The Background of 2 Kings
Author and Date
The author or authors of these two books (1-2 Kings) is unknown. As the titles of the books indicate, 1–2 Kings describe the period of the monarchy in ancient Israel (970–586 BC), concentrating on the kings who ruled after David.
The books show that Israel suffers again and again because of its great sinfulness (2 Kings 17:7–23; 24:1–4). Yet there is still hope for the nation, because God’s chosen family of kings has not come to an end (2 Kings 25:27–30), and God remains ready to forgive those who repent (1 Kings 8:22–61).
Purpose, Occasion, and Background
The fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BC raised several questions: Was Israel’s God not in fact in control of history, as Moses had claimed? If the God of Moses did exist, and was good and all-powerful, how was it that God’s chosen city and temple had been destroyed, and his chosen royal family had all but come to its end?
The books of Kings respond to such questions, explaining why Israel was defeated. Israel’s God is indeed in control of nature and history. There are no other true gods anywhere. It is this good and all-powerful God who has overseen the destruction of his chosen city and his temple, and Israel’s exile to Babylon. Israel’s sin has caused these punishments.
After the division of the kingdom, the northern kingdom of Israel lasted slightly more than 200 years (931–722 BC), with 19 different kings, all of whom were wicked. The southern kingdom of Judah had the same number of kings, but many of them were good, and Judah lasted almost 150 years longer (931–586 BC). Toward the end of Judah’s monarchy came two of its best kings: Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1–20:21) and Josiah (2 Kings 22:1–23:30). Yet the people still rebelled against the Lord, and Judah, like Israel, eventually went into exile as punishment for its sin. But hope remained, for God’s chosen royal line had not come to a complete end (2 Kings 25:27–30), and God remained ready to forgive those who repented.
1. Yahweh Is the Only True God, and He Controls Nature
There is only one living God, and he is the Lord. He alone controls the natural order (1 Kings 17–19; 2 Kings 1:2–17; 4:8–37; 5:1–18; 6:1–7, 27).
2. Yahweh Controls History
The Lord rules over the past, present, and future. He alone controls the historical process (1 Kings 11:14, 23; 14:1–18; 22:1–38; 2 Kings 5:1–18; 10:32–33; 18:17–19:37).
3. Yahweh Demands Exclusive Worship
As the only God, the Lord demands exclusive worship. He alone will be worshiped, by Israelite and foreigner alike (1 Kings 8:41–43, 60; 2 Kings 5:15–18; 17:24–41).
4. The Content and Place of True Worship
Much of 1–2 Kings is concerned with exposing false religion. It speaks out against the content of false worship (1 Kings 11:1–40; 12:25–13:34; 14:22–24; 16:29–33; 2 Kings 16:1–4; 17:7–23; 21:1–9). It also exposes the wrongful place of such false worship (1 Kings 3:2; 5:1–9:9; 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings 18:4; 23:1–20).
5. The Consequences of False Worship
True worship of God includes obedience to the law of God. The worship of something other than God always leads to mistreating other people.
6. Yahweh Is the Just and Gracious Lawgiver
The Lord gave the law, which defines true worship, right thinking, and correct behavior. The Lord is also the one who punishes wrongdoers.
7. Yahweh Is the Promise-Giver
Israel’s God is a promise-giver. The divine promises given to the patriarchs and to David are an important theme in 1–2 Kings.
2 Kings Outline
I. The Death of Ahaziah (1:1–18)
II. Elisha and Israel (2:1–10:36)
III. Joash (11:1–12:21)
IV. Jehoahaz and Jehoash (13:1–25)
V. Amaziah, Jeroboam II, and Azariah (14:1–15:7)
VI. Israel’s Last Days (15:8–31)
VII. Jotham and Ahaz (15:32–16:20)
VIII. The End of Israel (17:1–41)
IX. Hezekiah (18:1–20:21)
X. Manasseh and Amon (21:1–26)
XI. Josiah (22:1–23:30)
XII. The End of Judah (23:31–25:30)
Israel and Judah in 2 Kings
The Global Message of 2 Kings
The Ongoing Story of Global Redemption
The book of 2 Kings continues the story of 1 Kings, telling how God’s people gradually lose their distinct identity in the world due to the faithless kings who lead them. Solomon had once dedicated the temple in Jerusalem by declaring that the God of Israel is completely unique: “There is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath” (1 Kings 8:23). Solomon’s prayer anticipates a time when foreign peoples will journey to the temple in Jerusalem because the God of Israel is famous for answering the prayers of all people (1 Kings 8:41–43). Yet the final chapter of 2 Kings describes a foreign nation coming to Jerusalem, not to worship there but to destroy the temple and take the people of God into exile (2 Kings 25:8–21).
The tragic history that unfolds between the dedication and destruction of the temple shows how God’s people and God’s kings fail in their commission to reflect his character among the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6–8; 26:16–19; Isaiah 2:6–19). Nevertheless, the theme of global redemption persists through 2 Kings—God remains at work in bringing the nations to himself despite the disobedience of his people.
