Prophetic History

Yet YHWH testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer, saying, “Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
Notwithstanding, they would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to the neck of their fathers, who believed not in YHWH their God (2 Kings 17:13-14).

It is said that history is written by the winners. Such is true also of Israel, but for very different reasons.

Some presume that the story of history can be narrated fully and objectively. Such is a fool’s errand; no historical narrative can be comprehensive. History is only ever written for a purpose: whatever story is told has a reason behind it. Perhaps that reason is to set forth the basic timeline of events for a given nation, person, etc; perhaps the story is told with a particular focus, slant, or even bias. Some details will be left out; some details will be emphasized. The later reader may be frustrated by these decisions, wanting to know what has been left unsaid and skeptical regarding that which has been emphasized. And yet, since all retelling of history has a purpose, we do well to understand what the purpose of any specific historical narrative is and reflect upon why it was considered important.

All of this proves especially true with the story of Israel in the days of the kings. 1 and 2 Kings do not read like your average historical narrative about a nation. Some of Israel’s glorious achievements are recounted, but the text mostly focuses on the relative faithfulness (or lack thereof) of the kings to YHWH, certain events which took place during those reigns, especially as they relate to the prophets and the kings. We learn next to nothing regarding some kings; for other kings we have their activities laid out in great detail. The narrative throughout is clearly biased. What are we to make of it?

The Kings author was not shy or secretive about his motivations. Having recounted the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BCE, he broke into the narrative with an extended explanation of precisely why Israel, and later Judah, would fall and be exiled (2 Kings 17:7-23). He indicted them for their faithlessness toward YHWH, their idolatry, and their conformity to the other nations. And he made sure everyone knew that Israel under the kings knew better: YHWH had warned them about the consequences of their behaviors through the prophets, and encouraged them to repent and follow YHWH’s commandments, but they did not listen (2 Kings 17:13-14).

This is not your ordinary historical narrative! Not one king comes out as the ideal, shining hero: the Samuel author recounts David’s transgression with Bathsheba and Uriah and its fallout (2 Samuel 11:1-20:26); Solomon’s idolatry on account of his wives is made plain (1 Kings 11:1-8); the failings of the rest of the otherwise faithful kings are not hidden. These are not the boastful proclamations of the kind written for Ramses II, or Sennacherib, or Cyrus; this history of Israel did celebrate their empire in the days of David and Solomon, yet maintained its focus on the transgressions of the nation. Why?

In the Hebrew Bible 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are part of the nevi’im, the prophets; they are considered the “former” or “historical” prophets. It was therefore never their intention to write the “normal” or “great man” version of Israelite history: for this they referred the reader to the Acts of Solomon and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah, works now lost (e.g. 1 Kings 11:41, 14:19, 14:29). Instead, the history they wrote is a prophetic history: telling the story of the kings of Israel and Judah as a warning for the people of God in and after the exile to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience.

We can know this because the final form of 1 and 2 Kings was composed in the days of the exile: they most likely used documentation from the chronicles mentioned above, and YHWH directed them to write the story as they wrote it. 1 and 2 Kings are their own form of lament: in them the transgressions of the fathers are explicitly identified and not justified; the book was written to leave no doubt in the mind of the reader as to why Israel was cast off. All socio-political explanations, of which many can be adduced, ultimately fall short for Israel: yes, they suffered the fate of the other nations, but only because they had abandoned their unique heritage in YHWH and had become just like all the other nations. And YHWH handed them over to their desires.

This story would sustain Israel in faith through very difficult and trying times ahead. The Israelites would only briefly maintain independent rule over their land and would suffer existential threats in persecution. Yet they did not commit idolatry as their fathers did; they had learned the prophetic lesson from their history. They did not yearn for past days or made the past out to be rosy and wonderful; they owned up to the sins of their fathers. Whereas all of the members of other nations would get swept up in Hellenization and abandon their distinctiveness, a remnant of the Jewish people stubbornly maintained confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their forefathers and endured. Ultimately, the proclamation of YHWH’s great work in Jesus of Nazareth would overtake the Roman Empire and many parts of Mesopotamia; the descendants of the oppressors would end up calling on the name of the God of Israel. Egypt faded; Assyria was destroyed; Babylon was laid low; Persia was overrun; the Macedonians came and went; Rome would collapse; the people of God endured.

