Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Salvation Belongs To Our God (II Kings 18-20)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve found the book of Kings rather grueling. Sometimes reading the Bible is just plain work, like hiking up a steep mountain where trees and brush obscure any view. I slog through pages I’d quickly skim over if they were in any other book, and it is all I can do to keep one foot moving forward after another. Then, when I least expect it, I come across a vision of such grandeur and glory that it simply takes my breath away.

Hezekiah and Sennacherib may as well be David and Goliath.

The story begins with the aftermath of the fall of the northern kingdom. Judah is quaking at the might of the mighty empire of Assyria at her gates. Pacified for a moment by tribute, new envoys soon arrive with a fell message for the terrified officials of Jerusalem.
Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. … Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
The officials beg the envoy to speak in Aramaic, rather than a language that the people standing on the wall to understand. The emissary responds:
Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?
He then shouts up to the people of Jerusalem:
Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. … Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
The terrifying bluster is met with stone silence. Not a single word is spoken. Deep in the citadel, King Hezekiah reacts to the news with a desparate plea to the Lord:
Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.
The prophet Isaiah brings the Lord’s answer:
Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel! By your messengers you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, “With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest lodging place, its most fruitful forest. I dug wells and drank foreign waters, and I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.”

Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown.

But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.
That very night the angel of the Lord kills over a hundred thousand Assyrian soldiers. Sennacherib is forced to return to Nineveh, where he is assassinated by his own sons. Because of David, God once again saves Jerusalem from destruction. Judah comes within an inch of his life, but the Lord has gives him a breath of hope.

Later, Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that he will die of an illness. When the desperate King implores the Lord to change his mind and spare his life, God changes his mind and grants him another fifteen years. Like his kingdom, the king himself has been granted life in the face of the grave.

But Hezekiah is no David. At the end of his life he fathers Manasseh, the most infamously idolatrous King in all the history of Judah. He also exposes all of his palaces and goods to impress ambassadors from Babylon. After the prophet Isaiah warns him that this very country will one day take all of these goods for themselves, Hezekiah is shockingly apathetic:
Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
No tears were spared grieving the impending loss of his own life, but the prophecy of Judah’s fall produces not a sniffle. Where is the compassion of Abraham, who will plead with God for the city of Sodom? Where is the tenacity of Jacob who will hold fast to the Lord until he secures a blessing for him and his offspring? Where is the mercy of Moses who told God that if he wants to reject Israel, he must reject him as well? Where is the agonized cry of David, telling the Lord to spare the sheep and punish his house alone? Hezekiah may have done “what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, but the salvation of the people of God lies in the faithfulness of a greater King.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Sum of All Fears (II Kings 14-17)

I told you so. That is the tone of the book of Kings’ account of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel:
Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
There really seems little to say about it. The people are guilty. They repeatedly thumb their noses at their God. They insist on worshipping him on their terms on the high places. They don’t think twice about bringing in foreign idols. Except for one bloody regime under Jehu, they persecute the prophets. King after king after king is described concisely as “doing evil in the sight of the Lord.” They’ve become every bit as wicked as the former inhabitants. What more can He do but hurl them out of the land?

What more indeed. The tragedy and futility is overwhelming. Israel is expelled from the land, like Adam from Eden. The Lord is finally giving up on them – as he nearly did in the flood and threatened to do so many times with Moses. But what of his plan, his promises, and his purposes? As with Job, is not the creator implicated in the failure of his creation? What hope is there that any other people will succeed where Israel failed? Shall not the clay say to the potter, “why did you make me like this”?

When the king of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria) carries off the Israelites, he also moves in many of his own people to colonize the newly conquered land. They quickly learn, through a series of lion attacks, that the local god is a feisty one that demands their respect. And so they keep a few priests around to teach them how to worship the Lord. All in all, the new Samaritans aren’t really any worse than the Israelites – and they at least can plead ignorance.

This is what St. Paul was talking about in the book of Romans. Though they possess the law, it doesn’t really seem to do the Israelites much good. The great story of Exodus from Egypt, the sublime customs and worship outlined in the Torah, and the righteous laws they are given to live by all only serve to condemn them as unworthy of such blessings. In the end, what has God accomplished other than to show them how wretched they are?

All hope rests on Judah – the one tribe that remains standing against the juggernaut of Assyria.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Driving Like Jehu (II Kings 8-13)

Bishop Ulfilas, in the fourth century, undertook the task of translating the Bible into the Gothic language with a curious omission: he left out the book of Kings. The Goths, in his opinion, were already too fond of fighting, and “needed in that matter the bit, rather than the spur.” I can’t say that I blame him.

