So what’s wrong with a monarchy?
Let’s look at the record. From the beginning of David’s reign (2884 – 876 BCE) until the destruction of the first Temple and death of the last king of Yehuda (3338 – 422 BCE), there were twenty one kings in Jerusalem.
Spanning a period of approximately half of that of the line of David, there were twenty one kings of the breakaway ten tribes. Every one of the northern kings was an idol worshipper, and a good majority of the population of the ten northern tribes followed their leaders’ example. Nearly half of the kings in Jerusalem were themselves idol worshippers (Achaz, Menashe, Amon etc.), some in a most disgusting and insane of ways.
But Jewish history is not just a story of kings and their families. It’s just that, to a large extent, the king was responsible for the religious life of his people. When a king was bad, most of the people went with him. When he was good, his people could soar to majestic heights. A Jewish king was a leader in every sense of the word – and in every direction. And there lies the danger of the monarchy. For if everything rests on the shoulders of one man, it stands or falls with him. If those shoulders should buckle under the weight, the whole house can tumble. Under the Shoftim (the Judges) however, there was much more room for individual movement. The judge didn’t enjoy the all-powerful influence over the kingdom’s daily life that the kings would later inherit, so even if a judge went bad, the nation wasn’t centralized enough to be drawn down with him.
Perhaps because judges held less power than kings, or perhaps because of the nature of the institution, corruption and idol worship were not generally associated with the position.
The book of Kings, appropriately, covers the period of Jewish history in which Jewish kings ruled over the Jewish nation in the Jewish land. We are lead from the death of King David (2924, or 836), until the destruction of the first Temple (3338, or 422 BCE). The destruction of the first Temple marked the end of the reign of the last king of Judah (Yehuda). The book of Kings spans the years from the Jewish commonwealth’s greatest era to the tragedy that seemed certain to bring an end to Judaism itself.
The forty year rule of King Solomon (Shlomo – the son of David) was a rule of peace and prosperity. It was the high point in Jewish history – the time when the nation dwelt in Israel, while remaining safe from hostile neighbors, and free to come to worship and serve G-d at their Temple in Jerusalem. During this period the nation had the means and, by all accounts, the desire to serve G-d in their Temple. But this near-perfect situation was not to last. Even before Solomon’s death, the seeds of revolt and intrigue had already been planted.
Rechavam, the son of Solomon, was set to inherit the empire from his father. But G-d was leading events in another direction. For no clear reason, Rechavam chose to oppress his own people “My father gave you a heavy burden (of taxes and national service), and I will add to your burden. My father rebuked you with clubs, and I will rebuke you with thorns” (I Kings 12; 14).
The majority of the nation – the ten northern tribes – rebelled against the rule of Rechavam and broke off to form a new country under the rule of Yeravam ben Nevat. This part of the Jewish people quickly fell to the deepest depths of idol worship from which they never recovered. Around 250 years later, the ten tribes were exiled and scattered by Sancheriv – the king of Assyria (what is known today, more or less, as northern Iraq).
What had made Rechavam – the son of the wisest of men – do something so stupid? With nothing more than the text of the Tanach (Bible) itself, we can see that this “insane” decision was no different from that of Pharaoh who chose to fight a suicidal battle against the Almighty G-d. “The hearts of kings are in the hand of G-d.” There are times when G-d Himself intervenes in history, sometimes even partially suspending a person’s free will.
This was one of those times. How do we know? Just read verse 15:
“And the king did not listen to the people, for it was caused by G-d in order to uphold His word that He had sent…to Yeravam.”
It was this reality – a reality of two opposing Jewish nations – that was to be the setting for most of the rest of the book of Kings. The people of the northern kingdom generally followed their kings away from the service of G-d (and away from Jerusalem – to the point where their kings even placed road blocks to prevent pilgrimages) in a mad, chaotic excess of idol worship. In the other kingdom, those loyal to the line of David also looked to their kings for leadership.
And how were the people of the southern kingdom led? That depends on who was in charge. It was the moral mood of a particular king that decided the moral mood of the entire nation. Over and over we read of this or that king slipping to astonishing depths of depravity… and of his people following at his heels. Then, his son or grandson claims the throne and brings G-d back to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people back to G-d. For one example of many, see the lives of Achaz, his son Chizkiya and his son Menashe (II Melachim 16, 18 – 21).
Despite many great moments in the history of the kings of Yehuda (Judah), the overall trend was down. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of the coming destruction but were not heard by enough – and were even persecuted or killed by some. The moral tone of G-d’s people spiraled downward until there was no saving the nation. G-d had only given us the land of Israel and the Temple on the condition that we follow his Mitzvos (see Deuteronomy 8) and we weren’t living up to our side of the bargain.
The book of Kings ends with the greatest of tragedies the destruction of the holy Temple and exile of its people at the hands of the Babylonian king, Nevudchadnezar.