Divine Light from Kings
Evangelical Ecumenism & the Gospel in the Story of Israel Divided
by Peter J. Leithart
The book of First and Second Kings has long been an important text for ecclesiological reflection, with the divided Israel the book describes serving as a model of the divided Christendom of post-Reformation Europe. But by and large, the book has been plundered for ammunition in partisan polemics aimed by divided Christians against one another, and not for its insight into Christian reunion.
For the Reformers, 1–2 Kings provided scriptural categories to describe the errors of the Roman Church. They believed that the late medieval church had fallen into idolatry, and they pointed to the fact that Israel had done the same.
They also appealed to the example of the prophets of 1–2 Kings to defend themselves against charges of schism. When, for example, Cardinal Sadoleto challenged Calvin with the charge that the Reformers had divided the body of Christ and should repent by returning to the true church, Calvin replied by referring to the prophets, who were not schismatics because they aimed to revive Israel’s true religion.
Some Roman Catholic theologians have read 1–2 Kings as a tragic history of division. Few came to the later conclusion of Bossuet that the division itself was an act of judgment, and even Bossuet, according to the Episcopal theologian Ephraim Radner’s reading, did not “transfer the negative aspect of the schismatic figure to the Church itself, confining its referent to the Church’s (Protestant) enemies.”
Though 1–2 Kings is a valuable resource for reflection on ecclesial division, it offers a more nuanced picture of a divided Israel than either Protestant or Catholic partisans have recognized. And it offers an alternative, more sobering perspective on Christian division and reunion, a perspective inseparable from its perspective on the gospel itself.
Yves Congar, the great twentieth-century French Catholic theologian, offered an ecumenical reading of 1–2 Kings similar to the one I suggest below. Reflecting that Israel was reunited only after the exile, Congar mused, “One is tempted to ask what trials or deportations will perhaps be necessary before Christians find themselves united once more. . . . One begins to wonder what price we shall perhaps have to pay for the grace of reunion.”
The ecclesiology of 1–2 Kings grows from its evangelical thrust. In using the term “evangelical” I am not referring to a subgroup of American Protestantism, but the evangel itself, the gospel of grace that is the common proclamation of Christianity. To understand the evangelical ecclesiology of Kings, we need first to see that Kings is fundamentally gospel. It is fundamentally about Jesus. And therefore about who his people are in him, no matter how they relate to one another.
Jews have long classified 1–2 Kings among the “former prophets.” The prominence of prophets and prophetic ministry in the narrative supports this view, as does the narrator’s emphasis on the fulfillment of the prophetic word. It is prophetic in a more particular sense as well: It is prophetic in its fundamental message.
From the first days of the human race in Eden, the curse threatened against sin is “Dying, you shall die,” and the same curse hangs over Israel after the Lord cut a covenant with her at Sinai. The message of the prophets is not, “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel needs to get her act together or she will die.”
The message is, “Israel has sinned; therefore, Israel must die, and her only hope is to entrust herself to a God who will give her new life on the far side of death.” Or even, “Israel has sinned; Israel is already dead. Cling to the God who raises the dead.” This is precisely the prophetic message of 1–2 Kings, which systematically dismantles Israel’s confidence in everything—wisdom, Torah, the temple—everything but the omnipotent mercy and patience of God.
The opening chapters of 1 Kings highlight the wisdom of Solomon. Wisdom is the royal virtue par excellence (1 Kings 3:3–14; Prov. 4:7–9; 8:1–11), yet Solomon’s wisdom does not prevent him from falling into sustained idolatry and leaving the Davidic kingdom disrupted and truncated.
After Solomon, though, wisdom simply disappears from 1–2 Kings. Royal wisdom, touted so heavily at the opening of the book, fails to deliver, showing that Israel’s hope for restoration, blessing, and life does not lie in human wisdom, no matter what heights it attains. As a prophetic book, 1–2 Kings warns against confidence in princes.