In this way the history of Israel was written by the victors: not the people who won the battles or political victories, but those who would perpetuate strong faith in YHWH and His covenant promises to Israel. To “win” meant to preserve the faith; to preserve the faith demanded an honest accounting of how the fathers failed and were cut off by YHWH, and how to serve YHWH faithfully so as to obtain the promised restoration.

The people of God to this day do well to learn from the prophetic history of the kings of Israel. Historical narratives abound which seek to glorify a given philosophy, ideology, nation-state, or some other ideal. These narratives prove very tempting to follow. Yet all such things are inherently flawed; they are creatures of the world, and they go the way of the world (Colossians 2:8-9, 1 John 2:15-17). If the people of God will obtain the victory in Christ, they can only do so by preserving the faith (Jude 1:3, Revelation 12:11); to preserve the faith demands honoring the faithfulness of those who have come before us along with an honest accounting of how we and those before us have failed to uphold the standard of Christ. We must pattern our lives according to the faithful examples of Jesus, the Apostles, and those who have believed on their Word ever since; we must take note of the ways in which those who came before us went in the ways of Israel, hardening their heart, rebelling in various ways, and patterning themselves after the nations, lest we share in the same condemnation.

History can be told in all sorts of ways; when it is all said and done, the only story which will matter is the story of God reconciling all things to Himself in Jesus, and those who trusted in Him and obtained the resurrection of life. May we prove faithful to God in how we understand the story of the people of God throughout time, trust in the Lord, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Story in Jesus’ Genealogy

So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew began his Gospel with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). For the modern reader this proves to be a burdensome decision; before they learn much of anything about Jesus they are confronted with a host of foreign names. Who are all of these people, and why does Matthew tell us about them before he tells us about Jesus?

One other book in the Bible begins with a genealogy: 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler begins his narrative proper with the death of Saul and the elevation of David as king; nevertheless, by beginning with an extensive genealogy, he associates and connects his narrative with the greater story of God’s people from Adam through Abraham and the twelve sons of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44).

The choice of tracing the genealogy also tells us much about Matthew’s purposes. Matthew does not go all the way back to God and Adam, as Luke does; he begins with Abraham, recipient of the promise (Matthew 1:2, Luke 3:38; cf. Genesis 12:1-22:18). Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the kings of Judah to David, unlike Luke (Matthew 1:6-11, Luke 3:27-31). For that matter, while Luke begins with Jesus and goes back through time to Adam and God, Matthew ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Thus Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is an Israelite; he highlights Abraham and David and the kings to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all which was promised to Abraham about the people and David about the kingship; he manifests confidence in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the culmination of the story of Israel. All of this can be seen in Jesus’ genealogy!

Matthew concludes his “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” by tying it together nicely: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17). It all seems to fit a nice pattern; we might find that impressive and then move on to the rest of the story.

Yet Matthew’s conclusion proves highly suspect to the attuned Western reader. The best evidence would suggest Abraham lived ca. 2000 BCE; David is dated around 1000 BCE; the exile took place in 586 BCE; Jesus was born around 5 BCE. The first set of fourteen generations spread across 1000 years, the second for a bit over 400 years, and the third 500 years? That seems a bit too convenient.

The major challenge, however, is in the midst of the genealogy of the kings. Matthew lists Joram as the father of Uzziah in Matthew 1:8, and yet J(eh)oram is the father of Ahaziah, the father of J(eh)oash, the father of Amaziah, who is the father of Uzziah (also spelled Azariah) in 1 Chronicles 3:11-12! Thus, in reality, it would seem that there are at least seventeen generations between David and the Exile.

How could this be? Are our copies of Matthew inaccurate? Some later manuscripts record the three “missing” kings; in light of Matthew 1:18 it is best to recognize that some later copyist is trying to solve the dilemma we have discovered as opposed to believing that Matthew’s original was distorted. We have every reason to believe that Matthew 1:8, 18 are as Matthew wrote them. Was Matthew’s source inaccurate? It is not inconceivable for Matthew’s copy of 1 Chronicles or whatever other resource he might have used for the king list to have omitted some names, but neither he nor we are dependent on genealogical lists to know about these kings of Judah: their story is told in 2 Kings 8:25-14:22 and 2 Chronicles 22:1-25:28. By all accounts Matthew proved to be a faithful Jew; he would have known about these kings. People might begin to think that Matthew is attempting to suppress some history or just made a mistake. Neither claim would honor the good confidence we have in Matthew’s inspiration.

How could it be that Matthew speaks of fourteen generations when he even knows that there are actually seventeen generations? In all of this we have assumed that Matthew intends for us to take his final numbers literally. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that assumption.

