Reading through the fourth book of Kings (aka. the second book of Kings)

Here is the last book of the Kings and the sad story of the decline and fall of the proud Hebrew kingdoms, so glorious in the days of the kings David and Solomon. Descended the both of these kingdoms into gross idolatry, the author of this book (traditionally the prophet Jeremiah) now condemns that behaviour as the reason for the descent of first the Assyrians from Nineveh on the kingdom of the northern tribes, capitalled at Samaria, and then the descent of a new Assyrian empire born at Babylon upon the kingdom of the southern tribes, capitalled at Jerusalem. The Assyrians followed a ruthless policy of the destroying the nationhood of peoples by transplanting them from their home countries to more distant lands. Thus, the idolatrous northern tribes of Israel were finally lost, while the exiles of Judah and Jerusalem, who had had many faithful kings and prophets, continued at least in small part in their faithfulness to the Lord, God of Israel. Now carried off in ruin, the Judaites would return a few decades later as one of the most lasting nations of people in history: those who followed the ancient religion of the Hebrews, now the religion of the Judaites, that is to say, the Jews. But let’s go on with the summary of this calamitous time for the people of God.

In the last book of kings, we had discovered the rise of the great Israelite prophet Elias/Elijah, the great challenger of the idolatrous king Achab of Israel and his Sidonian wife Jezabel, who had imported her Sidonian religion and established it by force in Israel. But at the end of the book, Achab was dead, and now his son Ochozias has had a bad accident and didn’t last very long himself. But now it was time for Elias to himself depart, and he does so dramatically, ascending in a whirlwind, and so becoming one of a handful of biblical characters who didn’t die normally. His disciple Eliseus, who had accompanied him, inherited his mantle as prophet and his ability with miracles.

“When they had crossed, Elias said to Eliseus, ‘Make what request of me thou wilt, before I am carried away from thee.’ And he answered, ‘I would have a double portion of the spirit thou leavest behind thee.’ ‘It is no light request thou hast made,’ said he. ‘If I am carried away in full view of thee, it means thy request is granted; if not, it is refused.’ And they were still going on, and talking as they went, when all at once, between them, a flaming chariot appeared, drawn by flaming horses, and Elias went up on a whirlwind into heaven. Eliseus watched it, crying out, ‘My father, my father, Israel’s chariot and charioteer!’ But now he had sight of him no longer. He caught at his own clothes, and tore them across then he took up the mantle of Elias, that had fallen from him; and when he reached Jordan bank again, with this mantle that had fallen from Elias he struck the waters; but they did not part. ‘Alas,’ cried he, ‘where is he now, the God of Elias?’ With that, he struck the waters again, and they parted this way and that, for Eliseus to cross over.”

IV Kings, 2: 9-14

The ability to get across the river Jordan in this fashion must have been the mark of a prophet of the one God. There was a reason that Saint John the Baptist chose this very spot to carry out his ministry of baptism – he was a much, much later successor of Elias/Elijah. Now for several chapters, this book gives us the many prodigious feats and miracles of Eliseus/Elisha, the successor of Elijah, who now moved the centre of his ministry to Samaria and for the rest of his life worked closely with the kings of Israel who were based there. In chapter two, he cleanses foul waters with salt, in a story that is called to mind by priests when they bless holy water in church. In chapter three, he helps the combined armies of Israel and Juda to find a spring of water in the desert, to prevent their utter ruin. In chapter four, he helps a woman in desperate need after she assisted him, and then helps an old barren couple to have a child and later raises that boy from the dead. In chapter five, he heals a Syrian noble called Naaman from leprosy, in a celebrated story that Christ Himself used to demonstrate to the Pharisees that God’s ministry extends beyond Israel to all mankind. The proud Syrian discovered that there was a virtue in the waters of the river Jordan that wasn’t available in Syria.

