Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 28

In this chapter, Ahaz becomes king and leads Judah into disaster.

This chapter is much longer than the previous chapter, but unfortunately the reason it's longer is because there are so many bad things to talk about.

The life of Ahaz marks a turning point in Judah's history.  In the past, Judah's history was predominantly centered around their relationship with Israel (I am only referring to their history after the kingdom was divided in the life of Rehoboam).  There was a long sequence of events that began with Jehoshaphat's alliance with Ahab and concluded when Athaliah was killed by Jehoiada and Joash ascended to the throne.  Even after that, Amaziah was torn apart by an unsuccessful battle against Israel.

Amongst other things, the text gives us a sense that Israel is generally stronger than Judah.  We see this in the nature of Jehoshaphat's relationship with Ahab (where Ahab is the one directing their battles and course of action).  We see that in 2 Chron 16:1-6 where Israel came to blockade Judah and king Asa could not remove them by force.  Even when Abijah defeated Israel in 2 Chron 13, it comes across as a victory by miracle rather than a victory by strength.  The obvious implication is that Israel was stronger than Judah.  Even in this chapter, Israel comes in and smashes Judah again.

However, in the near future we are going to see Israel decline and fall at the hands of the Assyrians.  Israel will stop being the primary enemy for Judah, and instead Judah will begin fighting most of their battles against the Assyrians (and later, the Babylonians).  We already see this beginning to happen at the end of the chapter when the Assyrians come and add to the oppression of the Judeans.

Another thing we will see in this next period (beginning here with Ahaz) is interlocking waves of religious revival and decline.  In this chapter with Ahaz we begin with a tremendous decline, but it will be followed by a major revival, followed by a major decline, followed by ANOTHER major revival, followed lastly by decline and exile.  It comes and goes in waves, often between father and son.  In this case, Ahaz's father was generally a godly man, and his son Hezekiah is one of the best kings of Judah in the post-Solomonic era, but Ahaz himself is a wretched king.  These powerful religious waves (in both directions) combined with the persistent military conflicts leave Judah in a position of great turmoil and strife between now and the exile to Babylon.  Remember back in 2 Chron 14:6 when God gave Asa rest?  Peace and rest was one of the major themes of Asa's reign.  In contrast, this next era will be a period of conflict.

I don't want to make it sound like Judah was in constant warfare from a historical perspective.  We can tell from the biblical narrative that many of these kings ruled for long periods without active conflict.  At the same time, I do think the biblical narrative is written with an emphasis on the military conflicts during this period.

Furthermore, when Judah loses battles the results are becoming more devastating.  In this chapter the Israelites are so brutal towards their Judean neighbors that a prophet of the LORD comes out and rebukes them for it.  The Israelites kill 120,000 soldiers and attempt to enslave another 200,000 people.  These are staggering numbers for a kingdom that may have only had a population of a couple million people in total.

All of these factors are present in the current chapter.  We see a rapid religious decline under Ahaz that is punctuated with numerous military defeats against both Aram/Assyria and Israel.  Indeed, verse 5 points out that the military losses are a direct result of Ahaz's idolatry in verses 2-4, so these two issues are interconnected.  Verse 19 reiterates that Judah was "humbled" in defeat because of Ahaz was unfaithful to God.

In verse 22, Ahaz faces a challenge similar to what Saul faced all the way back in 1 Samuel 13.  In that chapter, Israel was being invaded by the Philistines, his enemies were gathering, and Saul's own men were scattering.  When the pressure built up, Saul broke God's command and offered a sacrifice not because God wanted it (Saul was forbidden to offer sacrifices since he was not a priest), but Saul offered a sacrifice as an attempt to rally his troops and raise morale.  What we often see in the bible is that times of pressure reveal the true nature of a man's heart.

Saul showed his true nature was seeking the approval of men.  Later, David is under deep pressure and in that place he strengthened himself in the LORD his God (1 Samuel 30:6).  David showed his true nature was to seek God in the midst of deepest darkness.  In this chapter, Ahaz is under tremendous pressure and he shows that his true nature is to seek and worship power.  The Assyrians were the most powerful kingdom at the time and in the moment of Ahaz's greatest darkness, he turns to worship and obey other gods because he hopes that they will strengthen him and make him powerful like the Assyrians.

The message from this chapter is that Ahaz is wrong to hope the gods of the Assyrians will help him, because he is mistaken in his belief that the gods of the Assyrians are helping the Assyrians.  The gods of the Assyrians have no power to help anyone.  Only the LORD has the power to raise up one nation and tear down another, and by forsaking the LORD and worshiping idols, Ahaz is only accelerating his own decline.

This pattern will emerge in the following chapters as well: religious decline almost always coincides with military defeat and religious revival almost always coincides with military victory.

