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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

1 Kings

- 1 Kings

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to 1 and 2 Kings

The Greek translators, known as the Septuagint, who separated the “Book of the Law of Moses” into five parts, and the “Book of Samuel” into two, made the division, which is now almost universally adopted, of the original “Book of Kings” into a “First” and a “Second Book.” The separation thus made was followed naturally in the early Latin versions, which were formed from the Greek; and when Jerome set forth the edition now called “The Vulgate,” he followed the custom which he found established. The general adoption of the Vulgate by the Western Church caused the arrangement introduced by the Septuagint to obtain almost universal acceptance.

The work is named from its contents, since the entire subject of the whole is the history of the “kings” of Israel and Judah from the accession of Solomon to the Babylonian captivity.

1. The unity of the work is proved by the marked and striking simplicity and regularity of the plan. The work is, from first to last a history of the kings in strict chronological order, on the same system, and on a uniform scale. Exceptions to this uniformity in the larger space bestowed on the reigns of a few monarchs are due to the principle of treating with the greatest fullness the parts of the history theocratically of most importance.

A second evidence of unity is the general uniformity of style and language - a uniformity admitted by all writers, and one which is only slightly infringed in two or three instances, where the irregularity may be accounted for by a diversity in the sources used by the author and a close following of the language which he found in those sources.

To these general heads of evidence may be added certain peculiarities of thought or expression which pervade the two books, all of them indicating with greater or less certainty a single author.

2. Some have thought from the continuity of the narrative, from the general resemblance of the style, and from the common employment of a certain number of words and phrases, that the six “books,” commencing with Judges and terminating with the Second Book of Kings, are the production of a single writer, and constitute in reality a single unbroken composition. Others consider these arguments far from conclusive. The continuity of the narrative is formal, and may be due to the after arrangements of a reviser, such as Ezra is commonly believed to have been.

So far as the mere idiom of the language goes, it is perhaps true that we cannot draw a marked line between Kings and Samuel. But many of the traits most characteristic of the writer of Kings are wholly wanting in the other (and probably earlier) composition. For these and other reasons the “Books of Kings” may claim distinctness and separateness.

3. There are two grounds upon which, apart from all traditional notices, the date of a historical work may be determined, namely, the peculiarities of the diction, and the contents.

The language of Kings belongs unmistakably to the period of the captivity. It is later than that of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Joel, and Nahum, earlier than that of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah. In general character it bears a close resemblance to the language of Jeremiah and Ezekiel; and may be assigned to the sixth century before our era.

The result obtainable from the contents is similar, only somewhat more definite. Assuming the last detached section of the work 2 Kings 25:27-30 to be an integral portion of it, we obtain the year 561 B.C. - the first year of Evil-Merodach - as the earliest possible date of the completion of the composition. Again, from the fact that the work contains no allusion at all to the return of the Jews from their captivity, we obtain for the latest possible date the year 538 B.C., the year of the return under Zerubbabel: or in other words between the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the accession of Cyrus in Babylon. Linguistic and other considerations favor the belief that the actual completion was early in this period - about 560 B.C.; and it is not improbable that the greater part of the work was written as early as 580 B.C. - i. e. some twenty years previously.

4. Jewish tradition assigns the authorship of Kings to Jeremiah; and there are very weighty arguments in favor of this view. There is a very remarkable affinity between the language of Kings and that of the admitted writings of the prophet. The matter moreover, of the two works, so far as the same events are treated, is in the closest harmony, those points being especially singled out for insertion, of which Jeremiah had personal knowledge and in which he took a special interest. Another argument of very considerable force is drawn from the entire omission of any notice at all of Jeremiah in Kings, which would have been very strange and unnatural in any other historian, considering the important part which Jeremiah played in the transactions of so many reigns, but which is completely intelligible on the hypothesis of his authorship of Kings: it is then the natural fruit and sign of a becoming modesty and unselfishness.

Still, though Jeremiah’s authorship appears, all things considered, to be highly probable, we must admit that it has not been proved, and is therefore to some extent uncertain.

5. The author of Kings cites as authorities on the subject matter of his history three works:

(1) the “book of the acts of Solomon” 1 Kings 11:41;

(2) the “book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19, etc.); and

(3) the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:29, etc.).

His own history was, at least in part, derived from these works. Lesser works were also open to him. Further, the writer had probably access to a work of a different character from any of those quoted by the author of Chronicles, namely, a collection of the miracles of Elisha, made probably in one of the schools of the prophets.

Hence, the sources of Kings may be considered threefold, consisting, first, of certain general historical documents called the “Books of the Chronicles of the Kings;” secondly, of some special treatises on the history of particular short periods; and, thirdly, of a single work of a very peculiar character, the private biography of a remarkable man.

