Israel Taken Into Captivity
A Study of 2 Kings 17
In Second Kings 17, the curtain is falling on the nation Israel. God’s patience has run out, and so He permitted the brutal Assyrian armies to capture Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrian armies took thousands of Israeli citizens into captivity.
Hoshea was the king for nine years. During his reign, he tried to form an alliance with the king of Egypt (in the south), in order to counteract the advances of the Assyrians, but it was too late. Assyria was God’s instrument of judgment against His people Israel. The repentance of a nation, like that of an individual, may indeed be “too late.” God is longsuffering, but after national sins have reached a certain level, and the admonitions and warnings of God’s prophets have been repeatedly rejected — judgment begins to fall.
There are three major parts to the lesson from 2 Kings 17:
- The Fact of Israel’s Captivity (verses 1-6)
- The Reasons for Israel’s Downfall (verses 7-12)
- The Warnings from Israel’s Prophets (verses 13-18)
- The Fact of Israel’s Captivity (2 Kings 17:1-6)
After 200 years of existence as a nation, the ten northern tribes of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and taken captive. (Israel was sometimes called “Ephraim,” named for the largest tribe; and sometimes called “Samaria,” named for its capital city.) Israel’s captivity began under King Hoshea’s reign. In his ninth year as king of Israel, the Assyrians captured the capital city (Samaria), and carried away the people, taking them to several regions of Assyria. They were scattered around Mesopotamia, especially along the Euphrates River, in what is now called Iraq, the region more recently ruled by Saddam Hussein. Verse 6 names some of the cities to which the Hebrew captives were taken.
Hoshea was the last king of the northern tribes of Israel. He was a bad king, but not as bad as some previous kings had been. Verse 2 says that the evil which Hoshea did was “not [as great] as the kings of Israel that were before him.” He was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., during the reign of Ahaz, king of Judah in the south. By leaving some Israelites behind and transplanting some captives from other foreign lands, the Assyrians set the stage (through intermarriage) for the beginning of a people known as the Samaritans.
For more than two hundred years, the northern tribes of Israel were ruled by a succession of nineteen wicked, idolatrous kings. Some reigned only a short time — but violence and assassinations and cruelty characterized the entire period. During this time, the Assyrian empire had grown from an obscure nation into a large world superpower. Their capital city was Nineveh, and their massive armies followed the Fertile Crescent north, then west, and then south. They conquered Damascus, and then moved into Galilee. Shalmaneser succeeded Tiglath-pileser as the Assyrian king — and he ordered a siege of the Israeli city of Samaria.
Hoshea tried to buy time for Israel by paying tribute money to Assyria. The phrase “gave him presents” (verse 3b) refers to the tribute money Hoshea paid to the Assyrians. Later, Hoshea entered into an alliance with Egypt and stopped paying the tax to Assyria. His strategy backfired, and the Assyrians seized the Israeli king and put him in prison. Then the Assyrians invaded the entire land and laid siege to the city of Samaria for three years (verses 3-5). Siege warfare was mainly a waiting game — a game of patience for the attackers, and a time of hope for the attacked — hope that the patience of the attackers would wear out.
That background brings us to verse 6 (of 2 Kings 17) — the point at which the information about the captivity of the northern section of Israel (known sometimes as “Ephraim”) begins. “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria” (2 Kings 17:6).
The Bible record doesn’t give lots of details about the Assyrian siege and the capture of Israel. The focus in the Bible is not on Israel’s military and political turmoil, but rather on the nation’s spiritual apostasy. The general reason for Israel’s defeat is noted in verse 7: “The children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, which had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, . . . and had feared other gods.” The northern tribes of Israel were turning their backs on all that their gracious God had done for them in the past.
- The Reasons for Israel’s Downfall (2 Kings 17:7-12)
The captivity of the ten tribes (the northern kingdom of Israel) resulted from their wickedness. The prophet Hosea had predicted that the northern kingdom would never be set up again (Hosea 1:6). And while a remnant of people from each of the northern tribes had earlier settled in Judah (and perpetuated their identity there) — and were thus spared from being taken captive by the Assyrians — the northern kingdom as a nation has never been restored.
Verse 7 (noted above) explains the general reason for the captivity. It happened because the people of Israel sinned against the Lord — the very God who delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the Land of Promise. God, in turn, asked them for faithful worship, obedience, and service in their daily lives. If they obeyed, there would be safety, prosperity, and blessing. The history of the nation was marked instead by many violations of God’s laws.