Naaman the Leper
The convergence of these themes revolving around Israel’s failed global mission is particularly evident in Israel’s dealings with the kingdom of Syria (also known as Aram). In 2 Kings 5, Naaman, the military commander of Syria, is recognized as a great man since “by him the Lord had given victory to Syria” (2 Kings 5:1). God had permitted Syria to triumph over his own people. Among the Syrians was an Israelite girl who served in Naaman’s house after being captured in battle (2 Kings 5:2). But more than being a trophy of war, this girl’s presence among the Syrians sets the stage for Naaman’s confession of faith in the God of Israel. The servant girl declares that the prophet Elisha can cure Naaman of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:3), prompting the Syrian king to send Naaman to Israel with sumptuous gifts and an official letter for the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4–5).
This request shocks the Israelite king. He not only tears his clothes in a response of mourning but also asks a question that speaks better than he knows: “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7). Earlier in 2 Kings, another Israelite king had foolishly sought a foreign god for healing from sickness because he was convinced that the Lord was no longer present and at work in Israel (2 Kings 1:2–3). But now, the Lord is willing to heal a foreigner on Israel’s own soil. Naaman complies with Elisha’s directions to wash himself in the Jordan and is cleansed from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:14). Various Israelite kings may doubt that the Lord is present and active in Israel, but Naaman recognizes that “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15). A healed Syrian leper knows the incomparable power of Israel’s God better than the Israelite kings!
The themes of the chastising of Israel and the salvation of the nations have crossed in 2 Kings 5 in an ironic way. Solomon’s vision of foreigners coming to Israel on pilgrimage to worship the Lord has been fulfilled, though not because of Israel’s faithful witness to the Lord. Through a servant girl rather than a king, God’s mission to enfold the nations of the earth into his family takes a step forward.
Faith and Culture
The conversion of Naaman also sheds light on the perplexing relationship between faith and culture. Naaman was offended at first by Elisha’s instructions to wash in the Jordan, since the rivers of Syria seemed better to him (2 Kings 5:11–12). But he relents after his servants urge him to listen to Elisha (5:13; compare 5:3). After washing himself, receiving healing, and confessing his faith in the God of Israel (5:14–15), Naaman expresses his faith in the Lord according to the cultural norms that are most familiar to him—by offering gifts to the prophet Elisha (5:15) and taking two loads of Israelite soil back to Syria so that he may construct an earthen altar to the Lord (5:17; compare Exodus 20:25). Elisha refuses the first request (2 Kings 5:16) because accepting these gifts would affirm Naaman’s misconception that Israelite prophets work for profit. Here is an instance in which faith cannot give any ground to culture.
But the second request is more ambiguous—Naaman is requesting permission to erect an altar to the Lord as an alternative to worshiping Rimmon, the national god of the Syrians. Unauthorized altars to the Lord had already been the source of much sin in Israel (e.g., 1 Kings 3:4; 12:32–33; 14:23). But Naaman’s conflict between his newfound faith and his home culture is different. As a steward of the Syrian king, Naaman must accompany his master to Rimmon’s temple. Thus Naaman requests a concession from Elisha: “In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter” (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha grants Naaman’s request as an affirmation of his sincere faith (2 Kings 5:19). In this instance, what is forbidden for Israelites is allowed for Naaman.
Outsiders and Insiders
Though the relationship between faith and culture can be difficult to understand, this story is unambiguous in its welcoming of foreigners on the one hand and its judgment upon Israel on the other. When Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, goes after Naaman to secure some of Syria’s best things for himself, Elisha exposes this sin and condemns Gehazi: “Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever” (2 Kings 5:27). The unmistakable contrast between Naaman the faithful foreigner and Gehazi the unfaithful Israelite reflects a common theme in the Old Testament historical books, and indeed throughout the Bible.
The idea that God frequently finds “outsiders” more receptive to his kingdom has never been easy for “insiders” to accept. Several centuries later, another prophet angered his hometown when he said that they were no different than the Israelites of Elisha’s time when Naaman was healed (Luke 4:23–27). Jesus Christ had initially been welcomed in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:18–22) but soon found the audience to be unresponsive and even hostile. The reaction from the crowd upon hearing Jesus’ condemnation of their sin is both predictable and tragic: “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath” (Luke 4:28).
The Gospel: Exclusive and Inclusive
The God who accepted the faith of Naaman is the same God who lives as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). This is the God who sent his only Son to suffer and die so that the only prerequisite to becoming a part of God’s family is to know and confess our need. Repentance before Jesus, with trusting faith in him, is all that is required (Luke 23:42–43).
The great message of the church for the world today is that all people of any background or ethnicity or class or any other socially distinguishing marker are freely invited to Jesus. The gospel is radically exclusive, because the gospel declares that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). But the gospel is just as radically inclusive, for it says that anyone can come to Jesus and find welcome. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).