1 Kings by John Woodhouse: A review by Hank Lee

“What is your favourite book of the Bible?”, I remember somebody asking John Woodhouse during chapel at Moore College, where he was Principal during my time as a student, to which he replied with a grin, “It’s the one that I’m reading right now. I often find that the book of the Bible I happen to be reading at the time is the most important and brilliant book of all.”

Well, John Woodhouse has an uncanny ability to so illuminate the depths of the text that the book that he is reading becomes not only his favourite, but your favourite also. In his most recent commentary, John invites his readers to join him and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:5) in the experience of having your breath taken away by the treasures and wisdom of the gospel (foreshadowed) in the Book of 1 Kings.

Woodhouse divides the book into eight parts, each with a distinct theme:

  • Part 1. Politics or Promise? How the Kingdom was Established (1 Kings 1-2);
  • Part 2. The Wisdom of God: How Things Were Put Right (1 Kings 3-4);
  • Part 3. The Goal of History (1 Kings 5-8);
  • Part 4. Not Yet (1 Kings 9-12);
  • Part 5. The Power Behind Everything: The Word of the LORD (1 Kings 13);
  • Part 6. Power Politics Played Out (1 Kings 14-16);
  • Part 7. The Ultimate Question: Who is God? (1 Kings 17-19);
  • Part 8. The Failure of Political Power (1 Kings 20-22).

Here are eight reasons why you should read this book, one from each part:

1. It enlarges your grasp of biblical theology

The story of 1 Kings makes a vital contribution to our understanding of how God fulfils his promise to David (2 Samuel 7) in the kingdom of the first son of David, Solomon, and thereby the Kingdom of the final Son of David, Jesus, in the New Testament. Woodhouse makes a perceptive observation that 2 Samuel 7:12-16 almost provides a Table of Contents for much of 1 Kings (p.26):

  • “When your days are fulfilled” (1 Kings 1:1-4);
  • “and you lie down with your fathers” (1 Kings 2:10);
  • “I will raise up your offspring after you” (1 Kings 2:13-46);
  • “and I will establish his kingdom” (1 Kings 2:12, 46);
  • “He shall build a house for my name” (1 Kings 5:1-8:66);
  • “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (1 Kings, 3:1-28);
  • “When he commits iniquity …” (1 Kings 11:1-11);
  • “but my steadfast love will not depart from him” (1 Kings 11:12, 13).

This book will train you to read the Scripture in connection with and in light of the Scriptures. it’s a great example of putting “Scripture interprets Scripture itself” into practice.

2. Insights on translation and leadership

Throughout the book, Woodhouse offers perceptive insight on the matters of translation. Here is one example from 1 Kings 3:9: the responsibility of leading God’s people is often beyond our capacity, and even the great King Solomon was no exception. Therefore he asked, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people”. Woodhouse suggests, however, that the translation “understanding mind” does not quite capture the richness of Hebrew expression. Rather, it is better put, “a listening heart”.

The wisdom God’s king needs is not an abstract notion of intelligence, but a hearing heart, which listens to every word of God thoroughly and has its entire being shaped by what is heard (p.130). A hearing heart is the path to wisdom and discernment. There you go, a lesson in translation and a lesson in leadership.

3. 1 Kings 8 is the high point of the Old Testament!

It’s tempting to skim over passages such as 1 Kings 5-8. Much of it is a detailed description of a building – dimensions, layout, and decoration that is obscure and uninteresting at first sight. Not so, says Woodhouse, and he goes onto show how enriching these passages are.

1 Kings 8 is not the end point of the Bible, but “as the high point, it displays the shadow of good things to come” (p.262). Subjects of this section include “what happened when you became a Christian”, “what prayer is”, “what blessing means”, “why you should be excited about church”, “a true perspective on history” and so on. In other words, these pages of Scripture build and furbish our understanding of the doctrine of conversion, doctrine of prayer, doctrine of grace, doctrine of church, doctrine of eschatology (rest/blessing). Who said that buildings were boring?

4. The treasures of wisdom of the gospel will take your breath away

Many of us struggle to find joy and wonder in the Christian life. This is because we often fail to see Christ as he truly is. We need something like the experience of the Queen of Sheba when she came to visit King Solomon. Refreshing, encouraging, and challenging insights in this book will help you to see and appreciate Jesus more clearly, deeply, and truly.

5. 1 Kings 13 is one of the strangest stories in the Bible!

Who doesn’t like hearing a strange story once in a while? If that’s you, 1 Kings 13 has you covered. Described as an “enormously enigmatic tale” by scholars such as Walter Bruggemann, this story has both puzzled and fascinated many. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth devoted seventeen pages (of small print!) to an exposition of this story in his Church Dogmatics, Volume 2.2.

Woodhouse betters Barth by another 13 pages and argues that this strange story of 1 Kings 13 contains the “key to the whole story of the books of 1 and 2 Kings and points us to the key to the history of the world.” (p.367). I won’t spoil the rest of the story here!

6. It gives a true perspective on human powers and politics

The middle section of 1 Kings narrates and summarises the life of multiple rulers of the kingdom of Judah and Israel in quick succession. Some had a longer (and economically more prosperous) reign than others. Yet Woodhouse reminds his readers that the writer of 1 Kings has little interest in the worldly achievements of these kings and evaluates their lives and reign ultimately upon one thing: “how they walked in the sight of the Lord”.

An important reminder to our world of constant expectation and pressure for measurement and performance: “The measure of every life, small or great, will be how the Lord sees it.” (p.459).

7. Elijah is a towering figure in biblical history

The English Old Testament ends with the promise of the coming of a new Elijah (Malachi 4:5). Some people in Jesus’ day thought Jesus was the promised Elijah (Matthew 16:4). The stories about Elijah in 1 Kings are featured in the teachings of Jesus, the apostle Paul, and James (Luke 4:25, 26; Romans 11:2-4; James 5:17, 18).

In other words, Elijah is an important figure to understand the gospel more clearly and deeply. Woodhouse enlightens us about what it means to say, “My God is Yahweh” (the meaning of the name Elijah) not only in the context of 1 Kings, but also in the grand sweep of biblical theology.

8. Greater appreciation for and hope in the greater Son of David

For all its highs and riches, 1 Kings ends on a sombre note. The final words of 1 Kings closes with a reference to the persistent rebellion of the kingdom of Israel and the distressing anger of the Lord in response. The only hope for Israel at the end of 1 Kings is the promised son of David. In light of all that you learn from 1 Kings (with the careful and perceptive guide of John Woodhouse), you will wonder and marvel more greatly at the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, there are many more insights and edification other than what is only briefly outlined here. But, as the author of 1 Kings says, “Are they not written in the book?” Take up and read it! John’s book will make a great company and guide to see and wonder at how this fascinating story of Israel’s kings bear witness to the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, builder and perfector of our faith today.