A lamp in a dark world.
Through the often abominable and lamentable and occasional commendable season, there is one who remains unmoved by it all.
This article was originally written for 1517.
The fourteenth chapter of 1 Kings introduces a new literary style, which becomes typical for much of the remaining texts. Up to this point, the historian has taken time to elaborate on the backstory and consider the circumstances surrounding the demise of each of David’s successors. He digresses to situate the reigns of Solomon, Jeroboam, and Rehoboam in their respective historical settings, spending a decent amount of time with each king. In 1 Kings 14:21, however, the historian’s word-count for each potentate shrinks dramatically, opting for royal abstracts and digests as opposed to detailed accounts.
Despite the brevity of these sketches, however, the historian’s summation of each monarch provides the appropriate prism through which we are able to witness the sheer incapacity and insufficiency of man juxtaposed against God’s steady faithfulness — bringing to light the One we truly, deeply, desperately need.
The abominable one.
After spending the majority of three chapters highlighting the debacles of northern Israel, the historian returns to southern Judah and its newly minted king, Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:21). Last we heard, they were licking their wounds in the aftermath of Jeroboam’s dissent and secession from the kingdom (1 Kings 12:24). Rehoboam’s ego, of course, had a large role in that development, provoking the rebellion which eventually led to Israel’s implosion. Here, though, we are given further insight into Rehoboam’s reign, including a similar sounding indictment of the king’s legacy:
And Judah did evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins which they had committed, above all that their fathers had done. For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree. And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. (1 Kings 14:22–24)
These verses are indicative of the tragedies which belabor the southern tribes, much like 1 Kings 14:15–16 constitutes the calamities which castrated the northern kingdom. Judah’s deeds were utterly evil, “above all that their fathers had done.” They busied themselves with constructing their own centers for cultic worship (1 Kings 14:23; cf. 12:25–33), dusting off the very same idols their forefathers had obediently destroyed (Exod. 34:13). The lurid sexual ritual of the goddess Asherah was both tolerated and promoted by those who were duly charged to serve and follow Yahweh alone (1 Kings 14:24). This abominable form of worship was allowed to infiltrate and influence the entire cultural and spiritual fabric of God’s covenant people.
Accordingly, the acceptance of these abominable and “detestable practices” is indicative of Judah’s covenantal compromise. It was a stark omen that the seeds of pagan influence were bearing the fruit of paganism itself, with Judah openly gravitating towards the very systems of worship God had expressly forbidden (Deut. 7:5; 12:1–4; 16:21; 18:9). The very people whom he had graciously chosen to bless beyond comprehension had replaced him. Judah had snubbed Jehovah. They had categorically failed to uphold the standards of God’s covenant with them. Such is why Yahweh’s “jealous anger” was kindled against them, driving him to judge them.
And it came to pass in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem: and he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he even took away all: and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made. (1 Kings 14:25–26)
The Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak sacks Jerusalem, plundering all her sacred “treasures.” But far beyond the loss of these material treasures was the loss of Judah’s God-given luster. The seizure of the treasuries of Jerusalem was a demonstrable sign that God’s blessings were being taken away, too. The glitz and glamor of the old regime had faded — and so, too, had God’s glory in their midst. Judah’s “slow fade” is further illustrated in Rehoboam’s response to this judgment via Egyptian invasion. Notice:
Shishak king of Egypt . . . took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he even took away all: and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made. And king Rehoboam made in their stead brasen shields, and committed them unto the hands of the chief of the guard, which kept the door of the king's house. And it was so, when the king went into the house of the Lord, that the guard bare them, and brought them back into the guard chamber. (1 Kings 14:25–28)
The gold shields of Judah, emblems of her prosperity, were stolen. Rehoboam, then, immediately sets about forging replacements — the point being, Judah was still sure that she could save herself. Yahweh was not only not a priority, he was unnecessary.
It goes without saying that these deplorable developments were not the result of overnight sins. Judah’s covenant infidelity wasn’t a one-night stand but along gestating affair. These were the horrid fruits which stemmed from Judah’s abominable compromise with the world. Such was Judah’s truest abomination. They had undermined and imperiled the worship of Yahweh by entertaining other gods. They lost their faith by losing sight of their covenant responsibility. And so it is that you and I are consigned to stand steadfast in faith now — to sow the seeds of blessed dependence and devotion on the One True God and to resist the onslaught of idolatrous influences.
The lamentable one.
With Jeroboam firmly situated as Israel’s king, Judah is experiencing some turnover (1 Kings 15:1). Abijam takes the throne in what constitutes one of the more unremarkable reigns in Judean history. There’s not much to say about Abijam other than the insights the historian offers detailing his short-lived, sin-riddled reign:
Now in the eighteenth year of king Jeroboam the son of Nebat reigned Abijam over Judah. Three years reigned he in Jerusalem. and his mother's name was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom. And he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father. (1 Kings 15:1–3)
Rather than live according to the Lord’s words and ways, Abijam “walked in all the sins of his father.” And just like Rehoboam, Abijam’s three-year-monarchy was fraught with conflict (1 Kings 15:6–8). He carried on his dad’s abominable legacy. Such was his heritage. Such, too, is what is inferred by the historian’s remark about Abijam’s mother, Maacah. She was the descendant of Absalom, which also made her the great granddaughter of David. It is in that way that we are made to see the lamentable failure of Abijam. Despite being of the promised lineage, he botched that promise by failing to live according to his covenantal father (1 Kings 15:3).
The commendable one.
