Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 36

In this chapter, Judah rotates through several kings in quick succession but is nonetheless destroyed by the Babylonians.

In the previous chapter, I mentioned that the Egyptians were catastrophically defeated at Carchemish.  While that is true, and it drove the Egyptians out of the Mideast, they had still defeated the Judeans and for a time, maintained some influence over Judah.  In verses 3-4, the Egyptians exercise that influence by capturing one king of Judah and appointing another man, Jehoiakim, to be the new king.

Just eleven years later, the Babylonians march in and capture Jerusalem.  This marks the end of Egypt’s control over Judah.  The Babylonians take their turn, imprisoning Jehoiakim and taking him to Babylon, as well as plundering the temple.  As if they did not want to be mere equals to the Egyptians, the Babylonians capture the next king of Judah, plunder the temple a second time, and appoint Zedekiah as the new king.

The overall flow of the historical narrative in this section is very similar between the book of Kings (2 Kings 23:31 through 2 Kings 25) and Chronicles.  The narrative in Kings is somewhat longer and more detailed, but substantially similar.  I personally see three notable differences between these two accounts of Judah’s collapse, which I would like to discuss in turn.

First, the book of Kings blames Manasseh for the collapse of Judah (2 Kings 24:3-4), while Chronicles blames the collective sins and rebellion of the people throughout their history and especially during the reign of Zedekiah (v. 12-16).  I’m not sure I can explain why these two books shift the blame from one king to the other.  When discussing the life of Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33, I mentioned that Kings would have placed a heavier focus on trying to understand why the catastrophe happened to them and perhaps blamed Manasseh as a result.  While that is true, I’m not sure why Chronicles would want to blame Zedekiah instead.  Chronicles biography of Manasseh emphasizes the redemptive element of his return to the LORD after sinning and being punished by God.  For Zedekiah and the other kings in this chapter, there is no redemptive element: they are taken into exile and there they die.

Part of me wonders if there is some political element to blaming Zedekiah that might have been influenced by the political situation in post-exilic Judah and perhaps by their ongoing relationship with Babylon, but I can’t really prove it.

The second notable difference is Chronicles’ reference to Jeremiah and his prophecy.  This is entirely absent from the book of Kings, which shows that it was either unknown or not regarded as legitimate during the time that Kings was written.  This is mostly interesting from a dating perspective.  And I don’t mean dating in the sense of like, “do you wanna hang out Friday night and go see a movie together”.  Instead, I mean in terms of figuring out when these three books (Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah) were written relative to each other and to the historical events they describe.  I hope that doesn’t cost me too many readers.  :)

Anyway, my readers should have already known that Chronicles is a post-exilic book and Kings is a mid-exilic book.  We can tell that through a variety of signals, but one of the simplest is because the book of Kings ends with Jehoiachin living in the middle of the exile (2 Kings 25:30) and the book of Chronicles ends with the invitation for the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem (v. 23).  The more interesting question is to figure out when Jeremiah was written and perhaps even more importantly, when it entered the common culture and lexicon of the Judean people.  The crude answer we get here is, “sometime between the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles”.  The book of Jeremiah itself (combined with evidence in Chronicles) suggests that Jeremiah was both living and prophesying before and during the exile, as early as the reign of Josiah (which ended roughly 22 years before the exile).

We can reasonably infer that Jeremiah was indeed prophesying during this period, but was excluded from the Kings narrative.  If Jeremiah was a known prophet during this time but left out from Kings, it suggests that his prophecies were perhaps not regarded as authoritative or from the LORD.  It’s possible that only their fulfillment during the reign of Cyrus elevated these prophecies to be regarded as the word of the LORD.  It’s hard to be certain, though.

The third and final difference between the Kings narrative and the Chronicles narrative is the declaration by Cyrus that the people of Israel may return from the exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (v. 23).  I’ve already touched on this briefly as it relates to dating the book of Chronicles.  This passage serves two other roles in the narrative.

First, it connects the end of Chronicles with the beginning of Ezra (the next book we will read).  In fact, the next three books (Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther) are all a specific class of post-exilic historical narrative that continues the story from Chronicles into the post-kingdom era.  I will discuss these books in more depth later, but for now I just want to emphasize the tight integration between the post-exilic declaration that ends this book and begins Ezra.  In fact, the first three verses of Ezra are virtually identical to the last two verses of Chronicles, which is almost definitely intentional.  There is a lot of speculation about how Chronicles relates to Ezra, whether they have the same author, the same editor, or simply drew that quotation from a common source.

While I can’t answer that for sure, what we can do is divide up the histories of the OT into two distinct segments.  The first segment is from Genesis through Kings, that forms a continuous history from the creation of the world through the exile, and was written as a pre-exilic work(s).  The second segment is from Chronicles through Esther, and ignoring the genealogy at the beginning of Chronicles, it covers from the death of Saul through the early post-exilic period with the repairs to the wall of Jerusalem and the construction of the second temple (a replacement for the temple of Solomon that was destroyed by the Babylonians).  While Chronicles had much in common with the pre-exilic tradition, Ezra and Nehemiah are entirely post-exilic in origin and do not have any equivalent text in the pre-exilic history.

Second, ending with Cyrus’s declaration of the return to Jerusalem puts a much more hopeful and optimistic spin on Chronicles vis a vis Kings, which I think matches the generally more hopeful and optimistic attitude that predominated during the early pre-exilic era.  The book of Kings has a lesser “hopeful ending”, when it says that Jehoiachin was granted favor by king Evil-Merodach of Babylon and was given a better position than any other imprisoned king.  The way I interpret this passage in Kings is that it is trying to show that the Judeans are given favor by God in how their captors treat them during the exile.  Chronicles ends on the much more powerful note that just as God spoke through Jeremiah, the people are allowed to return to Jerusalem and the promised land.  They are similar in tone, but different in magnitude.

In conclusion, we have covered an awful lot of material with a lot of broad themes when going through Chronicles.  I think if there is one thing I have learned from this study, it’s that Chronicles is just as much a reflection of the time in which it was written, as it is a reflection of the history that it depicts.

