We saw yesterday that the king of Israel was, no less than the ordinary citizen, subject to the law of God (Deut. 17:18–20). As a representative of the people, the king actually had the higher duty of living as an example of covenant fidelity before all Israel, as one whom the Israelites could imitate.
There were few moments in the history of the old covenant monarchy, however, when the chosen king fulfilled this duty. More often than not, the kings of both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah led the people in serving foreign gods (for example, 1 Kings 15:1–8; 2 Kings 1) and other grave violations of the Mosaic law. Still, the record is not one of total failure, for rulers like Hezekiah and Josiah in Judah were faithful to the Lord (2 Kings 18:1–8; 22:1–2).
These kings were righteous, but even they could not keep God’s covenant flawlessly. Second Kings 20 records the occasion when Merodach-baladan, the king of Babylon, sent envoys to Hezekiah, who put on a show of all his treasures and his armory (vv. 12–13). Clearly this was a mistake, for Isaiah the prophet rebuked him, proclaiming that the empire that came to check out Hezekiah’s resources would be the same empire to exile his sons (vv. 14–19). Isaiah regarded this error as so troubling that he recorded it in his own book of prophecy (chap. 39).
Deuteronomy 17:16 explains why Hezekiah erred. The king of God’s people was not to go to Egypt to acquire many horses, which were a significant part of ancient Near Eastern armies. This was really a warning against military alliances with foreign powers to bolster Israel’s forces, and Hezekiah knew this warning. Matthew Henry says the Babylonian king “found himself obliged to Hezekiah . . . for the weakening of the Assyrian forces, and had reason to think he could not have a more powerful and valuable ally.” Hezekiah had successfully resisted Sennacherib of Assyria (2 Kings 18:13–19:37), and Babylon came knocking at his door to see if Judah might be of help against their common enemy — the Assyrian empire. In showcasing his military and economic strength, Hezekiah implied an alliance was possible.
If good kings like Hezekiah failed, what hope did Israel have for the monarchy? Only the hope that God would put His Messiah on David’s throne (Ps. 110).