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.

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