In the context of the post-exilic world, it is trying to present ancient Israel (as exemplified by David and Solomon) as both their people’s connection to the promised land and as an idealized society they should seek to emulate.  It presents the temple worship system, the priesthood, and the Passover ceremony as essential components of their national faith.  While it affirms that the exile is a devastating consequence of sin and idolatry, it also presents restoration as a consequence of humility and returning to the LORD.  It shows this in the lives of individual kings (Hezekiah and Manasseh), but also in the collective life of their nation.  To the post-exilic Jews, this serves as both a warning and a promise for them to shun idolatry and follow the LORD in their own time as a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of their people in the promised land.

In the next book, Ezra, we will learn that the return from the exile does not put an end to all of their struggles, but that faith and devotion to the LORD continues to ensure victory over all opposition.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 35

In this chapter, Josiah celebrates the Passover and later dies in battle against the Egyptians.

This chapter has two main sections.  The first, from verses 1-19, describe the Passover service under Josiah, and the second, from verses 20-27, describe Josiah’s battle against Neco and his death.

The Passover service under Josiah is reminiscent of the Passover under Hezekiah.  The biggest difference between these two is that Josiah celebrates the Passover “correctly”, i.e. in the right month and with the people ceremonially purified (as far as we know).  Under Hezekiah, many things were done wrong but God blessed the people because they pursued him with the right heart.  As far as we know, the Passover under Josiah was observed in accordance with the commandments and also with the right heart.

There are several places that emphasize adherence to the Law of Moses.  For instance, v. 6 says “slaughter the Passover animals… according to the word of the LORD by Moses”.  Verse 12 also says “as it is written in the book of Moses”.  Verse 13: “They roasted the Passover animals on the fire according to the ordinance”.  There are several other verses that show the priests and Levites were also following the organization set forth by David.  This has two effects.  As contrasted with the Passover under Hezekiah, we can see that Josiah is meticulous in following every detail of the Law.  Strict adherence to even the smallest details of the Law is one of the cultural values in the OT, and Josiah demonstrates his righteousness through it.

A second, more subtle implication is that the adherence to the “Law of Moses” only shortly follows the discovery of that same book of the Law in the previous chapter.  I think there is definitely a connection between discovering the book of the Law in the previous chapter and Josiah’s obedience to all the statutes and ordinances of the LORD in this chapter.

Although I don’t accept it personally, some scholars suggest that Josiah himself may have ordered the creation of the book of the Law as a way to legitimize his religious reforms.  I interpret it the opposite way.  I think Josiah’s discovery of the book of the Law is what motivates and drives his religious reforms.  Josiah is trying to reclaim the lost religious heritage of his people.  During the time of Moses, Joshua and David, the people would regularly observe the Passover.  At some point, this tradition was lost to the forces of idolatry and religious syncretism, perhaps even during the lifetime of Samuel (v. 18).  After discovering the book of the Law, Josiah wants to return to the religion of his forefathers.

By no coincidence, this is very similar to the Judeans of the post-exilic period when Chronicles was written.  If my readers remember, I stated that one of the central purposes of the book of Chronicles was to help the post-exilic residents of Jerusalem to rediscover their pre-exilic culture and connection to the promised land.  A huge part of that is reconnecting the people to their religious heritage in the temple worship system, the Davidic kingdom, and the Passover.  What is Josiah doing in the revival?  He is repairing the temple, restoring priestly ministry, and celebrating the Passover.  Notice any similarities between that and the activity in the post-exilic period?  I think Chronicles is offering Josiah as a model for the post-exilic Jews to follow in their own restoration of the temple worship system.

The second section begins immediately after the Passover and Josiah “setting the temple in order”.  It’s as if the very moment that Josiah has finished with his religious reforms, the Egyptians coming marching up to attack, but not against the Judeans.  Instead, the Egyptians are marching to attack the Babylonians in the historical battle of Carchemish.  Although this battle is not described anywhere in the bible, it is broadly attested in non-biblical historical sources and is an important battles in world history.  In this battle, the Egyptians (who allied with the crumbling Assyrian empire) are defeated by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar and essentially driven out of the Mideast.  This battle is a hallmark in the ascension of the Babylonian empire.

Verses 21-22 make it clear that Chronicler regarded the Egyptians as directed by God, while Josiah is acting on his own initiative and not listening to “the words… of God” (v. 22).  Even though the Egyptians were still defeated at the battle of Carchemish, they are portrayed here as obeying the command of God while Josiah is not.  Although the language in this chapter is not very critical of Josiah, it does imply that Josiah is making a mistake here, and it costs him his life.  The parallel passage in 2 Kings 23:29-30 mentions Josiah’s death by Neco but does not relay the conversation between them or God’s involvement in driving Neco to fight at Carchemish.

I think this chapter shows that Josiah did well for most of his life, but had a big mistake or sin towards the end of his life.  This is similar to many other kings, like Asa, Joash, Uzziah and Hezekiah.

Even though Josiah dies, his sin is relatively small compared to some of these other kings, so Josiah is still mourned and highly regarded by his people after his death.  As the architect of a major religious revival, Josiah is regarded along with Hezekiah as one of the two best kings of Judah after the death of Solomon.

It says in verse 25 that Jeremiah sung a lament for Josiah and wrote it down in a book.  While my readers may suspect that this is the same as the biblical book of Lamentations, I personally think it’s unlikely because the book of Lamentations does not mention Josiah anywhere and is instead focused entirely on the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile.  Instead, I think the most likely story is that Jeremiah wrote a lament for Josiah using a literary form similar to the book of Lamentations, but that the laments for Josiah have been lost to history and no longer exist.

With the death of Josiah, we are past the final, brief hope for the kingdom of Judah.  In the next chapter, we will conclude the book of Chronicles with the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 34

In this chapter, Josiah becomes king and initiates the last great revival before the Babylonian exile.

This chapter, and the life of Josiah in general, shares many similarities with Hezekiah's revival from 2 Chronicles 29-31.  My readers may wish to review the life of Hezekiah as a precursor to studying Josiah.

If we compare their lives in detail, we can certainly identify many differences between Hezekiah and Josiah, but I think my readers would be well-served by looking at the material broadly and trying to understand the progression of the two revivals.  The similarities between them may suggest what parts of their religious system were considered the most important.

In the case of Hezekiah, the revival had three distinct components.  First, he cleansed the temple, bringing it back into a state of ceremonial purity.  Second, he reestablished the sacrificial system.  Third, he revives the Passover festival.  The priests and Levites are involved in the entire process, and Hezekiah restores the tithe to finance them.

