May Bible Readings

The Decline

Last month we looked at the peak of Israel’s story, with the golden age of Jerusalem ruled by David and then Solomon. Tragically, this period was short lived. At the peak of his power, Solomon begins to turn away from God. He marries foreign women (against God’s commands), worships their gods (as God predicts), and builds them palaces and temples throughout Jerusalem. After his death, the Kingdom splits in two, with ten tribes in the north rejecting the house of David and establishing their own capital in Samaria. This begins a period of decline for the people: king after king, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Time and again God sends prophets to warn his people to remember the covenant. But they continue in idolatry and spiritual adultery. The people of God again look indistinguishable from the surrounding nations. The deathbed warnings of Moses, Joshua and David hang over the story as Israel spirals towards eviction from their land, captives taken against their will to serve foreign kings. 

Key Moments

The turning point— when things turn ‘bad’: 1 Kings 11

At the height of his reign, Solomon rejects God in favour of his own wants. In 1 Kings 11:1 the phrase, “loved many foreign women…” suggests an appetite — lust — which corrupted him and led him away from God. The conclusion of verse 3 says it all: “… and his wives led him astray.” The king who looked most likely to fulfil the promise given to Abraham starts to worship foreign gods and begins to force the Israelites into many building projects– beyond the temple– which display his glory. Ironically, Solomon begins to look more and more like the despots of the surrounding nations while Israel’s way of life begins to unravel. 

The prophecy of Ahijah the prophet concerning Jeroboam foretells the division of Solomon’s Kingdom. Once again, the promises of God seem to be under threat.

For further reflection:

  1. When did Solomon’s wives and concubines become a problem to him? Was it the 2nd, the 22nd or the 222nd wife that was the problem? 
  2. What does your answer to the previous question tell you about your own life of following God and your own attitude towards sin?

Decline in the South— from bad to worse: 1 Kings 12:1-24

God still remains faithful to the covenant with David, but the peace that the Kingdom had enjoyed is broken as it splits in two, “Judah” in the south and “Israel/Ephraim” in the north.

Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, does not have his father’s wisdom. Instead, his pride and thirst for power means that the divided kingdom appears to frustrate the blessings promised by God. The summation of Rehoboam’s rule in Jerusalem in 1 Kings 14:21-31 shows how far he had departed from the covenant. Jerusalem’s vulnerability to attack from surrounding nations stands in stark contrast to the security enjoyed under David and Solomon.

To Ponder:

  1. What does the writer suggest about the character of Rehoboam (without explicitly saying so)?
  2. Rehoboam rejects the advice of the elders and ‘consults’ his peers instead. Who has he failed to consult?
  3. What counsel would you have given Rehoboam?

Decline in the North— from bad to worse: 1 Kings 12:25-13:10

Jeroboam’s rule in the North had already been foretold in 1 Kings 11 by the prophet Ahijah but any hope that he might put God first is soon lost. Instead, he shows himself a shrewd politician driven by a lust for power. He uses ‘religion’ to secure his regime: a counterfeit cult is established as a substitute for true worship. Jeroboam’s two golden calfs remind us that Israel has not progressed far since their rebellion in the desert.

To Ponder:

  1. In our place and time, what does ‘counterfeit religion’ look like? In what ways does it appeal to you?
  2. What is your strategy for negating the appeal of ‘counterfeit religion’?

God promises Exile: 2 Kings 21:1-18

The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah are ruled by a succession of kings, some being faithful, but most not. By the time of the reign of Manasseh, the evil of God’s people has exceeded that of the surrounding nations, and once again God promises to intervene: Israel will go into exile.

To ponder: 

  1. In what ways does Manasseh reject God’s intent for his people? 
  2. What justification for the punishment of exile does the author give?

Song of the Vineyard: Isaiah 5

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are written to Israel in the days of their decline, warning them to repent or face exile. In the haunting song of Isaiah 5, God outlines his case against Israel. 

As this parable is turned against the fruitless national life of Israel, we see that God is not indifferent to Israel. Instead, his passionate love for them means that he cannot simply ‘watch from a distance’. He must act.

For further thought:

  1. What ‘fruit’ might God have been looking for in Israel? 
  2. What ‘fruit’ does Jesus look for from his disciples?

The Kings: all in the family?

Sometimes it’s hard to follow who’s who in the lineage of all the various kings of the northern and southern kingdoms. This diagram may (or may not!) help:

Shedding Light on the Scene

The Wisdom of Solomon: Ecclesiastes 12:1-14

The book of Ecclesiastes is framed as Solomon’s search for satisfaction apart from God. Knowing that Solomon’s wandering heart was not entirely faithful God, the reader learns to weigh the words of ‘The Teacher,’ rather than blindly accepting everything on face value. Wisdom is gained in this interaction. At the end, the ageing King’s demise leads the reader to conclude that true satisfaction and security can only be found in fearing God.

