Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 28

In this chapter, Ahaz becomes king and leads Judah into disaster.

This chapter is much longer than the previous chapter, but unfortunately the reason it's longer is because there are so many bad things to talk about.

The life of Ahaz marks a turning point in Judah's history.  In the past, Judah's history was predominantly centered around their relationship with Israel (I am only referring to their history after the kingdom was divided in the life of Rehoboam).  There was a long sequence of events that began with Jehoshaphat's alliance with Ahab and concluded when Athaliah was killed by Jehoiada and Joash ascended to the throne.  Even after that, Amaziah was torn apart by an unsuccessful battle against Israel.

Amongst other things, the text gives us a sense that Israel is generally stronger than Judah.  We see this in the nature of Jehoshaphat's relationship with Ahab (where Ahab is the one directing their battles and course of action).  We see that in 2 Chron 16:1-6 where Israel came to blockade Judah and king Asa could not remove them by force.  Even when Abijah defeated Israel in 2 Chron 13, it comes across as a victory by miracle rather than a victory by strength.  The obvious implication is that Israel was stronger than Judah.  Even in this chapter, Israel comes in and smashes Judah again.

However, in the near future we are going to see Israel decline and fall at the hands of the Assyrians.  Israel will stop being the primary enemy for Judah, and instead Judah will begin fighting most of their battles against the Assyrians (and later, the Babylonians).  We already see this beginning to happen at the end of the chapter when the Assyrians come and add to the oppression of the Judeans.

Another thing we will see in this next period (beginning here with Ahaz) is interlocking waves of religious revival and decline.  In this chapter with Ahaz we begin with a tremendous decline, but it will be followed by a major revival, followed by a major decline, followed by ANOTHER major revival, followed lastly by decline and exile.  It comes and goes in waves, often between father and son.  In this case, Ahaz's father was generally a godly man, and his son Hezekiah is one of the best kings of Judah in the post-Solomonic era, but Ahaz himself is a wretched king.  These powerful religious waves (in both directions) combined with the persistent military conflicts leave Judah in a position of great turmoil and strife between now and the exile to Babylon.  Remember back in 2 Chron 14:6 when God gave Asa rest?  Peace and rest was one of the major themes of Asa's reign.  In contrast, this next era will be a period of conflict.

I don't want to make it sound like Judah was in constant warfare from a historical perspective.  We can tell from the biblical narrative that many of these kings ruled for long periods without active conflict.  At the same time, I do think the biblical narrative is written with an emphasis on the military conflicts during this period.

Furthermore, when Judah loses battles the results are becoming more devastating.  In this chapter the Israelites are so brutal towards their Judean neighbors that a prophet of the LORD comes out and rebukes them for it.  The Israelites kill 120,000 soldiers and attempt to enslave another 200,000 people.  These are staggering numbers for a kingdom that may have only had a population of a couple million people in total.

All of these factors are present in the current chapter.  We see a rapid religious decline under Ahaz that is punctuated with numerous military defeats against both Aram/Assyria and Israel.  Indeed, verse 5 points out that the military losses are a direct result of Ahaz's idolatry in verses 2-4, so these two issues are interconnected.  Verse 19 reiterates that Judah was "humbled" in defeat because of Ahaz was unfaithful to God.

In verse 22, Ahaz faces a challenge similar to what Saul faced all the way back in 1 Samuel 13.  In that chapter, Israel was being invaded by the Philistines, his enemies were gathering, and Saul's own men were scattering.  When the pressure built up, Saul broke God's command and offered a sacrifice not because God wanted it (Saul was forbidden to offer sacrifices since he was not a priest), but Saul offered a sacrifice as an attempt to rally his troops and raise morale.  What we often see in the bible is that times of pressure reveal the true nature of a man's heart.

Saul showed his true nature was seeking the approval of men.  Later, David is under deep pressure and in that place he strengthened himself in the LORD his God (1 Samuel 30:6).  David showed his true nature was to seek God in the midst of deepest darkness.  In this chapter, Ahaz is under tremendous pressure and he shows that his true nature is to seek and worship power.  The Assyrians were the most powerful kingdom at the time and in the moment of Ahaz's greatest darkness, he turns to worship and obey other gods because he hopes that they will strengthen him and make him powerful like the Assyrians.

The message from this chapter is that Ahaz is wrong to hope the gods of the Assyrians will help him, because he is mistaken in his belief that the gods of the Assyrians are helping the Assyrians.  The gods of the Assyrians have no power to help anyone.  Only the LORD has the power to raise up one nation and tear down another, and by forsaking the LORD and worshiping idols, Ahaz is only accelerating his own decline.

This pattern will emerge in the following chapters as well: religious decline almost always coincides with military defeat and religious revival almost always coincides with military victory.

In the next chapter, Hezekiah becomes king and introduces revival to Judah, undoing much but not all of the damage that Ahaz inflicted.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 27

In this chapter, Jotham becomes king and lives a relatively good life.

This is one of the shorter chapters in Chronicles, since it's only 9 verses total.  It's also a relatively quiet chapter.  Jotham seems like a good king, but unexceptional.  The only notable accomplishment he has listed is defeating the Ammonites.

Honestly, we don't know a whole lot about Jotham.  From verse 6 we know that he had a strong faith and he grew powerful.  We are not told about him ever being defeated, and he has some building projects, and other than that we don't really know anything about Jotham at all.  I checked the corresponding passage in 2 Kings 15 that also describes the reign of Jotham and it doesn't tell us anything more than what we read here.  So, I guess I'll just say that Jotham is a decent enough king but he never did anything that was good or bad enough to deserve mention in these records.

I don't think there is anything else to say about this chapter, and in the next chapter his son Ahaz becomes king.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 26

In this chapter, Uzziah becomes king.

Uzziah becomes king at a very young age, when he was 16 years old.  In the previous chapter, his father was assassinated, and since succession to the throne is based purely on his position as the eldest son of the king, Uzziah becomes the new king even though he's unlikely to be ready for the post.  This was similar to Joash who became king at age 7.  In both cases they likely operated in a regency, where a more experienced statesman administrated the kingdom on the king's behalf until the king hit some specific age of majority.

In any case, I think this is an incredible chapter.  In the first half of the chapter (verses 6-15) we see Uzziah make a profound climb up to the heights of power and glory.  In the second half of the chapter (verses 16-23), it all goes horribly wrong.  Understanding how Uzziah's life fell apart will help us to avoid sharing his fate.

When I first read this chapter, I wanted to say that Uzziah's life formed some kind of arc, where he has this initial period of ascent and a second period of decline.  I would find that kind of symmetry poetic, but I don't think that's really true.  What he does is climb higher and higher and then falls off a cliff.  I mean, there's only one specific moment where things in his life go wrong, but that single moment destroys his life.  Even more, as verse 16 tells us, it is actually Uzziah's victories that led him to his downfall.  To quote a recent movie, "victory has defeated you."

I really like the details in this chapter.  I think we get a very clear portrait of what Uzziah's reign was like.  Uzziah is clearly a very detailed, organized man with a strong administration that shows up in his military organization and in his building projects.  He also shows a lot of sophistication when constructing the siege weapons.  Yet, we also see Uzziah's tender side with his love for the soil and growing things.

In so many respects, Uzziah has all the makings of a fantastic king, and yet through it all there is a sinister force at work: pride.  Pride is growing in Uzziah's heart throughout this time.  Perhaps with every victory, he becomes ever more self-assured, more convinced that he is the ultimate authority in his own country.  Certainly there are very few people that could stand against him.  Notice how verse 17 calls the priests "valiant men".  It takes bravery to resist a king, even when he is doing wrong.  In fact, the word "valiant" in v. 17 is the same Hebrew word as the "valiant" soldiers in v. 12.  The priests are just as brave and valiant as soldiers for standing up against the king.  This is understandable; the king could have ordered their deaths if he wished.

It is a dangerous thing to have nobody who can stand up to you.  This is true even for a king; perhaps it is true especially for a king.

Just as pride leads the king into the temple to offer incense, pride is also what causes him to lash out against the valiant priests who resist him.  The same pride that caused him to sin also caused him to reject any correction or rebuke.  This is what makes pride such a deadly sin: it is one of the few diseases that rejects its own cure.

Pride leads the king to such an ironic position and I'm not at all sure that the king even knew it.  Think of it: here was a man in the temple, offering incense to God as an act of religious devotion.  In fact, offering incense is supposed to express humility, showing our reverence and devotion to God.  And when a bunch of priests (for that same God) come out and tell you that you are acting wrongly and contrary to God's will, he starts raging and yelling at them.  You'd think that a man in the temple of God would be a little more respectful to the priesthood, but I think it's clear that Uzziah is out of control.

This part of the story is also very entertaining to read.  It's easy to imagine Uzziah standing before the altar, waving his censer, when the priests enter and tell him he has to leave.  Then Uzziah starts flipping out, cursing them and threatening them when suddenly a spot appears on his forehead and begins growing.  At this point, the priests don't even have to argue with him to get Uzziah out, Uzziah gets himself out of there.  I think that's actually an act of humility on Uzziah's part.  He could have stayed in the temple and just kept arguing.

We can view this part of the story as a escalating conflict between the king and.... God?  The king enters the temple and offers incense.  The priests come out and challenge him, and at this point, the king could have backed down.  He doesn't.  Instead, the king escalates the situation by fighting the priests.  Since God wants to protect the sanctity of his temple and his authority against this incursion, God fights back and strikes the king with leprosy.  At this point, the king backs down.  If the king had backed down earlier when the priests challenged him, he would not have incurred God's judgment and perhaps his life could have continued as normal.  The king could have continued resisting against God, at which point God would be forced to make the judgment even more severe and it's likely that the king would have died.  The king was challenging God's authority and there is simply no way that God was ever going to let him win this contest.

