In 931 BC the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms as was foretold during the reign of Solomon. Ten tribes left under the reign of Jeroboam to form the northern kingdom or what is referred to as the kingdom of Israel (not to be confused with the nation of Israel). The tribe of Judah remained loyal to the throne of David and Rehoboam. The twelfth tribe is practically unaccounted for in scripture at times as there are times when the split is clearly defined as ten tribes to the north and the remaining tribe to the south. Nevertheless, the tribe of Benjamin does remain allied with Judah. Judah is clearly the more significant tribe however as King David and all of the kings of the southern kingdom will come from Judah. The southern kingdom is referred to as the kingdom of Judah.
From the time of the split until the time that the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC, the kingdom of Israel was dominated by evil kings. The kingdom of Judah on the other hand had a mix of good and bad kings.
The northern kingdom is also marked by turmoil as several kings are assassinated or otherwise meet untimely deaths. There are multiple families who control the throne in the northern kingdom including 5 “dynasties” that have at least one son follow in his father’s footsteps. The southern kingdom has much more stability as the line of David controls the throne the whole time. Stability is also found in the number of kings. The northern kingdom had nineteen kings while the southern kingdom had only twenty. This is despite the fact that the kingdom of Judah continues on for almost another 150 years after the destruction of the northern kingdom. Longer average reigns obviously brings about additional stability.
If one were to rate the kings of Judah as simply good or bad, bad would win out but not by a strong margin. There are eight kings who could be considered mostly good to very good: Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Hezekiah is the best among these kings. The average of their reigns is 33 years each.
On the other hand, there are twelve kings who might be considered mostly bad to downright wicked. Manasseh is the worst of these men and Athaliah, the only woman to reign in Judah is also among the wicked. Their average reign is only about ten years each but it is worth noting that Manasseh reigns for 55 years which is longer than any other king in Judah or Israel. Despite being the most wicked king, Manasseh is humbled by the Lord and led into captivity in Babylon. There he repents of his wickedness and God restores him to the throne.
Even though the southern kingdom didn’t get off to a great start under Rehoboam who was the cause of split of the nation of Israel, things start to go downhill around the time of the fall of the northern kingdom. There were plenty of bad kings before this time and two of Judah’s best kings reign after this but 722 BC is probably a good place to start if one is telling a narrative of the fall of the southern kingdom.
Hezekiah is the best king of Judah and he is probably second only to David in all of Israelite history. However, it is during the sixth year of his reign that the northern kingdom falls. Assyria will then place pressure upon Judah for the life of the empire, only to cease when Babylon comes to power.
Hezekiah is a righteous king and he does away with the idols that have appeared in Judah. Likewise, he does not bow to pressure from Assyria. God strikes the armies of Sennacherib dead overnight, killing 185,000 who were ready to attack Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Hezekiah does have a flaw.
The prophet Isaiah comes to Hezekiah and tells him to get his household in order because he is going to die. Hezekiah prays and God grants him another fifteen years to live. During this time Manasseh is born to Hezekiah. Judah’s best king will be succeeded by Judah’s worst.
Likewise, after Hezekiah’s life has been extended, envoys from Babylon come to visit him. In his pride Hezekiah shows them all of the wealth that he has accumulated. Isaiah returns once again to inform Hezekiah that all of the wealth that he boasted of would one day belong to the Babylonians. This is not a direct punishment because of Hezekiah’s pride however and Hezekiah does repent of this. Nevertheless, it is a warning that the Babylonians would come and that all of Hezekiah’s boasting was foolish and worthless.
Manasseh largely undid all that his father Hezekiah did. He built new altars and high places to idols and did all kinds of things that were detestable to the Lord. Even though he reigned in Judah for fifty five years, there isn’t much recorded about him aside from his wicked idolatry. God chose to humble Manasseh however. He was carried into captivity in Babylon where he repented of his wickedness. This should have served as a warning to the rest of the kingdom that Babylon was powerful and that God could and would use them to accomplish his will. Even though Manasseh learned his lesson and tore down the idols that he had constructed, the damage was already done.
Manasseh’s son Amon was wicked like he was and he continued the practice of sacrificing to idols. He was assassinated after only two years on the throne and Josiah was made king.
Josiah is the second youngest king of Judah, coming to power when he was only eight years old. His reign represents one final opportunity for the kingdom to repent. Even though disaster had already been prophesied, undoubtedly God would have postponed it for a while longer if Judah learned from Josiah.
Josiah is a righteous king and he begins to seek after the Lord at the age of sixteen. At the age of twenty he destroyed the idolatry in the land and cleansed the temple like Hezekiah had before him. While the temple was being cleansed, the book of the law was discovered and read. Upon hearing it and realizing how wickedly the kingdom had acted, Josiah tore his robes.
Josiah inquired of the Lord as to what was to happen to the kingdom because of its wickedness. God’s response is recorded in 2 Chronicles 34:23-28:
23 She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me,24 ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people—all the curses written in the book that has been read in the presence of the king of Judah. 25 Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all that their hands have made, my anger will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.’ 26 Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: 27 Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what he spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the Lord. 28 Now I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place and on those who live here.’”
Judah would be punished for its sin as the kingdom of Israel already had. Nevertheless because Josiah acted humbly toward God, the disaster would not happen in his lifetime.
Disaster would come shortly after the days of Josiah however. The remaining kings of Judah were all bad. Josiah dies in 608 BC and the Babylonians would be on the doorstep of Jerusalem by 605 BC. Jehoiakim is king when Babylon first attacked in 605 BC. There would be three waves of attacks and deportations. In the first wave some of the royal family is deported to Babylon. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (their names that they are given in Babylon since few word recognize their Hebrew names) are among those who are carried off in the first wave.
In 597 BC Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem and carried Jehoiakim off in bronze shackles. Jehoiachin succeeds him to the throne but lasts only three months. Nebuchadnezzar installs Zedekiah as the last king of Israel. He is essentially a puppet king who is allowed to reign under the thumb of Nebuchadnezzar. Even so, he rebels and the Babylonians come back to Jerusalem again in 586 BC. This time there is no escape as the remaining inhabitants, all aside from a few poor people left to tend the vineyards and farmland, are carried off to Babylon. The temple is set on fire, the walls are broken down, and Jerusalem is no more.
The city of Jerusalem would lay desolate for seventy years until King Cyrus of Persia permitted the people of Judah – Jews as they had become known in Babylon – to return to the land. 2 Chronicles 36:21 tells us why the land was left empty for seventy years.
The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
The people of Israel would remain under the rule of another even after they were allowed to return to their land. It won’t be until 1948 that the Israelites become a nation again and have their own sovereign leader.