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Wow! That’s a lot of kings! Maybe I should say, that’s a lot of evil kings! If my count is correct (and it may not be, so check me if you’d like) there were 19 kings of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and 20 kings of the Southern Kingdom (Judah). The Kings of Israel reigned for about 210 years before being taken into captivity (or exile) by the Assyrians in about 722BC and the Kings of Judah reigned for about 345 years before being taken into captivity (or exile) by the Babylonians in about 586BC.
As I was reading through the book of kings (1Kings & 2Kings) this time I was paying more attention to the description of each of these kings, as to the description of their character. I knew that many of the kings were described as “doing evil” and only a few were described as “doing right”, but what struck me was that none of the kings of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) were described as doing right… NONE! I was expecting at least a few to be good, but not one was. The best description we find is for the last king of Israel, Hoshea son of Elah, who was described this way in 2Kings 17:2, “And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not as the kings of Israel who were before him” (emphasis mine).
So he was bad, but not as bad as the kings before him. This is the best description for a Northern King. No wonder they went into exile so much earlier than the Southern Kingdom (Judah). So was the Southern Kingdom that much better? Well, in some ways, yes. The average reign of a Northern King was about 11 years while the average reign of a Southern King was about 17 years.
However the length of reign is not an automatic sign of the character of the king. While King Uzziah (Azariah) was one of Judah’s great kings and he reigned 52 years, King Manasseh, one of Judah’s worst kings, reigned 55 years! [By the way, King Uzziah is mentioned prominently in Isaiah 6, if you want to look ahead.] So the length of reign is not an automatic assurance of good character, but the Scriptures make it clear that 8 of the 20 kings of Judah were good kings, “doing right” by God. That’s 40% good for the kings of Judah. In comparison to the Israel that’s a great improvement, but when you consider that 60% were evil, even though they had the Temple (the actual House of God) right there in their capitol city, it’s still not a good number.
While King Ahab (with his wife Jezebel, 1Kings 16-22) was arguably the most evil of all the kings, there were also a couple of incredibly good kings. King Hezekiah (despite being the son of one of Judah’s most evil kings, King Ahaz) is described saying, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” (2Kings 18:5) Now that’s a ringing endorsement! And after God had already determined that Judah would be taken into exile by Babylon for all of the sins she had committed, we still meet one more very good king, King Josiah!
Josiah comes to the throne at only 8 years old, but while still in his teens he turns his heart fully to the Lord when Hilkiah the priest finds the scrolls containing the Law and reads them to the king. Josiah is so astounded by the sin of Judah when he realizes God’s standards that he goes about a complete reformation in Judah. He even tears down the high places that King Solomon had constructed to worship the foreign gods of his foreign wives. Why had none of the other “good” kings of Judah done this before?!
God’s appreciation for Josiah’s devotion is revealed when He tells him, “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.” (2Kings 22:19-20)
Josiah is given grace, but the consequences of Judah’s actions cannot be avoided. This is an important lesson to which we do well to pay attention. God’s grace and His mercy is always available to us, but the consequences of our actions are sometimes unavoidable once God has decreed them.
Remember David’s first son with Bathsheba (the one which resulted from his initial rape of Bathsheba)? Despite David’s mourning and humbling himself, God still took the child, but David He had forgiven. Despite Josiah’s righteous life and his many reforms in Judah, God still sent the Babylonians to take Judah into exile, but Josiah He spared from having to witness it.
So does this mean that there are limits to His mercy? Yes and no. The problem we might have is trying to “define” God and what He can and cannot do, but what the Bible (in it’s entirety) makes clear is that God is free! He is free to act and to do anything that is in accordance with His character. He cannot lie, for instance, but He can change His plans if we return to Him with our whole hearts.
Remember the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. They were an incredibly wicked evil people, the enemies of Israel, but when Jonah preached judgment and destruction they whole-heartedly repented and begged God for mercy. Upon seeing their heartfelt repentance God relented! He chose not to destroy them at that time.
Throughout the Scriptures the heart of God has been revealed to us as one who is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love. In Micah when the prophet asks what God requires of us he says we are to, “act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). Did you catch that? We are to love mercy. Why? Because God loves mercy! I love that Micah follows this up with walk humbly. Why? Could it be because we’re not good at being humble? Do we often think more highly of ourselves than we ought?
When Peter asks Jesus if we should forgive someone up to 7 times when they sin against us, he (Peter) thought he was “loving mercy” by suggesting we forgive 7 times, but Jesus’ answer shocked them. He said not 7 times, but 70 times 7! In other words forgive until you lose count, because that is how your Heavenly Father forgives you!
So do consequences stand? Sometimes, but God loves mercy and is eager to forgive even the most vile among us… even us!
So what are your thoughts this week? Let’s hear from you in the comment section below…
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