Verses 8-12 name some specific offenses that led to the captivity. They “walked in the statutes (the customs) of the heathen (the nations)” (verse 8). The people of God are to be different from the world — nonconformed to the pagan people around them. To follow the customs of the pagan world about us makes us “adulterers” and “adulteresses” (James 4:4). Our way of life, our attitudes, our dress — all should be marked by simplicity, humility, neatness, and modesty — instead of arrogance and pride and slovenliness and self-centeredness.
Verse 8 also names the customs which the kings of Israel had introduced. Many of the godless kings of Israel (including Ahab and his wife Jezebel) had imported foreign gods and encouraged the people to walk in their sinful ways. We are told in 1 Kings 16:33 that “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.”
Verse 9 (of 2 Kings 17) says the people “did secretly those things that were not right against the Lord their God.” This happened “from the tower of the watchmen to the fenced city” — that is, the wickedness was practiced throughout the entire land, from the isolated vineyard (with its tower) to the well-defended city.
Some sins were done secretly; others were done openly and publicly. In our day there is much open public sin, but also there are many opportunities for secret sin. One of the alarming dangers of the internet today is the fact that a person in the secrecy of his home can view pornography without being easily detected by others. For that reason, many have become addicted to the sin of lasciviousness.
Verses 9-10 say that “they built them high places . . . and they set up images in groves on every high hill.” The “high places” were hilltop pagan shrines with stone altars dedicated to Baal, the god of fertility. Divination and prostitution and even child sacrifice were associated with worship in these places. This helps to explain the thought in verse 11 which says that “they burnt incense in all the high places . . . and wrought wicked things to provoke the Lord to anger.”
In addition to secret sins (verse 9), and unrestrained evil (verse 11) — they “served idols” — a practice about which God had clearly said, “Ye shall not do this thing” (verse 12). The first two of the Ten Commandments deal with worshiping other gods, and making idols out of wood or stone (Exodus 20:2-6). Jehovah says — in the First Commandment, “I am the Lord thy God.” God declared that He is the one who brought the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt; God ordered that they shall have no other gods “before” me (besides me; in addition to me). We are to worship no other gods as substitutes for the Lord God Jehovah of the Bible. God must be supreme! He will not permit any rival gods!
The sins practiced by Israel’s inhabitants included the following:
- steeped in idolatry (verse 7)
- lost their nonconformity (verse 8)
- practiced hypocrisy (verse 9)
- worshiped pagan idols (verse 10)
- engaged in wickedness (verse 11)
- mocked the prophets (verses 13-14)
- dabbled with the occult (verse 17)
Because of the sins enumerated in this passage, God permitted Assyria to conquer the nation Israel. It’s not that God was helpless to rescue Israel from her Assyrian enemies. In fact, He was the One who raised up the enemy and brought them into Palestine to destroy the people.
- The Warning from God’s Prophets (2 Kings 17:13-18)
The people of Israel received abundant warning that their departure from the ways of God would result in the destruction of their kingdom and captivity to a foreign land. Many prophets had warned Israel that disaster lay ahead if they refused to repent. Hosea and Micah and Isaiah had over and over again stated that Israel’s idolatry and immorality and oppression of the poor would bring divine judgment.
Israel had mocked the prophets of God. Verse 13 says that the Lord had “testified against Israel and against Judah, by all the prophets . . . saying, turn ye from your evil ways and keep my commandments.” Despite the repeated warnings from God through the prophets, the Israelites persisted in their sin. They “hardened their necks . . . (and) did not believe in the Lord their God” (verse 14). The words of the prophets fell on deaf ears; the people continued in their sinful ways. They were as stiff-necked as their fathers were, and would not acknowledge their sins.
Verses 15-17 re-state some of the specific sins which were enumerated earlier in the chapter. The people “rejected (God’s) statutes, and his covenant that he had made with their fathers” (verse 15a). They cared little about disciplined living and obeying God’s laws. They “followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them” (verse 15b). They “left all the commandments of the Lord . . . and made . . . molten images, even two calves” (verse 16). This refers to melting precious metals and pouring the liquid into molds. The writer specifically mentions the two golden calves that Jeroboam set up in the early days when the kingdom had divided. In addition, they “caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire” (verse 17), meaning that they sometimes burned their children to death on the altars dedicated to pagan gods. Will God be any less angry with people in our generation who sacrifice millions of unborn babies each year through abortion?
