No matter how many times I read certain portions of the Bible, I tend to react the same way, with the feeling I’m taking a seat on one of those ever-popular “spinning” carnival rides where the entire structure spins in circles while each individual car spins independently, on its own orbit of pure nauseating insanity. While getting buckled in by the ride attendees, my gut and my mind voice hesitation, fear and confused excitement. An inner dialogue can be faintly heard: “Are we really about to do this?” As the loud, punctuated whistle of the ride-operator initiates the craziness, all that I can do is hold and keep holding on. In a weird way, these same sensations arise the moment I proceed deeper into certain books of the Old Testament, especially the books of the Kings. Reading the name, “Jeroboam” is like me getting buckled into my seat. Reading “Rehoboam,” I know that the ride has begun and disorientation will soon meet me head on.
For me, this feeling is triggered by the knowledge that in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, the names come fast, they change even faster, the stories intertwine and bypass each other, and there seems to be an overwhelming sensation of confusion.
My approach to these books of the Bible resembles my notoriously bad approach to the books I used to read in high school where my eyes would finish pages before my brain could comprehend anything I’d read and, before I knew it, the pages indicated that I was done. The time passed aligned with the amount needed to read a passage of that particular size, but my brain seemed more empty than before I started reading in the first place. One thing that a Bible reader should constantly be asking is, “What is the point?” Or perhaps, “What did I just read?”
There are several areas of the Bible evoke this inquiry more often than others. In my experience that 1 and 2 Kings finds me checking for my own understanding frequently. With the storyline transitioning back and forth between some Kings doing good, followed quickly by an overwhelming list of Kings acting like heathens, repeated with the rhythm of a pendulum, it is justifiable to ask, “What is the point?”
I sense two things happening to me as I read the Kings. The scripture gets denser due to the fact that there are more names, more countries and more individual “power-players” to keep track of and understand. And my mind, trying to keep track of this Biblical “carnival ride,” starts to work harder and harder to keep up and focus. Interestingly, my feeling of confusion toward the text is mirrored in the relationships I read about within the text. More specifically, my feelings are mirrored in the cycle of the relationship of God to his people and their commitment to him as shown in the text. The more names that come into view, the less clear the view became for them and for me. The more stories I am called to follow, the less I seem able to follow the one most important story. I become disoriented just like the Kings of Israel. I become distracted, just like the Kings of Israel.
What we find, beginning with King David and leading into the divided Kingdom, is that the further Israel wandered away from God the more complicated it was to be God’s chosen people. The more Israel divided their attention and gave God company in their hearts with the temptations of sin and the outward attitude of idolatry and apostasy, the more complicated their lives, both as individuals and as a people, became.
There is a clear progression from David to his grandson Rehoboam: from a point of near total commitment to God and the fruits of a “one on one” relationship in David, to a juggling act of idolatry with David’s son. The result is that the proverbial balls drop and the carnival act suffers. The more the Kings tried, and the more we try, to juggle God amongst other things, the less focus and commitment we are able to devote to God completely.
For example, on a day-to-day basis, our time, energy, thoughts and actions are constantly pulled in different, often opposing directions. However, living a life for God means that there is only room enough for one God on the throne, only one voice to be listened to. This reality is at the heart of a Christian. To try to balance the two contradicts God, contradicts Jesus Christ and contradicts the claim that one is a Christian at all.
This idea of one King and one voice in total control of our lives is often offensive to people, and this idea of one God that demands our full attention seems selfish and unreasonable. However, these negative responses to God’s claims on himself are only understandable if there is a misunderstanding of the God making such “offensive demands.” What kind of “God” is demanding this totally radical restructuring of the soul? If God is just a demanding and judgmental deity then, of course, one might hesitate to put him uncontested on the throne, and rightfully protest such a demand. However, if this God who demands the entire life of a believer is a provider, a healer and a father, one might second-guess their initially visceral response to his rights as God.
The original intention of God for his relationship to his people was that human or worldly Kingship would never be needed in the first place. In the beginning, there was supposed to be pure trust and dependence on the one true God concerning every aspect of our worldly lives, so that the need for a human King would be unnecessary and illogical. However, as we know, the story took a different turn. Israel demanded and got a human king, and the years of “Israel’s Kings” began.
