Lesson 12: Israel’s Rapid Decline

The northern kingdom of Israel reached the zenith of its power under the reign of Jeroboam II, extending her borders all the way to the Euphrates River (2Kings 14.25). Yet, in a span of only 30 years after the death of Jeroboam II, Israel would have 6 different kings from 5 different dynasties… and would then cease to exist! This study covers this period of swift decline, examining the brief reigns of 5 kings of Israel as recorded in 2Kings 15.8-31. Those kings are:

  1. Zechariah (2Kings 15.8-12): last king of Jehu’s dynasty, rules only 6 months before being assassinated by Shallum.
  2. Shallum (2Kings 15.13-15): only king of his dynasty, reigns only one month before being assassinated by Menahem.
  3. Menahem (2Kings 15.16-22): ruled for 10 years, but his dynasty wouldn’t survive past the reign of his son.
  4. Pekahiah (2Kings 15.23-26): son of Menahem, ruled for only 2 years before being assassinated by Pekah.
  5. Pekah (2Kings 15.27-31): credited with a 20 year reign, but as we will see likely ruled over all of Israel for only 8 years. Assassinated by Hoshea. 

Before we consider a few factors which contributed to the demise of Israel, I find this to be a fitting synopsis of what happened in both Israel and Judah: “Israel and Judah had sowed the wind and therefore reaped the whirlwind. They had deviated from the straight course of covenant responsibility and so suffered the curses stipulated in the covenant documents. There were, however, more mundane reasons as well. Tyranny and ineptness abounded in government, as did irresponsible fiscal policy, unwise international relationships and alignments, class struggles, crime and violence, and a host of other ills that sickened the national and social life of the twin kingdoms. It is a wonder that either nation lasted as long as it did. One must conclude with the prophets that this was possible only because of the patient mercy of a loving God who remembered his covenant promises although his people had forgotten theirs.” (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, page 405)

Continued Unfaithfulness

Four times in this brief passage we read how a king of Israel “did evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (see 2Kings 15.9,18,24,28). The only ruler this was not said of was Shallum, and considering he reigned only 1 month we can understand the omission. No doubt all manner of evil continued in the northern kingdom, but the root of their iniquity was the departure from God’s will that began in the days of Israel’s first king, Jeroboam.

One other act of evil is given attention in our text, namely Menahem’s war against Tiphsah (2Kings 15.16). There is some dispute about the location of this city, but most agree that it was a town in Judah. Thus, these were Israel’s brethren, yet we read that Menahem “struck it and ripped up all its women who were with child.” Recall that when the kingdom first divided the Lord would not allow Rehoboam to “fight against your relatives” (2Chronicles 11.4). Menahem not only had no compulsion against fighting his relatives, he inflicted atrocities on the innocent!

Regional Rivalries

We’ve already noted the great political instability during this time with four kings being assassinated by political rivals. While we don’t know what sparked all of these coups, it would seem that regional rivalries played a role. Menahem was from Tirzah (2Kings 15.14), the final capital of Jeroboam’s dynasty (see 1Kings 14.17). Recall that Omri removed the capital to Samaria, and it may be that Menahem was of a party that viewed Tirzah as being the legitimate seat of power (even though Menahem would reign in Samaria).

The rule of Pekah may show an even more significant regional rivalry. Scripture records that he reigned for 20 years (2Kings 15.27)… which would pose a great chronological problem. The most likely solution is that Pekah was recognized as king by a faction of Israel during the reigns of Menahem and Pekahiah. “Edwin Thiele suggests that Pekah ruled across the Jordan River in Gilead as a rival during the entire reign of Menahem and Pekahiah. It is known, for instance, that Pekah took “fifty men of Gilead with him” (2 Kings 15:25) when he assassinated Pekahiah. Since he probably ruled over an area that bordered on Syria, Pekah embarked on a policy of friendship with Syria, her northern neighbor, in what became known as the Syro-Ephraimitic league.” (Walter Kaiser, A History of Israel, pages 361-362). 

Foreign Subjugation

Perhaps the most significant factor in Israel’s decline, aside from her covenant unfaithfulness, was the rise of a new Assyrian ruler. Tiglath-pileser III, also referred to as Pul, appears twice in our passage (2Kings 15.19,29). Tiglath-pileser III came to power at time when Assyria had been severely weakened. Notably, Babylon had been in rebellion and the kingdom of Urartu to the north had greatly expanded its territory. The new Assyrian king quickly quelled the unrest in Babylon and then reduced the threat to his north. With his home base secured, Tiglath-pileser III turned his attention to Aram… and Israel. 

Assyria would ultimately destroy Samaria and take Israel captive, but it is important to understand that conquest wasn’t the only tool at Tiglath-Pileser III’s disposal. “The Assyrians developed a systematic method for extending and consolidating their empire. It involved using three levels or degrees of dependency, rather than immediately depriving each conquered nation of all of its freedoms and forcing it to give up its independence. For states on the fringes of the empire, Assyria was content with a declaration of loyalty; rulers in these distant regions needed only to continue to pay tribute and assume the status of a tributary state… If a tributary state rebelled and refused to pay tribute, or planned and joined anti-Assyrian coalitions, that nation was moved to the second level or degree of affiliation. The state was stripped of its former degree of independence and was incorporated into one of Assyria’s provinces; a vassal-leader who was sympathetic to Assyria and its policies was appointed to govern a very small area around its capital. Many of the ruling and aristocratic classes were deported to distant parts of the empire, leaving mainly the peasants. Simultaneously, deportees from the opposite side of the empire were moved in to replace those who had been removed. This mixing of nationalities and religions minimized the chances for rebellion or the formation of coalitions against Assyria… When a vassal state conspired against the Assyrian throne and directly entered into opposition against it, the Assyrian Empire imposed the third level of dependency: national extermination. Assyria exterminated the remnants of the state, leaving it only a shadow of its former size by incorporating it, too, into the province.” (Walter Kaiser, A History of Israel, pages 357-359).

Looking at the text, Menahem brought Israel into the first level of affiliation with Assyria. His willingness to pay tribute showed his willingness to be loyal to the Assyrians (2Kings 15.19-20). Pekah’s assassination of Menahem’s son would have been viewed as disloyalty to the Assyrians, resulting in Tiglath’pileser III’s renewed hostilities against Israel (2Kings 15.29). Israel had now entered the second level and Hoshea, who assassinated Pekah, was loyal to his Assyrian master (see 2Kings 17.3). Yet, when Hoshea rebelled, Israel would enter the third phase… and would be destroyed. 

As we conclude this lesson, let’s note once more the words of the Lord through His prophet Hosea. Recall that Hosea prophesied from the time of Jeroboam II until the fall of Israel. Israel’s decline and fall was no accident; it was judgment from the Lord!

“1 When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling. He exalted himself in Israel, But through Baal he did wrong and died. 2 And now they sin more and more, And make for themselves molten images, Idols skillfully made from their silver, All of them the work of craftsmen. They say of them, “Let the men who sacrifice kiss the calves!” 3 Therefore they will be like the morning cloud And like dew which soon disappears, Like chaff which is blown away from the threshing floor And like smoke from a chimney.” (Hosea 13.1-3). 

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