Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Necessary Suffering (II Kings 21-25)

The book of Kings concludes with Judah’s worst idolatry, sincerest repentance, and most catastrophic disaster. It begins with Hezekiah’s son Manasseh. Though Hezekiah was characterized as a good king in the mold of David, his son is a different story:
Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.
It is the last straw.

The prophets announce the judgment of the Lord:
Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.
In this final rebellion, the people of Judah are taking upon themselves all the sins of their fathers. Judgment hangs over them. But then, it also seems we’ve seen this all before. When the Lord was ready to destroy all creation, Noah found favor in his sight. When he planned to wipe out Sodom, Abraham pleaded for the city. When he was ready to annihilate Israel in the wilderness, Moses interceded on their behalf. When the angel of the Lord prepared to strike Jerusalem with the plague, David called judgment on his house alone. When the kingdom of Israel was deep in idolatry, Elisha arose and brought rain to a parched land. I cannot help but expect the hero to arrive at the last minute and save the day.

And so he does. King Josiah institutes reforms on a scale the nation had never seen. He destroys all the idols. He abolishes the worship on the high places. He restores the Passover, which apparently had not been practiced since the days of the Judges. He calls an assembly of the people and renews the covenant with the Lord.

The book of Kings writes of Josiah:
Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.
Time and time again the Lord has proven himself slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression. In situations like this, I’ve grown to expect forgiveness and restoration. So it’s with shock that I read this:
Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
Because of Josiah’s faithfulness, the Lord is willing to stall his great judgment until the king himself has died. But even this faithful king cannot secure forgiveness for Judah. After Josiah’s death the Babylonians finally come crashing down on the poor kingdom like a sledge hammer. An oppressed Judah foolishly tries to gain independence, which provokes them to burn the temple and the city, tear down their walls, kill King Zedekiah’s sons in front of him before stabbing his eyes out, and drag the people into exile in chains.

This ending has always been very troubling to me. I understand that Judah deserves punishment, but why now? Why immediately following Josiah – a king mighty in deed and word before God and all the people? Surely they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Isn’t this ruin and exile exact opposite of what we’ve grown to expect in the face of a righteous man interceding for the people of God?

It’s all very perplexing, and the author of Kings doesn't seem to have a coherent explanation. So let’s turn now to the prophets, and listen to what they have to say.

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