In the case of Josiah, he first destroys all the altars and idols dedicated to other gods.  Next he repairs the temple, which possibly involved ceremonial cleansing as well.  Lastly, after the interlude about the book of the Law, Josiah also revives the Passover festival (the subject of the next chapter).

Cleansing the temple by Hezekiah closely mirrors Josiah repairing the temple, the Passover ceremonies are nearly identical between the two kings, and 2 Chronicles 31:1 tells us that the people went out and destroyed the altars and idols throughout all of Israel after the Passover, which is very similar to how Josiah himself goes out and destroys all the altars and idols in the early years of his reign (v. 3-7).  Taken in broad terms, we can see this as the removal of the idolatrous worship system, restoration of the temple-centered worship system, and institution of the Passover festival as a symbol of their dedication to the LORD.

So that should set most of the context for this chapter.  In the midst of this revival, there are a couple things I want to focus on.

First, we see a general pattern in this chapter that, if I may put it bluntly, the northern kingdom Israel has totally collapsed.  I remember earlier in the book we were reading about Israel fielding massive armies in battle against Judah or against the Arameans.  For a long time, Israel was one of Judah's most dangerous enemies.  In this chapter, we see Josiah simply walking into Israel and tearing down their altars and high places and stuff like that (v. 6-7).  He really just walked into their territory and started smashing stuff and they couldn't do anything to resist him.  Verse 9 is even more remarkable: the Levites are collecting money for the temple repairs from the northern territories.

What could have happened to the northern kingdom that it can no longer stop the Judeans from walking in and doing whatever they want?  The answer is simple: the Assyrians came in and destroyed the northern kingdom during the reign of Hoshea (2 Kings 17).  Ever since that time, Israel was no longer an independent kingdom and is now governed as a province of the Assyrian empire.  Even though the Judeans do not hold any political authority in the northern kingdom, it appears that the Assyrians are not doing anything to keep the Judeans out.

Because Chronicles is singularly devoted to the history of Judah, the collapse of Israel is not described at all in this book, but the results of that collapse are still visible even in the history of Judah.

The second thing I want to talk about is this "lost book" found by Hilkiah and the subsequent prophecy by Huldah.  From context, the "book of the Law... by Moses" is obviously a reference to the Pentateuch (i.e. the bible from Genesis through Deuteronomy).  The text does not say how LONG the book is lost, only that this is the first time Josiah is hearing about it, and that it was largely unknown to the priests as well.  It has been lost for at least one generation, possibly due to Manasseh's long, idolatrous reign.  Depending on how long the book was lost, it suggests that knowledge about the Passover or other elements of the the covenant may have been passed down in Judean society independently from knowledge of the written Law, though we don’t know for sure.  It’s possible that stories about Moses and the LORD may have been passed down as oral tradition, since we know that much of the Pentateuch was derived from oral tradition.  That said, Josiah demonstrates through his response (v. 19) that the Law of the LORD was not well-known during his lifetime, so whatever traditions may have persisted independently of the written Law probably did not include the religious code of behavior that we find in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

On a related note, I wonder if this implies that there is only one copy of the written Law during the lifetime of Josiah.  I mean, if the priest went into the temple and found a copy of this book that apparently nobody else has read or knows about, then does that suggest it is the only copy of the book in existence at the time?  What would have happened if Manasseh (for example) had gone in and destroyed the book?  Would we not have the Pentateuch?  I think this is a striking example of how the faithlessness of one generation nearly destroyed Judah’s religious tradition.

Anyway, after learning about the threatened destruction that is hanging over his kingdom, he immediately sends to a prophetess to find out, in essence, if things are as bad as they appear.  The prophetess responds and says yes, that God is going to destroy Judah and there is nothing the king can do to stop it, except that he can delay the wrath from falling on his own generation.

I find Josiah’s response interesting.  Even though the prophetess told him that Judah would definitely be destroyed (v. 24), Josiah immediately gathers together the people and elders to call them back to enter the covenant of the LORD.  I guess what’s striking to me about this is that Josiah’s actions seem largely futile, yet he is striving with so much force to change his nation’s fate.  What I see in Josiah is such an earnestness, such passion and urgency in his response, and I wonder what is motivating him.  He cannot avert the coming disaster, and yet that is what he seems to be attempting.  It reminds me of when David fasted and prayed before the death of his son, even after Nathan prophesied that the boy would surely die as a result of David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:14-23).  I wonder where this attitude comes from, that they think they can turn aside God’s judgment.

In the case of Josiah, he is fighting against hundreds of years of Israel’s history.  The people have resisted and fought against God since all the way back to Exodus and Numbers, wandering through the wilderness complaining and rebelling against his leadership.  The story of Kings and Chronicles is a long, progressive decline with Israel and Judah becoming weaker and weaker, with the people going deeper and deeper into idolatry.  Josiah is fighting against this history, trying to turn around Judah’s path, and while I don’t think he has any chance at succeeding, I can’t help but admire him for trying.  Josiah aligned his heart with God’s desire for his people.  Even though success was not possible, Josiah shows us that we can and should pursue righteousness even in the midst of a sinful generation.

One last brief note.  Huldah is another prophetess in the Old Testament, alongside other prophetesses such as Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Miriam (Exodus 15:20).  The OT has a clear tradition of female prophets that are also highly respected leaders in the nation.

In the next chapter, Josiah calls for a second major Passover festival in Jerusalem and dies in battle afterwards.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 33

In this chapter, Manasseh becomes king, leads Judah into idolatry but then repents of his mistakes.

This is the second time we get to read the story of Manasseh's life.  Similar to the other kings, Manasseh was previously described in the book of Kings (2 Kings 21, to be particular).  Most kings are described similarly between Kings and Chronicles.  However, in the case of Manasseh, there are substantial differences which I will describe below.