After Abijam’s brief stint as king comes to a close, his son Asa takes his place on the throne (1 Kings 15:9–10). Asa’s reign is atypically commendable when considering the books of Kings, not only for its duration (41 years) but for its description. “Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did David his father,” notes the historian (1 Kings 15:11). This is the first ever mention of covenant fidelity in the lineage of David. Unlike the litany of despotic rulers before him, Asa remains faithful to the words of the Lord, inaugurating a “religious renovation” project, of sorts, banishing all of the temple prostitutes of Asherah, and scrapping “all of the idols that his ancestors had made” (1 Kings 15:12). Asa’s zealous reform is further evidenced in the passion with which he seeks to recover the worship of Jehovah alone (2 Chron. 15:8–15), even going so far as to bring this reformation to the royal family:
And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from being queen, because she had made an idol in a grove; and Asa destroyed her idol, and burnt it by the brook Kidron. (1 Kings 15:13)
Maacah is Asa’s great grandmother and the “matriarch of Judah.” As the queen-mother, Maacah was a lady you didn’t want to cross. I get the impression that as the dowager queen, Maacah leveraged her station to get what she wanted on none too few occasions. Asa’s venture to make a public show of her is, then, fraught with familial and political tension. Not only does the king abolish her position as the queen-mother, he also pulverizes and burns the idols she had crafted (1 Kings 15:13).
At this point, the era of King Asa seems to be that for which everyone longed. Judah is at peace with her enemies (2 Chron. 14:2–5). Her priorities are right, with all their spoils being consecrated to the Lord (1 Kings 15:15). Indeed, Asa appears to be checking all the boxes for what it means to be a “good king.” But, unsurprisingly, he fails, too.
While some of the pagan “high places” were torn down, not all of them were destroyed (1 Kings 15:14). This oversight is exasperated by the trouble-making king of Israel, Baasha (1 Kings 15:16–17). Baasha begins to fortify Ramah, a city that was a mere 6 miles from Jerusalem proper. From there, he was able to forcibly control Judah’s trade relationships. This, of course, results in some seriously bad press, both politically and economically. Asa has the bright idea that in order to save Judah’s economy, he will withdraw all the “treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house,” and use them to bribe the king of Syria to create a conflict further north (1 Kings 15:18–19). With Baasha distracted by a Syrian invasion, Asa would have the bandwidth to re-establish Judah’s trade routes and fortify Judah’s defenses. And his plan works like a charm (1 Kings 15:20–22). All of Judah is, no doubt, singing Asa’s praises right about now. But what does God think of the king’s shrewd political maneuvering? We do not have to wonder:
And at that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah, and said unto him, Because thou hast relied on the king of Syria, and not relied on the Lord thy God, therefore is the host of the king of Syria escaped out of thine hand. Were not the Ethiopians and the Lubims a huge host, with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet, because thou didst rely on the Lord, he delivered them into thine hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him. Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars. Then Asa was wroth with the seer, and put him in a prison house; for he was in a rage with him because of this thing. And Asa oppressed some of the people the same time. (2 Chron. 16:7–10)
Asa had gone from a king who had faithfully and successfully brought about sweeping cultural reform to a king who trusted more in his politics than in his God. Indeed, such is the chronicler’s estimation of Asa’s demise: “In the thirty and ninth year of his reign was diseased in his feet, until his disease was exceeding great: yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord, but to the physicians” (2 Chron. 16:12). Such, too, is why Asa remains a commendable but not an impeccable king.
The impeccable one.
In each of these royal specimens there are evidences of deficiencies that are more or less noticeable. We know that no one is without blemish, but these vignettes make that fact patently obvious. But throughout these decades of Judean royal history, what are we to see? What rises to the surface? What’s the point? Well, notice the city in which Rehoboam reigned: “And Rehoboam the son of Solomon . . . reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem, the city which the Lord did choose out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there” (1 Kings 14:21). Notice, furthermore, the city in which Asa was buried: “And Asa slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father” (1 Kings 15:24).
There is a beam of light in these references, almost imperceptible but still aflame, undoubtedly weaker than in past epochs but still burning. It is the fire of God’s covenant promises to David — promises of dwelling and dominion and deliverance and an unending dynasty (2 Sam. 7:8–16). Such is the “lamp in Jerusalem” that had not quite yet flamed out:
Nevertheless for David's sake did the Lord his God give him a lamp in Jerusalem, to set up his son after him, and to establish Jerusalem: because David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. (1 Kings 15:4–5)
Through the often abominable and lamentable and occasional commendable season, there is One who remains unmoved by it all. There is One who sovereignly oversees all things. There is One who is never not faithful. There is One who is the same, “yesterday, and to day, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). It is Yahweh alone, the Light of the World. He is always overlooking his covenant people, working all things together to draw them to himself. Such is what he was doing all throughout Judah’s troubled years of division, disaster, and decadence. The Lord consented to his people’s rebellion in order that they might see their desperate need for Someone Better — yes, even better than David.
The shocking elements which comprise these stories are meant for us to adore Yahweh alone. They are meant for us to stand in awe at our doggedly patient Heavenly Father. Even more persistent than man’s ability to sin is God’s propensity to deliver. “Grace,” comments Dale Ralph Davis, “is not only greater but more stubborn than our sins.”1 Yahweh continues in immovable, impeccable faithfulness even, and especially, in times that are fraught with lamentable abominations. Such is the prevailing message of Scripture itself. Such, too, is what God’s Word is meant to do, i.e., it is meant to,
hearten you by showing you a God still keeping his promises even when his servants may not be all-stars . . . No, God’s fidelity doesn’t sanitize all the circumstances or twistedness of his people. But in all the slop the seed is multiplying . . . The chemistry of divine providence takes the sludge and crud and confusion of our doings and makes it the soil that produces the fruit of his faithfulness. Don’t ever be shocked at the human slop God will throw into his compost to serve his faithfulness.2
Long after the seeds of unfaithfulness bear their wretched fruit, God will still be keeping his promises. This lamp will never flame out.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 172.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 39, 41.