Reading Samuel&endash;Kings and Chronicles
First and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings pick up the story where Judges leaves it and carry it all the way to the Babylonian exile, a time period of over five hundred years. Presently divided into four books, they are actually one connected book divided into four parts.
First and 2 Chronicles—one book divided into two parts&etake us to the end of King Saul’s reign and the beginning of David’s (1 chronicles 1–9). Then, starting in 1 Chronicles 10, the story continues from the death of Saul beyond the Babylonian exile to the time when the Persian king Cyrus allows the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem.
While Chronicles stretches over a substantially longer time period than does Samuel–Kings, the largest part of it covers the exact same time period as the earlier work does. Why the repetition?
Before we answer this question, we should raise a second one. As we read and compare these books’ coverage of the same time period, we see that they have a significantly different take on the same events. Samuel–Kings presents a highly negative view of Israel and Judah during this time. Israel and its kings constantly disobey God. Chronicles, on the other hand, has a predominantly positive view of Israel and Judah. Only occasionally are sins mentioned. Why the radically different perspectives?
We get our answer when we realize when these two books (Samuel–Kings and Chronicles) were written. And we find out when they were written by looking at the very last events they mention. Samuel–Kings mentions the release of King Jehoiachin from a Babylonian prison (2 kings 25:27–30), which took place smack-dab in the middle of the exile; thus the book was written during the exile. (While the exile lasts from 586–539 bc, this episode took place between 562 and 560 bc.) Chronicles, as we mentioned, goes on and describes the start of the return from the exile (2 chronicles 36:22–23), so it was written during the period after the exile (sometime after 539 bc).
Once we realize this, we can understand why two histories of such different perspectives are not only possible, but important. After all, they are speaking to different audiences who have different questions.
God’s people who live during the exile have one burning question: “Why are we in exile?” Samuel–Kings answers that question by recounting their many sins through their history. In particular, Samuel–Kings uses the book of Deuteronomy as a standard for their behavior. Deuteronomy contains Moses’s final sermon to the Israelites who were about to go into the Promised Land, and he laid out God’s requirements (chs. 5–26) along with warnings about punishments (chs. 27–28). Samuel–Kings tells the sad story of how Israel constantly broke the covenant, in particular the law mandating that sacrifice could only take place at the Temple (deuteronomy 12). They did not listen to the true prophets that God sent them, but only the false ones (deuteronomy 13:1–5 and 18:14–22). Their kings did not live up to the standard God set for them (deuteronomy 17:14–20). Thus, God allowed the Babylonians to defeat them and take them into exile.
At the time of the writing of Chronicles the exile was already over, so the question “Why are we in exile?” no longer pressed upon the people. Rather, after experiencing the tremendous disruption of the exile, God’s people are asking questions such as “What is our connection to the past?” and “How should we live now?” Chronicles answers these questions with genealogies showing their connection to the past (1 chronicles 1–9). The book puts a big emphasis on David’s preparation for and Solomon’s building of the temple because the first order of business for those who returned from the exile was to rebuild the temple. And the reason why there is an emphasis on positive stories is to give God’s people good role models for their future life with God.
Now we can see the importance of reading both histories. Chronicles is not simply saying the same thing as Samuel–Kings but using the history of Israel to teach God’s people new things. And they are important not only for the original audiences but also for us.
So what is important about Samuel–Kings and Chronicles for us today?
We need to keep our eyes focused on our relationship with God. We don’t earn our way into the kingdom of heaven. God saves us; we don’t save ourselves. We find meaning and purpose in our lives as we respond to God’s grace with our worship and obedience. We may suffer in this fallen world, but we can flourish even in the midst of our struggles if we turn to God to comfort us.
Perhaps most importantly Samuel–Kings and Chronicles tell the continuing story of God’s passionate pursuit of our redemption in spite of our sin. Remember that Judges looked to kingship as a solution to the problem of moral depravity, spiritual confusion, and political division. From Samuel–Kings and Chronicles, we learn that indeed kingship held great promise, particularly as we look at David, who was a king after God’s own heart—so much so that God made a covenant with him that promised that he would have a descendant on the throne forever (2 samuel 7:11–16). Yet David himself was far from perfect, and most of his descendants did not rule in a way that reflected the divine King’s hopes for Israel.
Both histories, however, tell us the monarchy came to an end when Zedekiah was taken in chains to Babylon. Samuel–Kings ends with a glimmer of hope with the release of David’s descendant from prison. Chronicles tells about the end of the Babylonian captivity. But how will this story continue? For that we turn first to three books that talk more about the period after the exile, but ultimately we will need to turn to the New Testament. While Judges pushes us toward kingship as something better, Samuel–Kings shows how these all-too-human kings are themselves deeply flawed, even David and his line. Samuel–Kings makes us yearn for something better, and later we will see that these sinful human kings prepare us for Jesus the Christ (Messiah), our anointed king. By emphasizing the positive picture of the kings of Judah, we get an even clearer picture of the coming Messiah.