The “books of the chronicles of the kings” were probably of the nature of public archives, - state-annals, that is, containing an account of the chief public events in the reign of each king, drawn up by an authorized person. With the Israelites the authorized person was probably in almost every case a prophet. The prophets regarded this as one of their principal duties, as we see by the examples of Isaiah 2 Chronicles 26:22; Isa. 36–38, Jeremiah Jer. 39–43:7; Jeremiah 52:0, and Daniel Dan. 1–6. At the close of every reign, if not even in its course, an addition was probably made to the “book of the chronicles of the kings” by the prophet who held the highest position at the period.

But the prophets, in addition to these formal official writings, composed also historical works which were on a somewhat larger scale, and were especially more full in the account which they gave of religious matters. Compare for example, the difference between the prophetical monograph and the drier abstract of the “book of the chronicles,” contained in the historical chapters of Isaiah Isa. 36–39, and the parallel chapters of the Second Book of Kings 2 Kings 18–20. Compare also Jer. 39–44 with 2 Kings 25:1-26. Further, comparing generally the history as given in Chronicles with the corresponding history in Kings, the author of Chronicles seems to have followed generally the separate works of the various prophetical writers: the author of Kings, mainly the official documents. In Chronicles nothing is more noticeable than the greater fullness of the religious history of Judah. This came chiefly from the several prophetical works, and marks a contrast between their character and the ordinary character of the state-annals.

The writer of Kings was mainly a compiler. He selected, arranged, and wove into a whole, the various narratives of earlier writers whereof he made use. This is evident, both from the retention of obsolete or provincial forms in particular narratives, and from the occurrence of a number of statements which were inappropriate at the time when the compiler wrote.

The close verbal agreement between 2 Kings 18:15-20:19, and Isa. 36–39, can only have arisen from the writer’s extracting without alteration Isaiah’s account of the reign of Hezekiah as it occurred in the state-annals: and the verbal agreement between great part of Chronicles and Kings, is often best accounted for by supposing that the two writers made verbatim extracts from the same authority.

On the other hand the writer of Kings sometimes departed from the wording of his authors, and substituted expressions purely his own.

And there are passages evidently original. It is on these parts of the work that the argument in favor of Jeremiah’s authorship especially rests.

6. Philologically speaking, the general condition of the text is good. But the historian has to lament an unsoundness, which, though affecting in no degree the religious character of the books, detracts from their value as documents wherein is contained an important portion of the world’s civil history. The numbers, as they have come down to us in Kings, are untrustworthy, being in part self-contradictory, in part opposed to other Scriptural notices, in part improbable, if not even impossible. The defect would seem to have arisen from two causes, one common to the Hebrew Scriptures, the other unique to these books.

The common cause is corruption, partly from the fact that error in them is rarely checked by the context, partly from the circumstance that some system of abbreviated numerical notation has been adopted by professional scribes, and that the symbols employed by them have been mistaken one for another.

The peculiar cause of error seems to have been insertions into the text of chronological notes originally made in the margin by a commentator. The first date which occurs 1 Kings 6:1 seems to be a gloss of this character, and it may be suspected that to a similar origin is due the whole series of synchronisms between the dynasties of Israel and Judah. It is probable that the original work gave simply the years assigned to each king in the “books of the chronicles,” without entering upon the further question, in what regnal year of the contemporary monarch in the sister kingdom each prince ascended the throne. The chief difficulties of the chronology, and almost all the actual contradictions, disappear if we subtract from the work these portions.

Excepting in this respect, the Books of Kings have come down to us, as to all essentials, in a thoroughly sound condition. The only place where the Septuagint Version differs importantly from the Hebrew text is in 1 Kings 12:0, where a long passage concerning Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, not now found in the Hebrew, occurs between 1 Kings 12:24 and 1 Kings 12:25. But this passage is clearly no part of the original narrative. It is a story after the fashion of the apocryphal Esdras, worked up out of the Scripture facts, with additions, which the Alexandrian writer may have taken from some Jewish authority whereto he had access, but which certainly did not come from the writer of Kings. None of its facts except possibly a single one - the age, namely, of Rehoboam at his accession belongs to the real narrative of our historian.

7. The primary character of the work is undoubtedly historical. It is the main object of the writer to give an account of the kings of Israel and Judah from Solomon’s accession to the captivity of Zedekiah.

The history is, however, written - not, like most history, from a civil, but from a religious point of view. The Jews are regarded, not as an ordinary nation, but as God’s people. The historian does not aim at exhibiting the mere political progress of the kingdoms about which he writes, but intends to describe to us God’s treatment of the race with which lie had entered into covenant. Where he records the events of the civil history, his plan is to trace cut the fulfillment of the combined warning and promise which had been given to David 2 Samuel 7:12-16.

Hence, events, which an ordinary historian would have considered of great importance, may be (and are) omitted by our author from the narrative; or touched slightly and hastily. . He treats with the utmost brevity the conquest of Jerusalem by Shishak 1 Kings 14:25-26, the war between Abijam and Jeroboam 1 Kings 15:7, that of Amaziah with Edom 2 Kings 14:7, and that of Josiah with Pharaoh-Nechoh 2 Kings 23:29; events treated at length in the parallel passages of the Book of Chronicles.) As a general rule, the military history of the two kingdoms, which was no doubt carefully recorded in the “Books of the Chronicles,” is omitted by the writer of Kings, who is content for the most part to refer his readers to the state-annals for the events which would have made the greatest figure in an ordinary secular history.

