Much of the time, we tend to understand the kings of Israel and Judah in a binary way. We read “X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “Y did what was right in the sight of the Lord” not as summaries, but as blanket statements that accurately describe every aspect of a king’s life.
This understanding is an oversimplification in both directions. Even a rotter like Ahab believed in God, feared God, and spoke with His prophets. On the other hand, even the most righteous kings of Judah weren’t perfect.
Consider, for instance, the career of the righteous king Hezekiah. In 1 Kings 18:5, he receives the encomium, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” As impressive as this sounds, we must recognize that it’s where Hezekiah ended up, not where he started. Despite his opposition to idolatry, there were times in his life when he failed to trust.
This is most evident in the prophecies of Isaiah that concern the events of Hezekiah’s reign. In Isaiah 22:8-11, Isaiah says of Hezekiah, “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to Him who did it, or see Him who planned it long ago.” For all of his righteousness, Hezekiah found himself in a place where he still relied on what he could do rather than on the salvation of the Lord.
However, everything that Hezekiah could accomplish was overwhelmed in the massive Assyrian invasion of 701 BC. The Assyrians came from the north like a tidal wave, destroying everything in sight. They conquered all of Judah, including the citadel of Lachish, except for Jerusalem itself.
Jerusalem is clearly next on the hit list. Assyrian officials inform the inhabitants that they must surrender instead of being destroyed. Now, in Isaiah 37:3-4, Hezekiah says, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has send to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”
There’s no more talk about armories and reservoirs and walls. Now, Hezekiah has put his trust completely in God, a trust not shared by any king before or after him. He hopes for his redemption not for his own glory, but for God’s.
Today, it’s easy for us to be early-Hezekiah-style Christians. We do the right things, but we continue to trust in ourselves. Sooner or later, that selfish trust will betray us. We will learn, like Hezekiah, that security can only be found in God. The only question is whether we will learn from his calamity or our own.
One of the themes of the book of Daniel is faithfulness to God despite living in a foreign land. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were exiles because of the sins of their fathers, men who couldn’t manage to keep covenant with God even though they were living in the promised land. The sons, though, were put to a sterner test than their fathers. They were expected to serve faithfully despite the bad example of their ancestors, the destruction of the temple, and their removal to Babylon. They were called to remember God even when their very names were changed from names that glorified Him to names that glorified idols (Bel, Aku, Aku, and Nergal, respectively).
Astonishingly, they succeed. All four men draw a line in the sand in Daniel 1. They determine that they would rather live on vegetables and water than run the risk of defiling themselves with rich food and wine from the king’s table. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s three friends prefer to face incineration rather than worshiping the king’s image. Similarly, in Daniel 6, Daniel himself defies the king’s edict and continues to pray toward Jerusalem according to the terms of 2 Chronicles 6:36-39.
In all of these things, God blesses them. Despite their austere diet, they become fatter than their peers who gorged themselves on royal delicacies (In my book, this is evidence that eating salads doesn’t help you lose weight!). An angel rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. God closes the mouths of the lions who were supposed to devour Daniel for his illegal prayers. Though an outside observer might conclude from the destruction of Israel and Judah that God is powerless, His care for the exiles shows that He is anything but.
Today, Christians in the United States increasingly feel that they are living in exile. America has never been “a Christian nation”, at least not in a Biblical sense, but increasingly, the morality of those around us is diverging from the morality of the Bible. Millions are turning to a bizarre moral code of their own invention. The same people who sneer at us for believing in an imaginary God simultaneously believe (and insist) that somebody who has two X chromosomes can be a man. Never mind the biology; saying makes it so!
In such an environment, staying faithful to our Creator is becoming increasingly difficult. Like the exiled Jews, we face all kinds of pressure to conform. Maybe nobody is changing our names on us, but it’s certainly true that Christians who are loud in their defense of Biblical morality will get in all kinds of trouble in secular schools and workplaces.
Nonetheless, our only recourse is to continue trusting in God too. He does not promise us that serving Him will be easy or painless, but He does promise that He will not forsake us. If we remain true to Him despite provocation from the citizens of this world, He will surely bless us.
In 2 Kings 22, we think we know the script. A good king, Josiah, succeeds a basically wicked king, Amon. Josiah orders a renovation of the temple, and during the renovation, the priest Hilkiah rediscovers the book of the Law. Josiah compares what he is doing to what he ought to be doing, tears his clothes, and repents.
Immediately, a delegation of Judahite higher-ups goes in search of Huldah the prophetess to figure out what happens next. This is where God says, “Now that you’ve repented, everything’s going to be OK.” Right?
Wrong. Instead, Huldah’s oracle is dire indeed. Despite Josiah’s reforms, Judah is still going to be destroyed. God’s people passed the point of no return during the reign of Manasseh. They have become so wicked that He can no longer tolerate them, and their defeat and exile are now inevitable. Josiah’s godliness has merely postponed the disaster until after his death.
This is important. Too much of the time, God’s people harbor a bad case of tomorrow-itis. Tomorrow is when they’re going to get their spiritual houses in order. Tomorrow is when they’re going to start reading their Bibles regularly. Tomorrow is when they’re going to lead their children to put God first in everything. Tomorrow is when they’re going to become plus members of the congregation. Tomorrow is when they’re going to talk to their neighbors about the Lord.