Josiah is the only king who thoroughly obeys the Mosaic Torah. Obedience to Torah fails to deliver also. We are no sooner assured that he keeps Torah to perfection (2 Kings 23:25) than we learn that the Lord still intends to destroy Judah: “However, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath with which his anger burned against Judah” (2 Kings 23:26).
Throughout the history of Israel’s monarchy, Torah is neglected and forgotten, and when it is finally recovered, even the most thorough obedience imaginable does not work. Once Israel sins, wisdom cannot save Israel and Judah, nor can Torah-obedience. The curse still hangs over North and South: “Dying, you shall die.”
Neither can the temple save them. 1 Kings 8 is a critical chapter in the book, recording the dedication ceremony for Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The temple is an important addition not only to the daily life of Jerusalem and the liturgical life of Israel, but to the covenant arrangements between the Lord and his people. The temple provides a haven for Israel when they fall under judgment.
After 1 Kings 9, the temple recedes from view, serving mainly as a source for gold and silver for Davidic kings to pay off invading Gentiles (cf. 1 Kings 15:18). Solomon’s temple is a refuge for the young prince Joash, who later repairs its ruins (2 Kings 11–12), but no Davidic king ever prays in or toward the temple until Hezekiah is threatened by the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:1).
Soon after, Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, defiles the sanctuary more than any other king of Judah when he places a sacred pole for Asherah in the temple precincts. After a history of neglect and abuse, 2 Kings ends with an account of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the house (25:8–24).
Wisdom cannot save Israel from division; Torah cannot save Judah from destruction; and the last refuge of hope, the temple, is torn apart and burned by a Babylonian king. In the end, all that made Israel Israel—king and priest, Torah and temple—is destroyed. As prophetic narrative, 1–2 Kings makes it clear that there is no salvation for Israel from within Israel. If Israel is left to herself, there is only death.
To end our consideration here, however, would do an injustice to 1–2 Kings, and particularly to a Christian reading of it. The book is prophetic because it points to, anticipates, and foreshadows the gospel of Jesus the Christ, and a Christian reading of 1–2 Kings must regard it not primarily as historical, prophetic, or sapiential, but as evangelical.
It reveals the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who is long-suffering and patient, who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. There is, of course, plenty of evidence that the Lord of Israel is a God of righteous jealousy and wrath.
Still, the God revealed in this book is not peevish and vindictive, a God quick to fly off the handle. On the contrary, a careful reading of 1–2 Kings reveals a God who is always giving more than people ask, imagine, or deserve (1 Kings 3:10–14; 2 Kings 3:17–18; 4:8–17), a God of infinite, uncanny, unnerving patience.
By the time Judah is sent into Babylonian exile in 2 Kings 25, we are not saying, “My, what a harsh God”; if we have read attentively, we are saying, “It’s about time! What took him so long?” The offense is not that God is angry with the innocent. The offense is the offense of Jonah: the offense of God’s mercy, the offense of the Lord’s unearthly patience with the irascible and unresponsive.
First and Second Kings reveals the glory of the Lord revealed to Moses on Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth, who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:6–7). First and Second Kings reveals the glory of the Lord, the glory later incarnate in Jesus.
His Own Rebellious People
Israel’s history is not only an evangelical history of God, but an ecclesial history of the people of God. As such, it helps Christians in every communion think through the problems of divided Christianity.
As Radner points out in his book The End of the Church, division was not the cause of eventual exile; division was itself a punishment for a more fundamental apostasy. First and Second Kings focuses ecumenical efforts on the central issue, and issues a warning that myriads of joint declarations on justification, important as they may be, fail to address the causes of ecclesiastical division.
Despite the multiple apostasies on both sides, both sides continue to be objects of the Lord’s attention and care. Israel and Judah together, and Israel and Judah as separated nations, remain the people of God.
This is the more obvious with regard to Judah, as the Lord preserves a “lamp for David” through threat after threat (1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19), but it is also evident in the Lord’s patience and faithfulness to the North. A prophet intervenes to prohibit Rehoboam from attacking his “brothers” to the North (1 Kings 12:21–24), and the very fact that the Lord continues to send prophets to call Israel’s kings to repentance is a sign of his continuing mercy.
