Day 142: Esther 1-4; Esther the Hebrew Queen

Today we take a step backwards in history, to the time when some of the people of God are still in exile.  The particular dates of the book of Esther happen after the edict of Cyrus goes out allowing the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, the first wave of people to return to Jerusalem.  The Persian king that is referenced here, Ahasuerus, is actually the Persian King Xerxes I, who reigned over much of the known world.  As we read, from India to Ethiopia.  That is a major chunk of the world today, and as you can see by the map here, a fairly major chunk of the known world back then as well.

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther Photo Credit:

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther
Photo Credit:

Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the entire book of Esther, we can very clearly see His hand at work in all of this, once again providentially providing for His people, even in their time of Exile.  The fact that Esther even has a chance to come before the King, much less become queen is indeed an act of God.  Generally speaking, the Hebrew people were despised by other nations.  Remember all the way back to Egypt, when the people had to live in another region of the land because they were Hebrews?  This is why Mordecai instructs her to keep her identity and ethnicity a secret.  So we see that king chooses her and appoints her queen, an act that can also be attributed to God.  As she rises to the throne though, she is not left to fend for herself.  With the help of Mordecai she is able to thwart the assassination attempt on Xerxes.

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah ...

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah (Emperor) of the Achaemenid Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The true conflict of the narrative of Esther arises when we meet Haman, a new addition to the court of King Xerxes.  We read that Mordecai refuses to bow down or pay homage to Haman, which makes him angry.  This is a clear example of the Hebrew Mordecai remembering his identity as a chosen member of Israel.  Though he is far from his land, he clearly has not forgotten the God that he serves.  Mordecai’s actions make Haman furious though, leading to the plot to kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom of Persia.  This is, as you can imagine, a potential disaster for the Hebrew people.  Yet God is so easily thwarted from His plans and promises to His chosen people and Mordecai points this out.  Esther has been chosen for such a time as this, appointed to a position where she can change the course of this evil plot…

Have you ever found yourself in a position like this?  I mean sure, you probably have been selected to be a king or queen, you might not be able to pass laws or issue decrees, but Have you ever found yourself in a position of influence where you can change things?  Correct injustices?  Speak on behalf of those with no voice?  In many ways, Queen Esther could be the face of the growing social justice movement that has become a major player in both Christian circles and in the political arena as well.  We, in the Western Church, find ourselves in some of the wealthiest, most prosperous conditions in the whole of the known universe.  We throw away things that people fight for on a daily basis in 3rd world countries.  I wonder what would happen in the church in America opened its eyes collectively to these issues?  We have resources upon resources.  We are called to reach out to the poor, the elderly, the sick, the lonely, and the lost.  We are called to be the voice of those who have none.  Perhaps we have been appointed to do this work in such a time as this.

Day 141: Nehemiah 11-13; Dedication of the Wall

Bible Timeline Photo Credit:

Bible Timeline
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One other great thing has taken place that we read about today as well.  Not only has the Temple been completed, as we read is Ezra, and the wall been completed, as we read a 2 days ago, but there is a celebration to dedicate the wall now that it is indeed finished.  The point of this celebration though is not to honor the achievements of the people, the point is given glory, honor, and thanks to God for his faithfulness and providence.  Certainly this process hasn’t been an easy one for the returned exiles; many people did not wish to see this city rebuilt.  But the people pressed on, putting their faith in God, and the reward is God’s faithfulness in helping them to complete it.

Again we see to, that in the midst of this celebration, the read from the Book of Moses, the words of the Law are heard yet again.  It is clear that these Jews have indeed found their identity once again in God, and God continues to speak to them through His Word.  Interestingly, as they read this time they discover something that, it seems, they didn’t know before.  Curious as this is, seeing as just yesterday we read about how they read through it for extended periods of time, I think it also reveals the transformative and active nature of the Word of God.  Just because they read it for for six hours one day doesn’t mean that they got it all in.  Indeed, every time we read the Word of God we are spoken to through the Holy Spirit and transformed in our hearts.  Neither us nor they will ever be able to say that they’ve “gotten their fill” of the Bible.  Scripture is one of our chief identifiers!  It is the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity, the way He speaks to us and through which He works to transform us.

Nehemiah is, in many ways, responding to the call of the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.  He is writing these words on His heart.  He is teaching them to the people.  He is bringing Scripture to every occasion.  And in this, he is also setting an example for the people of God, showing them the Scripture is the very center of their lives.  The Word of God is indeed living and active, and it will transform you through the work of the Spirit if you too respond to the call of God to “write these words on your heart.”

Day 140: Nehemiah 8-10; Covenant Renewal

As we have been talking about for the past few weeks now as we have journeyed through the Chronicle and through Ezra and now Nehemiah, we are reading through the process by which the people of God, the returned exiles of Judah are re-identifying themselves.  They are discovering who they are anew by way of remembering where they have come from and linking themselves with the God that has called them and brought them to this point.  We have, in many ways, looked back with the Jews from the building of the wall in Jerusalem all the way back to Adam and creation, seeing for ourselves the direct link that saw the people of God brought to Jerusalem at this time by the providence of God almighty.

Ezra Reads the Law Photo Credit:

Ezra Reads the Law
Photo Credit:

Today we see what is arguably the peak of that process coming to fruition in Jerusalem.  The people have finished the work on the wall and they are ready to celebrate!  In their desire to celebrate, they have a worship service of sorts in which the book of the Law is read.  Likely, this is the book of Deuteronomy, the summary book of the all the Law of Moses.  This probably wasn’t quite like any worship service that you or I have ever been too.  It started on the first day of the seventh month, when they read the book of the Law from “early morning until mid-day.”  Then they all went home and had a feast!  Not your average Sunday morning I would assume.

The next day, they all got together again and read from the book of the Law and discovered the festival of booths which was to take place once a year.  In this they were to stay in little huts, to remind them of the time that they were in Egypt and in the Wilderness, yet another way of helping them to connect with the past through remembering.  Interestingly, for the Hebrew people. remembering isn’t just simply calling to mind some stuff, it is as if they are participating in the actual event.  The Greek word for this is “anamnesis.”  It is more than just thinking about it, it is also participating in it.  As the Hebrew people celebrated this 8 day festival, they participated, by calling to mind and doing action, in the events of the exodus and wilderness wanderings.

Ezra Reads the Law of Moses Photo Credit:

Ezra Reads the Law of Moses
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A couple days after this is done, the whole assembly gets back together again and this time reads from the book of the Law for 6 hours and then they pray and confess their sins.  Once again we have an example of how the Hebrew people connect with God.  They don’t just confess the sins that they have done, but the sins of their fathers and ancestors.  And then, once again they recall their history, remembering who they are because of whose they are and reaffirm the covenant.  Nehemiah 9 is one of the most beautiful chapters of the Bible when it comes to remembering God’s actions throughout their history.

Now I can’t imagine being in a worship service for that long, or for that many days.  We certainly haven’t adopted the practice of reading Scripture at these great lengths.  Yet I wonder if we might have lost something in not doing this from time to time.  We break up Scripture and segment it, and then roll it up into one or two pithy moral statements and call it a sermon.  I wonder what would happen if we were to read large chunks of Scripture at a time.  I wonder what would happen if we were to be open to just letting Scripture speak, rather than developing a sermon.  How do you think you would be impacted, say, if someone read the whole Gospel of Matthew or the entire book of Deuteronomy to you?  Do we even believe that the Word of God is that powerful and would have any sort of impact on our lives?  I wonder what that kind of a mentality would do to us and for us on a Sunday morning if we say… truly opened ourselves up to the transforming work of the Spirit through the Word of God?

Day 139: Nehemiah 5-7; The Completion of the Wall

As I read through these chapters of Nehemiah, I think of one thing: Transformation.  At the same time that Nehemiah and the people are working to build the wall, an act that will transform Jerusalem from a defenseless pile of rubble into a defensible city once again, so too are Nehemiah and the people working to transform their lives to be more like the people of God that they are called to be.  Part of this was happening yesterday in the way that, through dependence and trust in God the people continued to build the wall of Jerusalem despite the threats and jeers of the people of the land that wanted to see them fail.  They were living in the city of David, their home.  It was the place that they were called back to.  Yet without a wall it really is just a pile of rubble on a hill, without any means of protection from all that was around them.