Uzziah could have done better (and avoided judgment), but he also could have done worse (and been punished harder).  In the same way, there are going to be instances in our lives when God corrects us, rebukes us or tells us that we are going down the wrong road.  That is the moment when we need to be humble and turn and follow him.  If we insist on going our own way or (even worse) challenging God's authority like Uzziah did, then we will find ourselves getting into progressively worse and worse situations.

In any case, what punishment Uzziah did receive was devastating.  Even though he did not die, he was condemned to reside in isolation for the rest of his life and never permitted to return to the temple complex (which was forbidden to anyone ceremonially unclean).  Very few people visited Uzziah, since it would make them unclean as well, and his son reigns in his stead for the rest of his life.  Even after his death, Uzziah is buried in a separate tomb because they did not want to bury a leper with the other kings.

Personally, I think Uzziah was a good king.  In spite of his mistake, he did a lot of things well.  He could have been a great king, but his mistakes don't invalidate all of the other things that he did well as Judah's leader.

After Uzziah dies, the next chapter describes the reign of Jotham.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 25

In this chapter, Amaziah becomes king, defeats the Edomites but then falls into idolatry.

The life of Amaziah, like so many of the earlier kings, is a story of two battles.  The first battle goes reasonably well, but the second battle ends in disaster.  Starting in verse 6, Amaziah takes a small but significant step towards re-aligning Judah with Israel again, like Jehoshaphat did back in 2 Chronicles 18.  Certainly Amaziah is taking a much smaller step, only hiring troops from Israel rather than intermarrying with Israel's royal family, but it is a step nonetheless, and as the man of God makes clear in verse 7, it carries all of the same peril as Jehoshaphat's earlier decision.

In this case, even though Amaziah had already paid the mercenaries a fee upfront, he does the right thing and sends them away.  The Israelites are enraged because even though they got paid and get to walk away with that money for free, part of their compensation would have been profit sharing from plundering the Edomites.  Since they were rejected from the battle, they were not entitled to any of the plunder.  The Israelites retaliate by raiding and pillaging all the towns of Judah that they encounter on their march home, basically trying to get plunder some other way since they were not permitted to invade Edom alongside Judah.  Judah is harmed somewhat, but recovers.

Perhaps more importantly, because the Israelites attacked Judah, it may have precipitated the later battle between Judah and Israel in v. 17.  Amaziah may have desired to fight Israel as revenge for the Israelite mercenaries who raided towns in Judah and killed 3,000 people.

Before that happens, there is an important interlude, which is the Edomite idols.  This episode in v. 14-16 marks the turning point in Amaziah's life when things go from reasonably good to much, much worse.  I also see this as part of Judah's gradual decline.  Even though they made mistakes too and sometimes did evil things, I personally feel like the earlier kings (like Abijah or Asa) did not have as many problems as Amaziah, and Amaziah has fewer problems than a lot of the kings who come after him.  Just as Amaziah suffers decline in his own lifetime, I think we see a progressive decline in Judah's society as a whole.

After this, Amaziah fights his second major battle against Israel.  Like I said before, it's possible he wanted to fight Israel as revenge for their earlier raids.  Regardless of the reason why, this battle has two practical effects.  First, it cuts off any possibility of future alliances between Judah and Israel. Initiated by Jehoshaphat, the bilateral relationship between Judah and Israel really never comes back from this, which ironically is a good thing for Judah since it prevents future kings from falling under God's judgment of Israel again.

Second, this failed battle pretty much ends Amaziah's kingship.  Even though he isn't overthrown immediately, it's obvious that the military defeat undermines Amaziah's political support and contributes to his eventual assassination in v. 27.

So what kind of conclusions can we draw about Amaziah's life as a whole?  While Amaziah makes a handful of good decisions, overall it seems to me that Amaziah is a middle-of-the-pack kind of guy.  He does some things well, does some other things poorly, and overall just seems to go about his affairs in whatever way he likes, with no regard for God, which in this case ends in total disaster, as it often does.  We can't really condemn him for being a truly evil man, but he makes bad decisions and sticks with it, and this is usually how that kind of thing ends.

In the end, Amaziah dies and in the next chapter, his son Uzziah becomes king.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 24

In this chapter, Joash becomes king, does good things, does evil things, and dies.

The life of Joash is filled with many good deeds and many evil deeds.  In the beginning of his life we see many acts of devotion and godliness as Joash organizes the temple repairs.  Joash is the kind of person who, as verse 2 makes clear, lived a godly life for as long as he had a godly man advising and directing him.  He did what was right for all the days that a father-like figure was there to tell him what to do.  Yet, it appears that he did nothing more than that.

We can see just as clearly, beginning in verse 17, how everything comes off the rails when Jehoiada dies.  Joash immediately delves into idolatry, at the behest of the “officials of Judah”, and kills any of the prophets who try to stop him.  Judah suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of an inferior enemy, and Joash’s life is ended when his own officials assassinate him.

For lack of a better description, it appears that Joash did not internalize anything from Jehoiada’s good example.  Joash was a good king if he had a good force directing him to be so, and Jehoiada gets a lot of credit for it (verses 2, 12, 14, 16).  In fact, this chapter contains a peculiar reversal when Jehoiada, the priest, is buried in the tomb of the kings because of all the good things he did for Judah (v. 16), but Joash, the king, is buried elsewhere because he was regarded negatively for his later sins (v. 25).  Once again, Jehoiada is treated as the main driver behind a lot of the good things during Joash’s reign.

I wrote at length about the kingmaker phenomenon in 2 Samuel 2-3, when Abner made Ish-bosheth king and commanded his army.  What I wrote then was that the person who makes you a king has the power to take it away.  That was true with Abner and when Abner threatened Ish-bosheth, it says that Ish-bosheth was afraid of him.  The king was afraid of his servant because his servant was the kingmaker, the true power.

The dynamic between Joash and Jehoiada is similar.  Although Joash is independently powerful and could probably have maintained his kingdom without Jehoiada, the fact is that Jehoiada is the man who made Joash king when Joash was just a boy and Jehoiada taught Joash everything he knew.  Joash never knew his father; Ahaziah died when he was an infant.  The father role in his life was most likely filled by Jehoiada, which would have deeply accentuated Jehoiada’s influence in his life.  Yet somehow, in spite of all this, when Jehoiada dies, Joash goes off in the complete opposite direction, undoing all of his earlier work.

I think the first question we have to answer is how.  How did this happen?  How is it that Joash can so quickly turn against all of the training and exhortation he received from the father-like figure of Jehoiada?  I think the answer to this question is important for us to understand the human condition and is a fundamental element of the biblical narrative.  Throughout his whole lifetime, Jehoiada could exhort and cajole, and perhaps even compel Joash to support the temple and priesthood and live in the pattern of the godly kings of the past.  But there came a day when Jehoiada died and Joash faced one of the most important tests of his life: what would he do when there is no longer anyone to control him?

The results are self-explanatory.  My personal opinion is that verses 17-18 are perhaps the very first description in this whole chapter of what was in Joash’s heart this whole time.  As a general rule, the way that you act when nobody is watching you is the same as the way that you wish you could have been acting when people were watching you.  Joash probably had idolatry in his heart for his whole life, but he simply never acted out on it while Jehoiada, his surrogate father, was alive.  Similarly, while the text makes it appear as if Joash is in control, I think it’s very unlikely that he would have organized the temple repairs if Jehoiada was not there urging him on.

This is important because I think there are parallels here to the way that God relates to us.  While God has the power to compel our behavior indefinitely, he will not do so.  God does not want heaven to be a prison or a panopticon where the all-seeing eye perpetually monitors and controls our behavior.  God does not want well-behaved inmates in the orchestrated symmetry of forced labor.  God wants to build a society and a world that chooses him and loves him, and an indispensable element of that world is liberty.  When God takes his eyes off us (metaphorically), will we still behave?  Will we still honor him?

In the same way that Jehoiada died in Joash’s lifetime, there comes a moment to all of us when our parents stop telling us what to do, or maybe we stop listening, or whatever authority that we have respected is taken away.  This is a critical moment because this is when we decide for ourselves what we want our lives to mean.  As we can see in the case of Joash, choosing to do evil after a lifetime of good is a real possibility, and while God would never seek to interfere with his decision, the consequence of sin is death and God does not interfere with the consequence either.  As difficult as this is, God ultimately gives Joash the ability to destroy himself, while simultaneously pleading with him to not do this (v. 19-20).  In the end, Joash chose to do so.

We all have the capability of destroying ourselves and in varying ways to harm the people around us too.  God is also pleading with us to choose life instead (Deuteronomy 28), to live in his kingdom and be filled with joy and love for eternity.  The life of Joash shows that choosing death is a real option.  God will always urge us to choose life, but in the end it’s always up to us to make that decision.

In the next chapter, Amaziah becomes king of Judah and is defeated by Israel.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 23

In this chapter, Joash becomes king and Athaliah dies.

This chapter marks the end of Judah's political alliance with Israel.  Beginning with Jehoshaphat, Judah has been led by a succession of leaders that were either related to, or led by, a northern figure.  This has resulted in a strong shift towards idolatry and away from worshiping the LORD.  It also nearly resulted in the extinction of the Davidic family line when Athaliah nearly murdered all of Ahaziah's children in the previous chapter.

I see the uprising in this chapter as more of a counter-revolution than anything else.  Athaliah came in and upended the existing political and religious order by overthrowing both the Davidic dynasty and temple worship, and now those two forces are coming back to overthrow her in turn.  This revolution is centered around two individuals: the young king Joash and the high priest Jehoiada, who represent the Davidic dynasty and the temple worship system respectively.  Since Joash is still only seven years old, his role in these events is entirely passive and symbolic.  Jehoiada is clearly the mastermind here, and it's also clear that he is acting to preserve his own power and role in society as Judah's religious leader.  We see a fusion of royal and religious symbolism throughout this chapter, perhaps most clearly in verses 10-11 when Joash is taken out of the temple, crowned king, anointed, and given a copy of the law.