Throughout Scripture numbers often mean things. They are often given or alluded to in order to convey some sort of spiritual truth. Three is a number which often evokes completeness; the Godhead has three Persons, and thus it makes sense for the history of Israel to be portrayed in a triune format. Each element of the triad points to Jesus in its own way: from Abraham to David features the development of Israel, looking forward to Jesus as the descendant of Abraham; from David to the Exile manifests the failure of Israel to uphold the covenant, looking forward to Jesus as the obedient Son of David; from the Exile to Jesus represents an attempt at faithfulness and survival in the midst of oppressive kingdoms, looking forward to Jesus as the eternal King and Christ. Abraham, David, and the Exile are prominent themes in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; Jesus embodies and fulfills all such things.

“Fourteen” on its own does not mean much, and yet we have three sets of fourteen; we can re-imagine three sets of fourteen as six times seven. Seven is the number of perfection; God’s full work of creation was seven days (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Israelites worked for six days and rested on the seventh; in the same way they were to cultivate their fields for six years and let it enjoy a Sabbath rest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:1-7). If Jesus’ heritage features six sets of seven, such means that Jesus is the beginning of the seventh seven.

Both seven and the seventh seven are, each in their own way, manifestations of fullness, allowing something new to begin. As the seventh seven, Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to its fullness; everything which has taken place beforehand finds its embodiment and satisfaction in Him (Matthew 5:17-18). As Matthew himself will establish, Jesus will go through His own Egyptian sojourn, temptation in the wilderness, life in the land of Israel, exile in death, and return in resurrection (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, 4:1-17, 27:32-50, 28:1-20).

In the end, in fulfilling His role as the seventh seven, Jesus facilitates what can take place afterward. After the seventh seven the Jubilee is proclaimed in Israel (Leviticus 25:8-46): all the people of God are redeemed and freed from their debt. In this way Jesus died and was raised in power to redeem and free all those who come to God from their debt of sin (1 Peter 2:18-25). After the seventh day is the eighth day, the first day of the week, providing an opportunity for new creation. In this way Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week in the resurrection body, and through whom we can now become a new creation in God, and yearn for the resurrection of life (Matthew 28:1, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Matthew is no fool; Matthew knows his Israelite history; Matthew did not make a mistake in Matthew 1:18. Matthew is telling a story in his genealogy of Jesus, forecasting all we will see in his Gospel. We will see Jesus bear the shame and yet fulfill God’s purposes. We will see Jesus fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. We will see Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, obtaining all authority in heaven and on earth. We will see the proclamation of freedom from sin and death through Jesus’ death. We will be able to become the new creation in Christ through His resurrection. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the climax of the history of the people of God. May we serve Jesus the Son of David, the Son of God, receive remission of sin in Him, and through Him obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Solomon’s Accession

And David comforted Bath-sheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon. And YHWH loved him; and he sent by the hand of Nathan the prophet; and he called his name Jedidiah, for YHWH’s sake (2 Samuel 12:24-25).

Much ink has been spilled about King David’s life choices, their consequences, and how David is portrayed in Scripture. Much is made and commented upon how the Samuel-Kings author tells the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and all of its consequences in 2 Samuel 11:1-20:22, 1 Kings 1:1-2:46, but the Chronicler passes over the story entirely. In the Chronicler’s story David is the hero king not sullied by his transgressions and presents a smooth transition to Solomon his son (1 Chronicles 11:1-29:30). The story in Kings is much more complicated.

It is not a matter of contradiction; the Chronicler is well aware of the challenges David experienced in obtaining his throne, the consequences of his adultery, and the challenges to Solomon’s accession; those details are not relevant for his story of the Davidic kingship and anyway are described in sufficient detail in the Samuel-Kings account. So why does the Samuel-Kings author spend so much of his time discussing the trials and tribulations of the house of David?

We are just about 3,000 years separated from these events, and we can tell from how the story works out that everything was for the best: David was a great king after God’s own heart and finally fully rescued Israel from the hands of all of their enemies around them (2 Samuel 1:1-10:19); his son Solomon proved extremely wise and did well at consolidating his empire and rule and oversaw a time of great prosperity in Israel (1 Kings 3:1-10:29). Yet there are signs that not all was well in Israel; Shimei’s cursing of David as guilty of the blood of Saul, son of Kish of Benjamin, who was king before David (2 Samuel 16:5-8); all Israel proved willing to abandon David first for Absalom and then for Sheba (2 Samuel 15:1-17, 20:1-22). David’s grip on the throne, and his ability to make sure Solomon would obtain it, was not as strong as it might seem; when David grew old, his son Adonijah attempted to ascend to the throne, and even significant figures like Joab and Abiathar followed after him (1 Kings 1:5-10).

