The Bible in a Year – 6 October

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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 – 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 – 2 October

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2 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 25-27

These chapters tell of the reigns of three successive kings of Judah: Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham. Broadly speaking, they are remembered as being “good kings” who honoured God, although each of them at some point in his reign did something that displeased the Lord: Amaziah by bringing idols back as part of his war booty and worshipping them, Uzziah by presuming to act as a priest as well as a king; and Jotham by letting the people follow “corrupt practices” (probably idolatry, though other sins could be intended).

The name of Uzziah is more familiar than most of the other kings of Judah, because of the prophecy of Isaiah (who is in fact mentioned here at 26:22), who dates his vision of the glory of God to “the year that king Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1).  In fact, the beginning of the book of Isaiah states that his ministry covered the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  Isaiah, perhaps along with Ezekiel, is considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and the fact that God raised him up at this time to prophesy the coming destruction of the kingdom shows that the end was already near for Israel and Judah.

Perhaps the clearest sign that this was so, was Amaziah’s apparently unprovoked challenge to king Joash of Israel (25:17). Joash does not want to enter into battle but is forced into it, wins, and sacks the city of Jerusalem.  From then on there can be no peace between these kingdoms that had once been “one nation under God”, nor any alliance between them when external threats arose, as they surely would.  Jesus may have had this in mind when he said that “a kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25).

Here in 2017 we are living in a time when division rather than union is the spirit of the age. Just this week, the Catalan region of Spain has held an “illegal” referendum on independence with accompanying police brutality, and the Kurds in Iraq have likewise voted for separation (which is unlikely to be recognised). Britain continues to negotiate the best of a bad deal having decided by a slim majority to leave the European Union; and the politics of the “United” States (also founded as “one nation under God”) is becoming increasingly polarised. Other countries that have split in the last ten years include Sudan and Serbia.

So where are the prophets of our day who will challenge kings and presidents, “freedom fighters” and “resistance movements”, to tell them that God’s will is for all humanity to live in peace, and in particular for all those who acknowledge him to live as brothers and sisters?

It may be a little early for Christmas carols, but the words of one seem very apposite just now:
But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The Bible in a Year – 1 October

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1 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 22-24

This marks one of the lowest points in the history of Israel/Judah.  If the accounts of the Chronicler are to be believed (admitting that they are written from a Judean viewpoint), the northern kingdom of Israel had been effectively a pagan country for several generations.  Now in the reigns of Azariah, Athaliah and Joash, so is Judah.

Azariah represents the last of a continuous line of descent of male rulers, and was seemingly the worst of them in terms of his treatment of his people, and ignoring the religious covenant on which the nation had been founded.  The throne is seized after his death by his mother, who makes no pretence of following Israelite religion, but desecrates the Temple, promotes the worship of the false god Baal, and comes to murder her own grandchildren to stop them inheriting the throne.  Such is the extent to which absolute power can corrupt people.

All seems to be lost, except for the actions of one woman, Jehoshabeath, the late king’s sister.  Her actions are told in a way that is perhaps intended to mimic the story of Moses being hidden in a basket and found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, for she takes Joash, the youngest of the royal family, and hides him in the Temple with his nurse.  Miraculously, he lives there undiscovered for six years.

One of the constant refrains in the Bible is that however bad things get, however much the forces of secularism or false religion seem to be winning the spiritual battle, God will always keep a remnant of faith alive, like embers in a hearth, to burst into flame again at the right time.  For Joash this comes at the age of seven, when there are enough true believers among the influential people of Judah to stage a coronation and a coup.  The priest Jehoiada, Jehoshabeath’s husband, is the driving force behind this.

Joash seems to deliver on the expectations people had of him, and as a young man he restored the Temple both physically and spiritually.  But as soon as Jehoiada dies, he listens instead to the voices of the “old guard” who had counselled his father, and reverts to paganism.  A weak ruler who lets himself be manipulated by whoever had the upper hand.

The lesson, if there is one, from this dark period of Judah’s history, is that there needs to be not only a political ruler with a willingness to allow the practice of religion, but also a spiritual leader with at least as much influence.  Without both, a country soon loses its spiritual compass.

The Bible in a Year – 30 September

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30 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 19-21

Yesterday’s reading finished with a cliffhanger, King Jehoshaphat escaping a battle without injury while his ally King Ahab was killed by a stray arrow.  God was displeased with Jehoshaphat or having entered this alliance in the first place, as the prophet Jehu confirms afterwards.  Jehoshaphat now turns back to the religion of his people and partly (though not completely) eliminates idol worship.

In the short term he obeys the prophets and follows their advice not to seek to go to war, or to rely on military help from other nations.  When threatened by a coalition of non-Israelite tribes (chapter 20) he manages to persuade his army to heed the seemingly crazy advice of the little-known prophet Jahaziel and stand their ground without fighting.  But it works: the enemy tribes turn in on themselves and Judah gains the booty without entering the conflict.

It seems Jehoshaphat did not remember his lesson for ever, though.  After 25 years of mostly peaceful reign, he again allies himself with a subsequent king of Israel.  Although the purpose in this case was economic rather than military (building a fleet of trading ships), again a prophet denounced his action as contrary to God’s will, and the ships were wrecked.

His son Jehoram (chapter 21) was a different kettle of fish.  He started off my murdering his own brothers, married a pagan wife, and was so unpopular that at the end of his life he was denied even the usual funerary rites, and “departed with no one’s regret.”