On the other side of the revolution are queen Athaliah and Mattan, the high priest of Baal.  These figures also represent a royal and religious force, respectively, with Athaliah representing the northern domination of Judah that began in the time of Jehoshaphat, and Mattan represents the Baal worship system.  Just as Jehoiada intermingles Joash's royal mandate with religious symbolism, we should also view Athaliah and Mattan as two sides of the same coin.  Athaliah definitely came into power with the intention of establishing Baal worship in the land, just as Baal worship is endemic to the northern kingdom Israel, so I think that Athaliah and Mattan are part of the same axis of power.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that Athaliah's downfall swiftly results in Mattan's death as well, since their fates were intertwined.

We can view this conflict as a battle between the traditional order of power (in Jehoiada and Joash) and the new order (of Athaliah and Mattan).  Stuck between these two opposing forces are the people.  In this story, I don't think the people are entirely passive, but almost.  I mean, Athaliah reigned for over six years.  Did the people support Athaliah?  If they didn't, why did they not overthrow her themselves?  If they did support Athaliah, why did they turn so quickly against her when Jehoiada anointed a new king?  I'm really struggling to figure out what the people thought about being ruled by Athaliah.  Obviously the people turned against her in an instant, but it's not clear to me if that's because there was some underlying resentment against Athaliah or if it's just indifference.  I've thought about it a lot and I just don't know.

This episode reminds me of a previous story from 1 Kings 1 when Adonijah tried to make himself king instead of Solomon.  In that case, David did not respond by sending soldiers to attack Adonijah.  Rather, he responded to Adonijah's coronation ceremony by throwing an even bigger coronation ceremony for Solomon.  It was basically a battle of perception: whoever convinced more people that they were the rightful king would become the actual king.

In this story, Jehoiada has a similar strategy.  He doesn't try to attack Athaliah personally, even though he had several hundred men under his command with weapons.  Instead, he first intends to crown Joash as king in order to win the hearts and minds of the people over to his side.  It's only after the people are praising and rejoicing at the new king that Jehoiada turns on Athaliah herself to have her put to death, along with Mattan.

The end result is that Joash becomes the new king at the ripe, young age of seven.  In the next chapter, we will see what kind of king this young man becomes.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 22

In this chapter, Ahaziah becomes king and reveals himself to be just as much of a catastrophe as his father Jehoram.

Similar to the previous chapter, the devastation in this chapter can be directly traced back to king Jehoshaphat, who had deliberately cultivated a political alliance with Israel by intermarriage.  While king Jehoshaphat suffered both military and economic loss for his decision, it is not until the lives of his children and grandchildren that the full gravity of that mistake is made evident.  The most important element of Jehoshaphat's mistake is that he imported Israel's culture of betrayal and intrigue into Judah's royal court.  In the previous chapter, this resulted in the murder of Judah's royal princes by the new king Jehoram, and in this chapter it results in the murder of many others.

To begin with, the new king Ahaziah maintains Jehoshaphat's policy of alignment with Israel, almost certainly due to the influence of his Israelite mother Athaliah (v. 3-4).  Similar to Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah also goes to fight a battle alongside Israel against Aram (v. 5), and similar to Jehoshaphat the battle goes poorly, with Israel's king Jehoram wounded in the fight.  We can presume that the battle was another victory for Aram.  Note that the Jehoram in this chapter is a different person with the same name as the previous king Jehoram of Judah.  Neither Jehoram nor Ahaziah die in the battle directly, but it brings them both to the same place and time when Jehu marches to enact God's judgment upon the house of Ahab.  Although it might seem like Ahaziah is an innocent casualty in Jehu's crusade to wipe out Ahab's descendants, that's actually not quite true.  Ahaziah himself is a grandson of Ahab through his mother Athaliah, and therefore Ahaziah is subject to the same condemnation that befalls Jehoram.  The full details of this story are given in 2 Kings 9, as the rendition in this chapter is somewhat abbreviated.

From a certain perspective, this is just compounding difficulties for Judah.  It was already bad before when Jehoram (Jehoshaphat's son) killed all of his brothers or when Judah suffered not one but two defeats at the hands of the Arameans while allied with Israel.  In addition to all those things, now Ahaziah is under God's judgment and he is put to death by Jehu.

We might think that things could hardly get worse for Judah, but I actually think there is a silver lining in this chapter.  As difficult as it may be, the death of Ahaziah is actually part of the redemption process for Judah.  If Ahaziah remained king, he would have continued following exactly the same policies that brought Judah to this situation in the first place, and Judah would have never escaped the domination of their northern neighbor, to their own detriment.  On the other hand, if Ahaziah and Athaliah are wiped out and a new generation of leaders are raised up in Judah, it is possible that they will be able to "reboot" the stable and comparatively God-centered royal culture that Judah possessed before Jehoshaphat.

After the death of Ahaziah, you might think that the nightmare is over, but unfortunately it is not.  Athaliah is still alive, and in a bizarre twist, she sees the death of her son as an opportunity to seize power for herself.  In verse 10, rather than let power fall to one of Ahaziah's sons, she kills every royal prince she can find and takes the throne for herself.  This is horrible, and at least a little crazy, but perhaps not entirely surprising.  Athaliah had already directed her husband, the previous king Jehoram of Judah, to kill off a broad swath of Judah's royal family for very similar reasons.  Given an opportunity to take power, Athaliah simply does that same thing again, killing every possible challenger and ascending to the throne.

For a while, it seemed like Athaliah might be successful.  She reigned for six years and was relatively unchallenged.  Perhaps through Athaliah, the house of Ahab might survive in Judah and God's judgment on Ahab might be deflected.  There's just one thing that went wrong in Athaliah's plans, one small, young detail, perhaps not even a year old.  That detail's name is Joash, one of the last surviving remnants of David's house, and in the next chapter the LORD will overthrow Athaliah through Joash and the high priest Jehoiada.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 21

In this chapter, Jehoram becomes king, does horrible things, and dies.

This is a difficult chapter to read, but given the action in the previous chapter, I think it's all too predictable.  The previous chapter showed king Jehoshaphat reaching out to Israel a second time, even after the first disastrous battle that he fought on behalf of Ahab (2 Chron 18) and the prophet rebuking him for it (2 Chron 19).  In spite of the LORD's urging, Jehoshaphat simply was not able to step away from his alliance with the house of Ahab (2 Chron 20:35-37).  While Jehoshaphat suffers loss for these decisions, a much greater tragedy is about to unfold during the lifetime of his children.

Verse 6 makes it clear that while Jehoram was a king of Judah, he walked in the ways of Israel because he was married to an Israelite princess.  One thing that's quite remarkable about Jehoshaphat is that throughout his alliance with Israel, he always maintained his personal integrity and devotion to the LORD.  Jehoshaphat was making politically expedient decisions to improve his own kingdom's position, but was doing so in ways that are contrary to God's will.  Even though Jehoshaphat himself maintained his devotion to the LORD, he was raising up his own son and the next generation of Judah's leaders in an environment where they could be shaped by the idolatry and treachery that has defined Israel's court politics.  Regardless of what temporary political advantage Jehoshaphat gained, it is about to be profoundly broken by the devastation in this next generation, beginning right here with Jehoram.

This chapter begins in verses 1-7 when Jehoram becomes king, and in order to prevent any subversion to his reign, he kills all of his brothers and some of the other prominent leaders in Judah.  This is an action that is totally nonsensical from the history of Judah; there have not been any rebellions in Judah since the days of Rehoboam.  However, if we peek at the history of Israel that is represented in 1 Kings 15:25 through 1 Kings 16:22, we can see that no less than three kings and one contender for the throne were murdered within 26 years.  Not only were the kings themselves killed, but oftentimes the entire royal family would be murdered as well.  All of these assassinations occurred in the time just before Ahab and it's doubtless that the entire court of Israel was trained to expect usurpers to rise up, and even to usurp the throne themselves if an opportunity is present.

When verse 6 says that Jehoram "walked in the way of the kings of Israel", this actually tells us quite a lot about the action that is to shortly follow: Jehoram probably expected that his brothers might try to move on the throne, since that was a regular occurrence in Israel, and he sought to undercut any possible contenders by simply murdering anyone who could potentially challenge him.  This is a mindset and an action that would only make sense for a king of Israel, and so it is clear that the culture of Israel's royalty has been transmitted to the new king of Judah.

Verses 8-20 are basically a long sequence of disasters that the LORD inflicts on Judah for Jehoram's sins, as well as the idolatry that Jehoram cultivates amongst the people.  It is only interrupted in verse 12 when Elijah makes his sole appearance in 2 Chronicles to threaten death and destruction upon Jehoram.  This warning is sandwiched between two passages describing hostile nations rebelling against Judah or invading her.  Jehoram himself is struck with a painful, incurable disease and he dies from it.  All of this is consistent with the LORD's promise in 2 Chron 7 that he would punish Judah if they ever sin against him, but heal them if they repent.  There is no indication that Jehoram ever repented.

We might think that the worst is past when Jehoram dies, but unfortunately that is not the case.  In the next chapter, Ahaziah becomes king in his father's place and Judah's collective nightmare continues.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 20

In this chapter, Judah is attacked again but they defeat their enemies through prayer.