The Samuel-Kings author is not against David or Solomon; far from it! Instead he must provide sufficient explanations for why certain things happen that would not necessarily be expected, and he is doing something that we see frequently in the Old Testament. Whenever things happen as would be expected–the eldest son ascends to the throne of his father, the blessing and/or the first right of inheritance is given to the eldest son, etc.– little to no explanation is necessary. But when someone else ascends to a throne, either a younger son or someone from a different family, or if a younger son gets the benefit normally given to an elder son, then explanation is necessary. Why did Jacob the younger son get the blessing and the birthright over the elder son Esau? The Genesis author spends much time discussing it in Genesis 25:19-27:45. Why does Judah obtain the authority inherent in birthright, even though he is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, and why does Joseph get the blessing, and not even just Joseph, but in fact his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim, and Ephraim the younger is given greater prominence? Such is why the Genesis author tells of the disqualification of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi and Jacob’s great favor toward Rachel and thus their firstborn son Joseph (Genesis 29:1-49:33).

And so it is for the Samuel-Kings author. Why does David obtain the throne, first of Judah for two years, and then over all Israel, when Saul of Benjamin was king before him? And then, why is it Solomon, one of David’s younger sons, and even then, the product of his union with Bathsheba, the woman with whom he had committed adultery before marrying her after having her husband killed in war, who will succeed David as king? This is why the author of Samuel makes so much of God’s rejection of Saul, Samuel’s anointing of David, David’s faithfulness despite Saul’s persecution, and explaining in detail the reasons for David’s defection to the Philistines, how he conducted himself, and why he was nowhere near the final battle between Saul and the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:1-31:13). And this is why the Samuel-Kings author spends so much time discussing the consequences of David’s adultery: such paves the way for Solomon’s accession to the throne.

Amnon is David’s eldest; he behaves in quite terrible ways toward his half-sister Tamar, and when he is later murdered for it, the reader does not have much sympathy for him (2 Samuel 13:1-33). Then there is Absalom, David’s quite beloved son who looks the part of a king. He proves too impatient, arrogant, and impetuous, raising a rebellion against his father; nevertheless we see David’s great love for him when he mourns for his son terribly even though such is the only way he is able to keep his throne (2 Samuel 13:34-19:8). Then there is Adonijah, perhaps the eldest living son when David had grown old. Even though it might have been expected that he would become king the Kings author immediately prejudices the reader against him, speaking of his elevation of himself in his heart, and how David his father had never questioned or corrected him (1 Kings 1:5-6). Solomon’s accession is only secured by backroom discussions between Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:10-40); Solomon remains aware of the legitimate claims Adonijah has on his throne, and uses the first pretense he is given to have his brother executed (cf. 1 Kings 2:13-25). The reader is not given much reason to pity Adonijah, yet the logic of 1 Kings 1:21 should be granted: if Adonijah’s proclamation had greater influence and became established he would have made sure Bathsheba and Solomon were executed instead.

David’s moral failings seem clearest in terms of his adultery and how he treated his children. While we can glean some object lessons on the terrible consequences of one sin and how not to parent children from David we must remember that these stories have their contextual purpose. We are being told how it could be that Solomon, one of David’s younger sons, and the result of David’s “comforting” of his lover-turned-wife Bathsheba, was made king after David and why we should not find that fact scandalous at all. The fact that we are able to accept this on a prima facie level shows how well God and the author of Samuel-Kings has done to show us the failings of David’s other sons; we understand quite effectively why YHWH loves Solomon and not Amnon, Absalom, or Adonijah, and do not think twice about Solomon’s birth status in relation to his brothers or the scandal of his mother at the royal court. Ultimately Solomon’s accession is another demonstration of God’s providence and His insight into character: just as David was not the automatic choice but the best choice based on character, so it was with his son Solomon as well, and it is not for nothing that they were the best two kings Israel would ever know, even despite their failings. They may be exceptional, but God is interested in the exceptional. And that helps to explain why even though Jesus of Nazareth did not seem to many to be the type of person who should be the coming King in David’s and Solomon’s lineage who was to come and restore Israel He nevertheless proved to be the Christ, the Son of God, lived, died, was raised again in power, and serves to this day as Lord. Let us serve Jesus in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry