The Bible in a Year – 4 October

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4 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 30-32

Today we read of the triumphs (at least the religious ones) of king Hezekiah. Since the reign of Azariah in chapter 22 there has been a fundamental rift between the northern and southern kingdoms.  In chapter 30 Hezekiah attempts to heal this, not politically but religiously, as he encourages all the tribes once again to celebrate the Passover together as in days of old.  But apart from a few individuals, the northerners in Israel scoff at his messengers and fail to come to the feast.  Maybe that was in Jesus’ mind when he told the parable of a banquet to which those who were invited refused to come (Luke 14: I will be preaching on that at our Harvest Festival this Sunday).

Nevertheless, for those who do come, and for the people of Judah, this is a great feast – held a month late, but for two weeks instead of the usual one.  Many of those who attend have not carried out the required rituals of preparation, but Hezekiah wisely allows them to participate: “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (30:19).  That echoes the frequent debates heard in churches about who should be admitted to Holy Communion – only those baptised or confirmed as adults, or anyone baptised (even as an infant), or anyone who says they believe in Jesus?  Hezekiah would have been with the inclusive churches.

Many seem to have been ‘converted’ (or had their faith ‘refreshed’) at this Passover. Afterwards, they are inspired to go home and tear down the ‘high places’ – the remaining pagan shrines in their territory – and to make generous donations of animals and produce to the Temple.   It does tend to be at large gatherings, when religious fervour is stirred up, that people are moved to go and take action, change their lives, repent of practices they are now convinced are wrong, or share their faith with others.  The call to give sacrificially to the cause also tends to get a good response in such gatherings.

That is why ‘revivals’ are based on well advertised meetings in large venues with well known speakers or ‘miracle workers’, while quieter forms of evangelism are carried on week by week in small groups and one-to-one conversations.  Both are equally valid, and which one will “work” for an individual will depend as much on their own personality type as anything.  The only caution is that sometimes the religious fervour of the newly converted can spill over into insensitive pressurising of others to commit to the faith, something that really should be an unpressurised decision.

This religious triumph is followed in chapter 32 by a military challenge: the Assyrians under Sennacherib attack Judean towns and threaten Jerusalem itself.   But a combination of fervent prayer for deliverance led by the prophet Isaiah, and the wise tactical step of cutting off the invading army’ water supply, sends Sennacherib packing back to his homeland and to his death.  So with the country of Judah in the grip of a religious revival, and deliverance from the enemy, Hezekiah earns his places as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

The Bible in a Year – 3 October

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3 October. 2 Chronicles 28-29

Yesterday’s reading covered the reigns of Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham who were all somewhat half-hearted in their attitude to God – generally supportive of Temple worship, but sinful in other ways. In their time the split between Judah and the rest of Israel was deepened by unnecessary and pointless conflict.

Under the next king of Judah, Ahaz, things get even worse.  He seems not to make even a pretence of following inherited tradition but openly embraces paganism and shuts down the Temple. In his day, too, both Israel and their common enemies Aram and Assyria attack Judah; the army Israel even carries its people away as slaves, until the little known prophet Oded, plus a few tribal leaders, condemn them for taking captive those who should be their compatriots. The Biblical account leaves no doubt that the apostasy of the king is the direct cause of these defeats.

Hezekiah, as a young man, must have been appalled and frustrated at his father’s behaviour, for the very first act of his reign, within days of his coronation, is to begin restoring the Temple and its worship, to show that he intended to be different, and to revert to the historic patterns of life in Judah.

This sudden swing between a king who follows the Mosaic laws and one who does not, or vice-versa, is a pattern we have seen throughout the history of Israel. Often it seems to have been accompanied by the persecution of the “other side”, much as in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries there was much blood shed in the alternation of Catholic and Protestant monarchs.   That, and the almost unforeseeable genocides that have taken place in countries such as Rwanda and Serbia in our own lifetime, remind us that the link between religion and violence (or ethnicity and violence) is one that will not go away.  The peaceful and tolerant practice of religion is never to be taken for granted.

The Bible in a Year – 7 May

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7 May. Isaiah chapters 36-41

To repeat the last paragraph of yesterday’s post: the commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.  So today’s six chapters most likely cover that turning point.


Chapters 36 to 39 (apart from the “writing of King Hezekiah after he had recovered from his illness” in 38:9-20) are history rather than prophecy, and are a slightly abridged version of 2 Kings 18-20. So for comment on that, see my earlier blog post


Chapters 40 and 41 on the other hand are a return to prophesy, addressed to Israel as a whole. For all their sins and the punishment that God has brought by destroying their temple and their way of life, he will not destroy them completely.  As with Noah, as with the people of the Exodus, enough will survive to return and revive the worship of God in Jerusalem again.


This prophecy comes, however, not after the story of the exile to Babylon – we are not there yet – but after the first invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701BC. The final capture of Jerusalem was not to be for over a hundred years yet; Hezekiah would live longer but not see it, as Isaiah prophesied.


At one of the low points in my life, when I seemed to have lost the sense of God’s presence, he gave me a sign: that of the turning of the tide.  Those who watch the tide cannot easily tell the moment it is at its lowest point.  It is enough to know that, when things seem to have got as low as they can get, there will be a turning, an increase, a returning of the waters. And in God’s time things would, and did, get better.


If we maintain the metaphor of the turning tide, Chapter 40 is like the Severn Bore roaring upstream, leaving its watchers in no doubt what is on its way. Many of the words are familiar from the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah”, as John the Baptist who came as a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus was understood to be fulfilling the role of “one in the desert calling, prepare the way of the Lord”.  It seems the terror to be wrought on the people of Judah was such that God had to promise them the happy ending even before the worst had come.

The Bible in a Year – 26-27 April

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26-27 April. 2 Kings chapters 18-22

The kingdoms of the Near East have always had shifting allegiances. Through the history of Israel,  Egypt in particular was sometimes an enemy, sometimes an ally.  The same was true of other powers such as Assyria (roughly what we now call northern Iraq – its capital Nineveh was on the site now occupied by Mosul). Judah was allied with them until the time of Hezekiah (c. 700BC) whose reign we now come to.


The Bible reckons Hezekiah a very good king for two reasons – he finally got rid of the pagan shrines which previous kings had tolerated, and he broke of dependency on Assyria, trusting in God to give Judah victory.  The Assyrian king Sennacherib was not happy about this and threatened to capture Jerusalem as he had already done to Samaria. At this point we first hear of Isaiah, best known for the separate book of his prophesies elsewhere in the Old Testament. His oracle against Assyria on this occasion emphasises that both victory and defeat are planned by God – his will is paramount.  That might seem simplistic to us, but in the culture of the time where all  events in human life were assumed to be influenced by gods or spirits of some kind, it would make sense. Sennacherib returns to Nineveh and is murdered there. The time had still not yet come for Judah’s defeat.


Next comes the kingdom of Babylon – southern neighbour to Assyria. After Hezekiah is granted an extra 15 years of life by God (I will pass over the miraculous reversal of the sun’s shadow, which we cannot begin to explain) he welcomes envoys from Babylon and boasts of his riches which presumably he must have amassed quite quickly by taxations, after previously, giving away all the silver and gold he could find to appease the Assyrians.  But Isaiah realises this is a mistake and prophesies that in his sons’ time they and all their riches would be taken captive by these same Babylonians.  Amazingly, Hezekiah is complacent, even at the thought of his sons being captured, reckoning that “peace in his time” was all that mattered.  That is either extreme cold-blooded self-interest, or a cowardly shrinking from risky actions, or the sort of short-term thinking (“my poll ratings matter more than the best interests of the country”) that often causes political problems.


In chapter 21 we read of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh who was everything his father was not.  He reigned for 55 years from the age of 12, but all that we read of his reign is evil. He reinstated the pagan shrines that had been torn down, turned to the occult, and even placed an idol in the Temple of the Lord. He also “shed innocent blood”. This long and bloody reign contrasting with Hezekiah’s provokes God to declare that Judah’s time is up. Like the rest of Israel, their apostasy has gone so far as to break the covenant that God had always kept.


After a brief two-year reign by Amon, we come to Josiah, another child anointed at the age of only eight.  He followed the good works of his great-grandfather whom he had never known.  After 18 years he instructs reserved funds to be used to repair the temple, and in the process something even more important happens: the book of the Law is discovered.  Sometimes we may assume that the people of Israel always knew God’s commandments (even if they often did not keep them) but this passage reads as if for a long time (maybe since Hezekiah’s time, maybe longer) the people had merely been following custom and did not know or understand God’s laws.  Josiah is savvy enough to know the significance of the book.  God’s word to him is that it is too late to save the people from the fate he had ordained for their idolatry, but Josiah would be allowed to die in peace before Israel as a nation was removed altogether from the promised land.