Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Statsman Cometh Again

I haven’t done one of these statistics-based posts since 2017, an exercise in self-control unprecedented for yours truly. So if you hate minutiae, come back tomorrow. Today is trivia time, along with maybe one or two observations along the way that are not completely insignificant.

Some people are more fun to know via the Internet than to put up with in real time.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I had observed recently, just in passing, that Bible kings didn’t live all that long. That raised all kinds of questions we can’t answer with certainty, but in order to figure out whether my impression was even correct, I set out to quantify the lifespans of the kings in the Davidic line. I could have done them all, but Israel’s kings were so relentlessly evil that it would probably have skewed my data set. Judah’s kings are a better representation of the general population, with 10 “good” and 11 “evil” kings all from the same dynasty over a period of slightly more than 400 years.

Full of Days

Now, the matter of good vs. evil enters into the question of age in this respect: under the economy of Law (and really, throughout the entire Old Testament period), longer lifespans were a blessing God promised and granted to those who obeyed him. The phrase “full of years” or “full of days” expresses satisfaction or overflowing, and is consistently used only of men who lived to 70 years or more: Job (140+), Abraham (175), Isaac (180), David (70) and Jehoiada (130). That’s a fairly godly list.

Further, the Law makes the promise of long life explicit: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long”, and again, “You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.” Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” and again, “Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many.” So, in the Old Testament, a long life was a sign God was blessing you. A short life was a sign he wasn’t — unless of course you were a prophet sawn in two for preaching the word of God to evil men. A promise may still hold generally true even when we can point to individuals who did everything right but didn’t benefit from it. We are looking at what happens on average, not the outliers.

Others have pointed out that the “Honor your father and mother” promise is repeated in Ephesians, which is true. Even in the present age, godly men and women often live longer than the ungodly, not least because they don’t indulge in the bad habits that so often cause men to check out of this life early. Still, generally speaking, the blessing of long life has a peculiarly Old Testament flavor to it.

Good and Bad Kings

This, then, is how the question of good and evil enters into the age issue. We have broadly characterized the Davidic kings in our study as “good” or “bad” individuals, though we recognize that human beings are complicated and nobody is all one thing. We are speaking of what is characteristic rather than exceptional. David, Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah were good kings, though they made mistakes. Abijah, Jehoram and Manasseh were characteristically bad ones, though they occasionally did a good thing or showed moments of repentance.

Yesterday’s chart showed Judah’s kings lived an average of only 40-45 years. That certainly seems unusually short to me. After all, the average North American lifespan is just shy of 80 for men and 84 for women. Moses wrote that seventy is normal and eighty is exceptional, but that was over 400 years earlier.

So was 40-45 an abnormally short run for a man living between 1010 and 586 B.C.? To answer that question, we’d have to look at what the scripture has to say about lifespans during that period (from 1 Samuel through Chronicles) for men who were not kings. That’s a pretty small data set, but it’s not completely absent. We have Eli (98), Barzillai (80) and Jehoiada (130). The writer of Samuel refers to Barzillai as “very aged”, which makes the other two extreme outliers. David is called “stricken in years” at age 70. That would seem to be our normal top end for the period, with 65 representing a decent run, not terribly different from what Moses observes in the Psalms.

Facts and Figures

The 21 kings in our study reigned an average of 22 years (low: 3 months; high: 55 years). Their lifespans ranged from a low of 18 to a high of 70. Their average of 40-45 seems pretty feeble when compared to the patriarchs or to other godly men and women of scripture. Only one king (David) hit the magic 70 mark that denotes “fullness”. Two others (Uzziah and Manasseh) fell just short. Solomon is a special case: he may have lived as many as 70 years or as few as 60; we simply don’t know.

Kings we might call “good” lived to an average age of almost 57, while kings we might call “bad” lived to an average age of only 36. The exception on the evil side was Manasseh, who made it to 67 despite being one of the wickedest kings in Judah’s entire history, but it’s possible he only lasted so long because he repented in later years.

We should take into consideration the fact that kings were more likely than the average man to die of unnatural causes. When you don’t have regular elections, there’s only one way to get rid of a ruler you don’t like. In fact, only 15 of these 21 kings died of old age. The six who didn’t split evenly between good and bad. Jehoram was smitten by God and died at 40. Ahaziah was probably 23 when the newly-anointed king of Israel struck him down. Josiah was killed in battle at age 39 after ignoring an unlikely prophetic word from the king of Egypt. The other three fell victim to assassination at 24, 47 and 54.

Factor out the kings who didn’t die of natural causes and our average age for “good” kings goes up to 61, while our average age for “bad” ones rises to 42. Now at least our top end is starting to look more reasonable.

Shorter Than Average?

So, was my impression that the kings of the Bible lived shorter-than-average lives accurate? The numbers certainly seem to bear it out. The average lifespan of the “good” kings still falls almost a decade short of the “full of days” standard. More importantly, there’s no getting around the obvious: Even when God didn’t intervene to deal with them directly, “bad” kings rarely made it past middle age. The blessing of God looks to have been worth a good 20 years or so in real time.

Most men covet positions of power and influence. Be careful what you wish for. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Sometimes that accounting comes in this life as well as the next.

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