1 Now King David was old and advanced in years. And although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. 2 Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm.” 3 So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. 4 The young woman was very beautiful, and she was of service to the king and attended to him, but the king knew her not. – 1 Kings 1:1-4 ESV
It would be easy to assume that the books of 1st and 2nd Kings are nothing more than historical accounts that provide a chronological record of the kings of Israel and Judah. They read like a two-volume ancient history textbook, providing detailed accounts of the reigns of 40 different kings who eventually ruled over the people of God. But these two books are far more than a retelling of past historical events. They were written to tell a story and to provide an explanation for Israel’s sorry state of affairs after their return from exile.
While we don’t know the identity of the author of these two books, we do know to whom they were written. In their original form, they comprised one book that was addressed to the people of Israel who survived captivity in Babylon and were part of the remnant who returned to the land. As they made their way back to the land after 70 years of subjugation to the Babylonians, they discovered the city of Jerusalem in an abysmal state of disrepair and the beautiful temple built by King Solomon to be nothing but a pile of rubble. The gates of the city had been destroyed. The once-formidable walls were lying in ruins. The former capital of Israel was a virtual ghost town. And while the people would eventually restore the city and rebuild the temple, the nation would never enjoy a return to its glory days.
But how did this happen? What caused the fall of one of the greatest nations on earth? Why did God abandon His people and allow them to undergo such devastating destruction at the hands of their enemies?
Those are the kinds of questions that the books of 1st and 2nd Kings attempt to answer. They retell the sad story of Israel’s demise. 1st Kings begins with the coronation of King Solomon and his dedication of the temple. 2nd Kings ends with the capture of King Zedekiah and the destruction of the temple. And in between, we are given a detailed accounting of Israel’s serial unfaithfulness to God. The author provides his audience with a no-holds-barred retelling of Israel’s fall from the heights of glory to the depths of despair and devastation. And it is not a pretty picture. But it is intended to be a memorable one, providing those who read it with a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of what happens to those who forsake the Lord.
But these two books are not all doom and gloom. Yes, they paint a not-so-attractive picture of the people of God, portraying them as unfaithful and fully deserving of God’s judgment. But they also provide undeniable evidence of God’s unwavering faithfulness. After all, those who ended up reading these two books were living on the other side of the exile. They were fortunate to be among those who had been restored to the land of promise because God had kept His word. He had told them they would go into captivity for 70 years, but He had also promised that a remnant would be allowed to return. And He had been faithful to do exactly what He said He would do.
It was George Santayana who wrote in 1905, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And God wanted His people to know and understand every sordid and sorry detail concerning their past relationship with Him. Their current state of affairs had historical precedence. For the people of God, sin will always have consequences. Unfaithfulness will not go unpunished. Disobedience will not go undisciplined. And these two books were not just intended to be a simple retelling of ancient history, but they were designed to prevent its repetition. Even today, there is much we modern westerners can learn from the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. They contain timeless lessons that bear repeating and offer the unflattering portraits of men whose examples we should avoid.
And the very first portrait we are given is of the aging King David. We are told he was “old and advanced in years” (1 Kings 1:1 ESV). The once-powerful king of Israel is shown to be a shadow of his former self. The warrior-king who helped establish Israel as one of the greatest nations on earth has been relegated from the battlefield to the bedroom. Rather than fighting the enemies of Israel, he is waging a hopeless battle with the effects of old-age and senility. The one of whom they used to sing: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7 ESV), is now portrayed as a feeble old man, covered in blankets and fighting to stay warm.
His body suffering the ravages of time, David is unable to produce enough body heat to keep himself warm. In his old age, the slayer of Goliath finds himself so weak that he has to rely on the body heat of a young slave girl to keep him alive. In his prime, David suffered from an inordinate attraction to beautiful women that often got him into trouble. And because David is still the king, his advisors seek out the most beautiful woman they can find. But at this point in his life, the only pleasure David can derive from Abishag the Shunammite is the warmth her body can produce.
The author makes it quite clear that David received no sexual pleasure from this arrangement. It was totally utilitarian in nature.
The girl was very beautiful, and she looked after the king and took care of him. But the king had no sexual relations with her. – 1 Kings 1:4 NLT
As the book opens up, we are given a less-than-flattering glimpse of King David, confined to bed and constricted to mere survival. The great king of Israel is portrayed with diminished capacities and at the end of his life. His amazing rise to power and the record of his many accomplishments are found in the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel. But David’s days of glory are over. His reign is coming to an end. And his death will usher in an important point of transition for the nation of Israel. The stability the nation has enjoyed under his leadership will be put to the test. The peoples’ dedication and commitment to God will be exposed for what it really is: Lacking.
In some ways, the description of David’s physical condition provides a subtle portrayal of the spiritual condition of the nation. Over time, they have grown spiritually cold and incapable of rekindling the fire they once had for God. It won’t be long until they find themselves sharing their beds with the “young women” of the pagan nations in an attempt to “heat up” their languishing spiritual lives.
David had been a good king. He was the “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). but even his godly leadership had failed to produce faithfulness among the people of Israel. And, as we will see, his influence over his own children will prove to have been lacking. Even before he breathes his final breath, David will find his kingdom under siege by his own family. From the king’s palace to the peasant’s hut, the unfaithfulness of Israel will soon be on full display.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.