Exile: Failed State

Solomon died in 931 BC. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) had 19 kings before it was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom (Judah) also had 19 kings before it was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Both the Assyrians and the Babylonians practiced deporting the peoples they conquered from their homelands. It was Solomon’s idolatry that planted the seeds for the eventual exile of God’s people to foreign lands.

The basic cause for the Exile was that, other than some exceptions in Judah, the kings failed to keep the Mosaic Covenant themselves, let alone led the nation to keep it. So the nation failed to be a covenant community, and thus failed in its calling to be light of the world. God’s purpose for bringing them out of Egypt could not be fulfilled. Something new was needed—another Exodus to replace that accomplished through Moses. But this required the Exile so that God could start all over again.

The Northern Kingdom lasted longer than it deserved because of the Abrahamic Covenant, which promised the people occupation of Canaan (2 Kings 13:23). And the Southern Kingdom lasted even longer because of the Davidic Covenant, which promised David that he would have a descendant on the throne (1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19; 19:34). Hence justice based on the Mosaic Covenant was tempered with mercy based on the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. But there are limits to mercy, and both kingdoms were so stubbornly unrepentant that the limits were exceeded.

Northern Kingdom

God had promised Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, that if he would keep God’s ways, God would give him a lasting dynasty like David (1 Kings 11:38). However, due to political expedience, Jeroboam quickly fell into the idolatry Aaron committed at Mount Sinai. He made two golden calves for the people to worship: one at Bethel in the south and another at Dan in the north. He even repeated what Aaron said: “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). He also built a temple in Bethel with a priesthood made up of non-Levites, as well as instituted a feast of his own invention, to rival the worship in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:31-33; Provan 1995: 110-111).

All this violates what God had commanded. Jeroboam did it to keep his people from going down to Jerusalem in Judah to worship God, fearing that if they did so they would kill him and return to Rehoboam. This means he disregarded what God had promised him. So Jeroboam led Israel into idolatry. Since this development was a result of the split of the nation into two kingdoms or states, it was also a consequence of Solomon’s idolatry, which resulted in the split.

God considered the development so serious that an unnamed prophet came from Judah to Bethel to denounce the idolatry there (1 Kings 13:1-10). He made a prediction that a future descendant of David, Josiah by name, would burn on the altar the bones of the priests who had burned incense there; and to authenticate this long-term prediction he made another prediction that was immediately fulfilled (verses 2-3). The long-term prophecy was fulfilled 300 years later (2 Kings 23:15-20). This is one of the two cases in the Old Testament where a long-term prediction specifically names the person concerned; the other case is the prediction concerning Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1).

However Jeroboam refused to repent and when he stretched out his hand to order the prophet seized, his hand dried up. Out of desperation Jeroboam asked the prophet to pray to God for healing; the prophet did and Jeroboam was healed. Even then, Jeroboam did not repent of his evil ways. So God pronounced through the prophet Ahijah a judgment on Jeroboam that would affect not only his house—he would not have a dynasty and every male in his house would be wiped-out (1 Kings 14:10), but also Israel—because of the idolatry that he introduced in Israel the people would eventually be exiled to Assyria (1 Kings 14:14-16).

Like Jeroboam, all the other 18 kings after him were evil in God’s eyes. The worst was Ahab, who inherited the throne from his father Omri. Ahab not only practiced the sins of Jeroboam, but also married Jezebel, a foreign princess who led him to worship Baal, thereby introducing Baal worship in Israel (1 Kings 16:29-33). It even came to a point that “Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:13)!

Into this extremely desperate situation came the prophet Elijah, the most powerful prophet since Moses in terms of miracles. On the basis that God had warned through Moses that if God’s people worshipped foreign gods, God would withhold the rain (Deuteronomy 11:16-17), Elijah prayed that there would be no rain in Israel (James 5:17). Elijah also declared in God’s name to Ahab that “there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Then God instructed Elijah to go and hide himself by a stream where there was no food supply, adding that he shall drink from the stream, and as for food, God said He had commanded the ravens to provide for him there (1 Kings 17:2-7). Miraculously the birds brought him food twice a day. And when the stream dried up as a result of God answering Elijah’s prayer for no rain, God redirected Elijah to a foreign land nearby saying that He had commanded a widow to provide for him there (1 Kings 17:8-16). When he arrived the widow was about to prepare her last meal for herself and her son from her last handful of flour and supply of oil so that they “may eat it and (wait to) die” (verse 12). It would require another miracle for her to provide for Elijah. Sure enough God multiplied the flour and the oil.

