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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 13: The Books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra- Nehemiah"


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The two books of Samuel were probably originally one book, and similarly for the two books of Kings. Some versions, following the Septuagint, call these same books the four books of Kings.

The pattern in these books is the familiar deuteronomic picture: sin brings punishment, repentance and good bring salvation. They are basically historical, with perhaps a bit of freedom since they are written chiefly to give the deuteronomic message, with illustrations from history.

Samuel was born of a mother who had long been sterile, but obtained him by prayer. He proved to be the last of the judges, the first of the prophets. When he was still quite young, she gave him to the service of the temple at Shiloh, where Eli was the priest. While there, God spoke to him, and told him of the doom awaiting the house of Eli because of the wickedness of Eli's sons, who died in the battle of Aphek, c. 1050.

In 4:3 we meet a strange line (if we translate the Hebrew literally - most versions soften it). When the battle was over the Hebrews said: "Why did the Lord strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" They knew well the Philistines had hit them, but it was common to attribute to the direct action of God things He only permitted - we saw this in the case of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart before the Exodus.

After the defeat, the Hebrews brought the ark of the covenant, hoping it would protect them. But the Philistines defeated them and captured the ark itself. But God sent plagues upon the Philistines, so that they returned the ark, along with gold ornaments, in reparation. Strangely, when the ark did return, it was neglected until David later brought it to Jerusalem.

The defeats were making clear that the loose organization of Israel, held together chiefly by having a central shrine, could hardly match the skilled Philistines, who also had a monopoly of iron working (1 Sam. 13:19-22).

Further, when the people saw that the sons of Samuel, by then old, were corrupt, they asked him for a king. He was reluctant, and God was displeased, yet he did give them a king. (there is no conflict between the attitudes shown in chapters 8 and 9 as is often charged: God and Samuel regret, but grant the request).

In 1 Sam 9:14-27, God reveals to Samuel His choice, Saul. In chapter 10, Samuel goes through the ritual of choosing a king by lot - of course, God managed the lots. (Normally it is wrong to call on lots to learn God's will, unless there is a special divine inspiration). Saul was made king at Gilgal, c. 1020.

For a time, Saul had considerable victories over the Philistines. But soon he disobeyed twice. First when Samuel did not come in time to offer sacrifice before a battle, Saul did it himself (13:8-15). Samuel reproached him saying: "Obedience is better than sacrifice." The outward sign, the offering of an animal, is valuable only if it expresses the interior disposition, which is basically obedience to God. This was true even of the sacrifice of Jesus: Rom 5:19. So Samuel meant that without obedience, the offering was worthless, and worse. Later, in chapter 15, Saul violated the ban, in saving King Agag of Amalek and the best sheep. Saul pleaded he only wanted the sheep for sacrifice. Samuel again rejected his plea, told him again, God would not continue his dynasty. There is no reason why Saul, in stubbornness, could not have done both things, so claims of a clash here are not warranted.

We ask why God rejected Saul's dynasty for these two sins, but did not reject David for greater sins, adultery, covered by what amounted to murder. The answer lies in a distinction of two orders, the external, and the internal order. The external order deals with what position a person will have, e.g., king, legal specialist, scholar etc. The interior order is concerned with the attainment of eternal salvation. Since God wills all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), he offers grace in this interior order very abundantly. We receive all those graces which we do not reject. But in the exterior order, the rule is that the Spirit gives what He wills, where He wills (cf. 1 Cor 12:11). We do not know the reason for the choice of David, but he was, after the sins we mentioned, unusually meek and holy. Perhaps God wanted such a one to be an ancestor of His Son.

Then, in chapter 17, David, a young man, slew the Philistine giant, Goliath. Saul seemed happy at first, but when the women went out singing: "Saul slew his thousands, David his ten thousands", Saul became jealous, probably insanely jealous. He pursued David to kill him. He even killed the priests of Nob for having aided David.

At the cave of Adullam, David could have easily killed Saul, but did not do so, saying meekly he would not touch the anointed one of the Lord. A second incident of the same sort is told in chapter 24.

After this, Samuel died. Soon Saul had to face a large Philistine force. He went to a medium at Endor, asked her to call up the spirit of Samuel. She did, and Samuel told him he and his sons would be killed in battle the next day. Among them died Jonathan, who had been a fast friend of David.

Soon after the death of Saul, c. 1000 BC, Judah accepted David as king in Hebron. Later the northern tribes also accepted him.

David then conquered Jerusalem, made it his capital, brought the ark there.

One day David chanced to see a woman washing herself on a nearby roof. It was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah. David sent for her, and she conceived. To cover up, he invited Uriah to dine with him, hoping he would go to his wife, and thus the sin would be covered up. Uriah did not. So David had him put in the front line in battle, deserted, so he would die. Nathan the prophet came and rebuked David, who promptly repented.

In his last years, David's son Absalom, after winning people over by flattery, proclaimed himself king. David ordered his forces to spare Absalom, but they did not. David wept bitterly.

Near the very end, another son, Adonijah, proclaimed himself king. But Bathsheba, with the help of Nathan, induced David to appoint their son Solomon as king, and to crown him at once.

