Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Uneasy Lies the Head

Queen Elizabeth’s death last year set me to thinking about the lifespans of monarchs as I have been reading my way through Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Let’s just say none of the kings in our Old Testament ever came remotely close to her longevity, let alone the number of years she ruled.

It’s hard to miss the fact that for most of the kings of Israel and Judah, the privilege of leadership went hand-in-hand with a relatively short lifespan.

Now that raises some interesting questions.

… That Wears the Crown

So how long did the Bible’s kings live on average?

As usual when such questions occur to me, I got out my calculator and start creating a table. I decided to make the kings of Israel an investigation for another day, as it would have doubled the research. Also, they were uniformly evil, though admittedly in differing degrees. Their average length of reign tended to be much shorter than those of the kings of Judah, and far more frequently ended in bloodshed. I’m really more interested in the maximum lifespan a reasonably decent theocratic ruler could expect to enjoy when compared to his subjects. For that purpose, the kings of Judah make a better data set.

The following assumes that each king died when his reign is said to have officially ended. This may be inferred from the fact that the verse right after “He was [_] years old when he began to reign, and he reigned [_] years in Jerusalem” usually says something along the lines of “They buried him with his fathers in the city of David.” That suggests a Judean king’s reign officially ended with his death, as we might reasonably expect. I see no evidence in scripture that any Judean king handed over the kingdom to a successor and retired quietly for years afterward. Scholars do infer the occasional overlap in reigns between successive kings from the text or elsewhere, but these co-regencies likely have little bearing on calculating the earlier king’s age of death or on our overall conclusions. Even in the case of a co-regency, the clock on a father’s reign keeps ticking.

At very least, we have tried to handle all the reigns of the various kings consistently.

Lifespans of the Davidic Kings

King Good /
Length of
Reign (Yrs)
Age at
Reference Cause of Death*
David Good 40 70 2 Sam 5:4
Solomon Good 40 60-70 [3]
Rehoboam Bad 17 58 1 Ki 14:21
Abijah Bad 3 41 [4]
Asa Good 41 59-63 [5]
Jehoshaphat Good 25 60 1 Ki 22:42
Jehoram Bad 8 40 2 Ki 8:16-17 Smitten by God        
Ahaziah[6] Bad 1 23 2 Ki 8:26 Killed by Jehu
Joash Good 40 47 2 Chr 24:1 Assassinated
Amaziah Good 29 54 2 Chr 25:1 Assassinated
Uzziah (Azariah)         Good 52 68 2 Ki 15:2
Jotham Good 16 41 2 Ki 15:33
Ahaz Bad 16 36 2 Chr 27:1
Hezekiah Good 29 54 2 Ki 18:2
Manasseh Bad 55 67 2 Chr 33:1
Amon Bad 2 24 2 Ki 21:19 Assassinated
Josiah Good 31 39 2 Ki 22:1 Killed in battle
Jehoahaz Bad 3 mo 23 2 Ki 23:31
Jehoiakim Bad 11 36 2 Ki 23:36
Jehoiachin[7] Bad 3 mo 18 2 Ki 24:8
Zedekiah Bad 11 32 2 Ki 24:18
Total / Average 10 / 11 22 45.9

[1] “Good” and “Bad” are, of course, overly-broad generalizations. Solomon started well and ended very badly, as did Uzziah and a few others. Manasseh started horribly and ended better. Some “Good” kings were better than other “Good” kings, and some “Bad” kings were absolutely atrocious, while others were just mildly awful.

[2] Some translations of 2 Chronicles 22:2 imply Ahaziah was 42 when he took the throne, which seems impossible given the age at which his father surrendered the kingdom. It would also make him the oldest Judean king at his coronation, even older than Rehoboam, though quite a bit younger than the former Prince Charles. The Septuagint of Chronicles has “twenty”, which is likely an approximation, but closer to the truth. We will go with the Kings version.

[3] We do not know how old Solomon was when he received the throne. Here are the upper and lower limits calculated from scripture.

[4] We do not know how old Abijah was when he received the throne. Assuming Rehoboam fathered him around age 20, his maximum possible lifespan would have been 41.

[5] Scripture does not tell us how old Asa was when he came to the throne. Conservapedia says, “His grandfather Rehoboam died at the age of 58, and Asa began to reign a scant two years later, following the death of his father (Abijam). Thus Asa must have been quite young when he began to reign — probably as young as 18 and not much older than 22.”

[6] Athaliah was a murderous, usurping, six-year interruption between Ahaziah and Joash, but was not of the Davidic line.

[7] Some translations of 2 Chronicles 36:9 have “eight” instead of “eighteen” for the age at which Jehoiachin became king. This is not impossible, but since he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”, that may suggest the age of accountability is lower than some of us would like to think. Eighteen seems much more likely given the curse of Jeremiah 22:24-30.

* All the other Davidic kings probably died of natural causes, though three of the last four did so in captivity.

Exit, Stage Left

In keeping with the Hebrew custom, the duration of each king’s reign in Kings and Chronicles (as well as the age at which they came to the throne) is always rounded up rather than down. We can confirm this by adding the years of each king’s reign together, which gives us 467, considerably longer than the total number of years that passed between David’s ascension to the throne and the end of Zedekiah’s reign. Our rough and ready estimate will do just fine for my purposes, but if we were really trying to be pinpoint accurate, the lifespans of each of these kings would need to be revised downwards by the same amount as their reign. Also, keep in mind that in estimating these lifespans where they are not clearly established in scripture, I have been consistently allowing for the highest possible option rather than the lower-end estimate.

So then, the average lifespan of the better theocratic kings was probably closer to forty than fifty.

That’s not old by any standard.

More on this tomorrow.

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