What was God’s purpose in sending Elijah to the stream and then to the widow? It was not just to hide Elijah from Ahab, who was indeed scouring everywhere hunting for him as “the troubler of Israel” because of the drought that Elijah had predicted. There is significance in sending Elijah to a stream away from civilization and then to a foreign widow.

God had explained to the nation through Moses just before they entered the Promised Land that the prior 40 years of living on manna in the wilderness was meant to teach them “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). This means obedience to God’s word is more basic than even food. As noted before, this implies that “if the command of God directed the people to do something or go somewhere, the command should be obeyed; shortage of food or water, lack of strength, or any other excuse would be insufficient, for the command of God contained within it the provision of God” (Craigie 1976: 185).

Thus Elijah’s experience by the stream and with the widow demonstrates vividly the reliability of God’s word, specifically in terms of God’s provision for our material needs. So there is no excuse whatsoever for violating any commandment of God. In fact God’s warning about withholding rain was in the context of God’s promise that if they obeyed Him, He would provide rain at the proper time so that they would not only be economically secure but also prosperous (Deuteronomy 11:8-16). They were tempted to worship Baal basically because it was believed by the Canaanites that in Canaan, Baal was the source of economic security and prosperity. To counter that, even before they entered Canaan, God taught them that His word could be trusted even for economic security and prosperity. In other words, Elijah’s experience not only confirmed this truth, it also expressed the message God’s people needed to hear then.

In view of what was going to happen later at Mount Carmel, Elijah himself needed to grow in his faith with respect to praying for miracles. Praying for no rain was only the first step. And when the stream dried up, it confirmed to him that God had answered his prayer. This would have strengthened his faith in this respect. And if the ravens could provide for him, obeying God by going to the widow was hardly faith-stretching. When God multiplied the flour and the oil, this by itself would not have brought him greater faith in God. But the miracle happened to a foreign woman in a foreign land. This means God was not only the God of Israel, but also the God of the nations. This gave him the basis to trust in God to challenge the prophets of Baal.

Having learned from personal experience that God’s power is applicable beyond God’s people, Elijah still needed to grow in praying for miracles more difficult than a drought. So it happened that the widow’s son died and Elijah found himself in a situation where he was made to trust God for the unimaginable: bring the boy back to life (1 Kings 17:17-24). When God answered Elijah’s prayer, Elijah was ready for the challenge ahead of him.

After three years of drought Elijah resurfaced to challenge the prophets of Baal to a contest at Mount Carmel in the presence of Ahab and the people to determine who really was God (1 Kings 18:20-40). The contest was about who could send down fire to consume a sacrificial ox in answer to prayer; the one who answers is God. Before the contest Elijah challenged the people: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (verse 21). It is significant that Elijah’s name in Hebrew means “The LORD is God.”

The prophets of Baal went first. In spite of 450 of them calling on the name of Baal for hours, even to the extent of cutting themselves, Baal did not answer. When it was Elijah’s turn he made it more difficult for himself. After building an altar of stones he made a large trench around it before putting wood and then the sacrifice on it. He also had the sacrifice and the wood beneath drenched to the point that the trench was filled with water. Then all Elijah did was pray briefly to God, acknowledging who He was and asking Him to answer his prayer so that the people may be turned back to Him. Fire came down and consumed not only the sacrifice but also the wood, the stones and the dust, as well as licked up the water in the trench. The people bowed down and cried out, “The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God” (verse 39). Elijah then instructed them to destroy the 450 false prophets, after which he prayed for rain, and it poured heavily.

When Ahab told Jezebel “all that” had happened, she swore in the name of her gods to have Elijah killed within 24 hours (1 Kings 19:1-2). If even such a public and conclusive demonstration that “the LORD is God” could not convince her of the truth, nothing would. This shows she was “impervious to evidence” (Provan 1995: 144), another case of one’s presuppositions or pre-commitments blinding one to the truth. It was also another case of one’s vested interests, whether in terms of social prestige, political power or economic privilege, causing one to reject the truth, no matter how convincingly it is presented.