This chapter has three main sections.  The first section is verses 1-9, which describe Manasseh's intent to do evil, leading Judah into idolatry.  This section is substantially equivalent with the passage in 2 Kings.  Besides listing the things that Manasseh was doing wrong, it also compares his actions against God's word, quoting (or sometimes paraphrasing) things the LORD said earlier.  Basically what this is doing is juxtaposing Manasseh's actions against God's standard, and showing all of the ways that the king is falling short.  Both verse 4 and verse 7 emphasize that Manasseh is performing idolatry in the very temple that God said would keep his name forever.  Verse 8 says that Israel (and Judah) would remain planted in the promised land forever, so long as they obey the LORD's commands.  This chapter is documenting their sins and violations of the LORD's commands to establish the context for their eventual removal from the land.

The second section is verses 10-20, which describe God's response to Manasseh's sins.  It begins in verse 10 with a prophet's rebuke, but when the king and the people do not listen to the prophet, God's judgment swiftly follows.

This whole section is almost completely absent from 2 Kings 21, and it constitutes the largest difference between how these two books describe the life of Manasseh.  In fact, the comparable section is 2 Kings 21:10-18, which besides giving us a detailed prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, lists even more sins committed by Manasseh in addition to what he did wrong in the previous section.  It is obvious when reading 2 Kings that the tone used to describe the life of Manasseh is overwhelmingly negative.  In the larger context of Kings, Manasseh is (perhaps surprisingly) the main person blamed for the Babylonian exile (see 2 Kings 24:3-4).

The narrative in Chronicles is much more nuanced.  In Chronicles, Manasseh is not directly blamed for the exile, and when Manasseh is punished by God and taken into exile by the Assyrians, he repents and is restored by God.  The rest of his life is comparatively positive, removing all the idols and bringing the people back to God.  Although Manasseh's initial sins are still firmly condemned by the Chronicler, Chronicles presents his life as much more of an arc, going at first into dark, evil behavior, but finding humility in the midst of God's punishment and being restored into his position as king at the same time that his faith is rebuilt.

The third and final section is verses 21-25, which describes the reign of king Amon.  This section is also very similar to the corresponding passage in 2 Kings.  It describes Amon as an evil man who is killed by his own servants.  The only major difference is that verse 23 in Chronicles contrasts the repentance of Manasseh with the unrepentant evil of Amon.  The comparable passage in Kings is 2 Kings 21:20-21, which basically says that Amon walked in exactly the same evil ways as his father Manasseh.

It's quite a contrast.  If we only had the book of Kings, we would have never suspected that Manasseh might have repented of his sins and tried to lead Judah back to the LORD.  There are two questions I would like to address.  First, why do I think Kings and Chronicles wanted to represent such contrasting stories about the life of Manasseh when (presumably) they both had the same source material describing his reign?  Second, just looking at the book of Chronicles, what lessons can we learn from Manasseh's life story?

To answer the first question, I cannot offer much more than speculation.  We are basically trying to understand the author's motivation, and that can be notoriously difficult under even the best of circumstances.  That said, I will now begin wildly speculating.  :)  I think the largest difference between these books is the context in which they were written and finalized.  Kings was largely finalized as a mid-exilic book.  That is, it was substantially compiled and edited during the Babylonian exile, though much of the source material would have been pre-exilic.  During the exile to Babylon, the Jewish people were faced with many existential questions*, one of the foremost being, "how could this have happened?"  I believe that Kings in general, and 2 Kings 21 in particular, is one attempt at answering that question.  It construes a deeply negative attitude towards Manasseh because it is trying to figure out what could have gone wrong that this terrible judgment from God could have fallen upon Judah.  Kings finds a large part of its answer in the idolatry and sins of Manasseh, though many of the kings who follow him are also regarded as evil, sinful men, and it's all written in the larger context of the Kings moral narrative (which is beyond the scope of my comments here).

On the other hand, Chronicles was edited and finalized as a post-exilic book.  That is, it was substantially compiled after the return from the Babylonian exile, though it too derives much of its content from pre-exilic sources.  After the Babylonian exile, one of the foremost questions asked by Jewish society was, "how do we restore our cultural identity?"  The book of Chronicles attempts to answer that question by focusing an enormous amount of time and energy on the temple worship system and the Davidic dynasty.  Chronicles attempts to draw the people back to a better, idealized time when David and Solomon reigned, to serve as a model for how they should rebuild their society in the "present day" (i.e. ~530 BCE).

"How could this have happened" is no longer a core, existential question because while the Babylonian exile was a deeply traumatic event, it was tempered by the subsequent return to the promised land during the reign of Cyrus.  Although it is hard to draw broad generalizations, I think that Kings is more persistently negative because it was written in the midst of that national trauma, while Chronicles is more generally positive because it was written in the midst of the hopeful restoration period.

Both Kings and Chronicles are looking back, but they are looking back for different reasons.  Kings is looking back to find what went wrong, and Chronicles is looking back to find a vision of society that they should strive for.  Neither of them is unbiased exactly, so I don't think we should look to one or the other to try to find an "objective" account of Manasseh's life.

For the second question (what can we learn from Manasseh's life), I think the description of his life is strongly representative of the sin/judgment/repentence/restoration paradigm that is presented in various places throughout the OT.  I would like to specifically reference 2 Chronicles 7 since that chapter sets the tone for so much of the rest of Chronicles.  Besides foretelling the exile, 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 also establishes the sin/judgment/repentance/restoration pattern, though at a national level rather than an individual level.  Nonetheless, Chronicles makes it clear that even in the midst of judgment, if the people repent then God will bring restoration and healing, and we see that in Manasseh's life.  Therefore I believe that Chronicles is seeking to portray Manasseh as an individual example of the biblical pattern laid out in 2 Chron 7.

Furthermore, we can also see shadows of Judah's history in the life of Manasseh.  Judah herself committed many sins, was taken into exile to Babylon (like Manasseh himself, v. 11), repented and was restored to the promised land.  That mirrors almost exactly the life of Manasseh as it is described in Chronicles.

In conclusion, I think the life of Manasseh is closely aligned with the overall message of Chronicles, emphasizing God's judgment that follows sin and his restorative acts that follow repentance.  The life of Manasseh is a microcosm of Judah's story and complicated relationship with God.

In the next chapter, Josiah becomes king and ushers in the final revival in the book of Chronicles.

*Other questions, such as "how do we sustain our faith in a hostile and idolatrous society?" are the subject matter for other books like e.g. the book of Daniel.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 32

In this chapter, Sennacherib attempts to capture Jerusalem but fails.

This is a fairly long and complicated chapter.  There are many points I want to make, but I'll begin by explaining the narrative function of the story.

This conflict is a moment of testing for Hezekiah.  Hezekiah's reign was largely peaceful, but he is now facing a challenge.  His response in this time of testing will reveal the true nature of his heart and of his faith.

This pattern of peace interrupted by a foreign aggressor also occurred to a series of kings earlier in the book of Chronicles.  We read about other military conflicts during the reigns of Abijah, Asa and Jehoshaphat that also proved to be moments of testing for each of them.  Sometimes they responded well, and other times they responded poorly, but for each of those kings, we studied how they responded to conflict as a measure of their faith.  To paraphrase 1 Samuel 13:11, when your allies abandon you, your enemies are gathering, and the prophet who is supposed to save your ass is running late, that is when the true measure of a man is revealed.

That is the moment when our natural tendency to depend on our own strength and wisdom is put into conflict with our cultivated tendency to depend on the LORD in faith.  Faith must certainly be cultivated, and if our faith has not been sufficiently developed by the time we run into conflict, then we will fall back on our own strength to try to find safety.  That has led to the downfall of many, because the LORD will sometimes engineer situations that are literally impossible to get through by our own strength, and self-reliance will never succeed in those moments.

It's a subtle thing and many people don't realize it, but the decisions that we make in the moment of crisis are not actually made when we are in the crisis.  You might as well say that a baseball player learns how to swing the bat when he steps up to the plate at a World Series game.  A baseball player doesn't hit the ball because of some exceptional effort that he makes in the moment, it's because of the thousands of hours of practice he put in throughout his life, cultivating the proper technique and skills to play baseball.

In the same way, when people are faced with a crisis, we don't actually decide how we will respond at that moment.  We decided how we would respond to the crisis years ago by the way that we cultivated our hearts through thousands of smaller decisions.  In a moment of crisis, we do not have time to make a thoughtful decision.  For the most part, instinct and habit take over.  That is why it reveals one's inner nature, because you can't fake your response.  While instinct and habit may not seem like a choice, they are the product of one's lifestyle which is a choice.  We choose our response to a crisis through the lifestyle that we adopt over the years and possibly decades that precede the moment of decision.  When the crisis comes, it reveals what kind of lives we lived through our response.

Cultivation of a godly lifestyle is a long, slow and almost boring process, but in a certain sense it is even more important than our response in a time of crisis because it is what dictates our response in a time of crisis.

In the case of Hezekiah, we can see that there is no reason he "deserves" to be invaded.  This is not a judgment from God or punishment from God.  Verse 1 reiterates that it's after Hezekiah's faithful deeds that Sennacherib invaded, so we know for sure that God is pleased with Hezekiah before the invasion occurred.  As such, we can only take it for what it is: this is just a harsh event, a bump in the road, a struggle, and it has life-threatening severity.  Hezekiah is placed in a moment of crisis, and now we will see if his devotion to the LORD is strong, and more importantly, if it is real.

Like many other moments of crisis in the bible, this problem does not have a solution through Hezekiah's natural strength or wisdom.  It would be hard for me to exaggerate the Assyrians' military power at this time.  In the larger geopolitical stage, the Assyrians are an ascendant force at this time.  Their principal opponent on the international stage is the Egyptians, who they will defeat handily.  The Assyrians have already gone through and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.  In 2 Chron 30:6 Hezekiah himself makes reference to the king of Assyria plundering the northern kingdom as part of the justification for why Israel should turn back to the LORD.

In verses 13-15, the messenger of Sennacherib boasts about all of the other lands and kingdoms they have already conquered, and while some of that may be an exaggeration, there is clearly a basis in reality because the Assyrians did actually conquer a bunch of kingdoms.  Sennacherib also conquers Lachish (a Judean town) and all of the other outlying towns in Judah.  The conquest of Lachish was significant enough that Sennacherib ordered the production of the Lachish reliefs to celebrate.  Only Jerusalem remains.  It is clear that Judah does not have a military solution to this problem: only the LORD can save them from what is otherwise certain destruction.

Hezekiah turns to prayer, along with Isaiah the prophet, and the downfall of Sennacherib could not have been faster.  His army is destroyed by an angel, he returns to his own country in shame, and while praying in the temple of his false god, his own children come in and murder him.

The rest of Hezekiah's life is abbreviated in this version.  We are told that Hezekiah has some disease, but is healed, and that he has some sort of pride, but he humbles himself, and verse 31 says something or other about envoys from Babylon, and we learn it was some kind of test but it doesn't tell us exactly what kind of test or how Hezekiah did on it.  The "pride and humility" thing is new to Chronicles, but most of the rest of v. 24-33 is an abbreviated version of 2 Kings 20, which gives us more detail about Hezekiah's illness and healing, as well as the Babylonians.  In 2 Kings 20, Isaiah prophesies that Babylon would conquer Judah and take all of the gold and silver and other things that Hezekiah showed to the envoys.  It's possibly implied that Hezekiah sinned by showing everything to the envoys, which might be the "test" that v. 31 is referring to.  It's somewhat elusive but in this case I think Chronicles may be abbreviating these stories to downplay some of Hezekiah's mistakes in his later life.

When Hezekiah dies, his son Manasseh becomes the next king, and that concludes the story elements of this chapter.  Before moving on, I want to jump back a bit and take a look at some of the dialogue in this chapter, especially verses 9-19.

Sennacherib's speech contains two central arguments that justify why the Judeans should give up and surrender, rather than depend on the LORD.  The first is that Hezekiah is actually angering the LORD by destroying the high places and altars (v. 12), and therefore the LORD would not save Hezekiah's people.  The second argument is that none of the gods of any nation have been able to stop Sennacherib, and therefore there is no reason the LORD would be able to stop him either (v. 13-19).

The first argument in verse 12 is quite short and not particularly connected with the rest of the dialogue, but I find it very interesting.  So first of all, the authors of the bible clearly view these altars and high places as being centers for idolatry and paganism.  The high places are routinely condemned in both Kings and Chronicles, and elsewhere the prophets often refer to worship in the high places as adultery.  In verse 12, the king of Assyria appears to believe that these high places were used for worshiping the LORD.  While this clearly contradicts the attitude of the biblical authors, it is not necessarily a lie.  In various places we see hints that the Israelites and Judeans followed a syncretic religion that merged together elements of the native religions of the promised land and their faith in the LORD.

There are many references I could make to demonstrate syncretism in the bible, but for the sake of time I will only give one: Exodus 32:4-6.  In this short passage, Aaron has constructed an idol, and then immediately says that the idol is what delivered them from Egypt and then declares a festival "to the LORD" which is inextricably centered around their idol worship with the golden calf.  This shows that both Aaron and the people are delving into literal idolatry, yet claiming that the calf is the LORD who saved them.

In summary, it is possible that the Israelites who worship in the high places or around the Asherah poles may have claimed that they were worshiping the LORD through those activities.  They may have even believed they were worshiping the LORD.  The bible makes it clear that the LORD did not want to be worshiped in that way, but it could have still been a prevailing practice.  It would certainly explain why Sennacherib thought that Hezekiah was tearing down the altars of the LORD in his religious reforms.

Sennacherib's second claim is that the LORD is no different from any other god, and if the other gods didn't save their respective nations, the LORD would not be able to save Judah.  To understand this, my readers should remember that in this historical period, it was conventional for every nation to have their own patron god (or gods) that they identify with.  Defeating a certain nation is generally considered equivalent to defeating or overpowering their patron deity.  One of the implications of this belief system is that all of the patron gods are roughly equivalent.  Some may be stronger than others, but they are all equal in terms of their qualities.  There is no god of the universe, just localized gods for specific nations or places.  The other implication of this belief system is that the strength of one's god dictates the power of the nation under that god.  Therefore since the Assyrians are stronger than the Judeans, one could deduce that the Assyrians' gods are stronger than the god of Judah.

I definitely think both of these points figure into Sennacherib's attitude.  While some of the letter is just exaggerated posturing to scare the Judeans, Sennacherib wrote the letter this way because to the Mideast culture at the time, these kinds of arguments would have made sense.  Modern readers may not realize how vastly different was the religious landscape at the time this battle occurred, and how the bible presents such a starkly different religious viewpoint compared to the other religions at the time.  In a world with over two billion Christians and one billion Muslims, it may be hard for us to imagine a society where polytheism is the norm and monotheism is the exception, but that's exactly what is happening in this chapter.

The destruction of Sennacherib is just as much a repudiation of his philosophy as it is a repudiation of his assault against Hezekiah.  Verse 17 makes it clear that the Chronicler views these claims as "insults" against the LORD.  The equivalence between all the gods of the world would have been a common belief, and the Chronicler is explicitly bringing it up as part of Sennacherib's attack against Hezekiah.  By linking Sennacherib's message to his later defeat, the Chronicler is attempting to show that these claims are false, thereby establishing the opposite claim: the LORD is God over the whole world.  That is the fundamental theological point of this chapter, and it is embedded directly alongside the narrative point regarding the life of Hezekiah and his moment of crisis.  Hezekiah eventually passes his test, and through Hezekiah's faith, the story demonstrates the supremacy of the LORD over every other force in the world.

In the next chapter, Manasseh becomes king and undoes many of Hezekiah's religious reforms.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 31

In this chapter, Hezekiah orders for the tithe to resume.

The first verse in this chapter describes the fallout from Hezekiah's Passover.  What we see is a religious wave, centered around temple worship, sweeping through not only Judah but also the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and it destroys all of the symbols of idolatry as it passes through.

After this one verse, the Chronicler moves on to the central topic for this chapter, which is the resumption of the priestly ministry and the tithe.

These two concepts are closely related.  The priests and Levites cannot afford to operate in a vocational ministry without the tithe, because that is how they get paid.  The only other source of income the priests would have is from the sacrifices at the temple, but the Levites would have been excluded from performing offerings.  Anyway, what we see in practice is that when the tithe is not collected, the Levites and priests usually go back to farming to provide for their families.

Hezekiah, however, wants to restart the temple worship system.  He does this in three parts.  The first part is commanding the priests and Levites to fulfill their ministry (v. 2).  The second part is providing for the daily, weekly and monthly offerings, which are part of the Law stipulated in Numbers 28:1-15.  However, while that passage orders Israel to make these regular offerings on behalf of the community as a whole, it does not provide a mechanism for funding the communal offerings (like who is supposed to pay for it).  In v. 3, it appears that Hezekiah is willing to take that burden on himself, and since it refers to this as the "king's portion", it's possible that this was a normative practice throughout the kingdom period (i.e. that the king was always responsible for the regular temple sacrifices).  If so, this practice is never specifically described anywhere and we can only infer it from context, such as here.

The third and final part is resuming the tithe (v. 4).  Although the people were not previously bringing in the tithe, they respond to the king's command with remarkable enthusiasm, because very shortly after the command was given, we have these "heaps" that start to pile up, above and beyond the immediate needs of the Levites and priests.  This motivates the second half of the chapter which is constructing store rooms to hold the excess food.  I can't imagine they would store the animals or meat (unless it is preserved somehow), but they could easily be storing excess grain, oil and wine.

So what is the bigger picture of this chapter?  When we take all these events as a whole, what we see is Hezekiah successfully restarting much of the temple system as it would have existed in the time of David and Solomon.  After sanctifying the temple (chapter 29) and performing the first Passover (chapter 30), this chapter is Hezekiah restarting the temple sacrificial system and Levitical ministry.  Many of these elements are derived from the Law of Moses, but many others are based on the Davidic system.  In this chapter, two prominent examples of that are the divisions of the priests and the worship ministry (i.e. Levites as singers and musicians).  Both of these examples are in v. 2.  The priestly divisions and worship ministry are substantially unique to Chronicles, because they are not described in either the Pentateuch or in the Samuel/Kings narrative.  From a literary point of view, this establishes a clear affinity between the narrative here and the earlier temple preparation narrative in 1 Chronicles.  From a historical point of view, it shows that Hezekiah is looking to David for his model when reconstructing the temple worship system.

That is all concerning Hezekiah's role in this chapter.  The other side is looking at how the people respond.  In general, their response appears to be both enthusiastic and thorough.  All the people who went to the Passover go around destroying altars, pillars and Asherah poles throughout both the northern and southern kingdoms.  Later, the people are very energetic about giving the tithe, which is how you can tell they are really sincere, since nobody who is faking their religion would be energetic about giving away hard-earned cash.

