings, although the rulers are mostly evil, God is good. He blessed an undeserving Solomon with wisdom, riches, and honor. He blessed an undeserving Israel under him with prosperity, rest, and his very presence. He constantly gave sinners opportunities to repent by forewarning him of his judgments. And, when even the most wicked king humbled himself, God mercifully withheld his judgment. God sustained Elijah with miraculous provisions of food and water in at least three different ways. On Mount Carmel, God gave an evil and adulterous generation a sign from heaven — a privilege later denied to the Pharisees (Matthew 16:1-4). Throughout the book, God shows that he has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but is always holding out repentance (Ezekiel 33:11).
Leaping out of every chapter of 1 Kings is the reality that proper worship of God is serious business. That explains the prominent position of the temple construction. But contrasted with this model of right worship is the failure of multiple kings to keep it. Solomon has failings identified throughout, but idolatry is his worst and most fatal. “The Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods.” (11:9-10). Jeroboam and Ahab were innovators in this form of evil, but all the kings were judged by this standard — and most found wanting.
It is true that these false gods were worshiped with abominable practices, including child sacrifice, sexual immorality, and even male cult prostitution (14:24). These evil practices fundamentally upend God’s good design for the family, and we should certainly avoid them and their modern-day equivalents.
But the Scripture gives another reason for why God condemned this idolatry: it accompanied a heart that had turned away from him. Today, it’s unlikely we will be tempted to worship a carved block of wood or other such nonsense. But our hearts are still tempted to turn away from God and offer our devotion to other things. These heart-idols are just as helpless as the false gods of ancient Canaan, and they are just as offensive to God. Idolatry is often described as spiritual adultery, in that we have made a covenant to devote ourselves to God, and we break it when we devote ourselves to other things.
In fact, 1 Kings gives a case study of heart-idolatry in Ahab’s coveting of Naboth’s vineyard (Paul said covetousness is idolatry, Colossians 3:5). When Naboth refused to sell his vineyard or even exchange it for a better one, Ahab “went into his house vexed and sullen …. And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food” (21:4) Here was a man consumed by a heart-idol. And it is after this episode that God foretells disaster on Ahab’s house.
This sin scuttles our obedience of the greatest commandment, and we are always vulnerable to it. Fighting against heart-idolatry requires constant vigilance because our hearts are always capable of creating them. This is why we must guard our hearts, evaluate our hearts, and open up our lives to other believers who can peel away our blindness.
And in the war over our hearts, there is no option of truce or half-victory. Those kings who tried to worship God and idols, God judged them as unfaithful. Elijah exhorted the people, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” God is not content with (or glorified by) half-obedience or half-worship.
This leaves us in an awkward — nay, impossible — position. God demands our complete, undivided love and devotion, something we are incapable of producing. A broken covenant separates us from God, and it is our fault. God would be just to sweep us out of his presence as he did with Israel’s wicked kings. Our only hope of salvation is to find a source of righteousness outside of ourselves — Christ’s righteousness. The sinful kings point us toward a better, perfectly righteous king who would be competent to save.
The prophets point us to Christ, too. These messengers delivering the word of God each anticipates the “prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15), who would speak face-to-face with God and deliver God’s law to God’s people. They condemn sinful hypocrisy and warn of impending judgment — just like Jesus. In a foretaste of Jesus’ miracles, Elijah even prays that God would raise a child from the dead (17:20-21). Elijah also points to Jesus in another way; God later promised that, before the Messiah’s coming, he would send Elijah (Malachi 4:5), whom Jesus identified as John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14).
He is the one to whom these strange, far-removed narratives of Israel’s history point. He is the righteous king, the Word of God incarnate, the fulfiller of the law, the one who will unite all of God’s people, and the everlasting king.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.