The folly of Kings, 1: Authority, infidelity and Providence
The two books of Kings* in the Old Testament are essentially a survey of the history of the tribes of Israel under the monarchy. Actually, this quickly became two monarchies, that of Israel and that of Judah. In general, the focus is on the kings and their lineage, whether they served God or not, when they reigned, and the wars they fought. The first book is notable because it covers the reign of the most significant king after David, namely his son Solomon, and also because it recounts the exploits of the prophet Elijah. The second book is notable because it follows the exploits of Elijah’s successor, Elisha, and also because it recounts the events leading up to the Babylonian Captivity.
These accounts also describe the depths of evil to which the kings fell, as became notoriously clear in the case of Queen Jezebel, who made her appearance in chapter 21 of the first book. Still, because of the nature of these books as chronicles, it is difficult to insist on a single overarching “theme” for each of them. Instead, I will mention several themes, even though they are not consistently developed throughout—starting in this installment with the First Book of Kings.
The most obvious early theme is the suffering of the Jews as a Divine punishment for their infidelity and, above all, for the infidelity of their kings following the death of David. It was Solomon himself who led Israel down this path.
Despite David’s desire to build a house for God, the LORD reserved to Solomon the privilege of designing and constructing the first Temple. Moreover, God appeared to Solomon on two occasions, and was pleased when Solomon asked for the gift of wisdom so that he could rightly rule over his people. Yet the First Book of Kings makes it very clear that Solomon, as soon as he finished the Temple, labored for years to build a house for himself that surpassed even the Temple in size and glory. Thus, Solomon appeared to excel in all respects. His wisdom brought him renown and wealth, which perhaps then played their usual role.
This wisdom and this wealth were a great credit to Israel, but they were not entirely good for Solomon. At the beginning of Chapter 11, the sacred author shifts the course of his narrative:
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the sons of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love. He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. [11:1-4]
It seems that Solomon had great gifts of practical wisdom, as so many successful people do. But while his “love” is the subject of this passage, it is rather clear that Solomon did not understand the full meaning of the word. What about the meaning enshrined in the first and greatest of all the commandments, which Solomon surely knew by heart, and which he must have repeated with damning regularity? In any case, the trajectory is clear. Solomon finished his days in pleasure and not long later, under King Jeroboam, Israel once again worshipped golden calves (1 Kgs 12:25-33).
A second, closely allied theme is the pervasiveness of Divine Providence in the affairs of Israel. Again and again the sacred authors note that leaders who are faithful to the Most High bring peace and prosperity to their people, while those who are not faithful trade temporary pleasure for ultimate woe and destruction. We would emphasize today that damage to both the social order and to individual persons is an inescapable result of the pursuit of evil. When people break their relationship with God and disrupt the natural order, suffering increases and the social order crumbles.
In some ways, it is an apprehension of reality deeper than that enjoyed by the Jews which causes sound Catholics today to recognize the unbreakable links among goodness and unity and joy (on the one hand) and among evil and rupture and misery (on the other). In the period of the Kings, this was described in terms of the favors God bestowed on those who were faithful, and the punishments He meted out to those who were not. It is in coupling these two perspectives closely together that we gain the deepest insight of all.
Providence, as C. S. Lewis put it in The Chronicles of Narnia, works always through the most ancient and deep magic—the first magic, as it were—a magic that mightily transcends the all-too-familiar black magic that we find so enticing, and to which resistance so often appears futile. But this is just another way of saying that God, and God alone, fully understands Reality; He seeks to share this understanding by giving us particular experiences, while always inviting us to conform our minds to what is truly real by embracing Truth.
The Nature of Charismatic Authority
Under the Old Covenant, Israel was often governed by charismatic authority, that is by those who had either received prophetic power or Divinely-bestowed ruling power. In light of this, a third and also closely allied theme is the severe limitations of charisma (that is, graces which take the form of charismatic gifts) as a guarantor of fidelity to the will of God. This is obvious in the life of Solomon, who enjoyed not only marvelous gifts but apparitions and locutions besides. But rather than filling himself with God, Solomon became full of himself.
The same point is made in the First Book of Kings through the activities of some of the prophets. There was a kind of brotherhood of recognized prophets in Israel, many of whom uttered inspired words from time to time, even as some do today. But this did not stop them from rejecting the word of God in their personal conduct, or in currying favor with this or that leader or king. There were also more isolated prophets. Chapter 13 recounts the story of two of them, in which the confusion between good and evil is significant.
I mentioned at the outset that the two books of Kings cover the careers of both Elijah and Elisha, two prophets who clearly combined personal fidelity with immense charismatic gifts, including both prophecy and dramatic miracles. But anyone who knows the story of Jonah (which was set, though perhaps not written, during the period of the monarchy) understands that those with the gift of prophecy are not always finely tuned to God’s will.
In all, then, the First Book of Kings seems to make a point which later became one of the less-known teachings of the Catholic Church—the teaching that charismatic grace and sanctifying grace are two different kinds of Divine gifts, and that the latter is far superior to the former. While one would think that charismatic grace ought to provide enough evidence of God to trigger a desire for sanctifying grace (holiness), charismatic grace does not in itself effect that desire. This is an important spiritual lesson.
Perhaps the best possible conclusion to this reflection on the First Book of Kings will be to examine the response of St. Thomas Aquinas to the same question which God asked of Solomon: What do you want Me to give you? As we know, Solomon responded by asking for wisdom in the matter of governing Israel:
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this great people of yours? [1 Kgs 3:9-10]
It is not possible to fault these words, except in light of how Solomon ultimately used his gift. But it is noteworthy that when God asked St. Thomas the same question, He received a slightly different answer.
Late one night, a sacristan saw Thomas kneeling before the altar, and heard a voice coming from the Crucifix: “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?”
By God’s grace, the sacristan also heard the saint’s reply: “Only thyself, Lord. Only thyself.”
* Called 3 and 4 Kings in Bible versions which entitle the books of Samuel as 1 and 2 Kings.
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Next: The folly of Kings, 2: Divine justice, Divine mercy, and true hope
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