From Failed Monarchies to Exile (1 Kings 11 - 2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 10-36)
Solomon is only the third king of Israel, but already the kingdom has reached its high point. Over the next four hundred years, one bad king after another leads the nation into decline, disintegration and defeat.
Solomon's Mighty Nation Divided in Two (1 Kings 11:26-12:19)
After Solomon's death it soon becomes clear that unrest had been brewing beneath the veneer of equitable and effective management. Following the great king's death, Jeroboam (earlier the head of forced laborers) and "all the assembly of Israel" approach the king's son and successor, Rehoboam (c. 931 - 914 B.C.), to ask him to "lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke" (1 Kings 12:3-16; 2 Chronicles 10). They are ready to pledge loyalty to the new king in return for a reduction in forced labor and high taxes. But for forty years Rehoboam has known only luxurious palace living, staffed and provisioned by the Israelite people. His sense of entitlement is too strong to allow for compromise. Rather than easing the undue burden placed on the people by his father, Rehoboam chooses to make their yoke even greater.
Further fulfilling Samuel's prediction (1 Samuel 8:18), a rebellion ensues and the monarchy becomes divided forever. As much as the people of Israel had been willing to perform their fair share of labor to support the state, the emergence of unrealistic and unreasonable expectations results in revolt and division. The ten northern tribes secede, anointing Jeroboam (c. 931 - 910 B.C.) as their king. Although he had been a leader in the delegation seeking tax relief from Rehoboam, his dynasty proves no better for its people.
The northern kingdom's march toward exile (1 Kings 12:25 - 2 Kings 17:18)
For two centuries (910-722 BC) the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by kings who do great evil in the sight of the Lord. These centuries are marked by constant war, treason, and murder, culminating in a catastrophic defeat by the nation of Assyria. To destroy all sense of national identity, Assyrian conquerors carry off the population, dispersing them in different parts of their empire and bringing in foreigners to populate the conquered land (2 Kings 17:5-24). As discussed under “David’s disobedience to God causes a national pestilence (1 Chronicles 2:1-17),” the failings of leaders often have devastating effect on their people.
Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament History (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor/Cook Communications Ministries International, 2004), 446.
At least two episodes during this period deserve our attention. The first, Obadiah’s saving of a hundred prophets, may be of help to those facing the decision whether to quit a job in an organization that has become unethical, a decision that many face in the world of work.
Obadiah is the chief of staff in King Ahab’s palace. (Ahab is infamous even today as the most wicked of Israel’s kings.) Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, orders the prophets of the Lord to be killed. As a high official in Ahab’s court, Obadiah has advance word of the operation, as well as the means to circumvent it. He hides a hundred prophets in two caves and provides them bread and water until the crises abates. They are saved only because someone “who revered the Lord greatly” (1 Kings 18:3) is in a position of authority to protect them. A similar situation occurs in the Book of Esther, told in much greater detail, see “Working Within a Fallen System (Esther)” at www.theologyofwork.org.
It is demoralizing to work in a corrupt or evil organization. How much easier it might be to quit and find someplace holier to work. Often quitting is the only way to avoid doing evil ourselves. But no workplace on earth is purely good, and we will face ethical dilemmas wherever we work. Moreover, the more corrupt the workplace, the more it needs godly people. If there is any way to remain in place without adding to the evil ourselves, it may be that God wants us to stay. During World War II a group of officers opposed to Hitler remained in the Abwher (military intelligence) because it gave them a platform for trying to remove Hitler. Their plans failed, and most were executed, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian. When explaining why he remained in Hitler’s army, he said, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.” Our responsibility to do what we can to help others seems to be more important to God than our desire to think of ourselves as morally pure.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 7.
King Ahab abuses his power further when he begins to covet the vineyard of his neighbor, Naboth. Ahab offers a fair price for the vineyard, but Naboth regards the land as an ancestral inheritance and says he has no interest in selling at any price. Ahab dejectedly accepts this appropriate limitation of his power, but his wife Jezebel spurs him to tyranny. “Do you now govern Israel?” she taunts (1 Kings 21:7). If the king has no appetite for abuse of power, the queen does. She pays two scoundrels to bring a false charge of blasphemy and treason against Naboth, and he is quickly sentenced to death and stoned by the elders of the city. We are left to wonder why the elders acted so quickly, without even conducting a proper trial. Were they complicit with the king? Under his control, afraid of standing up to him? In any case, with Naboth out of the way, Ahab takes possession of the vineyard for himself.