In response to this, gospel preachers like to point out two things. First, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Second, for a lot of brethren, “tomorrow” never becomes today. They spend their earthly lives with a head full of good intentions that they never put into practice.
I’ve said both of those things and agree with them. However, as we see from the story of Josiah, there’s a third problem. Tomorrow may come too late. Josiah was the most righteous king that Judah ever had, but even he couldn’t reverse his nation’s spiritual decline. If he had lived 50 or 100 years earlier, he might have been able to change its course, but as Manasseh’s son, there was nothing he could do to make a long-term difference.
So too for us. Even during our lives, there will come a point where we will no longer be able to repair the ravages of spiritual neglect. That point might not be obvious. Our sixteen-year-old son may still be coming to church (because we make him), but he may already have resolved that once he leaves home, he’s never going to darken that doorway again. Two years ago, we might have changed his mind, but not now. Now, we’re just playing out the string. The same can also be true of being a plus member or leading a lost friend to Christ. Those windows can close too.
I don’t know how open the windows are, in my life or anybody else’s. I do know, though, that now is the earliest we can act. We can’t change our yesterdays, but we can change today. Today, we can start doing what we know we always should have done. The sooner we start, the less likely we are to be too late.
2 Kings 17 is one of the most overlooked great chapters of the Bible. In the first part of the chapter, the wicked nation of Israel meets with its final defeat. In the rest of the chapter, the author of Kings explains why this happened. It wasn’t due to military inferiority. It was due to their refusal to honor God. In particular, he identifies these sins:
- They feared other gods. (17:7)
- They walked in the customs of the nations that had preceded them. (17:8)
- They followed their leaders when those leaders did evil. (17:8)
- They practiced secret sin. (17:9)
- They worshiped God in unlawful high places. (17:9)
- They mixed the worship of God with idolatry. (17:11)
- They served idols. (17:12)
- They ignored God’s prophets. (17:14)
- They despised God’s statutes, covenant, and warnings. (17:15)
- They were unfaithful to God. (17:15)
- They imitated the nations around them. (17:15)
- They abandoned the commandments of God. (17:16)
- They made their own gods. (17:16)
- They sacrificed their sons and daughters. (17:17)
- They used witchcraft. (17:17)
In 17:18, we see the result: “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of His sight.” If you’re feeling in need of a shudder, just contemplate what it means to have the Lord not only angry, but very angry at you! More subtle, but no less ominous, is the thought of being removed from His sight forever.
All of this is not some mere historical footnote. We serve God under a different covenant, but it’s all too possible for us to imitate the sin of Israel. In one way or another, nearly everything on the list is something that can ensnare us. We too can destroy ourselves by imitating the people around us, worshiping idols (money, pleasure, the good opinion of others, and so on), despising the commandments of God, and ignoring those who try to warn us. In fact, it’s probably true that every day, Christians fall away from the Lord by doing exactly these things.
Israel was destroyed, but we don’t have to be. However, if we want to avoid Israel’s fate, we have to be faithful where she chose to be faithless. If we fail in this, God will surely remove us from His sight too.
In any secular history book, Jeroboam II would look like a successful king. He reigned for 41 years in an age when length of reign correlated with political power. Militarily, he was one of the greatest commanders among the monarchs of Israel. During his reign, he brought the seesaw wars between Israel and Syria to a victorious conclusion. By the time he was done, Jeroboam II had conquered not only the Syrian capital of Damascus but even the city of Hamath, 100 miles further north. Not since the reign of Solomon had Israelite power reached so far.
However, there was a problem. Even though God had used Jeroboam II to deliver Israel from Syrian oppression, he himself was not a righteous man. 1 Kings 14:24 reports that he was every bit as idolatrous as his namesake, Jeroboam the son of Nebat.
As a result, even though Jeroboam II’s success was impressive, it wasn’t lasting. His son and successor Zechariah only reigned for six months before being assassinated in a palace coup. None of the subsequent kings of Israel came close to Jeroboam II’s success, and during the reign of Hoshea, the Assyrians carried the Israelites off into captivity. Under Jeroboam II, Israel prospered for a time, but because they didn’t build on a foundation of godliness, they did not endure.
We do well to remember that this same principle applies today. Everywhere around us, we see people and institutions that are apparently prospering despite their rejection of God’s will. Men who love money more than anything else build thriving businesses. Churches that have abandoned the New Testament have thousands of people in attendance on Sunday morning. Those within our nation who advocate turning our backs on God appear to be growing more powerful every year.
However, as was the case with Jeroboam II, success without God only sows the seeds of later disaster. Men who sacrifice their families on the altar of business ambition generally come to regret it on their deathbeds if not before. Churches that thrive because of a charismatic pastor and a fast-and-loose approach to the Scriptures hardly ever continue to prosper after the pastor exits the pulpit. Similarly, those in our nation who take their stand against the Lord will do no better than similar challengers have for millennia.
Sometimes, it’s hard for us to bear with the success of the wicked, especially when in our own judgment, we ourselves aren’t succeeding nearly as well. However, a longer-term perspective will reveal the truth. As Psalm 1 puts it, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. Only the righteous will endure like a tree planted beside a stream. At best, the wicked can hope to be like Jeroboam II, but even being like Jeroboam II isn’t very good.