The Lord chooses and rejects dynasties and kings, but he remains attentive to the people they rule. Late in the history of Israel, after generations of kings have committed the sins of Jeroboam and after the Omride dynasty pledged allegiance to Baal and declared war on the prophets of the Lord, he is still reluctant to abandon his people (2 Kings 13:22–25; 14:23–27), so deep is his affection for them and for their fathers.
The Lord considers this rebellious people his own, bound to him by covenant, and shows mercy “because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (13:23). Divided politically and liturgically, the Lord views both Israel and Judah through the one lens of the covenant. From the history of Israel, we can find no basis for any portion of the divided post-Reformation Western Christianity to consider the other “lost,” separated from God’s mercy.
A Whole Remnant
Modern ecumenists find 1–2 Kings challenging because it presents no program for reunion. It instead recounts the Lord’s own work in reuniting the divided people of God.
It is a paradoxical work. At the heart of 1–2 Kings is the lengthy narrative of the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha, who not only challenge the idolatries of the Omride kings but lead a renewal movement in the North, the communities of the “sons of the prophets.”
Through them the Lord forms a community within Israel that does not kiss Baal (1 Kings 19:18) and that enjoys life and fruitfulness by clinging to the prophet, the bearer of the presence and life of the Lord. In short, the Spirit enters the divided kingdom through the agency of the prophets, and begins to restore it, counter-intuitively, by dividing it again, as the Spirit’s sword, the word of the prophets, separates husband from wife, brother from brother, mother from daughter, father from son.
It is misleading, however, to describe these prophetic communities as a “remnant,” and this title is especially misleading when the nation of Israel as a whole is displaced by a “remnant” viewed as the “true Israel.” In the Bible, “remnant” describes the whole people of Israel who live through judgment, not a subdivision of the people of Israel who remain faithful in the midst of apostasy.
The notion that the prophetic communities constitute the “true Israel” and the deduction that some particular ecclesial community in contemporary Christianity is the true church have powerfully supported sectarian ecclesiologies of withdrawal since the Reformation, among both Catholics and Protestants. Such an ecclesiology cannot be sustained by the narrative of 1–2 Kings.
Elijah and, even more, Elisha do form an alternative community within Israel, which functions as an ecclesiola in ecclesia in the midst of the idolatrous national church of Israel. Elisha is a living temple of sorts, who offers the people of the Northern Kingdom what the temple provides in the South, and there are hints that the sons of the prophets function as a kind of alternative to the corrupted priesthood at the shrines of the Omride kings.
But contrary to some remnant ecclesiologies, the Lord does not turn away from the palace to attend exclusively to the sons of the prophets. Elijah repeatedly confronts the Omride kings and calls them to repentance (1 Kings 18:16–19; 21:17–24; 2 Kings 1:1–16), and, though Elisha leads the sons of the prophets, he also, despite his evident disgust at idolatry, repeatedly advises and assists the Omride king Jehoram (2 Kings 3:13–20; 6:8–14; 7:1). The Lord does not give up easily on the Northern Kingdom, and neither do his prophets.
American Evangelicals have often operated with free-church ecclesiologies in which they regard themselves as the “remnant,” the true Israel, separated from the “false church” of mainline Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. Thinking they are following Luther, they withdraw from contact with mainline Christianity and even more from Catholics, largely ignoring them and leaving them to their own devices.
Elijah and Elisha do not entertain the comforting illusion that they can carry on happily as the true Israel while the Omrides take the nation further into the cesspool of idolatry. They recognize that they are inevitably bound with the nation as a whole, and their prophetic labors that gather faithful communities within Israel aim not at forming a permanent alternative to Israel but at renewing Israel.
Those outside the mainline do not have the luxury of considering mainline confusions and apostasies “their problem” as opposed to “our problem.” If the Episcopal Church sanctions homosexual conduct among its bishops, that is as much a problem for believers in a Bible Church as it is for Episcopalians themselves. The scandal of homosexual priests should occasion no more glee among Protestants than adulterous televangelists should occasion among Catholics. These are our scandals, never theirs.