Elijah on Mount Carmel: 1 Kings 18

Successive kings reject God and lead his people into idolatry and all kinds of evil. God calls a series of prophets to confront them. Through Elijah, God spectacularly demonstrates to Israel, as he once did to Egypt, that he is still in control. 

For further thought:

  1. What is the role of a prophet as demonstrated in this passage?
  2. What do you make of Elijah’s response to God’s act of deliverance? 

Naaman is healed of leprosy: 2 Kings 5

Israel’s history during their decline includes some curious stories. One of these is the healing of Naaman, a Syrian military commander, and enemy of Israel. The blessing that Israel enjoys “spills over” to affect someone from another nation. Moreover, in the midst of Israel’s decline and apostasy, God still ensures that everyone will know that “there is a prophet in Israel” (v8). God is not without testimony even in the darkest time as Elisha’s remarkable deeds demonstrate God’s sovereignty. The reader is reminded of God’s plan to bring the blessing promised to Abraham to all nations.

And yet, God’s ways are still ignored to the great detriment of his people. 

The destruction of the Northern Kingdom: 2 Kings 17:6-41

In one of Israel’s darkest days, the Northern Kingdom is destroyed by the Assyrians and its people are carried into captivity, being systematically divided and assimilated into the Assyrian culture. Their identity as the people of God seems to be beyond recovery.

For reflection:

  1. What questions are now raised about God’s plan to bless all nations through the offspring of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3)?

The Prophets Warn: Jeremiah 2:1-4:4; Hosea 1-3.

Throughout the decline, prophets continue to call Israel back to God. Jeremiah is one of these prophets whose calls to repentance are ultimately ignored. 

Another prophet, Hosea, lives a life that is a powerful metaphor for Israel’s rejection of God: he marries an unfaithful woman and is told by God to remain faithful to her. He is to woo her back. 

  1. What do you think Hosea teaches Israel (and us) about God’s love?

Looking forward and Looking Backward

There is a constant tension in the biblical narrative between Israel’s identity as the blessed people of God and their rebellious living. God is committed to blessing all people through them (Gen 12:3) and yet they refuse to faithfully represent God to all the nations. Despite God’s unwavering covenant commitment to his promises, Abraham’s family seem most unlikely. Ponder the following characters:

Abraham: Genesis 15-16, 20, 22. 

For good reason Abraham is called the father of faith. Although declared ‘righteous’ in God’s sight, he lived a far from perfect life. He struggles to trust God’s promises. He clearly does not deserve God’s blessing but, nevertheless, God remains faithful to his promise.

What impact does God’s covenant faithfulness have on us as we grapple with the life of Christian discipleship?

Jacob: Genesis 27, 32-33 

Jacob seems a strange choice to carry the story of redemption forward. He is a cunning deceiver estranged from his family. Desperate for God’s blessing, and yet struggling to trust God; his character is refined through many challenges. Ultimately, he is renamed Israel, which means “he wrestles with God,” after doing exactly that. For generations to come, the family of Abraham is known by the name of Israel. For generations to come, the family of Abraham “wrestles with God.”

As you ponder the state of the contemporary church, what parallels do you find with the experience of Israel? As you ponder the life of Abraham’s family, what hope is there for the contemporary church?

Moses and the people in the desert: Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:2-13

Israel in the wilderness seem to fail God more than not. They seem to learn little in 40 years of wandering. Why do you think God doesn’t abandon them?

The early church: Revelation 2-3

As was Israel, the church is a mixed bag. It would be easy to despair. What is God’s call to his people, even in these days after the resurrection of Christ?

Reading the Whole Bible

May 1: 1 Kgs. 12-13
May 2: 1 Kgs. 14-16
May 3: 1 Kgs. 17-19
May 4: 1 Kgs. 20-22
May 5: 2 Kgs. 1-2
May 6: 2 Kgs. 3-4
May 7: 2 Kgs. 5-6
May 8: 2 Kgs. 7-8 
May 9: 2 Kgs. 9-10
May 10: 2 Kgs. 11-12
May 11: 2 Kgs. 13-14
May 12: 2 Kgs. 15-16
May 13: 2 Kgs. 17-18
May 14: 2 Kgs. 19-20
May 15: 2 Kgs. 21-23
May 16: 2 Kgs. 24-25
May 17: 2 Chro. 1-4
May 18: 2 Chro. 5-8
May 19: 2 Chro. 9-12
May 20: 2 Chro. 13-16
May 21: 2 Chro. 17-21
May 22: 2 Chro. 22-25
May 23: 2 Chro. 26-29
May 24: 2 Chro. 29-33
May 25: 2 Chro. 34-36
May 26: Ecc. 1-2
May 27: Ecc. 3-4
May 28: Ecc. 5-6
May 29: Ecc. 7-8
May 30: Ecc. 9-10 
May 31: Ecc. 11-12