2 Chronicles, taken as a whole, has two main sections.  The first section, which we have already finished, is the temple narrative through the lives of David and Solomon.  The second section is the chronology of kings between the death of Solomon and the exile to Babylon.  There are several ways to look at this chronology.  One method that I outlined in my discussion of 2 Chronicles 7, is to study the lives of the kings as they reflect on God's promises to Solomon and God's description of how he intends to relate to Judah.  Another method for studying the chronology of kings is to compare the kings to one another and study the ways that different kings respond to similar situations.  From this, we can learn more about the general patterns of how God operates in people's lives.  For this chapter in particular, I am going to focus on the pattern of external conflict and how the kings of Judah responded to it through the lives of Abijah, Asa and Jehoshaphat.  Although one could reasonably extend the pattern of conflict further back into the lives of Solomon, David and even Saul or Moses, I am going to focus strictly on the post-Solomon dynasty since there are a lot of differences between how these kings are portrayed compared to David and Solomon.  I am going to begin by briefly summarizing the last couple chapters and then I will explain how this pattern of conflict is reflected in Jehoshaphat's life through the material in this chapter.

In 2 Chronicles 13, Abijah and Judah fight a conflict against Jeroboam and the northern kingdom of Israel.  In this battle, after Abijah gives a long speech, the conflict boils down to two core elements.  Jeroboam attempts to defeat Judah by setting an ambush, attacking Judah from the front and the back.  Judah responds by crying out to the LORD and raising a war cry.  God responds by overturning the machinations of Jeroboam and bringing Abijah the victory.

In 2 Chronicles 14, Asa fights a battle against the Cushites who had Judah drastically outnumbered.  However, Asa turns to the LORD in prayer and once again the LORD turns the battle and wins a great victory for Judah.

In 2 Chronicles 16, Asa fights a second battle, this time against Baasha of the northern kingdom Israel.  In this case, rather than depend upon the LORD a second time, Asa bribes the Arameans to attack Israel from the north.  This leaves Israel in a pincer between the Judeans to the south and the Arameans to the north, which is very similar to the ambush that Jeroboam had set for Abijah in 2 Chronicles 13.  Even though Judah is saved for the moment, this event sets off a cascade of negative consequences going into the future, which you can read about in my commentary on that chapter.

Lastly, in 2 Chronicles 18, Jehoshaphat fights his first war by allying with Ahab to take on the Arameans.  The same Arameans were Asa's erstwhile allies in Judah's previous conflict against Israel.  In effect, Jehoshaphat is swapping his allegiance from his former ally to his former adversary.  Jehoshaphat suffers a crippling defeat by partnering with an idolatrous king, but he survives.

That brings us to the present chapter.  This is Jehoshaphat's second (and final) conflict, which I think mirrors the two conflicts that we saw in Asa's life, although Jehoshaphat's responses are different.  In fact, while Asa started off his reign well and ended poorly, Jehoshaphat starts his reign rather poorly and ends well.  Jehoshaphat was strongly criticized by a prophet for his alliance with Ahab, which will also bring about a cascade of negative consequences in Judah's future (as we will read about shortly).  That said, he took the criticism to heart and he sought to bring about a reformation in Judah's religious climate to draw people back to the LORD.

In my opinion, I think this is the fulcrum event in the lives of both Asa and Jehoshaphat.  In both cases, they fight two conflicts.  In both cases, they are rebuked by a prophet.  Asa responds to the prophet's rebuke by imprisoning the prophet and oppressing the people (2 Chron 16:7-10).  Jehoshaphat responds to the prophet's rebuke by bringing the people back to the LORD (2 Chron 19:1-11).  The first is the response of pride, the second is the response of humility.

These parallels leave us with a question: why did Asa go in a negative arc, and why did Jehoshaphat go in a positive arc?  I think the answer is found in their response to the prophets.

It appears that Asa developed pride in his heart during the long years of peace after his first great victory.  Perhaps over time he came to think of the victory as a result of his own greatness or wisdom.  By the time his second conflict emerged, he sought to solve the problem through his own ingenuity and wisdom, and he turned to ally with a godless nation.  When rebuked, he probably thought of himself as a great victor, having won a second major conflict against his enemies.  He was probably shocked that a prophet would seek to criticize him in the midst of such a remarkable victory over their enemies with little (apparent) cost.  As a tactical decision, Asa did very well and Judah's position was strengthened.  But since Asa was no longer turning to the LORD, it was only a matter of time until things degraded, and when Asa's authority was challenged, things got very dark, very quickly.

On the other hand, Jehoshaphat begins his reign with great wealth and power, and like Asa, he also seeks to build his power by a foreign alliance, this time with Israel.  I wonder if he learned this from his father Asa, who allied with the Arameans for a similar reason?  If he did, he also learns about the disastrous consequences of these foreign alliances when his army suffers a crushing defeat.  In the midst of that great embarrassment, having just returned to his palace, Jehoshaphat is confronted by his prophet Jehu, who points out his folly.  Of course Jehoshaphat was warned by another prophet Micaiah, so he should have never been in the battle in the first place.  But having fought that war against the Arameans, and contrary to God's will, Jehoshaphat nevertheless survives and in the middle of these terrible circumstances, humility bubbles up from some deep place in Jehoshaphat's heart.  He sets his heart to seek God, and he goes around the land turning the people back to God too.

It is in the midst of this revival that Judah is invaded again, this time by Moabites and Ammonites.  We might fear that Jehoshaphat would turn to his natural allies, Israel, to help set back these invaders, but somehow Jehoshaphat turns to the LORD once more (v. 3-4), and he unites the nation in prayer and seeking the LORD.  More than anything else, this is what determines the success and failure of Judah in the challenges that they have faced.  In many respects, it boils down to that single thing: humility.  How do the kings respond to correction and rebuke when they make mistakes?  The measure of the kings in this book is not whether they make mistakes: nearly every king does, even the good ones.  The measure of the king is how they deal with the consequences of their mistakes, and this is clearly exemplified in the lives of Asa and Jehoshaphat.

During the battle, Jehoshaphat and Judah march out with singers at the front, praising the LORD, and it is in the midst of praise that God set ambushes against their enemies.  This is the third time that an ambush or pincer has been described.  First it was Jeroboam setting an ambush against Abijah, when Abijah cried out to the LORD, and then second it was Asa bribing the Arameans to strike Israel in a strategic pincer, and now the LORD himself is setting an ambush against Judah's enemies.  God was powerful enough to defeat an ambush that was set by men, but when God ambushes Judah's enemies, there is no escape.

When Jehoshaphat returns to Jerusalem, there was peace in his land, similar to when there was peace in the land after Asa's earlier victories.

The chapter concludes with yet another displeasing alliance, this time with Ahab's son Ahaziah.  Unfortunately, it appears that even after everything Jehoshaphat gets right and the great victory he wins through the LORD, even to the end of his life he was not able to get away from his alliance with the house of Israel.  In the short term, he suffers the loss of ships and trading profit, but the real effects of Jehoshaphat's alliance will only be felt in the next generation.  In the next chapter, we will see the fruit of Jehoshaphat's political dealings.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 19

In this chapter, Jehoshaphat appoints religious judges over Judah.

This chapter has two main parts.

The first part (in verses 1-3) is a continuation of the previous chapter.  After being defeated by the Arameans, Jehoshaphat has come home to a complaining prophet.  Much like a grumpy wife after her husband has a late night out with the boys, Jehu seems to be waiting around for Jehoshaphat to get back home to Jerusalem and then chews him out.  Of course, we can imagine Jehoshaphat trying to defend himself, claiming it was all innocent fun and that "nothing happened", but prophets usually have an intuition for this sort of thing and Jehu calls him out for his alliance with Ahab.  For all of the reasons that I discussed in the previous chapter, this alliance with Ahab was a mistake.  By teaming up with Ahab, Jehoshaphat is only "bringing wrath on himself from the LORD" (v. 2).  However, the prophet also acknowledges that while Jehoshaphat is making mistakes, he has "set his heart to seek God" (v. 3).

Jehoshaphat is a man with divided motives.  On the one hand, he is dedicated to God and institutes religious reforms to bring the nation closer to God.  On the other hand, Jehoshaphat's political and pragmatic side seems to be drawn towards allying with the northern kingdom, in spite of their major religious and cultural differences, and it's this pragmatic side that seems to be working to Jehoshaphat's detriment.  While these two sides are conflicted, it appears that Jehoshaphat's devotion to God is enough to get him through the problems he creates for himself, much like how his "crying out" (2 Chron 18:31) to the LORD in the previous chapter was enough to save his life when enemies were chasing him.

In this chapter, Jehoshaphat once again proves his merit because immediately after being rebuked, he goes out to bring his people back to the LORD (v. 4).  You can contrast his response to a critical prophet to Asa's response in 2 Chronicles 16.  In that case Asa, who was previously a godly king, is enraged at the criticism and throws the prophet into prison for speaking against him.  Jehoshaphat responds with much more humility and rather than lashing out against the prophet, Jehoshaphat responds by seeking God in an even more dedicated way than before.

That brings me to the second part of this chapter, Jehoshaphat's religious reforms.  As part of bringing the people back to the LORD, Jehoshaphat appoints judges in the towns of Judah and places Levites and priests as judges and officers over the other judges.  This is not the first time that Levites or priests were appointed as judges, or at least suggested as judges.  Deut 17:8-13 says that "difficult cases" should be brought to the temple, to the "Levitical priest" to adjudicate the issue.  It's possible that Levites-as-judges was previously commanded, but is only now being fulfilled in actual fact.

The practical implication is that Levites and priests would have a greater role in society, and would have more leverage for enforcing the religious precepts of the Law of Moses.  It suggests a gradual shift away from the traditional forms of law which was judged by tribal elders and towards the religious form of law that is contained in the Torah, the Law of Moses.  The Law of Moses has been around for a long time, but this is a practical step towards actually implementing it in Judah's society.

Jehoshaphat also divides the administration between affairs of the LORD (religious law) and affairs of the king (royal law).  This is a fairly logical division, since the high priest would be most well-versed with priestly law and the eldest leader of the house of Judah would be familiar with the king's interests and would be capable of advocating on the king's behalf.

All of this is positive news for Judah.  It looks like they have a godly king and are slowly starting to align with the Law of Moses.  In the next chapter, Jehoshaphat faces his second major test and his first major invasion as Judah is attacked by their enemies.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 18

In this chapter, Jehoshaphat allies with the king of Israel to attack Aram.

Unlike the previous chapter, the narrative for this chapter closely mirrors the text from the book of Kings, 1 Kings 22 to be precise.  We've been tracking the similarities and differences between Kings and Chronicles for quite some time now.  For a long time, the text was very similar, especially during the lifetimes of David and Solomon who would have been of interest to both the northern and southern kingdoms.  The texts started to diverge more broadly with Rehoboam and Asa, and now during the lifetime of Jehoshaphat the texts diverge even more.  In particular, nearly all of the material from 1 Kings 15-21 is omitted from Chronicles.  These chapters deal with the succession of kings of Israel and then the stories of Ahab's conflict with Elijah and several foreign invasions.  None of this is considered "of interest" to the southern kingdom, so it is left out of Chronicles.

This chapter marks a brief convergence between the two texts, because this story is of interest to both the northern and southern kingdoms.  It is a story about Ahab and his war against Aram, but it is also an important story from Jehoshaphat's reign.  In keeping with the intention of the Chronicler, I'm going to mostly focus on what this story tells us about Jehoshaphat and the history of Judah.  For more on how this story plays into Ahab's life and reign, see my commentary on 1 Kings 22.

In broad terms, I think a lot of this chapter is centered around the relationship between Judah and Israel, contrasting the righteous king Jehoshaphat against the idolatrous king Ahab.

Beginning in verses 1-3, we can see that things are looking good for Judah.  Jehoshaphat, who in the previous chapter instituted religious reforms and received blessings from God, is now negotiating peace with Ahab by intermarriage.  I think this is a good moment for me to briefly recap the history of conflict between Israel and Judah.  In the beginning, these two kingdoms were divided when the northern tribes followed Jeroboam and the southern two tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed with Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.  Jeroboam quickly constructed idols in order to keep the people from going to the temple in Jerusalem, and this created a religious fracture between the two kingdoms.  While both the northern and southern kingdoms had high places and Asherah poles, the northern kingdom went much further into idolatry while the southern kingdom stayed relatively close to temple worship and the LORD.  The history of the kings we've read about has roughly sustained this point, with Abijah, Asa and now Jehoshaphat all commended for being godly rulers sometimes (in spite of their sins at other times).

On the other hand, if you read the narrative in Kings you will see that numerous kings of Israel are lambasted for being evil, ungodly men, including Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri and concluding with Ahab, who is considered the worst of the whole bunch.  It's basically the whole list of kings from Jeroboam all the way down to Ahab.

There are also numerous military conflicts between these two nations, with Abijah (king of Judah) fighting and winning a battle against Israel, and Asa (another king of Judah) negotiating a treaty with Aram in order to drive back and defeat Israel.  Now that Judah and Israel are drawing together an alliance, the first question in my mind is whether or not this is appropriate for Judah to do.  On the one hand, I would certainly imagine the LORD wishes there to be some kind of reconciliation between the twelve tribes.  On the other hand, we have every indication (greatly reinforced in this chapter) that the northern kingdom is still in the grips of idolatry and sin, and frankly, it just doesn't seem like reconciliation is possible at this point in history.

As a guidance point, let us recall the Law of Moses.  It thoroughly commanded Israel to stay separate and apart from the idolatrous nations that inhabited the promised land before their arrival.  The Pentateuch warned the Israelites over and over that intermarriage or alliances with the native peoples would be a "thorn in the side" of Israel (Num 33:55-56), a perpetual hindrance, and that these peoples would teach the Israelites to sin and in so doing, condemn Israel to the same destruction that the Israelites were supposed to bring to the people they were displacing.  The military code in Deuteronomy 20 makes it clear that any of the nations in the promised land must be wholly destroyed or else they will cause Israel to stumble and fall (Deut 20:16-18).

With that in mind, while I don't think Judah has a mandate to destroy the northern kingdom, I think one could reasonably argue that they should try to maintain the same separation with the northern kingdom that they would have with any other idolatrous nation.

So that is the context for what is happening in this chapter.  Regardless of what stance Judah should take regarding her sinful neighbor, I hope my readers understand the implied peril of Jehoshaphat's overture to Ahab, because he is risking the influence and culture of the northern kingdom dragging down Judah into the same kinds of problems that have afflicted Israel for years.

The middle part of this chapter (verses 4-27) is a striking demonstration of the differences that still remained between the northern kingdom and southern kingdom, in spite of their erstwhile alliance.  In terms of the fundamental question, "how do we make decisions?", Ahab listens to the prophets of Baal, while Jehoshaphat seeks a prophet of the LORD.  It's funny, you might not realize they are prophets of Baal from this chapter.  In verse 4, Jehoshaphat says, "can you bring a prophet of the LORD?"  Ahab is all like, "yeah, sure thing", and he hauls over these 400 guys.  They prophesy that God will bring them victory, and then Jehoshaphat responds with, "no seriously guys, can you find an ACTUAL prophet of the LORD here?".  Ahab says, "well... I suppose we have this one guy, but I don't like him."  In verses 10-11, the 400 dudes are still going strong, and they literally prophesy in the name of the LORD, even though we have already pretty much established they are not prophets of the LORD based on the exchange in v. 6-7.

After all that, Jehoshaphat insists on hearing from a real prophet of the LORD, Micaiah comes and does his thing (telling Ahab he's gonna die), and weirdly enough, Jehoshaphat ends up going along with the battle anyway (v. 28).  You'd figure after being so insistent upon hearing from a prophet of the LORD, Jehoshaphat would maybe listen to what he has to say, but instead it looks like Jehoshaphat felt pressured into going along with Ahab because of their political agreement.  This is exactly the danger that I was talking about from Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Because Jehoshaphat allied himself with Ahab, he tied his own fate to the fate of Ahab and the complete destruction of Ahab became the partial destruction of Jehoshaphat.  Jehoshaphat survived, but much of his army was killed in the defeat.

What I take from this chapter is that Jehoshaphat is a man who is trying to do the right thing, insisting on following the LORD and bringing in a real prophet, and then... failing miserably.  He should have never been here.  I don't know why he made an alliance with Ahab, but it was the wrong decision and it eventually led him to this place, where he felt compelling to go along with Ahab's plan even when the prophet that he insisted to hear is telling him otherwise.

I think from this story, we can get a sense that while Jehoshaphat is honored by Ahab, Ahab is the person who controls this alliance.  Ahab is the man with the plan, and Jehoshaphat is just following along.  The prophets of Baal are more numerous and more forceful than the prophet of the LORD, and from the prior confrontations we get the sense that Israel has more military strength than Judah.  Once again, being in a position where an idolatrous king can bully you into doing what he wants is a terrible strategic decision by Jehoshaphat, because it separates him from obeying the LORD which is the only way Judah could ever be victorious.

In the end, the LORD spares Jehoshaphat's life when the king cries out to God (v. 31), which shows that even while fighting alongside Ahab, Jehoshaphat still had his heart set upon the LORD.

In the next chapter, this story concludes when a prophet rebukes Jehoshaphat for his partnership with Ahab.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 17

In this chapter, Jehoshaphat becomes king over Judah.

In some ways, the life of Jehoshaphat is similar to the life of Asa.  This chapter in particular seems to mimic the early days of Asa's reign when it says that Asa followed the Lord (2 Chron 14:2-5), was rewarded with peace (2 Chron 14:5-7), he uses peace to build out fortified cities (2 Chron 14:6-7) and concludes with a brief description of his military forces from Judah and Benjamin (2 Chron 14:8).  This chapter follows a similar pattern with Jehoshaphat's religious dedication in verses 3-9, God rewarding him with peace in verse 10-11, the construction of fortified cities in verses 12-13, and the census of military forces in verses 14-18.

In fact, I would go further than just saying they have similar lives; I think there is a similarity in the literary pattern between 2 Chronicles 14 and this chapter in the way that the two chapters first describe the king's moral character, then describe God's response, and conclude with a kind of survey of the king's military organization of the kingdom.  The parallels will drop off slightly in the next chapter, but in both cases it seems that the census of Judah's army precedes a military engagement (in the case of Asa, when he was invaded by the Cushites, and in the case of Jehoshaphat, when he allies with Ahab to attack Aram which is described in the next chapter).

This chapter does not have any equivalent passage in Kings.  When you read 1 Kings 15, the death of Asa ends its description of the history of Judah and it immediately launches into a long segment about the kings and history of Israel with a particular emphasis on the conflict between Ahab and Elijah.  This story is entirely omitted from Chronicles.  Instead, 1 Kings 22:41-50 describes the life of Jehoshaphat and it leaves out most of the details about Jehoshaphat's religious reforms.

Overall, this chapter doesn't have much in the way of new action or things happening.  I see it as more of an overview of Jehoshaphat's character and the tenor of his reign.  The real story begins in the next chapter when Jehoshaphat allies with Ahab to attack Aram.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 16

In this chapter, Asa fights a second war against Baasha of Israel, but does not rely on God this time.

This is the third and final chapter for the life of Asa.

Before diving into the material, I just wanted to point out that almost nothing we have read in these three chapters (2 Chron 14-16) is contained in the book of Kings.  1 Kings 15:9-24 covers the entire life of Asa in a greatly abbreviated fashion.  The two narratives are substantially consistent so it is likely that Kings and Chronicles are derived from a common source, with Chronicles simply presenting more of the underlying material.  This is much of the value of Chronicles because it provides a lot of insight into the kings' lives that we didn't get in the book of Kings.  This chapter is a great example, because it really presents a lot more of the negative side of Asa that we did not see in Kings.