The Real Remnant
Further, the “remnant”—the sons of the prophets—disappears after 2 Kings 6, apart from the sole prophet who anoints Jehu (2 Kings 9:1–10), demonstrating that their renewal movement is no more an ultimate solution to Israel’s fall into idolatry than royal wisdom, Torah-keeping, or the temple. When the Assyrians invade to destroy Samaria, they make no distinction between those who are faithful to the prophets and those who are not.
Israel as a whole—sons of the prophets along with the sons of apostate noblemen and kings—suffers exile together. As Israel is carried into exile, the members of the renewal movement are in many respects indistinguishable from the rest of Israel.
But not in all respects: Those who listen to the prophets are equipped to resist the temptations and face the challenges of exile, surviving the Babylonian invasion by submitting to Nebuchadnezzar (as Jeremiah instructs), maintaining their identity and worship as the people of God, and refusing assimilation among the Gentiles.
The Israel that the Lord brings from exile is the “remnant,” the “survivors,” who survive not only physically but culturally and religiously; they survive as Israel. Elijah and Elisha prepare the way for this remnant Israel by preserving faith in a corrupt generation.
The prophets are not successful in reuniting the divided Israel. Nor are the kings. Josiah makes an attempt, but like everything else he attempts, his bid at reuniting Israel under a Davidic king is ultimately futile. He reunites the kingdom just in time for Babylonian exile, and when Nebuchadnezzar besieges Jerusalem, he attacks the capital of an Israel that has lately been liturgically if not politically reunited. Josiah’s effort to reunite Israel is as right as his dutiful but doomed adherence to Mosaic law, but he is not to be the one to tie together the stick of Judah with the stick of Israel in an enduring unity; the Lord is.
Israel and Judah go into exile with the promise of Ezekiel 37 ringing in their ears:
The ecclesiology of 1–2 Kings is thus profoundly evangelical, and Israel’s history of division and reunion becomes a figure of the grace of the gospel. Imitating the zeal of Josiah, divided Christians must make every effort to reunite, but 1–2 Kings makes it clear that our hope for union does not lie in human efforts to unify.
No matter how diligent and faithful Christians’ efforts are, only the Lord can tie together Rome with Wittenberg and Geneva and Canterbury and Zurich, not to mention Constantinople and Moscow. Hope for reunion of all Christians is thus the same as the hope of the gospel.
Hope for a future single body lies with the God who has committed himself by oath to bless all nations in Abraham’s seed, who has promised to gather from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people to form a body where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and, surely, neither Presbyterian nor Methodist, neither Protestant nor Catholic. The hope for union for a divided Christianity is in a God who always calls Israel back from exile, who always raises the dead.
In Israel’s history, reunion was the work of God, who forged a new Israel through the strange cure of exile. Modernity is, arguably, the Babylonian Exile of Christianity, her (often voluntary) marginalization and retreat from the cultural and political engagement inherent in the evangelical proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Modernity is the crucible that may melt divided Christianity and recombine her into one.
If modernity seems a rather comfortable exile, we should remember the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of believers slaughtered by men in the grip of manic modern ideologies; we should remember the vicious “wars of religion” that decimated Europe in the seventeenth century, and the systematic efforts at de-Christianization that occurred during the French Revolution; we should recall that Christians, too, were killed in Nazi death camps, and that believers were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in various Marxist Gulags; we should contemplate the piles of skulls in Idi Amin’s Uganda, and the Christian bones in the killing fields of Cambodia.
As modernity staggers in its death throes, there are signs that the centuries-long estrangement of Christian from Christian is ending, and that in this exile, as in Israel’s, the Lord has been quietly binding the stick of Judah to the stick of Israel to bring both together back from the grave.
Divided Israel died in exile, and was resurrected in her return (Ezekiel 37), and thus became a living figure of the gospel of God, the God who raises the dead. Might we not hope that divided Christendom might become a similar living figure of her Head when, after the long exile of modernity comes to an end, she is publicly and visibly what she truly is, One New Man?
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