Abuse of power, including land grabs as blatant as Ahab’s, continue today, as a glance at nearly any daily newspaper will confirm. And as in Ahab’s time, abuse of power requires the complicity of others who would rather tolerate injustice, even murder, than risk their own safety for the sake of their neighbors. Only Elijah, the man of God, dares to oppose Ahab (1 Kings 21:17-24). Although his protests can do nothing to help Naboth, Elijah’s opposition does curb Ahab’s abuse of power, and no further abuses are recorded in Kings prior to Ahab’s death. More often than we might expect, principled opposition by a small group or even a single individual can restrain the abuse of power. Otherwise, why would leaders go to so much trouble to hide their misdeeds? What do you estimate is the likelihood that you will become aware of at least one misuse of power in your working life? How are you preparing yourself to respond if you do?
As the northern kings slide deeper into apostasy and tyranny, God raises up prophets to oppose them more forcefully than ever. Prophets were figures of immense God-given power coming out of nowhere to speak God's truth in the halls of human power. Elijah and Elisha are by far the most prominent prophets in the books of Kings and Chronicles, and of the two, Elisha is especially notable for the attention he pays to the work of ordinary Israelites. Elisha is called to stand against Israel's rebellious kings throughout a long career (2 Kings 2:13 - 13:20). His actions show that he regards the people’s economic life to be as important as the kingdom’s dynastic struggles, and he tries to protect the people from the disasters brought on by the kings.
Elisha’s first major act is to cleanse the polluted well of the city of Jericho. The chief concern in the passage is agricultural productivity. Without a wholesome well, “the land is unfruitful.” By restoring access to clean water, Elisha makes it possible for the people of the city to resume the God-given mission of humanity to be fruitful, multiply and produce food (Genesis 1:28-30).
After one of the prophets in Elisha’s circle died, his family fell into debt. The fate of a destitute family in ancient Israel was typically to sell some or all of its members into slavery, where at least they would be fed (see “Slavery or Indentured Servitude (Exodus 21:1-11)” at www.theologyofwork.org). The widow is on the verge of selling her two children as slaves and begs Elisha for help (2 Kings 4:1). Elisha comes up with a plan for the family to become economically productive and support themselves. He asks the widow what she has to work with. “Nothing,” she says, “except a jar of oil” (2 Kings 4:2). Apparently this is enough capital for Elisha to begin with. He tells her to borrow empty jars from all her neighbors, and fill them with oil from her jar. She is able to fill every jar with oil before her own jar runs out, and the profit from selling the oil is enough to pay the family’s debts (2 Kings 4:9). In essence, Elisha creates an entrepreneurial community within which the woman is able to start a small business. This is exactly what some of the most effective poverty-fighting methods do today, whether via microfinance, credit societies, agricultural cooperatives, or small-businesses supplier programs on the part of large companies and governments.
Elisha’s actions on behalf of this family reflect God’s love and concern for those in need. How can our work increase the opportunity for people in poverty to work their way toward prosperity? In what ways do we individually and collectively undermine the productive capacity of poor people and economies, and what can we do, with God’s help, to reform?
When Elisha cures the leprosy of Naaman, a commander in the army of Israel’s enemy, Syria, it has important effects in the sphere of work. “It is no little thing that a sick person is made well, especially a leper,” as Jacques Ellul notes in his insightful essay on this passage, because the healing restores the ability to work. In this case the healing restores Naaman to his work of governance, advising his king on dealings with the king of Israel. Interestingly, this healing of a foreigner also leads to the restoration of ethical culture in Elisha’s own organization. Naaman offers to reward Elisha handsomely for the healing. But Elisha will accept nothing for what he regards as simply doing the Lord’s will. However, one of Elisha’s retinue, named Gehazi, sees an opportunity for a little extra remuneration. Gehazi chases after Naaman, and says that Elisha has changed his mind—he will accept a very significant payment after all. After receiving the payment, Gehazi hides his ill-gotten-gain, then lies to Elisha to cover it up. Elisha responds by announcing that Gehazi will be struck with the very leprosy that had left Naaman. Apparently, Elisha recognizes that tolerating corruption in his organization will rapidly undermine all the good that a lifetime of service to God has done.
Naaman’s own actions demonstrate another point in this story. Naaman has a problem—leprosy. He needs to be healed. But his pre-formed notion of what the solution should look like—some kind of dramatic encounter with a prophet, apparently—leads him to refuse the true solution of bathing in the Jordan River when it is offered to him. When he heard this simple remedy delivered by Elisha’s messenger—rather than Elisha himself—“Naaman went away angry.” Neither the solution nor the source seems grand enough for Naaman to pay attention to.