“So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the door of Eliseus’ house; where Eliseus sent word out to him, ‘Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, if thou wouldst have health restored to thy flesh, and be clean.’ At this, Naaman was for going back home; ‘Why,’ he said angrily, ‘I thought he would come out to meet me, and stand here invoking the name of his God; that he would touch the sore with his hand, and cure me. Has not Damascus its rivers, Abana and Pharphar, such water as is not to be found in Israel? Why may I not bathe and find healing there?’ But, as he turned indignantly to go away, his servants came and pleaded with him; ‘Good father,’ they said, ‘if the prophet had enjoined some great task on thee, thou wouldst surely have performed it; all the more readily thou shouldst obey him when he says, “Wash and thou shalt be clean.”‘ So down he went, and washed in the Jordan seven times, as the servant of God had bidden him. And with that, his flesh healed up, and became like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

IV Kings, 5: 9-14

Other miracles swiftly follow, as Eliseus remains the star of this part of the book. In chapter six, he causes an axe with a heavy metal head to float on water, and then working with the king at Samaria, was able to frustrate the attempts of the Syrian king to attack Israel. The wily prophet, with his divine knowledge was always able to find the traps set by the Syrians for the Israelite army. 

“When the king of Syria went to battle with Israel, he would hold a council of war, and name some place where he would lay an ambush; and ever word came from Eliseus to the king of Israel, ‘Beware how thou marchest by such and such a place; the Syrians are lying in wait there.’ Then the king of Israel would send and make sure of the place the prophet had told him of; and so he avoided danger, not once but many times. At this, the king of Syria’s mind much misgave him; and at last he summoned his council and asked, ‘Was there no learning the name of this traitor that revealed his plans to the king of Israel?’ Whereupon one of his courtiers told him, ‘Nay, my lord king, it is the Israelite prophet, Eliseus, that discloses to him the secrets of thy council-chamber.’ ‘Why then,’ the king said, ‘go and find out where he is, so that I can send and take him prisoner.'”

IV Kings, 6: 8-13

But he couldn’t catch Eliseus unaware. But Eliseus was not in complete agreement with the Israelite king and things grew colder between them, as the kings spiralled further and further into idolatry. When even Juda fell into idolatry as a result of a intermarriage between the royal houses of Juda and Israel, Eliseus had had enough, and he sent one of his disciples out to anoint a soldier of the Israelite army as the new king of Israel, thus ending the dynasty of the Amriites, begun with king Amri of Israel and continued by king Achab his son. 

“So the young prophet made his way to Ramoth-Galaad, and, reaching it, found the captains of the army met in conclave. He asked to have speech with the commander; and when Jehu asked which of them all he meant, he said, ‘With thee, my lord.’ Thereupon Jehu rose up, and went into the inner room; where the prophet forthwith poured the oil over his head. ‘This is my message,’ said he, ‘from the Lord God of Israel; Herewith I anoint thee king over Israel, the Lord’s people. Thou art to overthrow the dynasty of King Achab that was thy master; so it is that I mean to take vengeance for all those prophets of mine, all those true servants of the Lord, that were slain by Jezabel. All Achab’s race I mean to destroy, sparing no male issue of his, free man or bondman in the realm of Israel; it shall have no better fortune than the race of Jeroboam, son of Nabat, or the race of Baasa, son of Ahia. As for Jezabel, she shall lie unburied in the purlieus of Jezrahel, for the dogs to eat.’ And with that he threw the door open, and was gone.”

IV Kings, 9: 4-10

It was a sensitive message indeed, for the Amriite dynasty was very powerful. It was a good reason for the prophet to scurry away into the darkness. Jehu proceeded to utterly destroy all of the sucessors to that dynasty, including the Sidonian queen Jezabel, and temporarily restore the worship of the Lord, God of Israel, to the kingdom of the north. Naturally he had another reason for the slaughter: the elimination of any competition to the rule of his own family or dynasty. This is however significant for being the only time since the reign of king Solomon that the northern tribes had been led by a king faithful to God. Every other king had fallen hopelessly into idolatry and syncretism. Juda, in the south, had had better luck with her kings, eight of whom had been faithful and had been able to carry out periodic reforms of the national religion.

The rest of the book is a summary of the succession of kings, noting carefully on the side of Juda not just the name of the king but the name of his mother, which was and still is particularly important for Hebrew genealogies; here it was important to preserve the genealogy of King David, whose line promised not only the great future King but also the Messiah. It’s easier to note the kings who were faithful to God than the others, unless they were notorious criminals, like king Manasses of Juda, who is blamed by the sacred author for the final destruction of that kingdom. Meanwhile, the storm clouds were encircling from every direction. The Syrian threat to the kingdom of Israel, greatest under king Hazael of Syria, was ended when the Syrian kingdom was itself taken by the Assyrians. Even king Joas of Juda had to give money to Hazael to keep him off, but Israel’s military force was severely depleted by the constant Syrian aggression, while simultaneously the prophet Eliseus/Elisha declined in health and died. Almost immediately, the relics of the prophet were working miracles, in the same manner as the  relics of Catholics Saints.

“In the year of Eliseus’ death and burial, the country was being ravaged by freebooters from Moab. Some of these appearing suddenly when a dead man was being carried out to his funeral, the bearers took fright, and threw the corpse into the first grave they could find; it was that of Eliseus. And no sooner had it touched the prophet’s bones, than the dead man came to life again, and rose to his feet.”

IV Kings, 13: 20-21

It is interesting to note that the royal succession of the mostly idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel was fraught with strife, treachery and malice, as dynasties succeeded dynasties (I’ve counted at least nine dynasties in the course of the books of Kings) after they left their allegiance to the family of King David. Meanwhile, in Juda, the succession of David’s family was continued until the end of the kingdom. The greatest of these Davidic kings were Ezechias/Hezekiah and Josias/Josiah, both faithful, but inheriting problems created by their predecessors, and surviving the assaults of the great empires to the East. Rasin is the last Syrian king to be mentioned in these books, as the great Assyrian king Theglath-Phalasar appeared from the north and cruelly ended the northern kingdom, transplanting the people to another country. This was the procedure of the Assyrians, in order to end nationalism and attachment of a people to a native land. This fate would later await the people of Judah and the royal family of king David.

“It was in the fifty-second year of Azarias that Phacee, son of Romelia, came to the throne at Samaria; he reigned over Israel twenty years, and defied the Lord’s will, never forgoing the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nabat, that taught Israel to sin. During the reign of Phacee, the Assyrian king Theglath-Phalasar invaded Israel, taking Aion, Abel-Beth-Maacha, Janoe, Cedes and Asor, with Galaad and Galilee and the whole territory of Nephthali, and carrying off their inhabitants into Assyria. As for Phacee, he was caught unawares and slain by a conspirator, Osee son of Ela, who succeeded him on the throne in the twentieth year of Joatham, son of Ozias.”

IV Kings, 15: 27-30

So, already entire tribes of ancient Israel had begun to vanish from the north into the depths of Assyria: Zabulon, Nephthali, Manasses. That Osee son of Ela was the last king of Israel, and he rebelled against being subjected to Assyria and even tried to forge an alliance with the vaning power of the Egyptian pharaoh; king Salmanasar of the Assyrians reacted by doing what Theglath-Phalasar had mercifully held back on and finally ended the kingdom that was capitalled at Samaria, carrying the rest of the northern tribes away. Only two tribes of ancient Israel now remained in the Holy Land: Juda and Benjamin. 

“Afterwards, the Assyrian king found out that he had sent an embassy to Sua, king of Egypt, hoping thus to rebel, and to be rid of his yearly tribute; whereupon he seized him, put him in chains, and imprisoned him. Then he overran the whole country with his troops, and marched against Samaria, which for three whole years he kept beleaguered. At last, in the ninth year of Osee, Samaria was taken, and all the Israelites carried off to the Assyrian country; where they were settled in Hala, in Habor, by the river of Gozan, and among the cities of Media. Such was their doom, who had no sooner escaped from Egypt and from the power of Pharao, than they wronged the God Who had rescued them by worshipping alien gods instead.”

