The Last Five Kings of Judah: A Touch of Good, an Avalanche of Evil

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October 16, 2015

Lesson #3 (for Sabbath, October 17, 2015)

Jeremiah is heavy weather. Really heavy. Not in the sense of complexity. It’s his stinging, hard-hitting messages that make it difficult and give rise to two practical questions: (1) Did those hammer strokes work in Jeremiah’s day? (2) Does that kind of stuff work today? Could condemnation actually make matters worse? Does it ever make things better?

Those are cause-and-effect questions that teachers, parents, and pastors have to ask all the time. In New Testament, Paul put it this way to the Corinthian believers: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21, NRSV)

By rough estimate, when I use Paul’s lines with my students – and I do so quite regularly – about 70% quickly assure me that they don’t want the stick: “I’ll get my late work in!” they say with some emphasis!  But about 30% of my students admit quite frankly: “I need the stick. Bring it on!” Once, when I mentioned that illustration in an upper division classes, a student quipped, “And probably half of those students who say they don’t want the stick, really need it after all!”

So I somewhat begrudgingly admit that Jeremiah is in our Bible for a purpose. Even if we don’t like the book, most of us can probably benefit from careful and prayerful study of it. And in that connection, one more cause-and-effect question lurks on the edges of this week’s lesson because we are talking about the last five kings of Judah: Why can good parents raise up children who turn out bad and how can bad parents raise up children who turn out to be “good.” But before we focus on good king Josiah and the four wicked progeny who came after him, let’s note some remarkable parenting examples from the history of God’s people.

In Israel’s early years, godly Eli was the father of ungodly Hophni and Phineas while Eli’s faithful protégé, the godly Samuel, raised two wayward sons. Moving closer to the era of Jeremiah, the alternating pattern in the lives of the kings of Judah is quite astonishing: evil Ahaz was the father of the good Hezekiah, one of Judah’s best kings; but good Hezekiah was the father of bad Manasseh, one of Judah’s worst. According to the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Manasseh repented, but his son Amon was evil, choosing not to follow the example of his repentant father. Yet this evil Amon was the father of good king Josiah who apparently did better as a king than as a father, for none of the four kings who followed him – three sons and a grandson –  earned the label “good” from the biblical writers. It’s a puzzle that I don’t think has a good answer.

Another puzzle, represented by the two contrasting phrases “high road” and “low road,” illustrates two radically different perspectives on reading Scripture, especially the Old Testament, perspectives that are embedded in Scripture itself. Typically, devout believers are drawn to the high road because of its potential for inspiration. Hebrews 11 is a good example. In this buoyant narrative all the saints do wonderful things for God – by faith. The record of evil has vanished. If you want to hear Sarah laugh you have to go to Genesis. You won’t hear a peep of it in Hebrews 11.

I have found the low road approach to be very helpful as a means of explaining the harsh stuff in the Old Testament. Josiah gives us a later glimpse of the low road. But the picture of the low road first snaps clear with Abraham. High road supporters – by emphasizing the genealogies in Genesis – argue that Abraham could have known Noah’s son Shem. But here Old Testament chronology plays tricks on us, for there is no evidence in Genesis that Abraham shared high road convictions or even had any contact with Noah and his family. He took a second wife, lied about his first one Sarah, and was willing to sacrifice the promised son Isaac –  all with no apparent qualms of conscience. That’s why Joshua 24:2 (NIV) is such a stunning commentary on the low road: Abraham’s own family “worshiped other gods.” Sin had taken a tremendous toll on the human family. God allowed it to happen (Adventists would say) because he was giving Satan’s alternate plan – selfishness – its day in the sun. The results were devastating for our world; sin is fully as evil as God has declared it to be.

In a sense, the events of Genesis 3 to 11 allow us to see God putting this global experiment into effect: He steps back, so to speak, allowing the principles of selfishness to invade his good creation. Then, with Abraham, he comes close again, telling him that the two of them, God and Abraham, will work together to bring a blessing to the world.  But it is a long and bumpy road before God’s people can catch a glimpse of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s clearest revelation of himself. Indeed, the gap between a frightening God and the one revealed in Jesus Christ is suggested by the opening lines of 1 John 1:1-4 where the apostle exclaims that this is the God we have “heard,” the God we have “seen with our own eyes and touched with our own hands.” To put the contrast very sharply, at Sinai God came to kill; at Golgotha he came to die. Yet it is the same God.

