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.