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.