Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.” - 1 Kings 11:11–13 (ESV)
We might call 1 Kings a kind of variation on a theme that in biblical history we have seen many times before. Over and over again, God holds up his end of the covenant while others do not. 1 Kings traces the history of the throne of Israel from David to Ahab. It is in general a sad story. It is sad, that is, from a human perspective. It reminds us of our own sin and failure. But taken from another perspective, 1 Kings can be very encouraging. We read of the work of God to protect and provide for his people, even to protect them from themselves.
The passage quoted above can be taken as representative of the plot of 1 Kings. David's son Solomon becomes king but does not remain faithful to Yahweh as his father David was. We should remember that for all David's failings, some of which were enormous (cf. 2 Sam. 11-12) he never wavered in his loyalty to Yahweh. Solomon not only wavers but completely capitulates. And it is only, as the saying goes, by the hair of the chinny-chin-chin that Yahweh does not reject Israel entirely and start over. The fate of Israel dangles by the thread of Yahweh's promise to David (1 Kings 11:13). Thankfully, Yahweh's promises are unbreakable.
An Outline of 1 Kings
Chapters 1-3 cover the transition from David to Solomon. It is not smooth. One of David's sons, Adonijah, decides he wants to be king and sets about making it happen (1 Kings 1:5). But Bathsheba intervenes and maneuvers to jolt David into administrating a coronation for Solomon instead (1 Kings 1:33-35). After David dies, Solomon swiftly sets about purging conspirators and opponents, including Adonijah, Abiathar the priest, Joab the commander, and Shimei the Benjaminite. Most of this was to fulfill David's wishes before he died (1 Kings 1:5-9). After this, Solomon has his famous dream in which God essentially grants him one wish (1 Kings 3:5). When Solomon asks for wisdom to govern, Yahweh grants it to him plus riches and honor (1 Kings 3:12-13). But Yahweh also warns him that he must walk in his ways as David did for his days to be lengthened (1 Kings 3:14).
Chapters 3-11 cover the reign of Solomon. Chapter 4 details the riches, wealth, abundance, prosperity, supremacy, and relative peace that existed during Solomon's days. Solomon works with Hiram the king of Tyre to construct the Temple in chapters 5-6, following which Solomon builds his own house and other buildings in chapter 7, finally finishing with the vessels and furnishings for the Temple. Solomon prays to dedicate the Temple in chapter 8 and God responds by appearing to him again and warning him to stay true and faithful. Chapter 9 describes the forced labor used to complete the building projects and chapter 10 features the visit by the Queen of Sheba and her amazement at Solomon's wisdom and glory. But in chapter 11, everything turns as Solomon's many, many wives turn his heart from following after Yahweh (1 Kings 11:3). In response, God raises up Jeroboam to be a future rival king in Israel.
Chapters 12-14 cover the splitting of Israel into two kingdoms. Rehoboam takes famously bad advice from his young counselors and the people revolt. They make Jeroboam king. When civil war is just about to begin, Yahweh intervenes to tell them to go home since this thing is from him. But things do not go well for either king. Rehoboam is plundered by foreign kings and Jeroboam is cursed by God for his unfaithfulness to him after he leads the people to worship golden images.
Chapters 15-22 cover the ministry of Elijah and a slew of kings from both kingdoms, with a special focus on Ahab. Things do not go well, although Rehoboam's son and successor Asa is a bright spot (1 Kings 15:11). There is almost something of a competition to see who can do the worst of all the kings (cf. 1 Kings 16:25, 33). But Elijah enters the scene in chapter 17, and Yahweh performs many mighty acts through him. Ahab does not like him, calling him the "troubler of Israel", an ironic nickname if ever there was one (1 Kings 18:17). The last few chapters chronicle more of Ahab's lows and some battles that the two kingdoms fought and won against Syria, but not without loss. Yahweh condemns Ahab for his behavior and he is killed in battle, with his son Ahaziah taking his place.
The Benefits of 1 Kings
If we compare Israel's trajectory in the time of the kings to Israel's trajectory in the time of the judges, the two are remarkably similar. As difficult as Judges is to read, it is instructive to see the general decline in Israel in moral, cultural, and religious aspects as representative of the trend of Israelite history in general.
One of the outstanding features of 1 Kings is God's continued involvement with his people despite their incredible failures. We might read something like 1 Kings and be aghast that a holy God could have anything to do with them. And yet he does.
This is instructive for us. Surely when we read of the coming of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to guide, instruct, convict, and help us, we should be all the more grateful when we read something like 1 Kings (cf. John 14, 16). Left to the same means as those in the Old Testament, there may be some faithful among us as there were in the times of the kings, but the work and fruit of the Holy Spirit is obvious. If not for the Holy Spirit's special work on earth among God's people today, there is no reason to believe we would be doing any better than the people of Israel or Judah.
This is not to underestimate the kinds of sins and failings that are perpetuated in the church today, but even as I look at my own life and the fruit of the Spirit, the difference appears stark to me. Reading the Old Testament and the struggles of the saints makes me extremely grateful, not that I am better than them, but that the Holy Spirit is present in a way today that he was not then. I can walk by the Spirit and depend on the Spirit in a way that Old Testament believers could not. This is not due to any superiority on my part but to the gracious plan and sovereign dispensation of a holy God who continues to work out his purposes in the world.
1 Kings reminds us that the power of our faith does not depend on our hold on God but on God's hold on us. The faith of a mustard seed blossoms and grows strong not because of the faith itself but because of the strength of faith's object (and, we might add, the nature and qualities of the promises of the object of faith). Therefore, when we read 1 Kings, it should not serve to provoke a sense of moral disgust at their baseness. A proper reading of 1 Kings will provoke moral disgust at our own baseness apart from Christ. Surely we are a wicked people in need of the transforming grace of God. Thank God that his transforming grace in the new covenant is indeed at work in the world.