Verses 20-21 conclude the chapter on a positive note, telling us that Hezekiah is such a great guy, and he's successful everywhere, and he sought the LORD with his whole heart, and everything is wonderful.  This makes it all the more baffling when Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, is one of the worst kings that Judah ever has, and the people collectively go all the way back to Baal worship in just one generation.  This is a question that I wrote about at length in my commentary on 2 Chron 29, so I won't repeat myself here, but I will say that passages like vv. 20-21 are a big part of what made it so hard for me to understand how the people returned to Baal worship.  Or really this chapter as a whole, with the people acting so faithful to the LORD, so eager to destroy idols and give their tithes to the LORD: how do they turn to idolatry so quickly?  For my speculation about the answer, read my earlier commentary.

Meanwhile, life for Hezekiah moves on.  In the next chapter, Hezekiah faces one of the first big challenges in his reign, when Sennacherib and the Assyrians invade.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 30

In this chapter, Hezekiah hosts a magnificent Passover festival.

This is such a fascinating chapter to me.  To the people who have only read this chapter and not the rest of the OT, it may not be clear why, so I will try to explain.  First, I must set the context for this chapter.

Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy the LORD through Moses made it clear that the Israelites were absolutely expected to follow the letter of the Law.  If a person accidentally sinned in some way, they could offer a sacrifice to make up for it (Lev 5:17), but the Law doesn't even have provisions for intentional sin.  Except, perhaps, for purging the evil one from amongst you (Deut 17:7).  It was just not supposed to happen.

Throughout the Law, and throughout the histories that followed, strict obedience to the Law was a hallmark of righteous figures (David's epic sin with Bathsheba notwithstanding).  There is a certain logic to this.  Placed in an environment where obedience to the Law is a central pillar of following God, it stands to reason that people who are sincere about seeking God will be meticulous in their obedience.  All of the zeal and passion for God in this era is channeled towards getting all of these tiny details right, like offering sacrifices in just the right way, observing the Sabbath, ceremonial cleanliness, and so on.  These things that seem so obscure and archaic to us would have been the bread-and-butter to an observant Judean, and just as importantly, failing to observe these things would clearly mark somebody as either apathetic about their faith or maybe even an idolater (both of which would be unthinkable to a righteous Israelite).

With all that in mind, the Judean people make so many mistakes in their Passover celebration.  First, they celebrate the Passover in the wrong month (v. 2, c.f. Exodus 12:18) because the people simply weren't ready in time.  In prior years, they had not celebrated the Passover at all (v. 5, 26) which is also a terrible sin.  Lastly, the people failed to consecrate themselves before offering the Passover and ate the Passover while unclean (v. 17-18).  These might seem like small things to you, but I think it's really important to understand how far outside of normal expected behavior this is.  Even though it's clear from the passage that people had not been observing the Passover for a long time, the biblical text nevertheless maintains a very high standard for what people are supposed to do as followers of God.  For example, there are many kings where it says "he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, except the high places were not removed."  (2 Kings 12:2-3 amongst others).  To paraphrase, "the king got a bunch of things right, but not EVERYTHING.  Not like David would have done."  In many places David is held up as the standard of a righteous king, and nearly every other king falls short in one way or another.  But for every king, the expectation is that the king would fulfill ALL of the requirements of the Law.  That is the important part, the expectation of careful observance, which is emphasized every time the biblical text specifically calls out all of the things that one of the kings got wrong.  If the authors of the bible did not care about these details, it would not have been mentioned.

Having all of this context, now it should be evident why this chapter is so striking.  In spite of the expectation that the people would fulfill the details of the Law, and in spite of their failing to do so, God blesses the people in a direct and powerful way (with v. 27 concluding that "their voice was heard and their prayer came to his holy dwelling place, to heaven").  Verse 20 is another expression of God's grace, where he answers Hezekiah's prayer.  Throughout the chapter, I think there is a strong sense that God's favor is resting upon this Passover and the Chronicler also views it favorably.

Several things in this chapter stand out.  The first is that the people seem genuinely unprepared and possibly ignorant about the expectations of the Law.  The second is that the people seem just as genuinely interested in seeking God by trying, as best as they can, to observe the Passover.  The third is that Hezekiah and the other leaders acknowledge that they are not following the details of the Law (v. 2-3, 18-19).  The fourth is that God appears to understand their situation, knows that they are coming from a great distance (both literal and figurative) to meet him, and he gives them overwhelming grace, forgiving their mistakes and answering their prayers and intentions.

God perceives the people based on their heart, their "heart to seek God", and God responds based on their heart and not based on their outward failures.  Exodus 34:6 calls the LORD "compassionate and gracious", and we see it in many places throughout the OT but I personally don't think we see it anywhere more clearly than here.  This chapter is like the opposite of the life of Saul.  In 1 Samuel 13:9, Saul offered the burnt offering (which was a sin) because he wanted to make an external show of religiosity to encourage his men.  God rejects Saul and later says, "man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."  (1 Sam 16:7).  In his outward appearance, Saul sinned, but God judged his heart as evil and corrupt and rejected him for it.

In this chapter, the people also have an outward sin, because they do not observe the Passover correctly.  However, they have a "heart to seek God", and God sees it and he blesses them because of their heart.  Saul had a selfish, greedy and malevolent heart, and God condemned him for it.  What we learn from this chapter is that God does not reject the people whose hearts are genuinely and sincerely seeking him, no matter what kind of mistakes they make in their religious life or the way that they pursue him.  If the heart is in the right place, God knows that they will eventually correct their outward behavior because he can send prophets to them and they will listen to his prophets and eventually their outward behavior can be fixed.  If the heart is corrupt, then the outward behavior will never be right because they will not listen to his voice (through the prophets).

That is the most important theme of this chapter.  There is one more point I would like to make before moving on, which is to highlight the cultural and religious division that appears in this chapter between the northern and southern kingdoms.  It shouldn't be a surprise given the history of conflict we have been Israel and Judah, and because Jeroboam (the first king of Israel) established idols in Bethel and Dan specifically for preventing people from traveling to Jerusalem to worship the LORD.  He did this because if the people continued traveling to Jerusalem to go to the temple, they might have been influenced by the priests or the king of Judah to orient their loyalties towards the southern kingdom, and this could have undermined the political stability of the northern kingdom.

