Murderous Queen Athaliah: the self-destructive power of hatred

“When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal offspring” (2 Kings 11:1 — NASB).

Ancient Judah had only one ruling queen, Athaliah. Consumed with hatred for the God of her husband’s people, she ordered the murder of her own grandchildren. (How can anyone think the Old Testament is boring? Its stories are as powerful as anything in modern fiction or drama, and more convincingly true!) Athaliah lived out what all too many continue to live out to this day: they hang on to hatred because they think those they hate deserve it. They think that if they let go of hatred, they’re somehow letting the guilty off the hook. People who hate destroy other people’s lives, and in the process they always also destroy their own.

Athaliah was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel. The “iah at the end of her name comes from “Jah,” a diminutive of the name that God revealed to Moses in the burning bush centuries earlier. They acknowledged “Jah” as a god, but not as Lord. They actively persecuted his prophets for criticizing their worship of Baal, a demonic god that demanded human sacrifice.

As the prophets foretold, Ahab died in battle. Jezebel lived throughout the reign of her son Joram, but God raised up a general named Jehu to rebel against the house of Ahab. Jehu killed both Joram and and his brother-in-law, Judah’s King Ahaziah, in battle. Two officers in Jezebel’s household, allied with Jehu, threw her out the palace window to her death–the fulfillment of another prophecy.

On this news, Athaliah had all of Ahaziah’s children–her own grandchildren–slaughtered. Why would she do a thing like that? Because like her parents, she hated the God whose name was part of her own and wanted to get back at him.

Generations earlier, God had raised up David and promised him that one of his descendants would always reign as king in Jerusalem. When the kingdom was divided, the house of David continued to rule the south. A succession of apostate dynasties ruled the north.

The Davidic kings ruled more or less faithfully to the God of David until the one named Jehoram. He married Athaliah, and she led him to turn his back on God and serve Baal instead. Their son Ahaziah followed in his footsteps.

The God of David prophecied against Athaliah’s parents. The God of David caused them to die violent deaths. The God of David decreed the end of their dynasty. The general God appointed to rebel against them also killed her son, the King of Judah.

Now she had a chance to thwart the God of David. He had decreed that one of David’s offspring would always reign in Jerusalem. Well, she’d show him. She’d kill them all. She would avenge the deaths of her father’s family by killing all of David’s family, even her own grandchildren.

And so for seven years, she reigned as queen in place of David’s family. She had defeated the God of David. She had proved Baal the stronger god. He would take care of her, and she could live to a comfortable old age having her own way in everything.

End of story? Well, not quite. One of her daughters, who managed to remain faithful to God, rescued one baby from the banquet hall where Athaliah executed her vengeance. Seven years later with the help of God’s priest Jehoiada, this son of David confronted her, ousted her, and fulfilled God’s ancient promise to David by taking his rightful place on the throne.

Athaliah Sentenced to Death by Jehoiada / Antoine Coypel (1661-1722)

Not everyone who hates becomes a mass murderer, but hatred destroys lives and relationships in myriad less spectacular ways. Only two things escape the power of a person’s hatred: that person cannot thwart God’s plan, and that person can never know happiness or contentment or peace. Hatred is a consuming fire, a corrosive acid. It destroys the one who tries to hold it. The only way out is forgiveness.

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