With that said, this chapter is closely connected to the previous two chapters.  The themes in the previous chapters included Asa's devotion to God, God blessing him with peace, and then his response to conflict when it did emerge.  Asa responded in prayer and God brought a victory in his life over his enemies.

This chapter tackles many of the same themes, but Asa's response could not be more different from last time.

This chapter begins with another conflict.  Much like the last one, it followed a long period of peace and prosperity in Judah.  Last time Judah was attacked by the Cushites, from southern Egypt, and this time they are attacked by Baasha and the northern kingdom of Israel.  Rather than respond in prayer against the superior force, Asa responds tactically this time.  He bribes the king of Aram to attack Israel, placing Israel in a pincer between the northern forces of Aram and the southern forces of Judah.  He pays Aram with gold and silver taken from the house of the LORD.  Symbolically, this is like removing his trust in God and placing it in Aram, because it's where he is placing his treasures.

In 2 Chronicles 13:13, Jeroboam had placed kings Abijah in a pincer, but Abijah prayed and the LORD delivered him.  In 2 Chronicles 14, Asa had also prayed and God delivered him from the Cushites.  Now in this chapter Asa is the one seeking to place Baasha in a pincer, using the same tactical maneuver to defeat his enemy.  While this might seem like a wise move, it reveals that Asa is no longer trusting God to help him defeat a stronger adversary.  Even though Asa defeats the Israelite threat, he has made himself dependent on Aram and also permitted Aram to conquer several cities from Israel (v. 4).  This earns Asa a rebuke from the prophet (a different prophet than last time), but the rebuke is surprising to me.  Hanani doesn't say "the army of Israel has escaped from you".  Instead, he says that the army of Aram, his putative ally, escaped from Asa.

I think there are two reasons for this statement.  First, the LORD has previously shown reluctance about Judah and Israel fighting each other (2 Chron 11:4).  Even though God helped Judah to defeat Israel in battle (2 Chron 13:15-16), I don't believe God wanted this war to happen.  Therefore I believe that God is not seeking to lead Judah into victory over Israel, but rather over their foreign enemies.  I think God is probably wishing to bring peace between Judah and Israel.

Secondly, Aram is a predecessor for the later Assyrian empire that will rise up and destroy Israel entirely.  Both Aram's victories over Israel in v. 4 and the prophet's warning that Judah could have defeated Aram in v. 7 foreshadow Aram's rise to power and dominance over the Mideast.  If only Asa had trusted in God, perhaps the Aramean threat could have been averted.  Instead, Asa's subservience to Aram in this early conflict lays a foundation for Aram's later domination over both Israel and Judah, fueling the rise of a greater threat than Israel ever was.

So that's the difference in Asa's response: rather than trusting in God, he tries to outflank his opponent by allying with Aram.  As a result, he strengthens Aram and Hanani declares that "from now on you will surely have wars".  In the earlier times when Asa trusted in God, God granted him peace.  Now that Asa is trusting in the king of Aram, God promises that he will have wars and conflict.  Even though Asa had previously lived a godly life, he is now drifting further and further from the LORD, and the LORD is rebuking him.

Rather than repenting, Asa responds to that rebuke by hardening his heart; he imprisons the prophet and rejects his message.  What we must understand is that a prophet's rebuke is not meant to tell us that we are hopelessly condemned.  It is an opportunity for repentance, much like how David repented at the words of Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-13), and Asa should have repented at this time also.  This is perhaps Asa's second chance to turn his life around and get back on track with God's plan for him.  Instead, he reinforces his bad decision by removing the prophet entirely.  He rejects the words of God and the man who brings them.

This all precipitates the final crisis in Asa's life, when his feet are struck by some unidentified disease.  I say it's the final crisis because this disease is most likely what kills him.  The text doesn't specifically say that the disease was a result of his sin, but I think it's meant to be implied.  This disease is a punishment for sin, but it's also an act of mercy.  Since Asa has shown that he is no longer following God, God kills him before he can do any more harm to the nation.  Verse 12 tells us that Asa did not seek the LORD for healing, but only the physicians.  While Asa could save his nation by the strength of Aram, ultimately Asa found that he could not bribe his disease and he was left beyond the mortal powers of royalty and gold.  If only Asa had learned to depend on God before, perhaps his life could have been saved later.  In the end, the people of Judah still honor him with a great fire because of how he helped save them from these various invasions, but it's pretty clear that his life did not end well.

But this brings me to another important element of Asa's story: how is it that Asa could have started off so well and ended so poorly?  This is another one of those questions that we will probably never be able to answer.  We know that Asa won this great victory, had twenty years of peace and when the next battle came up, he responded so much worse.  What could have possibly have happened to lead his heart so far away from the God who led him to victory?

We can only speculate, so that's exactly what I will do.  I think that Asa fell into pride.  Having won a great victory and with twenty years of peace, I think that Asa came to view himself as the great king and victor over the Cushites, and he no longer saw it as the LORD's victory.  Regardless of the exact reason why, it shows that we cannot build our lives on a single victory.  We have to keep our hearts fixed on God for our whole lives, or else we risk falling to the same fate as Asa.  A godly king like Asa turned away from his earlier devotion, and it's possible it could happen to us too if we do not keep our thoughts fixed on God all our lives.  Like the LORD says in Genesis 4:7, sin is crouching at the door waiting to rule over us, but we must rule over it.  If we grow complacent about pride or other sins during our times of peace, we will not be spiritually prepared to depend on God in times of war.

I think that is the ultimate lesson here: much like Asa's godliness in times of peace prepared him for his earlier war, his complacency and (perhaps) pride in times of peace produced his ultimate failure in this later war.  In both cases, I believe Asa's conduct during the time of conflict is a product of the heart attitude that he cultivated in the earlier time of peace and rest.  Even though 2 Chron 15 shows that Asa brought about a great revival, we can only assume that the revival was temporary, because otherwise Asa would not have ended his life this way.

Taken as a whole, Asa's life is still generally positive.  He wins a great victory and leads Judah into a spiritual revival.  His people honor him after his death, in spite of his faults.  The warning in Asa's life is that we must seek to end well.  We cannot get complacent or arrogant towards God at the end of our lives and rest upon our earlier victories.  We need to finish strong and follow God until the very end, or else we risk falling short of God's intentions for our lives.

One last topic I'd like to discuss is verse 9, which is one of my favorite verses.  I think what I like the most about this verse is that it has such a strong dynamism when describing the LORD.  God isn't passively waiting for people to find him, he is searching all over the earth, earnestly looking for people who have given their hearts to him, that he might strengthen and support them.  God has such an eagerness to help the people who dedicate their lives to him that we know we can trust him.  Our devotion to God will not be overlooked or unanswered: God will see it, and God will answer with his strength and power.  The foolishness of Asa is not that his actions lacked earthly wisdom, but that he failed to trust in the strength and deliverance that comes from God.

As this chapter concludes the life of Asa, the next chapter begins a new reign and a new king: the life of Asa's son, king Jehoshaphat.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 15

In this chapter, Asa continues to push Judah into worshiping the LORD.

I see two big themes in this chapter.  The first theme is the contrast between seeking the LORD and worshiping idols, and the second theme is the contrast between having peace and being in conflict.

I think it's really interesting how this chapter is positioned directly after 2 Chronicles 14 because chapter 14 touches on the same themes, and in very similar ways.  In chapter 14, it basically says that Asa removed the high places, sought the LORD and had peace.  And then right after that, a large Cushite army comes up and attacks Jerusalem, shattering the peace, but only for a moment.  Asa remains dedicated to God and God saves Judah and they defeat their enemies.  Now in this chapter, a prophet comes out and tells Asa that without God, they would not have peace (v. 5), and when the people turn back to God then they had rest again (v. 15, 19).

Now, I think it's likely that the distress that Azariah is talking about in v. 3-6 is from before Asa became king.  I also think it's clear that this prophecy and subsequent actions are from after Asa's victory over the Cushites, because the "spoil they had brought" in v. 11 is clearly referring to the plunder from 2 Chron 14:13-15.  In light of that, we should interpret the prophecy as not referring to the deliverance from a specific conflict or distress, but as a continual promise of deliverance as long as Judah remains obedient to the covenant.  The reason is that Judah just defeated their enemies and won a big victory.  They do not even HAVE a specific conflict or distress that they need to be delivered from.  Azariah's prophecy does not make any sense if you think it refers to some specific deliverance because Judah is already living in peace under Asa's reign.

Rather, Azariah is referring to Judah's older history, probably under some earlier king like Saul or maybe even the judges, and once again Azariah is directly associating Judah's peace or distress with the extent to which they seek and obey the LORD.  This notion that blessings flow from obedience seems very typical for the covenantal promises in Deuteronomy, and I feel like this chapter is heavily influenced by the structure of the covenant in Deuteronomy.  The part that's unique is how much of the focus is on peace versus distress.  This chapter basically defines the blessing of God as when he "gave them rest" (v. 15).

I also find it peculiar that this chapter occurs right after the battle with the Cushites.  When I first read this chapter I thought it was very strange that Judah is being promised peace immediately after they fought this enormous battle.  Granted, they won the battle, but I can't help but wonder why they didn't get this promise before the big battle.  If God is going to promise them peace, then why not stop the battle against the Cushites?  It was something I also wondered about in light of the "rest" that the LORD gave to Judah in 2 Chron 14:6.  I guess I wonder what this promise could mean if it didn't stop the big Cushite army from invading.  It's not something I have a great answer for; I think God might have had a purpose for the Cushite invasion, to test Asa's resolve.  Also, verse 19 says that there was no more war until the 35th year of Asa's reign.  The timing of the battle is not dated, but we can guess from 2 Chron 14:1 that it was probably in the 10th year of his reign or around that time, which means that Asa lived for another 25 years without war.  Even living in America I'm not sure that we have gone 25 years without fighting a war of some kind, so having 25 years of peace in the Mideast does seem like a fulfilled promise to me, considering what the LORD promised and what he asked for.