Throughout the period of Kingship and Dynasty, we notice that the more Israel as a people disintegrated from within, the more disintegrated their relationship with God became. The more they divided their mind and heart between God and everything else, the more things became uncertain and unstable. This can be seen in our approach to God as well.
When our hearts are divided between job, family, friends, dreams, hobbies, and then there’s God, it’s no surprise that the attempt to juggle everything at once is doomed to fail. Imagine trying to speak with 10 different people all at once. The chance of fully understanding each person equally, giving each person the focus and concentration that their conversation requires of you, is literally impossible. The case is the same with God. The more he takes hold of the entirety of our hearts, the more we are able to see him completely, and the more clearly we can hear his uncontested voice.
While the analogy of the conversation offers an audio example in understanding the nature of distraction, let’s use binoculars for a more visual analogy. Imagine you find yourself at a sporting event. You know your seats are directly across the stadium from some friends of yours, and in an attempt to spot your friends, you pull out your binoculars. However, before putting the set to your eyes you must first glance with your naked eye at the area of the stadium which you think most likely contains your friends. From where you sit, using just the naked eye, it is impossible to see any one person clearly. All you see is a collage of colors and shapes. This is like trying to view our lives in one moment without the clarity that God provides us. We try to see everything all at once, and ultimately cannot see anything clearly at all. The view in front of us is overwhelming, intimidating, and impossible to comprehend or decipher. Such is the experience of a life lived without the focus on God, of God and by God.
At this point in our fictional stadium scenario you remember your binoculars. As you put the set to your eyes and aim at the area you think hosts your friends, you find that the view is blurred and nothing is clearly visible. However, adjusting the dial slowly brings the view into focus. To your surprise and delight, you find your friends, distant and small, but with every detail accentuated and clearly visible. This is the effect that the Holy Spirit has on us when we no longer try to take in the view in front of us unassisted, but allow our sight to be purely on God the Father, enhanced by his vision. By centering our sight on God alone, and through the focusing power of the Holy Spirit, we can finally see a life that is not only clearly visible but also completely manageable and possible. What we now have is a confidence in a God we can trust, that not only understands the difficulties of this world, but has also overcome everything in it, and offers us the power to overcome it with him. One of the reasons why the saga of the Kings in Israel’s history is so confusing and disorienting is that God’s authority was not the focus of their Kingly positions. God’s authority was not used to focus their lives, although their Kingship was intended to glorify God and accentuate His primary Kingship over creation and in turn bless them according to his will and design. The result was a blurred and nauseating period in Israel’s history that takes even readers today on a dizzying ride through this tumultuous period of man’s relationship with God.
The Kingship era in Israel’s history is an approach to life that focuses on idols while still claiming to have a place in our heart for God. The result is not clarity. The result is chaos and we create trouble that God never designed for us to experience. One must return to the moment before boarding the carnival ride. The pre-Kingship design of God to man had at its center a relationship. As in a marriage, time, energy and effort were to be divided between two mutually adoring and selfless parties with no need or desire for anything else. It is in this relationship that each party enjoys clarity and purpose. It is in this relationship that God desires to be united with us and it is in this relationship that Jesus Christ has provided the door through which we may seek entrance. We know he promises to open that door. The question is, are we knocking?
The lesson learned from reading the Kings is that life has the potential of becoming complicated and disorienting. However, the choice to allow such disorientation rests with each of us. We have authority over the door to our hearts. We control how hospitable we are toward temptations and distraction. We have control to realize our place as the created under the authority and care of the Creator. We can also convince ourselves that we are not held accountable to any higher power. In confronting the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must ask two important questions. First, do we desire to be defined by a greater and more powerful King, and accept his will and his authority? Or second, do we desire to define our own path with the hopes of becoming a great and powerful King, and are we willing to accept the risks and dangers of doing so? My advice would be to learn from Israel’s Kings and be redefined, led and protected by the “King of Kings” in Jesus Christ, and be thankful that God has given us a warning view of the dangers of that carnival ride, and provides us the opportunity to choose to never get on in the first place.