First and Second Chronicles recount the history of the Davidic kings of the kingdom of Judah. It’s a checkered history, to say the least.
King Jehoshaphat foolishly allies himself with idolatrous King Ahab, giving Baal a foothold in Judah. When Athaliah, Ahab’s daughter, becomes Judah’s queen, she kills all the Davidic princes she can find, and the dynasty survives only because a courageous woman, Jehosheba, rescues and hides the infant Joash from his grandmother.
Again and again, idolatrous kings take Judah to the brink, but at the last minute something snatches the nation from disaster. After Athaliah, Joash. After wicked Ahaz, good king Hezekiah. After idolatrous Manasseh, the reformer Josiah. Every time the Davidic dynasty seems to end, it somehow begins again. Yahweh won’t let David die.
The pattern persists until the end of Chronicles. Then the pattern gets disrupted. Judah becomes a vassal state, first to Neco of Egypt and then to the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar. When Nebuchadnezzar destroys Solomon’s temple and takes Judah into captivity, it seems that David’s house is dead once and for all.
If we’ve gotten into the rhythm of Chronicles, we’re expecting another heroic son of David—another Joash, Hezekiah, or Josiah. What we get instead is Cyrus of Persia. He’s not Neco or Nebuchadnezzar. He doesn’t enslave Judah. He frees it. But he’s a Gentile king.
Commentators frequently argue that Chronicles is written to rouse expectation for a restored Davidic monarchy. But that never happens, neither in Chronicles nor anywhere else in the Old Testament. Instead, 2 Chronicles ends with Cyrus’s decree releasing Jews to return home to rebuild the temple. Judah’s hope for the future lies with the clemency of Gentiles.
That’s no accident. Despite appearances, it doesn’t break the rhythm of Chronicles. Rather, the book shows that Gentile emperors assume the Davidic vocation. As Isaiah predicted, Cyrus the Persian becomes Israel’s Shepherd, Yahweh’s anointed one, the new Moses who leads the people from slavery and the new Solomon who builds a second temple (Isa. 44:24–45:7).
Earlier vignettes of Gentile rulers anticipate Cyrus. Huram of Tyre (whose name means “Devoted One”) contributes timber and skilled craftsmen to Solomon’s temple project. He confesses that Yahweh loves Israel, and he blesses “the God of Israel, who has made heaven and earth, who has given King David a wise son” (2 Chr. 2).
Queen Sheba pays a state visit to Solomon with a caravan of spices, gold, and stones. She’s overwhelmed by Solomon’s wisdom and the splendid order of his court. She repeats Huram’s confession that Yahweh loves Israel and, like Huram, blesses Solomon’s God (2 Chr. 9).
Huram and Sheba are role models for Cyrus, who also confesses the God of heaven (2 Chr. 36). I suspect the Chronicler has higher aspirations. He writes his history for Gentiles as well as Jews, Persian emperors more than future Davidic kings. If Cyrus is the Lord’s anointed successor to David’s dynasty, then he should emulate the good kings of Judah. The whole of Chronicles provides a “mirror for magistrates” for Gentile rulers.
From Chronicles, Cyrus and his successors would learn that they should supply materials for the temple and organize temple personnel, as David did. They would learn that godly kings build a house for the God of Israel, as Solomon did. They would learn from the examples of Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah to collect, store, and distribute votive gifts and donations to maintain the temple.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah show that the Persian emperors, with some fits and starts, got the lessons of the history of David. Cyrus sends the exiles home with treasure to build the house, and he and later Persian kings provide protection for Jewish builders. Cyrus proves a worthy successor to David, worthy of Isaiah’s honorific, “Anointed One,” or “Christ.”
Like Cyrus, modern rulers can learn political lessons from the Chronicler’s history: that battles aren’t won with superior force but by reliance on the God of heaven, that humble prayer heals political diseases, that musicians fight with their fingers just as warriors fight with their hands. Even today, politicians can learn to seek and bless the God of heaven, and that faith is a political virtue.
As part of the Christian canon, Chronicles still functions as a mirror of magistrates.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is currently finishing a commentary on 1–2 Chronicles for the Brazos Theological Commentary series.