It would be very difficult nowadays for the leader of any country, even one with a state religion, to stand up in their parliament and say that a prophet had told them not to enter strategic alliances, not to encourage international trade, or not to resist an invasion.  It would probably have been no easier even in Biblical times.   Human nature always seek adventure, victory, profit. It takes a deep faith to live counter-culturally as an individual, trusting in words of scripture and prophecy rather than “common sense” and the desire of the majority. It takes an even stronger one, and a bold spirit, to lead a country by the same principles.

The Bible in a Year – 29 September

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29 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 15-18

These chapters tell of the reigns of two successive kings of Judah, Asa and Jehoshaphat.  They followed a similar pattern: initially they took the advice of prophets not to make war either against the rest of Israel or against other nations, and they worshipped God, and he granted them peace in the land.  But each in turn was tempted to abandon that peaceful option and turn to war in alliance with other kings.  Asa made an alliance with Aram (Syria) against the other tribes of Israel, whereas Jehoshaphat joined himself with Israel against Aram.  Ahab king of Israel ignored the advice of one true prophet and accepted that of four hundred false prophets, allying himself with Judah against Aram – and was killed in the battle, as Micaiah had prophesied.

The offence against God in both cases seems not to have been going to war, as such. Nor was it making war against a particular people, since in the one case the war was against the ten tribes of Israel, and latterly in alliance with them. The offence, rather, was making any alliance with a nation that was itself not under God’s direction and protection (the ten tribes ruled from Samaria being at this time seen by the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin as apostates who no longer worshipped the true God).

It may seem, to any of us who follow one of the monotheistic religions, that it is a good thing for an individual, group or nation to declare its faith in God.  But that has a dark side, as the stronger the commitment to follow God, the stronger the temptation to discriminate against, separate oneself from, attack or even kill those who do not.  There are two very chilling verses here in the account of Asa persuading his people to make a declaration of loyalty to God: “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul. Whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” (15:12,13). That sounds as threatening as an Islamist ‘fatwa’, and no doubt at least some of them meant it deadly seriously.

What should the approach of a person of faith be in the modern world?  We want to exercise freedom of religion for ourselves, we (hopefully) want to live in peace with neighbours who may have different beliefs or none, while challenging aspects of their religion that we might think tend to disrupt a peaceful society.  We may listen to the “mainstream prophets” of our own religion without realising that when they are at their most triumphalist they may actually be going against the will of God, rather than hearing the solitary voices like those of Micaiah who counsel caution and what may appear to be appeasement.  How can those sometimes conflicting intentions and sources of advice be held together?

The Bible in a Year – 28 September

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28 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 11-14

Sadly, with these chapters we return to the old story of war between the peoples of the near east.  The history is clearly written from the viewpoint of Judah, reigned during this time by three descendants of David – Rehoboam, Abijah and Asa.

Rehoboam is pictured as someone who starts off listening to God (taking the advice of the prophets not to start a civil war against the tribes that had broken anyway) but later in life turns away from God and is therefore defeated by the North Africans, an alliance of Egyptians, Libyans and Ethiopians  with “countless” infantry and 60,000 cavalry.

Abijah reversed his father’s policy towards Israel and fought against Jeroboam’s 800,000 “mighty warriors”.  Despite being outnumbered, and caught in a pincer movement, the fact that Abijah worshipped the true God while Rehoboam allegedly worshipped idols and “goat demons” meant that God gave victory to the Judeans.

In Asa’s day, this ‘good’ king did all he could to root out idols, destroying their places of worship. As a result, God gave him victory over, this time, an Ethiopian army numbering a million!

I’m sure these tales of derring-do and contrast between faithful worshippers of Yahweh and idolatrous worshippers of goat-demons are propaganda that have to be taken with a larger pinch of salt than covered Lot’s wife.  The bit that rings true to me, though, is the word of God to Rehoboam through the prophet Shemaiah: “You shall not go up or fight against your kindred. Let everyone return home, for this thing is from me.” (11:4).  That is God’s true nature: to call on people to be reconciled, not to gather armies and fight.  Human nature is always to seek revenge and turn to conflict, but as Jesus famously said several centuries later, “blessed are the peacemakers”.  Of these three kings, Rehoboam seems to have been the most godly.

The Bible in a Year – 27 September

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27 September 2017. 2 Chronicles chapters 8-10

Chapter 9 records the extent to which Solomon became not only wise, but rich and powerful.  The written record makes no apologies in explaining that he achieved this at least in part by enslaving the remaining indigenous people in the land, and conquering adjoining territories.  The following chapter shows how, soon after his death, most of his own people ‘came out’ to complain about how he had ruled them harshly, too, and they rebelled against the rule of his son Rehoboam who stated his intent to rule even more harshly.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba is an interesting tale.  Her name is never given in the few biblical accounts of her visit, but she is apparently also mentioned in the Koran, and it is believed that even if the queen herself is a mythical figure, Sheba may refer to the Sabean kingdom in what is now Yemen (today a very poor country, rather than a rich one).

The royal visit, be it mythical or historical, was for several purposes.  The queen is said to have come to test Solomon’s wisdom, and was impressed by it.  She was also impressed by his wealth; and yet brought large amounts of gold as a gift, that Solomon certainly did not need, and probably far more even than would have been customary for a state visit.  This suggests that she actually feared her country being taken over by the growing kingdom of Israel/Judah, and was actually paying a heavy tribute to avoid this – protection money, you might say.

So although Solomon is remembered mainly as a good and wise ruler, it is clear even from accounts that you might expect to be favourable (having found their way into the Jewish and Christian scriptures) his approach to governing was not welcomed by the people of his day, nor would his actions be seen as acceptable by most people today.  His wisdom may have been a gift from God, but he misused it in failing to rule justly.