In any case, at least the intent of this chapter is clear.  Asa removes the idols and high places as his act of obedience to the covenant, and God responds by granting his peace and rest as his blessing.

Both this chapter and the previous chapter are Asa's good years, when he responds to peace well (by seeking the LORD) and responds to conflict well also (by seeking the LORD).  In the next chapter, we'll see what happens when Asa faces another conflict and responds to it poorly.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 14

In this chapter, Asa scores a great victory over the Cushites.

I see this chapter as having two parts.  The first part is verses 1-7, which describes Asa's reign and religious devotion, and the second part is verses 8-15, which describes Asa's army and subsequent battle against the Cushites.

The first part of this chapter seems to focus heavily on how Asa was such a great king.  This guy is cutting down Asherah poles, "commanding Judah to seek the LORD" (v. 4), removing high places, and the kingdom is at peace under him, "for the LORD gave him rest" (v. 6).  I marvel that he had time to do all of these things.  I think the important part is that because Asa and the people sought the LORD, they had rest.

In the second part of the chapter, the rest ends.  There is no mention of either the king of the people sinning to cause this war.  Even though the LORD had formerly given them peace, that season was now over.  Judah had built itself up and become very strong, but remarkably the Cushites are yet even stronger than Judah.  This leaves Asa with a moment of decision: would he trust in his strength and his army to win the victory, or would he continue to "seek the LORD" and depend on God for his victory?  As the record shows, Asa sought the LORD and the LORD gave him victory over his enemies.

I think there are two important points here.  The first point is that conflict and challenges are not always the result of sin in our lives.

In Asa's reign, it appears as if he is doing everything right.  He is following the LORD, tearing down idols, living in peace and prospering.  Our lives are often like this as well.  We follow the LORD, avoid idols, live in peace and prosper.  But then something happens.  Asa is still doing all the right things, but a conflict emerges in his life.  The Cushites seem to observe his prosperity and wish to partake of it by force.  Asa is faced with a challenge that he did not ask for and did not bring upon himself.  In the same way, in our lives we often run into challenges that are simply not our fault.  Many people, when faced with challenges, find themselves with one of two responses: blaming themselves or blaming God.  We either seek to identify the sins in our lives that brought this challenge upon us, and we castigate our own mistakes, or else we find ourselves faultless and seek to blame God, placing the fault upon him.

In short, this is largely because people misinterpret the covenant in Deuteronomy 28, which promises blessings for obeying God and curses for disobeying him.  It offers to us life or death, and pleads with us to choose life.  Here is the misinterpretation: people believe that the blessing from obeying God should mean that we do not have conflict.  We see conflict and challenges as evidence that we are under some kind of curse, because surely God would not send challenges or difficulties upon the righteous, as per the covenant.  This is a misinterpretation because Deut 28:7 promises us that we will defeat "the enemies who rise up against you."  People think that Deuteronomy promises us "enemies will not rise up against you", but that's not at all what it says.  It doesn't ever promise us that we won't face enemies, it simply promises us that we will defeat them.  It doesn't promise us we won't ever face challenges, it simply promises we will overcome them.

People mistake the "enemies rising up" against us as if they were the curse from Deut 28:15-68 that falls upon the disobedient, but these are critically different kinds of things.

Here is how this becomes a problem.  If we blame ourselves when we face challenges and look to find our sins, we won't look to find victory through God.  We can defeat ourselves by being sin-focused.  Similarly, if we blame God when we face challenges, then we can become angry and distant, and cut ourselves off from the victory that comes through faith in God.  Therefore both of these responses, where we misunderstand and misattribute the challenges in our lives, position us to be defeated by those challenges rather than have the victory we were promised.  Those defeats become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because being defeated by the problems we face substantiate our original belief that the problems we faced were either a punishment for sin or an injustice rendered against us.  Having the right understanding of challenges is absolutely critical to overcoming challenges, because it governs our attitude and response to challenges.  Over a lifetime, this can snowball into either bigger and bigger victories or bigger and bigger defeats.  There are two roads in life, one leading to victory and the other leading to defeat; one leading to life and the other leading to death.  It is important that we choose life.

And what about Asa?  When faced with overwhelming force, he did not blame himself nor did he blame God.  Instead, he turns to the LORD as his helper, the one who can grant him victory over his enemies like Deuteronomy 28:7-8 promised.  In essence what he does is prove his faith.  His faith that was so strong in peace also survives through war.  There are many people who have strong faith during times of prosperity, but conflict and warfare reveals that faith to be frail or unsteady.  This is the second point.  Rightly handling conflict is more than just having a proper understanding of where problems come from.  Handling conflict in a godly way is a question of how we have cultivated our hearts during times of peace.  Conflict can, in so many ways, reveal the deep inner ideas, assumptions and choices that we have made.  There are a lot of things that we might do under stress that we would never do if we lived in prosperity all our lives.  Some of those things are good, some of those things are bad.

In a way that almost nothing else could do, conflict makes our inner nature transparent to ourselves, to others and to God.  God permits conflict in our lives not so that we would be defeated by it (we are already guaranteed victory), but to show us who we are and what we value.  Whatever you turn to for salvation when you are in distress and everything else has failed is your god.  When we are in the midst of peace, the most important thing is to prepare our hearts so that when we face challenges, we respond the way that Asa does, by turning to the LORD.  Asa turning to the LORD is not actually a decision he makes when the Cushite army is marching towards Jerusalem.  It's a decision he made years earlier when he chose over and over to follow the LORD.  It's the result of years of prayer and dedication in times of peace that he remains dedicated in times of war.  The way that we hold ourselves in times of war is the cumulative result of all our life's choices during the earlier times of peace.  With firmly planted roots and a steady heart, we will not be shaken.  But if our lives are devoted to idols, then we will turn to those idols when we are in the midst of distress and the idols will fail us because idols simply cannot ever save or bear the pressures of life.

Asa chose well during the years of peace, and therefore he was victorious in the time of battle when he turned to the LORD and the LORD delivered him.  I can only hope that we all would live the same way.

In the next chapter, Asa destroys even more idols and makes the nation swear an oath to follow the LORD.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 13

In this chapter, Abijah wins a massive victory over the armies of Jeroboam.

For this chapter, I would like to study three aspects of the narrative.  First, I will compare and contrast between this chapter and the corresponding passage in 1 Kings 15:1-8, which also describes the life of Abjiah.  Second, I will discuss this chapter in light of the three principles that God lays out in 2 Chronicles 7, which I have previously described.  Third, I will compare and contrast the descriptions of Abjiah and Jeroboam, who are offered in this chapter as two different models for kingship.

Out of these three aspects, the first two have been ongoing studies throughout 2 Chronicles, so they should be familiar to my readers.  The third aspect is relatively new to this chapter, but I think it's apt because the Chronicler is all but directly comparing the two rulers in how they became king and how they engage each other in battle.  More on this later.

Let's begin by contrasting this chapter against 1 Kings 15:1-8.  These two passages are quite different, in a couple ways.  First, the present chapter is much longer and more detailed than the Kings equivalent.  Second, the narrative in Kings has a substantially negative assessment of Abijah, while the present chapter is substantially positive about him.  1 Kings 15:6 acknowledges the warfare between Abijah and Jeroboam, but it also asserts that Abijah was unfaithful to the LORD and his kingdom was only maintained for the sake of David (1 Kings 15:3-4).  On the other hand, verses 8-12 make a remarkably strong statement about how faithless the northern kingdom was being in so many ways, "but as for us" (v. 10), Judah, they are maintaining the covenant and following all of the rules and regulations and God is their king, etc, etc.

I'm not sure how to reconcile these differing visions of Abijah other than to say that it's a difference of opinion between the northern-centric book of Kings and the southern-centric book of Chronicles.  Since Abijah himself is a king of Judah, Chronicles is perhaps more likely to view him charitably.  In addition, since Chronicles itself is deeply interested in the Davidic succession, the priestly ministry and the temple worship, Abijah's speech in verses 4-12 is directly in line with Chronicles's larger theological interest.

My NIV commentary suggests that Kings and Chronicles may simply reflect the "mixture of good and evil" that you find in people everywhere.  I find that explanation unconvincing, but in the end I simply don't know why these two descriptions of the same person are so different when Chronicles was almost certainly derived from Kings (and other books) as a literary source.

The second aspect we should study is how this chapter reflects the three principles that God lays out to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7.  Those three principles are: if Israel (Judah) repents, God would forgive them; if Israel's king rules the same way as David, God will establish his kingdom forever; if Israel continues to sin, God will cast them out of the promised land.

What we see in this chapter is that the king of Judah is claiming obedience to the LORD.  In fact, he claims that as the descendant of David he is the rightful king and that the northern tribes under Jeroboam are sinning by rebelling against him.  Abijah also personally maligns Jeroboam as being the leader of "worthless men... scoundrels" (v. 7) who usurped Rehoboam when Rehoboam was not strong enough to fight back.  This is a remarkably different perspective from what we saw in 1 Kings 11:29-39 where in that passage, the northern kingdom is given to Jeroboam by the LORD because of Solomon's sin.  Jeroboam may have been a sinner personally (1 Kings 12-14), but he didn't steal the kingdom or attain it by his own strength or wisdom: it was given to him by the LORD.  This is sharply different from the present chapter, where Abijah basically says that Jeroboam and his followers sinned by ever taking part of the kingdom at all.  It's also noteworthy that the passage describing Solomon's sin and the kingdom being given to Jeroboam was omitted entirely from 2 Chronicles.  In this way, 2 Chronicles presents a much more positive image of Solomon, and also a much more negative perspective of Jeroboam, who is now imagined as a rebel against God as well as Rehoboam.

