From a human perspective, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah were relatively small players on the world stage. Though these nations had possession of their own territories, armies, and wealth, the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome exerted more influence and made more “headlines” among the other peoples of the known world. Like the other smaller kingdoms in the ancient Near East, Israel and Judah would ally themselves with one of these empires if they felt threatened by another of these empires, and these allegiances could be as shifting as the sand under one’s feet. In fact, the ancient Israelites and Judahites were not above violating the terms of the alliances they made with these foreign powers if they felt it was in their own best interest to do so. Scripture records many occasions on which the kings of Israel and Judah rebelled against those empires with whom they formerly made treaties.
Violating these alliances invariably earned the wrath of the larger empires. Today’s passage records the point at which Hosea of Israel broke covenant with Assyria, and the result was that the northern kingdom was taken into exile in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:1–6). Almost 150 year later, in 586 BC, the same thing happened to Judah when that land rebelled against Babylon (24:1–25:21).
This is a perfectly reasonable and correct explanation of the aforementioned historical realities, and is in fact what we are told in Scripture. Yet history is always more complicated, and this interpretation, while accurate as far as it goes, does not tell the whole story. The author of 2 Kings also goes “behind the scenes” to give us God’s perspective on what happened. As we see in 17:7–23, even though the rebellion of Israel against another empire might have been the immediate event that sparked the exile, the ultimate cause of Israel’s expulsion from the land was flagrant covenant violation, especially the grievous sin of idolatry. Thinking they could rebel against the Lord with impunity, God’s covenant people brought judgment on their own heads, just as their covenant Lord promised would happen (Lev. 26:14–39).
Sin is no small matter, and its consequences are severe. Those who regard lightly the Lord’s holiness cannot be surprised when they feel the fury of His wrath.