Was Queen Athaliah Really as Bad as Her Mother Jezebel and Father Ahab?

Contributing Writer
Was Queen Athaliah Really as Bad as Her Mother Jezebel and Father Ahab?

The history of the kings of Israel chronicled in 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles, is fraught with intrigue, violence, and betrayal. Few rulers were as sinfully ambitious as Athaliah, the only queen to rule over the southern kingdom of Judah in its history.

But how bad was Athaliah really?

Let’s look at Queen Athaliah’s unsavory upbringing, sinful ambition, and tainted legacy to see if we can derive a few lessons from her character and leadership according to the word of God.

Who Were Athaliah’s Parents?

To understand what kind of ruler Athaliah became, it is important to know about her upbringing and the voices that influenced her before her six-year reign as queen of Judah.

The Bible tells us that Athaliah was the daughter of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel (1 Kings 16:30). To some, those names might sound familiar. However, for historical context, Ahab was the 7th king of Israel, the northern kingdom, when Athaliah was born.

Some of the Old Testament kings we read about were upright in God’s eyes; many more were wicked rulers who abandoned God, departed from His word, silenced and murdered the prophets, and dragged their subjects into idolatry and apostasy. By the time Ahab came along, the leaders’ sins were so great that strife had caused Israel to split into two kingdoms—Judah in the southern and Israel in the north.

Like many of his predecessors, Ahab failed to earn God’s divine seal of approval. More specifically, Ahab was heavily influenced by his Sidonian wife Jezebel, who insisted that he erect altars and temples of worship to the pagan gods Baal and Asherah. She also silenced (or killed) any prophets of God who dared to challenge or speak against her.

Despite his potential, Ahab led the northern kingdom into an era of unparalleled idolatry, apostasy, and depravity.

As a result, the Bible frequently refers to Ahab and Jezebel as the standard of wickedness by which future kings and queens would be judged. Sadly, many future leaders of Israel would walk in the way of the house of Ahab and do evil in the eyes of the Lord . . . including their children.

What King Did Athaliah Marry?

Two of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram (or Joram), became kings of Israel following their father's death. Their daughter, Athaliah, married the king of Judah, also named Jehoram, in an alliance with the southern kingdom.

However, after King Ahab’s death, Jezebel became the loudest voice and dominant influence in her children’s lives.

Both Ahaziah and Jehoram would sit on the throne of Israel, but both were puppets of their mother.

Athaliah proved to be as depraved as Jezebel and turned her own husband’s heart from God. Not only did Jehoram open the door for Baal worship in the southern kingdom. He also killed his six brothers to consolidate power (2 Chronicles 21:11-14). Athaliah also corrupted the heart of her son, Ahaziah, who walked in her family’s ways. The wickedness of Ahab and Jezebel only spread, infecting two nations and multiple generations.

How Did Athaliah Ascend to the Throne of Judah?

After Athaliah’s husband and son died, she seized power for herself. However, to become the sovereign ruler of Judah, Athaliah had to remove the rightful heirs to the throne. That meant killing Ahaziah’s sons—her own grandsons (2 Kings 11:1-3).

Of Ahaziah’s children, only Joash survived. His aunt Jehosheba hid him before Athaliah could reach him (2 Kings 11:3).

Believing she had eradicated the house of David, Athaliah would rule as the only queen ruler in Judah’s history. Her six years as queen featured the same idolatry, tyranny, and wickedness that made her mother and father so notorious.

What Happened to Queen Athaliah?

Unknown to Athaliah, her surviving grandson was hidden in the temple of the Lord. Under the watchful eye of the high priest Jehoiada, Joash grew up while his grandmother ruled.

When Joash turned seven, however, Jehoiada gathered the captains of the army, revealed to them the rightful heir of the house of David, and maneuvered to establish Joash on his father’s throne (2 Kings 11:4-12). Jehoiada and his supporters brought Joash to the temple of the Lord on the Sabbath, put the crown on his head, anointed him as king, and proclaimed, “Long live the king!” (2 Kings 11:12).

When Athaliah heard the news, she raced to the temple and declared Jehoiada and his supporters as traitors to the nation. Nevertheless, with the heir of David revealed to the nation and the captains of the army aligned with the rightful king, Jehoiada ordered that Athaliah be removed from the temple and put to death (2 Kings 11:13-17).