In the next chapter, Hezekiah becomes king and introduces revival to Judah, undoing much but not all of the damage that Ahaz inflicted.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 27

In this chapter, Jotham becomes king and lives a relatively good life.

This is one of the shorter chapters in Chronicles, since it's only 9 verses total.  It's also a relatively quiet chapter.  Jotham seems like a good king, but unexceptional.  The only notable accomplishment he has listed is defeating the Ammonites.

Honestly, we don't know a whole lot about Jotham.  From verse 6 we know that he had a strong faith and he grew powerful.  We are not told about him ever being defeated, and he has some building projects, and other than that we don't really know anything about Jotham at all.  I checked the corresponding passage in 2 Kings 15 that also describes the reign of Jotham and it doesn't tell us anything more than what we read here.  So, I guess I'll just say that Jotham is a decent enough king but he never did anything that was good or bad enough to deserve mention in these records.

I don't think there is anything else to say about this chapter, and in the next chapter his son Ahaz becomes king.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 26

In this chapter, Uzziah becomes king.

Uzziah becomes king at a very young age, when he was 16 years old.  In the previous chapter, his father was assassinated, and since succession to the throne is based purely on his position as the eldest son of the king, Uzziah becomes the new king even though he's unlikely to be ready for the post.  This was similar to Joash who became king at age 7.  In both cases they likely operated in a regency, where a more experienced statesman administrated the kingdom on the king's behalf until the king hit some specific age of majority.

In any case, I think this is an incredible chapter.  In the first half of the chapter (verses 6-15) we see Uzziah make a profound climb up to the heights of power and glory.  In the second half of the chapter (verses 16-23), it all goes horribly wrong.  Understanding how Uzziah's life fell apart will help us to avoid sharing his fate.

When I first read this chapter, I wanted to say that Uzziah's life formed some kind of arc, where he has this initial period of ascent and a second period of decline.  I would find that kind of symmetry poetic, but I don't think that's really true.  What he does is climb higher and higher and then falls off a cliff.  I mean, there's only one specific moment where things in his life go wrong, but that single moment destroys his life.  Even more, as verse 16 tells us, it is actually Uzziah's victories that led him to his downfall.  To quote a recent movie, "victory has defeated you."

I really like the details in this chapter.  I think we get a very clear portrait of what Uzziah's reign was like.  Uzziah is clearly a very detailed, organized man with a strong administration that shows up in his military organization and in his building projects.  He also shows a lot of sophistication when constructing the siege weapons.  Yet, we also see Uzziah's tender side with his love for the soil and growing things.

In so many respects, Uzziah has all the makings of a fantastic king, and yet through it all there is a sinister force at work: pride.  Pride is growing in Uzziah's heart throughout this time.  Perhaps with every victory, he becomes ever more self-assured, more convinced that he is the ultimate authority in his own country.  Certainly there are very few people that could stand against him.  Notice how verse 17 calls the priests "valiant men".  It takes bravery to resist a king, even when he is doing wrong.  In fact, the word "valiant" in v. 17 is the same Hebrew word as the "valiant" soldiers in v. 12.  The priests are just as brave and valiant as soldiers for standing up against the king.  This is understandable; the king could have ordered their deaths if he wished.

It is a dangerous thing to have nobody who can stand up to you.  This is true even for a king; perhaps it is true especially for a king.

Just as pride leads the king into the temple to offer incense, pride is also what causes him to lash out against the valiant priests who resist him.  The same pride that caused him to sin also caused him to reject any correction or rebuke.  This is what makes pride such a deadly sin: it is one of the few diseases that rejects its own cure.

Pride leads the king to such an ironic position and I'm not at all sure that the king even knew it.  Think of it: here was a man in the temple, offering incense to God as an act of religious devotion.  In fact, offering incense is supposed to express humility, showing our reverence and devotion to God.  And when a bunch of priests (for that same God) come out and tell you that you are acting wrongly and contrary to God's will, he starts raging and yelling at them.  You'd think that a man in the temple of God would be a little more respectful to the priesthood, but I think it's clear that Uzziah is out of control.

This part of the story is also very entertaining to read.  It's easy to imagine Uzziah standing before the altar, waving his censer, when the priests enter and tell him he has to leave.  Then Uzziah starts flipping out, cursing them and threatening them when suddenly a spot appears on his forehead and begins growing.  At this point, the priests don't even have to argue with him to get Uzziah out, Uzziah gets himself out of there.  I think that's actually an act of humility on Uzziah's part.  He could have stayed in the temple and just kept arguing.

