The Old Testament: 2 Kings, I – What Makes a Good Ruler?

In 1992, I was awaiting my 18th birthday.  I was looking forward to graduating high school, preparing for college and, of course, Lollapalooza that summer. Oh, and I would be voting in my first election.  I certainly had my criteria.  Young and idealistic, socially liberal, I knew which candidate would get my vote.  Come on, it was no contest: President Bush (sr.) was old, crusty, and seem to be completely out of touch with “young people,” to whom he kept creepily reassuring that he had programs geared towards us.  Ross Perot, although he made effective use of his plethora of charts and graphs, seemed more like an alien than a head of state.  Clinton, on the other hand, was a rock star.  He spoke well, vibrated youthful energy and played the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show.

One of my best friend’s father, for whom I held an enormous amount of respect, sat both me and my friend down and talked politics.  Rather than talk down to us or belittle our opinions, he merely wanted to hear why we thought what we thought, and, at the end of the conversation, he imparted what he felt was the most important piece of advice he could give us: doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something; and remember: Your values will change as you get older.  They’re supposed to do that, and your politics should reflect that.

He wouldn’t be voting for Clinton, who went on to win the election (and reelection four years later).  He was a cool president who made a handful of “mistakes.” Still, he presided over the country’s tech boom and the general air of prosperity that accompanied it. Still, people vilify the man for several reasons.

To be honest, both books of Kings are about as exciting to read as a PowerPoint presentation.  I realize that’s not the point—the chapters contain a catalog of a series of rulers who mostly did wrong by God (and ultimately their people).  And since these rulers typically fell short in one key area—they sinned against God, which usually meant they either worshipped or allowed to be worshipped the wrong (i.e. false) gods, the description of the reign is typically reduced to a paragraph or two.

In general, the kings here continue to screw up.  When they’re not worshipping the wrong gods or building altars to them, they’re threatening prophets (like Elijah and Elisha), sacrificing their own sons (16:3; 21:6), or slaughtering pregnant women (15:16) or evicting male prostitutes from the temples (23:7).

King Joash reigns for forty years, and boy does he have his hands full.  As a child, he was hidden from his grandmother Athaliah—who murdered the remnants of the royal family when she learned that her son King Ahaziah was killed.  This grandmother wanted to rule really badly, apparently (11:2).  He also has to expunge all the false gods/altars from Judah (of which he is somewhat successful—some high altars remain) and repair God’s Temple.  Unfortunately for him, he’s assassinated by his own officials (12:20). In fact, most of the kings discussed in 2 Kings had to watch their backs, as they were often taken down by their own inner circles.

Joash was considered a good ruler, in part because he was one of the few who follows God.  And this is the real barometer in this book of what makes a good ruler—but more times than not, the leaders erred by allowing the other shrines to different god’s to remain.

The real standouts arrive late in the book: Hezekiah, who reigned in Judah for 29 years and brought down the other god altars.  He’s undone by boasting about the temple’s wealth to the Babylonian messengers.

And then there’s Josiah, who reigns for 31 years.  His priests discover the Book of Law in God’s Temple and he spreads god’s word (and their own history).  Apparently, it had been lost, like a family album tucked away in a dusty attic. Although he succeeds in renewing the covenant with God, the lord is fed up.  In the end, Josiah’s reward is that he will not live to see Jerusalem fall.

In the end, aside from the truly heinous actions—human sacrifice—2 Kings uses few guidelines to judge the quality of these rulers.  I.e. on moral/religious grounds.  The accounts are so brief, you have to take the author’s word for their character, reducing the information to what would be considered in modern times a sound bite.  This makes it difficult to arrive at an informed decision about the quality of a person’s character.  But given how I once made up my mind about which president to vote for, I guess we all have our own guidelines.  Although I would make the same decision now, I wish I had been exposed to more information.  When you only use the information provided—info provided in a compressed manner (sound bites), we side with people based on bullet points.  This is a bigger problem when someone else—a newscaster, for example—is providing these bullet points.

At the end of the day, we just want a person to be in charge who reflects what we consider important. Sometimes this works out; sometimes, not so much.  But if you want to take the information at face value, maybe it’s less mentally taxing if you implicitly trust the source. When I voted for president for the first time, I thought I was given enough to make my decision; as I’ve matured, I realize who little I had to go on, even if I still would cast the same vote today.

About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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