With Athaliah dead and Joash established as king of Judah, “Jehoiada made a covenant between the Lord, the king, and the people, that they would be the Lord’s people, and between the king and the people. And all the people of the land came to the house of Baal and tore it down; they thoroughly smashed his altars and his images in pieces.” (2 Kings 11:17-18)

Furthermore, the people were relieved to be free of Athaliah’s leadership. With her reign of terror at an end, “all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was peaceful” (2 Kings 11:20; emphasis added).

What Can We Learn from Athaliah’s Story?

Although Queen Athaliah's reign took place thousands of years ago, it has many lessons for us today. Like the other stories, including the records of Israel’s rulers, it is a case study of failed leadership and a nation’s moral decline when it rejects God as its king.

Here are a few key lessons from her reign and family legacy.

1. Sin Corrupts the Hearts of Men and Women

It’s true that most of Israel’s rulers were men and were, in fact, wicked rulers. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that women would have ruled better or been immune to the temptations that plagued their male counterparts. We see many of the same sad traits (greed, jealousy) when we look at Athaliah and her mother.

Did Athaliah and Jezebel fail because they were women? No. Did being women make them wicked in God’s eyes? The answer is also no. Athaliah, like her mother and father, failed because sin corrupted her. Like many rulers before her, Athaliah despised the God of David. She craved personal power over righteousness, freedom over submission to the King of Kings. As we see throughout Scripture, sin corrupts men’s and women’s hearts. As the kings and queens of Israel show, a heart that rejects God and embraces sin is capable of all sorts of evil. As the Bible affirms, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23; see also Psalms 14:1; Jeremiah 17:9-10; Romans 3:10; Romans 8:7; 1 John 2:16).

2. Sin and Ambition Undoes People

The irony of Athaliah’s downfall is that she seized power by the same means that led to her death. Violence, bloodshed, and political maneuvering allowed her to ascend to the throne of Judah. Violence, bloodshed, and political maneuvering six years later removed her from the throne. When her rule was threatened, Athaliah complained of treachery and treason, an interesting defense coming from someone who had murdered her grandsons to usurp the throne of Judah.

For years, Athaliah thought she had gotten away with it. Resting in her political power, she may have assumed she was insulated from her actions’ consequences. However, God had not forgotten what she had done. No earthly throne, crown, army, or level of political savvy would shield her from God’s wrath. In the end, her penchant for violence became her undoing. Here, the words of Christ warn all of us: “Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Attempting to win through sinful means doesn’t lead where we expect. Our sins and ambitions that directly oppose God will ultimately undo us.

3. Enemies of God Will Always Attempt to Thwart His Plan

Athaliah’s political ambition is not uncommon. Many thrones have been usurped, and crowns seized through violence, treachery, and betrayal. Nevertheless, a much greater spiritual battle was waged against the nation of Judah and the God of David that preceded her ascension. The queen may have been motivated by her lust for earthly power; Satan, however, wanted far more than an earthly throne. Through Athaliah, he sought the extermination of the house of David and all it represented. The death of Ahaziah’s sons would have disrupted God’s ultimate plan for Israel and the whole of creation through the Messiah that would come from David’s line. Athaliah was just another player in a larger spiritual war. She is also a reminder that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12).

4. God is Faithful to His Promises

Despite Athaliah’s violent efforts and Satan’s schemes, the gates of hell and armies of darkness didn’t prevail against the God of Israel and Judah. Faithful to His promise to preserve the house of David and keep a member of David’s line on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7), God hid and protected Joash, shielding him from the reach of his wicked grandmother. As we see throughout Scripture, wicked kings, and evil queens can never thwart God’s sovereign plan. Furthermore, God is always faithful to His promises.

5. Righteous Leaders Can Change the Trajectory of a Nation

The reign of Athaliah, like the reigns of her parents, brothers, and sons, was a dark era in Israel’s history. Nevertheless, where the rulers rejected God as king, God did not reject His people. In His grace, He called upon faithful individuals to fulfill His plans and lead His people’s hearts back to Him. In the story of Athaliah, it was two individuals (Jehoida and Jehosheba) whose righteousness and courage helped break the cycle of generational sin and rid the nation of the house of Ahab. Yes, wicked kings and queens like Athaliah can cause social and spiritual decline. However, individuals who stand for what is good, right, and true can change a nation’s trajectory.

Photo Credit: Public domain (painting by Edward Bird)

Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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