As for Elijah, being human, his immediate reaction was to run for his life. When he reached Beersheba in southern Judah, he left his assistant there and went into the wilderness. Alone in the wilderness he asked God to “take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). Why, after such a resounding victory, did Elijah feel so defeated to the point of wanting to die? Granted that he was then exhausted to the point of depression, there must be a triggering cause for what he said. We now infer the cause based on the narrative that follows.

Later in a cave at Horeb (Mount Sinai), God asked Elijah why he was there. Elijah replied that he had been very zealous for God because the people of Israel had forsaken Him to the point of killing His prophets, and mistakenly claimed that “I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:10). This means his battle against the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel was driven by that zeal for God, which could not be satisfied until the situation was reversed. So by having the prophets of Baal destroyed, Elijah had in mind the eradication of Baal-worship in Israel. Now that “they [still] seek my life,” shows that in spite of his miraculous success at Mount Carmel, his mission to reverse the situation and thus change Israel’s history had failed—God’s prophets were still not safe.

In response, God told Elijah to stand up before Him; and he witnessed God “passing by” outside the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13): first there was a storm, followed by an earthquake, then a fire, and finally a whisper. After each of the first three manifestations, which reminded Elijah of what had happened at Mount Carmel, we are told that God was not in it. It was in the whisper that Elijah detected God. In view of what God told Elijah to do next, the meaning of what Elijah witnessed is that even when God is involved, as a rule, history is not changed through a supernatural intervention, but through natural historical developments, where God is hardly discernible, as in the case of a whisper (cf. Provan 146-47).

This teaching about how God works in history is more clearly seen in Isaiah 18:3-5: God looks at a nation “quietly” and acts accordingly until the nation receives what it deserves, just like how “the dazzling heat of sunshine” and “the cloud of dew” act imperceptibly on crops until they are ripe for harvest. Thus “as in Elijah’s ‘still small voice’ (1 K. 19:12), the Lord asserts that his work [in history] will be quiet and unassuming, but nevertheless complete” (Oswalt 1986: 362). Those who expect otherwise will be disappointed.

When God asked Elijah again why he was there, Elijah gave the same reply. This time God told Elijah that “you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram; and Jehu … [as] king over Israel; and Elisha … as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:15-17). Then God said that those who would escape Hazael’s sword would not escape Jehu’s; and those who would escape Jehu’s would not escape Elisha’s. As we shall see, Jehu used the sword in a coup to change the history of Israel.

In other words, in that cave God revealed and explained to Elijah that His intended means of changing the history of Israel in response to Ahab’s idolatry was through natural historical means and not through the supernatural demonstration of His power at Mount Carmel. Hence the cause of Elijah’s despair was that he had expected otherwise and so was disappointed that after years of preparation to perform the spectacular miracle that soundly defeated the prophets of Baal, he had only won a battle but lost the war to eradicate the worship of Baal in Israel. He needed to realize that this was not his war.

In obedience to God’s command, Elijah found Elisha and threw his mantle on him (1 Kings 19:19-21), signifying his “anointing” of Elisha as his successor, as it served the same purpose as anointing with oil (cf. Brueggemann 2000: 238-39). But it turned out that Elijah had nothing to do with Hazael or Jehu. It was his anointed successor Elisha who did something that could be considered as “anointing” Hazael and Jehu respectively.

This is not a problem; Elisha’s ministry was unquestionably an extension and continuation of Elijah’s ministry. For when Elijah departed from this world, Elisha’s request for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit was granted him, which means, “the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:9-15). Elisha inherited Elijah’s mission to the extent that he could even duplicate Elijah’s miracles, including healing Naaman a foreigner (2 Kings 5:8-14) and even bringing back to life the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-35).

However, Elijah did personally pronounce God’s judgment on Ahab’s house and Jezebel, which was later carried out by Jehu (1 Kings 21:17-24; cf. 2 Kings 9:33-37; 10:17). This was in response to what Ahab and Jezebel did to Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-16). Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, but when Naboth refused to sell it to him, he sulked over it. So Jezebel ordered in Ahab’s name to have Naboth executed for cursing God and the king on the basis of the false testimony of two “worthless men.” Ahab then took possession of Naboth’s land.

