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.

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