IV Kings, 17: 4-7

Chapter seventeen contains a long condemnation of the errors of the northern kingdom, which had therefore been so terribly punished. The new people that the Assyrians brought from elsewhere to live in the region of Samaria and Galilee brought foreign religions with them and, in spite of the presence of Hebrews and the practice of their ancient religion, the atmosphere was for centuries afterwards syncretistic and, by the time of Christ, the area was still called by the Jews ‘Galilee of the Gentiles.’

Meanwhile, Juda was also being subjected to the expansion of the Assyrian empire, and subjection was demanded by the Assyrians. When good king Ezechias/Hezekiah tried to rebel against this, hoping in the power of God and the promise to king David, the response was prompt. The Assyrians arrived in great force, king Sennacherib himself supervising, raiding the countryside and capturing the great fort at Lachis. Ezechias was forced to pay a great tribute and Sennacherib’s marshals taunted the Judaite king and his devotion to God:

“Then Rabsaces stood up and cried aloud, in Hebrew, ‘Here is a message to you from the great king, the king of Assyria! This is the king’s warning, Do not be deluded by Ezechias, he is powerless to save you; do not let Ezechias put you off by telling you to trust in the Lord; that the Lord is certain to bring you aid, he cannot allow the king of Assyria to become master of your city. No, do not listen to Ezechias; here are the terms the king of Assyria offers you. Earn my good will by surrendering to me, and you shall live unmolested, to each the fruit of his own vine and fig-tree, to each the water from his own cistern.'”

IV Kings, 18: 28-31

At this point, the great Judaite prophet Isaias/Isaiah son of Amos appears on the scene, bringing the voice of God to king Ezechias, telling of present relief for Juda and reward to Ezechias for his faithfulness.

“Then Isaias, son of Amos, sent word to Ezechias, ‘A message to thee from the Lord, the God of Israel, granting the prayer thou hast made to him about Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians. This is what the Lord has to say of him: See how she mocks thee, flouts thee, Sion, the virgin city! Jerusalem, proud maiden, follows thee with her eyes and tosses her head in scorn. So thou wouldst hurl insults, and blaspheme, and talk boastfully, and brave it out with disdainful looks, against whom? Against the Holy One of Israel… But I am watching thee where thou dwellest, thy comings and goings and journeyings, thy raving talk against me. Yes, I have listened to the ravings of thy pride against me, and now a ring for thy nose, a twitch of the bridle in thy mouth, and back thou goest by the way thou didst come… A remnant of Juda’s race will be saved, and this remnant will strike root deep in earth, bear fruit high in air; yes, it is from Jerusalem the remnant will come, from mount Sion that we shall win salvation; so tenderly he loves us, the Lord of hosts. This, then, is what the Lord has to tell thee about the king of the Assyrians; he shall never enter this city, or shoot an arrow into it; no shield-protected host shall storm it, no earth-works shall be cast up around it. He will go back by the way he came, and never enter into this city, the Lord says; I will keep guard over this city and deliver it, for my own honour and for the honour of my servant David.”

IV Kings, 19: 20-22, 27-28, 30-34

And go back Sennacherib did, to ruin in Nineve, where he was killed by his own sons. Sadly, all of Ezechias’ goodness was undone by the wicked king Manasses of Israel. He restored shrines on hill-side and in forest-glen, built altars to Baal and planted sacred trees. He even set up an idol in the Temple in Jerusalem and began a great devotion among the people to the occult. And, most wicked of all, he orchestrated the execution of multitudes of people in Jerusalem. No relief came to the lonely kingdom of Juda until the reign of Manasses’ grandson Josias/Josiah, last of the faithful kings of Juda in this time. To cut a longish story short, Josias’ high-priest Helcias discovered a ritual book of the Law of Moses in the Temple, a book which contained rituals that obviously had not been followed for generations. And king Josias was horrified by that, and began a thorough-going reform of religion, repeating the work of Ezechias, but going north into the former territory of the northern kingdom to cleanse even that land of idolatry.

