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.