So for most of us, it doesn’t hurt to have a touch of Jeremiah and what appears to be the bad news of the low road.  Yet the good news of the low road approach is that it enables us to glimpse God’s great patience as he deals with his wayward children, doing everything he can to win them – not to force them or to bully them, but to win them. A view of that radical accommodation to human needs enables us to see in the God of the Old Testament the same God we see in Jesus, a God who is incredibly patient and longsuffering with human weakness. You will need to remind yourself of that truth on virtually every page of Jeremiah, for Jeremiah is neither patient nor gentle.

So let me say it again, your first reminder: The God of the Old Testament is not simply a violent deity who flies off the handle at the smallest infraction. No. God’s goal is to lead his people to Jesus, his clearest revelation, to the God-Man who never killed anyone, never even struck anyone, and who commanded us to love our enemies. To that end, God does everything he can to reach us where we are, to lead us to the goal.

But we’re not there yet. We’re with Jeremiah and Josiah now, and Josiah’s wayward offspring. And all that helps us understand why Jeremiah’s stiff medicine was so necessary. These people were light years away from God. . . .

So let’s peel back the layers and look at how Josiah illustrates the low road approach in Scripture. But first we have to move back some 80 years to the reign of Hezekiah and the story of his great Passover. Remarkably, the author of 2nd Kings doesn’t say a peep about this marvelous event. It apparently was not included in his sources. But two glorious chapters in 2nd Chronicles (29, 30), tell how Hezekiah’s reform began. To borrow a metaphor from horse racing, Hezekiah exploded from the starting gate, immediately abandoning the wicked ways of his father Ahaz. “In the first month of the first year of his reign,” Scripture says, “he opened the doors of the temple of the LORD and repaired them” (29:3, NIV). The fruit of Ahaz’s wickedness was painfully clear: the temple had been shuttered, the doors broken down. No one, but no one, visited the temple anymore. It wasn’t even a tourist sight like the majestic but empty cathedrals in Europe. No. The temple in Jerusalem had been abandoned.

The Chronicler tells how Hezekiah called in all the unemployed priests and Levites. We’re starting over again, he said. They did and the result was glorious. The last verse in chapter 29 says it all: “So the service of the temple of the LORD was reestablished. Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly” (29:35-36, NIV).

The next chapter describes how Hezekiah re-launches the event of Israelite worship, the Passover. Initially it had to be postponed a month because the priests had not properly consecrated themselves (30:3). In fact, the Chronicler notes that the Levites had to pitch in and help the priests, performing duties that were not really theirs to perform. The social commentary in Chronicles is subtle, telling us that “the Levites had been more conscientious in consecrating themselves than the priests had been” (29:34, NIV).

But one piece of Hezekiah’s vision remained to be fulfilled: restoration of a united Davidic kingdom. Typically, the Chronicler omits almost all references to the northern kingdom of Israel. That’s why Elijah and Elisha, prophets of the northern kingdom, go missing in Chronicles. Some twenty years before Hezekiah (722 BCE), the Assyrians had overrun the north and carried off many of the people – because of their great sins, the prophets tell us. But in deference to Hezekiah’s inspired leadership, the Chronicler departs from his standard practice and gives us a glimpse of good things among the northern tribes.

The king sent envoys north, inviting the remaining Israelites to a Passover in Jerusalem. The king even promised restoration of their exiled compatriots if the people would come back to God: “If you return to the LORD,” read the king’s message, “then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him” (30:9, NIV).

It worked. Some of the northerners swallowed their pride and came to Jerusalem. They were there, in person, ready to celebrate – but then the bad news began to strike home: they hadn’t purified themselves according to the rules of the sanctuary. Had they come all that way for nothing?

What happened next is heart-warming encouragement to all backsliders everywhere: “Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God –  the Lord, the God of their ancestors – even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.’ And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chron. 30:18-20, NIV).

It was such a glorious event that the king and people decided to celebrate the accompanying feast of unleavened bread for another whole week – two weeks instead of one! The Chronicler records his assessment of the event: “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (2 Chron. 30:26, NIV).

