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.