None of this should be new to my readers, since earlier parts of Chronicles highlighted the conflict between north and south.  What we see in this chapter is first, Hezekiah attempting a rapprochement of sorts with the north when he sends his messengers to call the people to the Passover (v. 5-6), and second, the majority of the northern people rejecting and mocking Hezekiah's invitation (v. 10).  A small handful come to the Passover (v. 11), but the overwhelming majority of attendees are Judeans (v. 12), which is consistent both with Judah's traditional adherence to the LORD (for the most part) and also with Hezekiah's much greater influence over the people of his own kingdom versus the people of the northern kingdom.

In conclusion, the religious revival is a raging success, and in the next chapter Hezekiah continues by restructuring the tithe to support the Levites and priestly ministry.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 29

In this chapter, Hezekiah becomes king and restores temple worship.

In short, this chapter is all about reversing the damage and neglect inflicted upon the temple by Ahaz.  Verses 3-5 give a summary of Hezekiah's activity, which is repairing the temple and consecrating it (i.e. removing unclean things, or just cleaning it up in general).  We know from the life of Ahaz (Hezekiah's father) that the temple was abandoned because Ahaz was a worshiper of Baal (2 Chron 28:2, 24).  While Ahaz shut the doors of the temple, Hezekiah reopens them (v. 3).  We can also infer that many ceremonially unclean things were stored in the temple, and Hezekiah had them removed.

This chapter has two central elements.  The first is the consecration of the temple (v. 5-19) and the second is the restoration of animal sacrifice in the temple complex (v. 20-36).  These actions are related because as part of the ceremonial code, a sacred offering cannot be made on a defiled altar.  Therefore the temple needed to be consecrated before any offerings could be properly made there.

What stands out to me the most about Hezekiah in this chapter is the immediacy of his action.  It says that in the very first month of his reign he went to reopen the temple.  This was possibly his top priority.  It's as if we elected a new president, and then right after inauguration they gathered their top officials to go out and build a new church or something.  Obviously there are a lot of differences between modern life and ancient Judah, but even in ancient Judah the king would have had a lot of military, political and economic responsibilities.  For him to go out to the temple so early in his reign is a clear statement of priorities given how many other things he could be doing.

My commentary in the previous chapter discussed a lot of the social and political upheaval in this time period, so I won't repeat that information now.  Instead, I want to focus on the more human aspect which is Hezekiah himself.  I have only one question that has bothered me for years: how on earth did a father like Ahaz have a son like Hezekiah?  The biblical narrative is deeply critical of Ahaz, yet it is strongly favorable toward Hezekiah, because these two men are almost exactly opposite in their attitudes towards the LORD.  What I want to know is how a godless Baal-worshiper like Ahaz produced such a remarkably devout son.

My guess (and this is just a guess) is that Ahaz simply was not involved in raising his son at all.  Even though Hezekiah was his heir, I would infer from v. 1 that Hezekiah was actually raised by his mother and not his father.  Like many of the other good kings, v. 1 specifically names Hezekiah's mother, and I believe this detail was included because his mother was his primary caregiver in childhood.  Furthermore, we know from many places in the bible that kings of Judah would commonly have multiple wives and children.  It was common for them to have more than 10 children, and sometimes more than 40 or 50.  At that kind of scale, it would be impossible for a single father to be involved in raising all of them even if he wanted to be (and it's not at all clear that they did).  It's more likely that the burden of childcare was spread out over the mothers and possibly other servants or aides.  From this perspective, the character of the child depends more on the nature of the mother than the father, which may help explain why so many good Israelite kings have bad children and vice versa.

Looking at the culture more broadly, there is a secondary question which is how did Judah flip-flop between following the LORD and following Baal from one generation to the next?  If the country were so deeply involved with Baal worship during the reign of Ahaz, wouldn't they have resisted Hezekiah now when he is trying to reinstitute the temple system?  More to the point, where did this faithful, God-fearing woman Abijah come from that Ahaz would marry her and that she would raise a faithful, God-fearing son in Hezekiah?

My perspective is that in Judah, we see a nation divided between two forces.  Back in 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah similarly criticized Israel for having divided loyalties when he said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal, follow him."  My personal opinion is that in Judah, there was likely a group of people that diligently followed God even during the lifetime of Ahaz, and there was a group of people that diligently worshiped Baal even during the lifetime of Hezekiah.  The king simply chooses which religion would take on preeminence in Judean society by encouraging one and suppressing the other.  The king could control which religion was more visible, but could not root out or convert all the worshipers of the other religion.

Therefore I believe that Hezekiah's mother Abijah was one of many women who were faithful to the LORD during the reign of Ahaz, and they simply existing in the fringes of society while Ahaz moved Baal worship into the public places.  When Ahaz died and Hezekiah came into power, all of these people came out of the shadows and went to the temple's opening ceremony.

On a personal note, I remember the first time I read through Kings and Chronicles that I was so deeply disappointed by the religious backsliding that occurs after Hezekiah dies (and similarly after Josiah's revival).  When reading through the chapter, it feels like such a momentous occasion that I thought for sure the people would stay true to God.  I would often wonder how the people could be so zealous for God and then suddenly it's like everyone changes for the worse when the good king dies.

I think my mental model for Judah's society was wrong.  I imagined their society as if it were a single person who was changing his mind back and forth between these two gods.  Instead, I think it's more accurate to picture it as a described above, with two communities that are existing side by side.  One community may take the forefront, or the other community, but they are both still existing in tandem during the lifetimes of all of these kings.  The life of Hezekiah is a great revival in a certain sense, but I think even during these great events there is a sizeable chunk of the population who are faithful to Baal and simply waiting for Hezekiah to die and one of "their own" men to become king.  I think this makes it a lot easier to understand how the people of Judah could waver between these two gods with such intensity and so rapidly.

We can view Judah's gradual decline not as the emergence of some bad king drawing the whole nation away from God, but as a population shift over the years with more and more people following Baal and fewer and fewer following the LORD.  It only took the bad kings to bring this moral erosion to light.

In the next chapter, Hezekiah continues his religious renewal by organizing the first Passover service in generations.