With that glimpse of Hezekiah’s inspiring renewal, we turn to Josiah and his great Passover some 80 years later. And this is where the rock-strewn low road opens before us, because, in contrast with Hezekiah’s immediate implementation of renewal, it would take time before Josiah would arrive at the same place. I am reminded of Ellen White’s comment – originally given in the context of health reform – that describes God’s method of dealing with wayward people: “We must go no faster,” she wrote, “than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. . . . If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people” (Testimonies 3:20-21 [1872]).

So this is how the Lord led Josiah step by step. And I will list each step separately, for it is a powerful testimony to the catastrophic fall from the giddy heights of Hezekiah’s renewal. At the outset, however, we should remember that the records available to the authors of Kings and Chronicles apparently were not identical. Though Kings says nothing of Hezekiah’s reform, the author still praises him as one of Judah’s great kings: “Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2 Kings 18:5, NIV). Those high marks for Hezekiah are striking in light of the author’s even more exuberant praise of Josiah and his Passover.

As an aside, I will say that I am convinced that the Chronicler clearly admired Hezekiah more than Josiah, whereas the author of Kings put Josiah first. Both Kings and Chronicles give Hezekiah and Josiah high marks as “good” kings.  But, but in light of the praise for Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:5, it is striking to hear the same author say this about Josiah and his Passover: “(22) Neither in the days of the judges who led Israel nor in the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed. . . . (25) Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did – with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” (2 Kings 23:22, 25, NIV).

So Josiah ends well. But let’s note how long it took him to get there, a record that is found only in 1 Chronicles 34.

1. Josiah was only eight years of age when he began to reign, yet he began to seek the Lord only at age sixteen (34:1-3a). Question: What was Josiah’s religion during the first eight years of his reign? He was probably under a regent, given his age, but was he worshiping Baal? We can only guess. All Scripture says is that only after eight years of being king did Josiah begin to worship Yahweh.

2. At age twenty, in the twelfth year of his reign, Josiah began an active program of reform in Jerusalem and beyond (34:3b). Question: Why did it take four years of Bible studies before Josiah began to put his faith into practice?

3. At age twenty-six, in the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah sent workers to repair the temple (34:8).  Question: What was the status of Israel’s central shrine if it took King Josiah ten years to discover that the temple was not in use?

4. During the temple clean-up, the workers found the scroll of the law (34:14-15), mostly likely a copy of Deuteronomy. Question: When the law scroll was read to the king, why was the king so shocked to learn of the curses that were to come on Judah for disobeying the law? Was he unfamiliar with the law up to that point? Apparently so.

5. The prophetess Huldah apparently knew about the law for she was prepared to emphasize the seriousness of the coming disaster (34:19-28). Question: If the serious repentance on the part of the king resulted in a postponement of the disaster until after his death (34:26-28), could continued repentance on the part of his descendants postpone the disaster further, perhaps even indefinitely? The hint of conditionality here invites a larger discussion, one that belongs more properly to the study of Jeremiah 26. (For full discussion see lesson #7 for Sabbath, November 14, 2015, http://goodword.wallawalla.edu/http://www.http://goodword.wallawalla.edu.) Apparently, the Lord can postpone judgment at the slightest hint of hope. But he is very careful not to give a blank check that would encourage sinners to be careless in ways that would destroy themselves and others.

The other four kings that came after Josiah are never described as good in Scripture. Jeremiah had to confront them again and again. In some ways the people had learned their lesson during Josiah’s reform. Hezekiah had come upon a temple that was shuttered and abandoned. Some 80 years later when Josiah finally got around to reform, he also found it shuttered and abandoned. Even the scroll of the law had been lost in the clutter. But now, under Josiah, the temple was open again and apparently it stayed open until it was destroyed by Babylonian troops.

In Jeremiah 7, we read that in the years leading up to the end of the monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the temple was wide open, a place of worship popular with the people. But now it had become the cover for a perverted religion. Jeremiah 7:4 describes how the line, “temple of Yahweh,” had become almost a proverb of ill omen: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless” (Jer. 7:4-8, NIV).

Spiritually, Israel was in worse shape than in the days leading up to the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. Now they were saying all the right words and worshiping in the right place. But they were doing all the wrong things.

Does that sound like 2015 in Adventism? If it does, do not be discouraged. Both Scripture and Adventist history reveal that God’s people have never had their act together for more than a few minutes at a time. But by God’s grace we can pray for the kind of experience celebrated in 2 Chronicles 29.36 (NIV): “Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly.”

Let’s pray for that to happen again. Soon.  

 

Alden Thompson is professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University.

 

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