This case expresses well the teaching that idolatry (failure to love God with all of one’s heart) and injustice (failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself) go hand in hand. As Iain Provan (1995: 158) puts it, “abandonment of God (Exod. 20:1-6) inevitably leads to abandonment of righteousness; we see the reality of this in 1 Kings 21—in this society given over to idol-worship, covetousness (21:1-6; cf. Exod. 20:17) leads on to false testimony, murder, and theft (1 Kgs. 21:13-19; cf. Exod. 20:13, 15-16).” For the very nature of idolatry, that is, worshipping anything other than the living God, is such that one’s fallen human nature is neither constrained nor restrained adequately by the fear of God to do justice and love mercy.

How then did Elisha “anoint” the Aramean Hazael as king of Aram? When Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, was sick he sent Hazael to inquire from Elisha whether he would recover (2 Kings 8:7-15). Elisha said to Hazael to tell the king that he would surely recover, “but the LORD has shown me that he will certainly die … [and also] that you will be king over Aram” (verses 10 and 13b). Hazael returned to Ben-Hadad and said to him that he would surely recover, and on the next day assassinated him and became king in his place.

As Walter Brueggemann (2000: 374) explains, “It is the prophet who has evoked the coup of Hazael. The narrative never says so, but we are left with the impression that becoming king was a new idea for Hazael, an idea upon which he acted promptly and violently, at the behest of the prophet.” In this sense Elisha “anointed” Hazael as king of Aram.

As for the case of Jehu, Elisha sent a prophet to anoint Jehu (with oil) as king over Israel and to instruct him to do to Ahab’s house and Jezebel according to God’s judgment pronounced through Elijah (2 Kings 9:1-10). This happened during the reign of Jehoram, son of Ahab. Jehu did more than what he was explicitly told. For he not only assassinated Jehoram and Jezebel as well as every male in Ahab’s house, he also eradicated Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 9:14-10:28), thus accomplishing what Elijah mistakenly thought was his mission at Mount Carmel.

Why then did God give such a spectacular demonstration of His power at Mount Carmel? God was bearing witness to His reality. And He would still have done it even if it would not bear any fruit. For God bears witness to Himself in one way or another so that everyone is without excuse (Romans 1:20). In this particular case, the spectacular means God used was due to the desperate situation in Israel. And the people did acknowledge that “the LORD, He is God,” though this change of heart may not have lasted. Nevertheless, now that they were without excuse whatsoever, no one could question God for sending them into exile if they persisted in any form of idolatry.

Though Jehu eradicated Baal-worship, he persisted in the idolatry of Jeroboam, “which he made Israel sin” (2 Kings 10:29-31). Even then, because Jehu did well in accomplishing God’s will with respect to Ahab, God promised him that he would have a descendant on the throne of Israel up to the fourth generation. It was as though God was looking for any conceivable basis to allow the idolatrous people to remain longer in the Holy Land. And God used Hazael to oppress them (2 Kings 10:32-33; 13:22-23; cf. 8:12), to remind them that they had sinned against God.

Jehoash was Jehu’s descendant on the throne in the second generation, during whose reign Elisha died (2 Kings 13:14-21). Jehoash was then succeeded by his son Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23-29). During his reign, which was a time of material prosperity, the prophets Amos and Hosea preached against idolatry and social injustice in Israel and called them to repentance, as well as declared that they would go into exile because of their refusal to repent.

Jeroboam II was succeeded by a son who was on the throne for only six months before he was assassinated and replaced by someone from another family (2 Kings 15:8-12). This fulfilled God’s word to Jehu that he would have a descendant on the throne up to the fourth generation. After that, the situation in Israel returned to that before Omri, where kingship kept changing from family to family through assassination.

The last king of Israel was Hoshea, in whose reign “the king of Assyria captured Samaria and carried away Israel into exile in Assyria” (2 Kings 17:1-6). To help us better appreciate why God had to send them into exile, the narrative gives a relatively long description of the sins of Israel, including child sacrifice (2 Kings 17:7-18).

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