The Bible in a Year – 6 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

6 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 35-36

Yesterday I explored the journey to faith of king Josiah, remembered by those who wrote down this account of the kings’ lives centuries later as one of the greatest and most holy of them all.   Chapter 35 records just two events from the remainder of his reign – the great Passover feast, and then his foolish decision to declare war against Egypt (even though the Pharaoh expressed his unwillingness to enter into battle). He died in battle, and was mourned.  And that was the end of the last of the great kings of Judah.

Coincidentally, and most appropriately, as I was reading the last chapter of Chronicles I was listening on the radio to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ symphony, one in which the joy of the previous movement gives way to descending scales of ever-increasing gloom, until the theme dies away into tearful silence.  That is how the people of Judah must have felt in the 22 years following the death of Josiah.  Four kings among his sons and grandsons followed with short reigns, each of them conquered and captured by the Egyptians or Babylonians, until finally under Nebuchadnezzar Jerusalem was sacked and burnt and all its leading citizens taken into exile for seventy years.

It seems to be a natural and inevitable fact that just when any nation or empire thinks it is at the height of its powers, something happens to topple it.  Natural disaster, plague, financial collapse, enemy conquest or internal revolt – all these can be understood by historians in terms of human nature, or by mathematicians in terms of chaos theory. But in the Bible, it is always the hand of God that is seen in these events.

God speaks in as many ways as the disasters that overtake societies and their leaders.  We are told that he spoke through the Egyptian Pharaoh, but even holy king Josiah “did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God” (35:22).  In the following years he sent prophets (including the great Jeremiah), “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling-place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (36:15-16).

Who are today’s prophets, who will tell us, as we may genuinely need to hear, that the glory days are at an end, and sad and difficult times will follow?  There are the secular prophets who tell us that we have squandered the earth’s resources and upset its climate, so that our environment and its weather patterns are changing to our harm.  There are economic experts who tell us that the financial collapse of 2008 may only have been the tremor preceding an even greater quake.  And as I suggested on 2 October, there are political pundits who will predict the break-up even of peaceful ‘empires’ such as the USA and European Union.  But do we also need to listen for the Jeremiahs of our day who will tell us that our neglect of the practice of religion (by which I mean not so much attendance at church, as the Biblical commands to love our neighbour and walk humbly before God) will likewise result in a disaster for our society?

Unlike Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, though, Chronicles does not end with the ruins of a conquered city, but with a tantalising glimpse of what happened seventy years later, when God declared that his people’s sin was paid for and their release could be announced.  With our merciful God, there is always a happy ending – if we wait.

The Bible in a Year – 5 October

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5 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 33-34

The tug-of-war between the monotheists and the polytheists or pagans is not over, although the triumphalism of yesterday’s account of Hezekiah’s reign may have made us think it was.  Under his son Manasseh (not to be confused with the tribe of the same name) his reforms are reversed and paganism becomes the official religion again – at least for a time. An unexpected twist in the plot happens when the Assyrians attack again and take him captive.  Without any detail, we are told that he humbles himself and is restored to country and throne, and in thankfulness restores the true religion of Israel. It all sounds too simplistic, and we are not told at what point in his 55-year reign this happens.  But once again the reforms are not to last.  His son Amon rebels again, but without repentance, and only reigns for two years.

The reforms of Josiah that we begin to hear about in chapter 34 are more lasting. In view of my comments yesterday about the different ways that people are brought to faith, we see an interesting growth into religious maturity here.  Josiah was a boy-king, eight years old (and presumably under guardianship) when he inherits the throne on the death of his 24-year-old father (who was a rather young parent, do the maths yourself!) Presumably, like any child, he would have accepted unquestioningly the family’s religious beliefs and practices – in this case paganism.  But at the age of 16 he “began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (34:3) – that is about the same age that I began to ask myself questions of religious belief.  At the age of 20 – the age of radical students everywhere – he becomes an enthusiast for the faith, and like his grandfather Hezekiah tears down the pagan shrines and poles.   But six years later, he enters a new phase of understanding, founded not on the emotionalism of religious ritual, but on the sober words of the written Law of Moses that are discovered in the Temple.

This journey from blind acceptance of other people’s faith, to independent enquiry as an adolescent, to the unquestioning fervour of the young adult, to a more mature outlook with respect for tradition and evidence, is typical of many people’s spiritual journey, including my own. We can encourage people at any age to embark on this journey, but trying to force it too soon or too quickly may result in rejection, or a short-lived passion that soon fades, or an emotional commitment that fails to stand the tests of life.  In Jesus’ words, the seed that falls on hard, or dry, or thorny ground will not flourish, but that which falls on good soil will produce much fruit.  Josiah was obviously planted in the right place.

The Bible in a Year – 28 April

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28 April. 2 Kings chaptesr 23-25

The last chapters of Kings make terrible reading.  Taking a purely historical reading, after about 700 years of occupying more or less of the ‘promised land’ of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, God’s chosen people, are removed from it by force.  Unlike the first captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, this time a generation later it is the new superpower of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar who come to Jerusalem and capture it in two successive sieges.


‘Good’ king Josiah had known that destruction was coming, for it had been prophesied, and he did his very best to repent on behalf of the people, carrying out the Mosaic law to the best of his ability, reinstating the festival of Passover that had been quietly neglected for many generations, and destroying all the idols that had been placed, not only on hilltop shrines but even in the Temple of God itself.


Such iconoclasm is not uncommon when religious zeal is at work – think of the Reformation in 16th century England, where what started as a protest against the excesses of Catholicism ended in the wholesale destruction of the abbeys and priories, and the whole way of life that went with them.  Not only the abbots and their monks, but everyone employed on their farms would have suffered.  It must have been equally destructive in Josiah’s time – the list of his targets included “the women who did weaving for Asherah”.  In both cases the intentions was to ‘restore pure religion’, but in neither case did it lead to peace.


For even those reforms of Josiah were not enough, apparently, to satisfy God, for even if the king had genuine faith in him, the people did not. Destroying people’s way of life does not “win hearts and minds” as the US naively thought their invasion of Iraq would.  As prophesied, Josiah himself died (in battle) before the destruction of Jerusalem, but under his grandson Jehoiachin, the first siege started. Jehoiachin capitulated quickly and let the Babylonians take his own family, the leaders of society, artisans and all the treasures of the temple away.  But at that stage the city itself, and the common people of the land, remained.


The Babylonians allowed Zedekiah of the royal family to reign as a puppet king in Jerusalem, but when he rebelled against the occupying power, they started an 18-month siege which he resisted.  This time the whole city and its temple were destroyed and the remainder of the population except the “vine dressers and tillers of the soil” were taken away.


Which of these kings had the right approach?  Josiah who aimed to restore true religion to the remnant of Israel in an attempt to get God back on side (but actually destroyed the way of life of the common people), or Jehoiachin who capitulated to the enemy, or Zedekiah who resisted to the bitter end?  In the face of conflict, do we try reform at home, appeasement, or resistance? It’s not an easy question: between them these three kings let the nation be destroyed.

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.