On the other hand, the special aim of the writer induces him to assign a prominent piece and to give a full treatment to events which a secular historian would have touched lightly or passed over in silence. The teaching of the prophets, and their miracles, were leading points in the religious history of the time; it was owing to them especially that the apostasy of the people was without excuse; therefore the historian who has to show that, despite the promises made to David, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the whole twelve tribes carried into captivity, must exhibit fully the grounds for this severity, and must consequently dwell on circumstances which so intensely aggravated the guilt of the people.

The character of the history that he has to relate, its general tendency and ultimate issue, naturally throw over his whole narrative an air of gloom. The tone of the work tires harmonises with that of Jeremiah’s undoubted writings, and furnishes an additional argument in favor of that prophet’s authorship.

The style of Kings is, for the most part, level and uniform - a simple narrative style. Occasionally, a more lofty tone is breathed, the style rising with the subject matter, and becoming in places almost poetical 1 Kings 19:11-12; 2 Kings 19:21-31. The most striking chapters are 1 Kings 8:0; 1 Kings 18:0; 1 Kings 19:0; 2 Kings 5:0; 2 Kings 9:0; 2 Kings 18:0; 2 Kings 19:0; 2 Kings 20:0.

8. The general authenticity of the narrative contained in our books is admitted. Little is denied or questioned but the miraculous portions of the story, which cluster chiefly about the persons of Elijah and Elisha. Some critics admitting that the narrative generally is derived from authentic contemporary documents - either state-annals or the writings of contemporary prophets - maintain that the histories of Elijah and Elisha come from an entirely different source, being (they hold) collections of traditions respecting those persons made many years after their deaths, either by the writer of Kings or by some other person, from the mouths of the common people. Hence, according to them, their “legendary” or “mythical” character.

But there are no critical grounds for separating off the account of Elijah, or more than a small portion of the account of Elisha, from the rest of the composition. The history of Elijah especially is so intertwined with that of the kingdom of Israel, and is altogether of so public a nature, that the “chronicles of the kings of Israel” would almost necessarily have contained an account of it; and an important part of the history of Elisha is of a similar character. Further, it is quite gratuitous to imagine that the account was not a contemporary one, or that it was left for a writer living long subsequently to collect into a volume the doings of these remarkable personages. The probability is quite the other way. As the prophets themselves were the historians of the time, it would be only natural that Elisha should collect the miracles and other remarkable deeds of Elijah; and that his own should be collected after his decease by some one of the “sons of the prophets.” Add to this that the miracles, as related, have all the air of descriptions derived from eye-witnesses, being full of such minute circumstantial detail as tradition cannot possibly preserve. The whole result would seem to be that (unless we reject miracles altogether as unworthy of belief on account of an “a priori” impossibility) the account of the two great Israelite prophets in Kings must be regarded as entitled to acceptance equally with the rest of the narrative.

Both internal consistency and probability, and also external testimony, strongly support the general authenticity of the secular history contained in Kings. The empire of Solomon is of a kind with which early Oriental history makes us familiar; it occurs exactly at a period when there was room for its creation owing to the simultaneous weakness of Egypt and Assyria; its rapid spread, and still more rapid contraction, are in harmony with our other records of Eastern dominion; its art and civilization resemble these known to have prevailed about the same time in neighboring countries. The contact of Judaea with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, during the period covered by our books agrees with the Egyptian annals, and in some respects is most strikingly illustrated by the cuneiform inscriptions. Berosus, Manetho, Menander, Dius - the pagan historians of Babylon, Egypt, and Tyre - join with the monuments in the support which they furnish to our author’s truthfulness and accuracy, as the comment appended to the text will prove abundantly.

Even the broader features of the chronology are both internally probable, and externally confirmed by the chronologies of other countries. The interval between the accession of Solomon and the captivity of Zedekiah is given as 433 12 years, which is divided among twenty-one monarchs, who belong to eighteen (or, excluding Jehoiachin, to seventeen) generations. This allows for each generation the very probable term of 25 12 years. During the portion of the history where the chronology is double, and where the chief internal difficulties occur, the divergence of the two schemes is but slight, amounting to no more than about twenty years in 240 or 250. Egyptian annals confirm approximately the Biblical dates for Shishak’s invasion, and So’s alliance. The Assyrian annals agree with the Hebrew in the date of the fall of Samaria, and in exhibiting Hazael and Jehu, Tiglath-Pileser and Ahaz, Sennacherib and Hezekiah, Esarhaddon and Manasseh, as contemporaries. The chronological difficulties, where such exist, do not at all exceed those with which every reader of profane historians is familiar, and which, in fact, pervade the whole of ancient chronology. They are partly to be accounted for by diversities in the mode of reckoning; while occasionally no doubt they result from a corrupt reading, or from an unauthorized interpolation.