The word “divination” (verse 17) speaks of attempts to learn the future by means of witchcraft. The word “enchantments” refers to efforts by magicians to invoke the aid of evil spirits to influence human affairs. The worship in Israel was vain and empty; they bowed down to nothingness, and found no spiritual strength for meeting the uncertainties of life. The religion of idolatry was nothing but hot air. It lacked substance; the lives of the people were shallow and unfulfilled. It accomplished about as much as the electric hand-driers in some public rest-rooms today. They often have instructions taped on front of the device. 1) Shake excess water from your hands. 2) Push the button. 3) Rub your hands together under the flow of air. But your hands are usually still wet when the thing stops! One writer says they should add a fourth instruction: 4) Wipe your hands on your shirt to finish drying them. To get caught up in worshiping idols, verse 15 says, is to follow vanity — that is, it provides no answers to the deep issues of life.
For the reasons given in our lesson — disgraceful idolatry, obstinate disobedience, and shameful occult practices — the Israelites were removed from the land which God had given them as their home, and carried into exile in Assyria. Verse 18 says, “The Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” It is not hard to imagine tears falling on the parchment as the writer of Kings penned the words of verse 18.
There are some practical lessons that all of us should learn:
- In 1985, Neil Postman wrote the book entitled “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He warned that the death of our culture in America will not likely come from brutal outside enemy nations, but from the nation’s substitution of shallow and immoral entertainment for rational thinking. In 1787, Ed Gibbons wrote the book entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” and listed five steps in its fall. They are 1) An increase in divorce and remarriage. 2) Higher and higher taxes. 3) A mad craze for pleasure. 4) The building of gigantic weapons of warfare. 5) A time marked by the decay of religion. There’s a striking parallel between what these men are saying, and conditions in the United States of America today. Unless there is widespread repentance, America is headed for disaster.
- When a reporter asked a popular entertainer about his adulterous affairs and his other immoral acts — he said, “Why can’t I do as I please? It’s my life, and I’m entitled to all the fun I want.” The notion which says there are no moral absolutes and that we are not accountable to anyone for our conduct — is seeping into our society more and more as the years go by. God does not force us to obey Him, but disobedience to His laws will eventually bring punishment. God does not pay at the end of each day, but in the end — He pays!
- In Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” Huck suggests that there doesn’t seem to be much use in learning to do right, when doing right is so much trouble, and doing wrong is so little trouble. We might as well just do wrong. But the Bible message here is a vivid reminder that doing wrong does cost in the end. The ultimate purpose of First and Second Kings is to show that disobeying God’s laws inevitably brings punishment.
When Samaria (the capital city of the northern kingdom) fell, the rest of Israel soon fell to the enemy also. The prophets at that time (Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah) had warned of judgment to come. Every one of the nineteen kings had walked in the sins of Jeroboam. Jeroboam was the founder of the northern kingdom of Israel — the one who appealed to the people to worship the two golden calves which he had set up (1 Kings 12:28). The warnings of the prophets were repeatedly given in an effort to turn the nation back from its sins. But Israel insisted on worshiping its idols, until there was no remedy, and God removed Israel from the land. The people of the northern kingdom of Israel were deported to Assyria. Their national identity was erased, and the nation disappeared from the scene.
After the fall of Samaria, it was repopulated with people from the regions around Babylon, and these people intermarried with those left in Israel — and began a new mongrel race known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans were descendants of the colonists whom the Assyrian kings planted in Palestine after the fall of the northern kingdom. This new population brought into the land their own form of worship, including the shameful practice of passing children through the fire (2 Kings 17:31). Their gods were manifestations of the pagan god Moloch. It was during those years that in the northern part of Israel lions began to multiply beyond control (verse 26).
These new dwellers in the land were fearful of offending those whom they considered local gods, and asked for a priest to help them with the rituals of the “God of the land” (2 Kings 17:26). Because of the havoc wrought by the increasing lion population, the Samaritans asked that the king of Assyria would send a priest to them — to teach them about Jehovah God. The result was a mixture of paganism and worship of Jehovah. The people who settled in the land retained their native gods (verses 31-32), but they also had a defective fear of the Lord God (verses 33-34).
About 150 years later, Judah, in the south (known sometimes as the southern kingdom of Israel), was taken captive by the Babylonians. Unlike the people of the north, the inhabitants of Judah in the south survived that captivity, and seventy years later had rebuilt Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in their capital city.
The Samaritans (who had settled in the region between Judah in the south and Galilee in the north), were despised by the Jews because of their mixed Gentile blood. In John 8:48, the Jewish enemies of Jesus spoke very disparagingly of Jesus by calling Him “a Samaritan.”
These lessons from Kings (and some of the prophets) are not as easy to teach as are many of the New Testament passages. Nevertheless, this study has been an attempt to carefully explain the Bible text in the lesson — and hopefully all of us will have a better foundation for teaching the message of the Bible as a whole. It is always a joy to more thoroughly delve into these parts of God’s Word. We must remember that the events described in the Old Testament passages are intended to be examples for us. They are written for our learning.
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