We can view this part of the story as a escalating conflict between the king and.... God?  The king enters the temple and offers incense.  The priests come out and challenge him, and at this point, the king could have backed down.  He doesn't.  Instead, the king escalates the situation by fighting the priests.  Since God wants to protect the sanctity of his temple and his authority against this incursion, God fights back and strikes the king with leprosy.  At this point, the king backs down.  If the king had backed down earlier when the priests challenged him, he would not have incurred God's judgment and perhaps his life could have continued as normal.  The king could have continued resisting against God, at which point God would be forced to make the judgment even more severe and it's likely that the king would have died.  The king was challenging God's authority and there is simply no way that God was ever going to let him win this contest.

Uzziah could have done better (and avoided judgment), but he also could have done worse (and been punished harder).  In the same way, there are going to be instances in our lives when God corrects us, rebukes us or tells us that we are going down the wrong road.  That is the moment when we need to be humble and turn and follow him.  If we insist on going our own way or (even worse) challenging God's authority like Uzziah did, then we will find ourselves getting into progressively worse and worse situations.

In any case, what punishment Uzziah did receive was devastating.  Even though he did not die, he was condemned to reside in isolation for the rest of his life and never permitted to return to the temple complex (which was forbidden to anyone ceremonially unclean).  Very few people visited Uzziah, since it would make them unclean as well, and his son reigns in his stead for the rest of his life.  Even after his death, Uzziah is buried in a separate tomb because they did not want to bury a leper with the other kings.

Personally, I think Uzziah was a good king.  In spite of his mistake, he did a lot of things well.  He could have been a great king, but his mistakes don't invalidate all of the other things that he did well as Judah's leader.

After Uzziah dies, the next chapter describes the reign of Jotham.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 25

In this chapter, Amaziah becomes king, defeats the Edomites but then falls into idolatry.

The life of Amaziah, like so many of the earlier kings, is a story of two battles.  The first battle goes reasonably well, but the second battle ends in disaster.  Starting in verse 6, Amaziah takes a small but significant step towards re-aligning Judah with Israel again, like Jehoshaphat did back in 2 Chronicles 18.  Certainly Amaziah is taking a much smaller step, only hiring troops from Israel rather than intermarrying with Israel's royal family, but it is a step nonetheless, and as the man of God makes clear in verse 7, it carries all of the same peril as Jehoshaphat's earlier decision.

In this case, even though Amaziah had already paid the mercenaries a fee upfront, he does the right thing and sends them away.  The Israelites are enraged because even though they got paid and get to walk away with that money for free, part of their compensation would have been profit sharing from plundering the Edomites.  Since they were rejected from the battle, they were not entitled to any of the plunder.  The Israelites retaliate by raiding and pillaging all the towns of Judah that they encounter on their march home, basically trying to get plunder some other way since they were not permitted to invade Edom alongside Judah.  Judah is harmed somewhat, but recovers.

Perhaps more importantly, because the Israelites attacked Judah, it may have precipitated the later battle between Judah and Israel in v. 17.  Amaziah may have desired to fight Israel as revenge for the Israelite mercenaries who raided towns in Judah and killed 3,000 people.

Before that happens, there is an important interlude, which is the Edomite idols.  This episode in v. 14-16 marks the turning point in Amaziah's life when things go from reasonably good to much, much worse.  I also see this as part of Judah's gradual decline.  Even though they made mistakes too and sometimes did evil things, I personally feel like the earlier kings (like Abijah or Asa) did not have as many problems as Amaziah, and Amaziah has fewer problems than a lot of the kings who come after him.  Just as Amaziah suffers decline in his own lifetime, I think we see a progressive decline in Judah's society as a whole.

After this, Amaziah fights his second major battle against Israel.  Like I said before, it's possible he wanted to fight Israel as revenge for their earlier raids.  Regardless of the reason why, this battle has two practical effects.  First, it cuts off any possibility of future alliances between Judah and Israel. Initiated by Jehoshaphat, the bilateral relationship between Judah and Israel really never comes back from this, which ironically is a good thing for Judah since it prevents future kings from falling under God's judgment of Israel again.

Second, this failed battle pretty much ends Amaziah's kingship.  Even though he isn't overthrown immediately, it's obvious that the military defeat undermines Amaziah's political support and contributes to his eventual assassination in v. 27.

So what kind of conclusions can we draw about Amaziah's life as a whole?  While Amaziah makes a handful of good decisions, overall it seems to me that Amaziah is a middle-of-the-pack kind of guy.  He does some things well, does some other things poorly, and overall just seems to go about his affairs in whatever way he likes, with no regard for God, which in this case ends in total disaster, as it often does.  We can't really condemn him for being a truly evil man, but he makes bad decisions and sticks with it, and this is usually how that kind of thing ends.

In the end, Amaziah dies and in the next chapter, his son Uzziah becomes king.