David had wanted to build a temple to the Lord, but Nathan in an oracle told him instead that the Lord would build a house, an everlasting dynasty, for him (2 Sam. 7). His son Solomon, under whom Israel reached a height of prosperity greater than before or since, did build that temple. After he dedicated it, God told Solomon of His pleasure, but also warned that if he or his successors proved unfaithful, He would take his presence from there, destroy the temple, and scatter them over the earth (1 Kings 9).

God offered Solomon any gift, Solomon asked for wisdom. Yet in spite of that, he because fatuous later on, married many foreign wives, and built shrines for their gods. Of course the people gladly joined in the false worship, to which they were so prone.

Therefore (1 Kings 11) God told Solomon there would be a punishment, but not in his lifetime, because of the goodness of David.

The punishment came in a special way. When Solomon died, Judah readily accepted his son Rehoboam as king. But the northern tribes assembled at Shechem and asked Rehoboam to modify the harsh taxes and forced labor Solomon had imposed on them (1 Kings 12). His father's advisors urged him to comply, but his younger friends said otherwise. He told them: My father beat you with whips, I will beat you with scorpions. The punishment was withdrawal of light to Rehoboam (cf. Isaiah 29:14).

The northern kingdom withdrew, creating a split that never healed. They chose Jeroboam as their king. He built shrines at Dan and Bethel, each with a golden bull, to keep people from going to Jerusalem. The northern kingdom lasted until 721. King Hoshea, foolishly hoping for help from Egypt, refused tribute to Assyria. Then Assyria took Samaria, and brought the northern kingdom to an end.

The remainder of the books of Kings tell a sad, and mostly dull tale: all the kings of the north followed in the footsteps of the sins of Jeroboam. Of the southern kings, only Hezekiah and Josiah escape criticism. To reward Hezekiah, God protected Jerusalem from being taken by Sennacherib of Assyria in 701; Josiah too was good ruler, but thinking Assyria was weakened (and it was) tried for independence, and failed. He himself died in the battle of Megiddo in 609, trying to keep Egypt from aiding Assyria. His son Jehoiakim (609-598) undid his father's reform. Judah became a vassal of Assyria. Assyria fell to a coalition of Babylonians and Medes. When Jehoiakim thought Babylon was weak, he revolted. He was dead by the time Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon came down in 597 and sacked the temple and city, deported thousands of upper-class citizens and the next king, Jehoiakin, son of Jehoiakim. Nebuchadnezzar put on the throne the weak Zedekiah. He refused the advice of Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar came again in 587, deported more leading citizens, left only some of the country's poor.

There is a bright spot in the otherwise dull story of the kings: the cycles of stories about Elijah (1 Kings, 17:1 - 19-21) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:1 - 8:29). Elijah was the great prophet whose coming at the end is foretold by Sirach 48:10, Malachi 3:23-24, and by Our Lord Himself in Matthew 17. He also appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration. Elisha is praised briefly in Sirach 48:12- 15. So they were real figures. Some, unfortunately, speak of their stories as mere legends.

The two books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah form a unit, and were probably originally one. The separation of Ezra and Nehemiah came centuries later.

The Chronicler - for we may think of the author of all four parts by that name - had a purpose different from that of the deuteronomists: he wanted to show that worship like that conducted by David, with full observance of purity laws, was the way to insure the future of Israel. The dynasty of David was gone, so this was the real means of unity. Hence the Chronicler devotes much space to the reign of David, and does not mention his sins.

The opening chapters of First Chronicles is largely just genealogies, from Adam to the start of the monarchy. Detailed coverage starts only with the beginning of the rule of David. Then the narrative runs closely parallel to Samuel and Kings, which are drawn on extensively, except that information on the northern kings is practically absent.

Cyrus of Persia in 539, as part of a more enlightened policy, allowed the Hebrews to return from exile, and encouraged them to rebuild their temple. The ten northern tribes did not return, they had been absorbed. But Judah and Benjamin did go back. However, they did not at once rebuild the temple, so God urged them through the prophet Haggai in 520, and then the temple was completed in 515. There had been opposition from the Persian governor of Samaria, which was finally resolved when the decree of Cyrus was found in the royal archives, searched by command of King Darius.

The second major event was the reordering of Jewish life in Jerusalem, through the work of Ezra and Nehemiah. Here chronology is a problem. Ezra 7:1ff says Ezra's ministry started in the seventh year of Artaxerxes; Nehemiah 2:1 says Nehemiah's work began in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. The trouble is that there were three Persian kings with that name.

Nehemiah 8 describes a week-long occasion when Ezra read the Law to the assembled people, while the Levites explained it. Some scholars think this work of the Levites was really the beginning of Targums - for many of the Jews during the exile had changed from the Hebrew to the Aramaic language.

Both Ezra (9-10) and Nehemiah (13:23-27) denounced marriages of Jews to non-Jews. Ezra actually called on them to dismiss their foreign wives and children!

There has been much discussion of the original structure of this four part work. The reconstruction by F. M. Cross "A Reconstruction of Jewish Restoration," in Journal of Biblical Literature (94 [1975] 4-18) has won much favor. He proposed three stages: 1)First and Second Chronicles, after chapter 9, was composed between 520, when the temple foundation was laid, and its completion in 515; 2)The work of Ezra, half a century later; 3) Near 400 B.C., a final editor inserted the memoirs of Nehemiah and added the genealogies of First Chronicles 1-9.

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