Notwithstanding the substantial difference between Kings and Chronicles, I think this chapter is another example of the second principle.  Abijah is describing himself as a godly man (which the Chronicler seems to take at face value), and as a result he and Judah are able to defeat their adversaries.  Meanwhile, Jeroboam is defeated, and he "did not recover strength in the days of Abijah" (v. 20) and he later dies.

All of this leads me to the third topic I would like to discuss, which is to compare Abijah with Jeroboam.  I think there are a lot of aspects to this, some of which I have already touched on.

First, they invert positions.  In the beginning of the chapter, Jeroboam comes from a position of strength and Abijah is in a position of weakness.  We see this through their respective militaries, where Jeroboam has twice the strength of Abijah (v. 3).  At the end of the chapter, "Jeroboam did not again recover strength", but "Abijah became powerful".  Abijah becomes increasingly powerful while Jeroboam is destroyed.  This inversion is dictated not by Abijah's cunning in battle, but because Abijah is faithful to the covenant.

This leads me to my second point.  Abijah is described as a righteous man who obeys the covenant, while Jeroboam is a rebel against God, worshiping his own idols, "resisting the kingdom of the LORD" (v. 8).  Abijah's righteousness telegraphs his victory in advance, and we are supposed to infer that this is the true source of power for Abijah's kingdom.

As a related point, Abijah and Jeroboam become kings through different ways.  Abijah becomes king through Davidic succession, while Jeroboam becomes king by overpowering Rehoboam with the help of worthless men and scoundrels.  From this perspective, it stands to reason that Jeroboam would remain a sinful man because it was only through his own strength that he became king.  Or, at least that's what Chronicles would have you think.

Third, Abijah and Jeroboam have very different approaches to battle.  The way that I interpret this battle is that Jeroboam had a stronger force (800,000 vs. 400,000) and he was also a superior tactician.  While Abijah is busy monologuing, Jeroboam is busy dividing his forces to "set an ambush" behind him (v. 13).  This leaves Abijah in a pretty horrible military position, so their best option is to "cry to the LORD" and blow trumpets and stuff like that.  However, as we learn, dependence on the LORD is actually a greater power than physical strength and leadership, and "God routed Jeroboam", granting victory to Abijah and Judah.

In conclusion, we can see that in spite of all of Judah's problems, the LORD is still willing to help them whenever the king and the people turn to him.

In the next chapter, we continue with the life and kingship of Asa, the son of Abijah.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 12

In this chapter, Rehoboam becomes a vassal of Shishak as punishment for abandoning the Law of Moses.

This chapter covers a single sequence of events, the invasion of Judah by the Egyptians, but in this single event we can see several important themes of Chronicles emerge.  I will cover these themes in turn.

First, this chapter shows the decline of Judah, which is signified by the loss of the golden shields of Solomon (v. 9).  It says in v. 10 that Rehoboam replaced them with bronze shields, replacing the gold with a less valuable material.  This is a material representation of Judah's declining influence and wealth.  Their declining prosperity is directly linked to their moral decline (v. 1-2), but through the intermediary role of the Egyptians as conquerors.

Since gold is associated with the holy place and bronze is associated with the courtyard, we can symbolically interpret this as Rehoboam (or the kingship as an institution) being driven out of the holy place and into the courtyard as a punishment for Rehoboam's sin.  The fact that Rehoboam can make the bronze shields (and remain in the symbolic courtyard) is because of his repentance.

I think it is a tremendous irony that because Rehoboam became "established" and strong, he and Judah slid into idolatry.  The Chronicler is basically saying that Rehoboam's sin is pride, and it's a pride that comes from his strength and security.  Establishing that strength and security was the topic of the previous chapter, which is perhaps why the Chronicler spent so much time discussing the fortified cities and other details of Rehoboam's reign.  The irony is that Judah's strength only comes from their previous obedience to the LORD.  David had great victories over his enemies because he was faithful to God, and Solomon had great wealth because of David's victories, and now Rehoboam has great security and strength because of what Solomon built, and this is exactly why Rehoboam and the people with him begin to abandon the LORD.  The lesson here is that in many cases, the blessing that comes from God can lead people into pride which takes us away from God who gave us the blessing in the first place.  Biblically, material blessings can be a very dangerous thing, particularly in the Old Testament.  There are a handful of men who handle it well (Abraham and David) and many who do not (such as Rehoboam).

Second, this chapter shows that after Judah sinned, they were judged, but after they repented, God showed forgiveness.  This is an application of the first principle in God's declaration to Solomon.  Similar to Deuteronomy 28, it shows that sin and obedience to God have direct consequences in God's treatment of Israel/Judah.

Third, in this chapter the "evil mother" theme emerges.  There is a broad (but non-universal) pattern of evil kings in Judah typically having evil mothers.  Most of these mothers are marked as evil for either being non-Israelite (as in this case, v. 13) or being from the house of Ahab (that had their own idolatry problem).  Even the house of Ahab had their own "evil mother", in Ahab's wife, the non-Israelite Jezebel.  I think there are a few things worth saying about this theme.

First, Exodus 34:12-16 condemns marriages between Israelites and the native peoples of the land.  This is something I discussed before with respect to Solomon, who also had many foreign wives (1 Kings 11), and in Kings this was given as the reason why the kingdom was taken away from Solomon's descendants.  Moreover, in Numbers 25 we are told that Israelite men had "sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods."  This draws a very strong association between Israelite men having relations with non-Israelite women, and being subsequently drawn into idolatry as suggested by those women.

Second, while some people may think of this as a blind and perhaps even racist proscription, I think the repetition of this pattern shows that there is a definite reality here.  Many people in ancient Israel did intermarry with the native tribes and were drawn into syncretism or idolatry as a result.  In the Chronicler's time, this is perhaps an even more urgent issue because the Assyrians and Babylonians had resettled lots of foreigners into Israel and Judah respectively, so it was very important that Judah avoid mixing together with these foreigners to maintain their distinctive culture and faith.  Otherwise, their devotion to the LORD would have definitely been compromised.

Third, I think this theme is a fascinating exposition of the power dynamics between men and women in ancient Judah.  There are a lot of people who believe the bible is highly patriarchal, and I think there's a lot of truth to that, but I think this theme shows that while the role of women in the bible can be subdued, women are nonetheless highly influential in Chronicles.  As we see, it is usually not the quality of the father that determines the character of their successor, but the quality of the mother.  There are a lot of righteous kings who had evil successors (David to Solomon to Rehoboam is one example, a crisper example is Manasseh, an evil son of the righteous Hezekiah).  However, as a general rule any time Chronicles mentions any queen by name, if that queen is evil then her son is evil and if that queen is righteous then her son is also righteous.  In that sense, it is the women of the royal household who dictated the future of the nation, because the men they raised up to be kings would in turn have so much influence over the nation's faith.

That concludes my discussion for this chapter.  In the next chapter, Rehoboam's son Abijah defeats Jeroboam in battle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 11

In this chapter, Rehoboam establishes his reign in Judah by fortifying towns and placing his sons in command.

The first part of this chapter is copied from 1 Kings 12:21-24, but the rest of it is unique to Chronicles.  Additionally, there are long sections from Kings that are omitted in Chronicles, particularly as it relates to Jeroboam and the northern kingdom.  The stories left out are pretty significant since they explain how the northern kingdom fell into idolatry.  We see a hint of that in verses 13-15 which explains some of the results of Jeroboam's actions (in particular, the Levites and priests flee to Jerusalem when Jeroboam appoints other men as his priests).  As I discussed in the introduction to 2 Chronicles, this book is heavily focused on the history of Judah so that's probably why the section about Jeroboam is left out.

The more important question is why did the Chronicler want to include this new section (verses 5-23).  What role does this serve in the narrative?

It's hard to say for sure, but my best guess is that this chapter is meant to show the relatively strong position of Rehoboam even after the split.  After the LORD prohibits the men of Judah from retaking the northern kingdom by force, Rehoboam reinforces his position through several means.  First, he builds out the fortified towns around his border, placing loyal commanders and equipment in them.  Second, we see Levites and priests along with other people flowing from the north into the south in order to worship the LORD before the temple.  This has the immediate effect of strengthening Rehoboam (v. 17), but it also has a longer term effect of prolonging Judah's slide into idolatry, much more so than what we will see in the northern kingdom whose very first king builds two idols in Bethel and Dan (this is barely mentioned in Chronicles but discussed at length in 1 Kings 12-13).

Third, we see Rehoboam having many children through many wives, which is typically a symbol of great influence or power (for instance, both David and Solomon are recorded as having many wives and children).  Fourth, we see Rehoboam place his sons in various places around the kingdom, presumably to act as administrators and leaders in the different parts of Judah.  Similar to placing his own commanders in the fortified towns, placing his sons throughout the kingdom will likely strengthen Rehoboam's reign due to their implied loyalty to him.  My NIV commentary also suggests that Rehoboam may have put his sons elsewhere to keep them out of the royal court in Jerusalem, to keep them out of the way of Abijah.

It's an interesting parallel that Solomon was not David's oldest son, nor is Abijah the oldest son of Rehoboam, yet both of them were made king.  In David's case, two of his oldest sons rebelled against him (Adonijah and Absalom), and it's possible that Rehoboam's sons may have also wished to rebel when the kingdom was given to Abijah.  Rehoboam undercut that prospect by sending many of his other sons away from Jerusalem, so that they would have fewer connections to important royal officials.  For example, when Adonijah tried to usurp the throne he first won the support of important officials in 1 Kings 1:7.  By sending his other sons out of Jerusalem, this kind of betrayal would be much harder to organize.  As a result, we have no evidence that his sons ever turned on Rehoboam or that there was any major rebellion against him.

In conclusion, Rehoboam is well-guarded against internal threats to his reign or his successor, but in the next chapter we will see that his preparations are not enough to protect him from the external threat of the Egyptian king Shishak.