“In Bethel, too, there was an altar and a hill-shrine, the work of Jeroboam, son of Nabat, that taught Israel to sin; altar and shrine both Josias overthrew and burned and pounded to dust, setting fire at the same time to the sacred trees. And when he looked about him; and saw the hill-side covered with graves, he had bones fetched from these and burned them on the altar, just as the prophet had threatened in the Lord’s name when he foretold all this. All the hill-shrines in the cities that once belonged to Samaria, raised by kings of Israel in the Lord’s despite, Josias abolished, treating them as he had treated the shrine at Bethel; and the priests that served these altars he put to death, one and all. Then, having profaned the altars by burning men’s bones on them, he returned to Jerusalem… Gone were the familiar spirits, the diviners, the images, gone were all the foul abominations of Juda and Jerusalem; Josias swept them all away; since Helcias had found the book in the Lord’s temple he had no thought but to carry out the law’s prescriptions in full. Never was there such a king as this; none before or after him came back to the Lord’s allegiance, heart and soul and strength, as he did, with the law of Moses to guide him.”

IV Kings, 23: 15-16, 19-20, 24-25

But Josias died too soon, foolishly attempting to interfere with an Egyptian attack on the Assyrian empire. His sons returned to idolatry and the end came quickly. The Assyrian empire had been replaced as the great power in the East with the neo-Babylonian (an Assyrian, Chaldean dynasty) empire and before this new dominion even the power of Egypt had failed. King Nabuchodonosor of Babylon arrived in person to properly subjugate Juda in the Assyrian manner, carrying away the wealth of Jerusalem, Temple and palace. A first evacuation and transplanting of the Judaites and and the nobility and citizens of Jerusalem took place. Joachin the king was imprisoned and his uncle Sedecias planted in Jerusalem as a vassal king. Sedecias tried to rebel, and a new siege of two years finally brought down the city’s defences. Nabuchodonosor captured Sedecias, destroyed his family, blinded him and carried him into exile. And he sent an expert to utterly demolish Jerusalem, including the first Temple, Solomon’s Temple.

“On the fifth day of the seventh month in the nineteenth year of Nabuchodonosor’s reign, the commander of his forces, Nabuzardan, came on his master’s errand to Jerusalem, where he burned down temple and palace and private dwellings too; no house of note but he set it on fire. The troops he brought with him were employed in dismantling the walls on every side of it. Then Nabuzardan carried off the remnants of the people that were left in the city, the deserters who had gone over to Nabuchodonosor, and the common folk generally, leaving only such of the poorer sort as were vine-dressers and farm labourers.

IV Kings, 25: 8-12

A sorry end for the Holy City. The rest of the people were later also removed from the city, which was left utterly ruined. The governor left behind by the Babylonians to rule over the final remnants of the Judaite tribes was killed by a member of the family of David, and the rest of people then fled to Egypt. This is told in the last chapter of the book, which tries to end on a positive note. For a successor of David had survived, king Joachin, and the ancient religion would be kept alive in exile, through prophecy and through the hope in the restoration of the fortunes of the people under a new Davidic king.

“On the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month, in the thirty-seventh year after king Joachin of Juda had been carried into exile, he was released from prison by Evil-Merodach, king of Babylon, then in the first year of his reign. Graciously did Evil-Merodach receive him, gave him a seat of honour above the other captive kings, and relieved him of his prisoner’s garb. All the rest of his life he was entertained at the royal table; all the rest of his life he received, day by day, a perpetual allowance made to him by the king’s bounty.”

IV Kings, 25: 27-30
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