In today’s world, this twofold problem is often repeated. First, a senior leader misses the solution proposed by a lower level employee because they are unwilling to consider insight from someone they regard as unqualified. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great identifies the first sign of what he calls a “level five” leader as humility, a willingness to listen to many sources. Second, the solution is not accepted because it does not match the leader’s imagined approach. Thank God that many leaders today, like Naaman, have subordinates willing to take the risk of talking sense to them. Not only are humble bosses needed in organizations, but courageous subordinates also. Intriguingly, the person who puts the whole episode into motion is the lowest-status person of all, a foreign girl Naaman had captured in a raid and given to his wife as a slave (2 Kings 5:13). This is a wonderful reminder of how arrogance and wrong expectations can block insight, but God’s wisdom keeps trying to break through anyway.
Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God & the Politics of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 35.
Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001), 22-25.
Cutting wood along the bank of the Jordan River, one of Elisha’s fellow prophets loses an iron axe head into the river. He had borrowed the axe from a lumberjack. The price of such a substantial piece of iron in the bronze age would have meant financial ruin for the owner, and the prophet who borrowed it is distraught. Elisha takes the economic loss as a matter of immediate, personal concern and causes the iron to float on top of the water, where it can be retrieved and returned to its owner. Once again Elisha intervenes to enable someone to work for a living.
The gift of a prophet is to discern God’s aims in daily life and to work and act accordingly. God calls the prophets to restore God's good creation, in the midst of a fallen world, in ways that point to God’s power and glory. The theological aspect of a prophet’s work—calling people to worship the true God—is inevitably accompanied by a practical aspect, restoring the good workings of the created order. The New Testament tells us that some Christians are called to be prophets as well (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Elisha is not only a historical figure who demonstrates God’s concern for his people’s work, but a model for Christians today.
Following in the footsteps of the northern kingdom, the southern kingdom’s rulers soon began to decline into idolatry and evil. Under Rehoboam’s rule the people "built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations" (1 Kings 14:23-24). Rehoboam’s successors oscillated between faithfulness and doing evil in God’s sight. For a while Judah had enough good kings to stave off disaster, but in the final years the kingdom fell to the same state that the northern kingdom had. The nation was conquered, and the kings and elites were captured and deported, by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24, 25). The faithlessness of the kings whom the people had demanded, against God's advice hundreds of years earlier, culminated in a financial meltdown, destruction of the labor force, famine, and the mass murder or deportation of much of the population. The predicted disaster lasts seventy years until King Cyrus of Persia authorizes the return of some of the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem's Temple and walls (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).
One example of the degeneration of the kingdom ironically serves to bring to light a model of good financial practice. Like virtually all of the kingdom’s leaders, the priests had become corrupt. Instead of using worshippers’ donations to maintain the Temple, they pilfered the money and divided it among themselves. Under the direction of Jehoash, one of the few kings “who did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 12:2), the priests devised an effective accounting system. A locked chest with a small hole in the top was installed in the Temple to receive the donations. When it got full, the high priest and the king’s secretary would open the chest together, count the money, and contract with carpenters, builders, masons, and stonecutters to make repairs. This ensured that the money was used for its proper purpose.
The same system is still in use today, for example when the cash deposited in automatic teller machines is counted. The principle that even trusted individuals must be subject to verification and accountability is the foundation of good management. Whenever a person in power—especially the power of handling finances—tries to avoid verification, the organization is in danger. Because Kings includes this episode, we know that God values the work of bank tellers, accountants, auditors, bank regulators, armored car drivers, computer security workers, and others who protect the integrity of finance. It also urges all kinds of leaders to take the lead in setting a personal example of public accountability by inviting others to verify their work.
How could king after king fall so easily into evil? The story of Uzziah may give us some insight. He ascends to the throne at age sixteen and at first “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:4). His young age proves to be an advantage, as he recognizes his need for God’s guidance. “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chron. 26:5).
Interestingly, much of the success the Lord gives Uzziah is related to ordinary work. “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil” (2 Chron. 26:10). “In Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers” (2 Chron. 26:15a).
“He was marvelously helped,” the scripture tells us, “until he became strong” (2 Chron. 26:15b). Then his strength becomes his undoing because he began to serve himself instead of the Lord. "When he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the Lord his God” (2 Chron. 26:16). He attempts to usurp the religious authority of the priests, leading to a palace revolt that costs him the throne and leaves him an outcast the rest of his life.
Uzziah’s tale is sobering for people in leadership positions today. The character that leads to success—especially our reliance on God—is easily eroded by the powers and privileges that success brings. How many business, military, and political leaders have come to believe they are invincible and so lose the humility, discipline, and attitude of service needed to remain successful? How many of us at any level of success have paid more attention to ourselves and less to God as our power increases even modestly? Uzziah even had the benefit of subordinates who would oppose him when he did wrong, although he ignored them (2 Chron. 26:18). What, or who, do you have to keep you from drifting into pride and away from God should your success increase?