An unfortunate theme that we encounter again and again in reading the Bible is the pervasive cruelty of the ancient world. I’ve written before that this is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the modern reader. Though the passages where God’s justice is portrayed in terms of genocidal fury and collective punishment disturbs today’s devout Christians, I get the distinct impression that the ancient reader hardly batted an eyelash. Elisha’s conversation with Hazael, the future king of Syria, is a case in point:
And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. And the man of God wept. And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”
Catch that? It’s not, “what kind of a monster do you take me for?” but rather, “do you really think I could pull something like that off?”

It is this unstated assumption – that might made right; that the sheer power to conquer settled all question of legitimacy – that hits us full in the face when our form-fitting athletic shoes walk the dusty roads of the ancient near-east. “New Atheists”, like Richard Dawkins, use this disorientation to great rhetorical effect in their hateful crusade against Christianity – stating that “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of literature: cruel, capricious, jealous, vindictive and unjust.” But I am more convinced than ever that, on this point, Dawkins is wrong – blinded by his own prejudice.

I will never forget the reaction of a college agnostic upon reading Genesis seriously for the first time in an undergraduate literature class. Having been immersed in all of the tragic brutality and futility of Gilgamesh, Homer and the Greeks, he was moved almost to tears at the passionate love of the God of the Bible. By learning to read with ancient eyes, he was able to see what the Bible was longing to tell him: that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Yet the Old Testament was written first to the ancients, and lest they mistake his love for apathy, they need to know him also as one who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. And so, with Ahab’s son on the throne, Elisha has his servant anoint Jehu the scourge as king of Israel.

Jehu is a general fighting the Syrians when he is spontaneously anointed by the rogue prophet. Wasting no time, he rides quickly to Jezreel and stages a coup. He kills Joram, the son of Ahab, and throws his body into the field of Naboth (whom Ahab had murdered). He has Jezebel thrown down from the palace to her death below, where roving dogs eat her body. He orders the death of all seventy of Ahab’s sons.

Jehu continues:
And when he departed from there, he met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him…And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord.” So he had him ride in his chariot. And when he came to Samaria, he struck down all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.
Then Jehu stages this brilliant bit of treachery:
And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Baal.” So they proclaimed it. And Jehu sent throughout all Israel, and all the worshipers of Baal came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Baal, and the house of Baal was filled from one end to the other. …So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and strike them down; let not a man escape.” So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Baal, and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Baal and burned it. And they demolished the pillar of Baal, and demolished the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day.
It is the final ruin of Ahab and Jezebel and the avenging of the blood of the prophets and of Naboth. The land is cleansed of idolatry. Jehu sits victoriously on Israel’s throne. His bloody zeal for the Lord is certainly relentless. A happy ending, then?
And the Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart.
Despite Ahab's house being destined for ruin by the justice of God, we are told that this is the beginning of the end for the northern kingdom of Israel. On his deathbed, Elisha laments that Jehu’s descendent Joash will only temporarily delay the Syrians. Though the legacy of David sustains Judah for generation after generation, there is something that Jehu lacks. For all the raging fury of the ancients running through his veins, Jehu knows precious little of the God of Israel. Later on, his taste for blood is specifically condemned by the prophet Hosea, who reflects on behalf of the Lord:
I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Chariots of Fire (II Kings 1-7)

With apologies to Gustave Dore (and every other biblical illustrator), Elijah did not ride a chariot of fire into Heaven. Yup, you heard that right.

The story begins with him and his apprentice, Elisha, travelling together. Elisha knows somehow that this is the day that the Lord will take his master away, and so takes special care to remain by his side (despite Elijah’s hints to let him go on alone). Elisha asks to be his heir – his first born – receiving a double portion of his spirit. The apprentice will not let go of his master until he blesses him.

Suddenly a furious detachment of fiery chariots roar between the two of them. From the other side of the train, Elisha watches helplessly as his master is taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind. Looking up, he cries:
My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!
I’m no Old-Testament scholar, but these chariot-drivers seem like the same warriors that guarded Eden with the flaming sword. The cherubim are the gatekeepers of the throne of the Almighty, who firmly decide that Elisha may go no farther. After picking up his master’s fallen cloak, the grim apprentice heads back across the Jordan to Israel.

Thus begins the ministry of Elisha. His wondrous acts are reminiscent of those of Elijah, and are perhaps even greater. He brings water to a parched army dying of thirst; he supplies oil to a widow about to lose everything to a creditor, he provides a son to a barren woman and later raises him from the dead; he cures a Syrian general from his leprosy; he even causes an axe head to float so that the man can return it to the one who lent it to him; he announces God’s rescue of starving Samaria from a deadly siege. These are more than mere marvels; they are prophetic symbols of the God who intends to bring hope to the hopeless.

One day, the king of Syria sends an army to apprehend Elisha.
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
He makes his messengers winds, and his ministers a flaming fire. The chariots of Israel and its horsemen are not a taxi service to Heaven. The Lord is acting here, now, on this Earth, through his prophet, to topple those tyrants who would aggrandize themselves, and to bring relief to a famished people who have forgotten how to hope.

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