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, as we see the people working and trusting God with their lives rather than succumbing to fear and doubt, we see the transformation begin to take place.  The gates get built, the wall gets connected, the gaps are filled in.  Their enemies may not like it, but who can stand against the power of God working in and through the people?  More and more they work and trust and the wall is built up to completion.  When the wall is complete though, they don’t just leave it alone.  No, Nehemiah assigns people to the wall, gatekeepers, guards, and I’m sure (though it doesn’t say this) people to tend to the wall as well to continue to keep it strong.

At the same time that all this is happening, Nehemiah is dealing with another crisis as well.  The poor in the community seem to be getting poorer while the rich seem to be living off the backs of the poor.  People are selling themselves and their children as slaves to their brothers and sisters because they can’t pay their debts.  Others were selling their fields and lands, which would have been their means to make money, just so they could pay off others.  We read that there was a great outcry from the poor among them, and when Nehemiah heard of this, he was outraged.  But not, I think, for the reasons we might think he would be.

We hear of people selling themselves into slavery and are usually appalled.  How could someone own a slave?  However, this isn’t the full story of what is going on here.  The Law of Moses, part of their identity as the people of God, expressly forbids the Hebrew people from owning as slaves, their own kinsmen.  This comes directly from Leviticus 25.  In the cultures surrounding Israel, profit was the name of the game.  I know right?  Big surprise.  The people of God, however, we to be set apart from those people.  Where the people of the nations would gladly force their brother, sister, family or friend into slavery, the people of Israel were to care for the poor, look after them, give them a place to eat, and perhaps a job as well.  Never were they to own each other, force each other to pay interest, or be uncaring in a time of need.  So you can see why Nehemiah was upset.  This isn’t to say that slavery is OK… I certainly don’t believe that.  However, this is one cultural difference between then and now that does not translate perfectly.  As Christians we are called to care for the poor, the helpless, the least/last/lost of the world.  The slavery thing doesn’t translate well for us, but caring for those that are in need translates perfectly.

So the culture is being transformed.  The people are working to become more like the people of God that they are called to be.  And the city is being transformed.  Through work and trust in God the people are building a wall that can raise up the city and make it defensible and great once again.  This is not unlike our own lives is it?  We are called to be people that are set apart for God as well aren’t we?  We are called to live lives that are “worthy of the calling that we have received.”  As we live and grow, we are also transformed through the work the Spirit.  We call this sanctification.  The Spirit moves, we respond; and it all happens because of the power of God working in us.  Like the people of Israel who trusted in God protect them while they worked, and the same people that yielded to God’s work and teaching in their lives to take care of the poor, so do we need to open our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit that we too may be transformed into the image of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Day 138: Nehemiah 1-4; Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem

Bible Timeline Photo Credit:

Bible Timeline
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The life of Nehemiah happened around the same time as the life of Ezra.  However, as we enter into the book of Nehemiah, a little time has passed between the rebuilding of the Temple and when Nehemiah comes into the picture.  The timeline here may give a bit of perspective.  We pick up the narrative here in a time before Nehemiah’s return when some of the people of Judah have returned and the rebuilding of the Temple is either complete or almost complete.  What we do know is that Ezra had returned already and there had been word sent back to the Persian Capital where Nehemiah worked as a cup bearer.  He receives word that the city of Jerusalem still lies in ruins and the walls have not been rebuilt.  Understandably, this makes him sad and moves him to prayer and fasting.  Nehemiah’s plea to God, like Ezra’s prayer yesterday is beautifully heartfelt.  Because of Nehemiah’s true heart and repentance, God hears his prayer and makes it possible for Nehemiah to return back to Jerusalem.  Like the first group of exiles that returned, Nehemiah is given all of the materials he needs to complete the task given to him by God.  King Artaxerxes is completely agreeable to this proposal and fully ready to aid in this question.  As Nehemiah points out, this could only be due to the providence of God.

Nehemiah’s journey happens without incident due to the letters he is carrying from the King and he is able to acquire all the things he needs for the rebuilding of the walls and the gates of Jerusalem.  Three days after he arrives in Jerusalem, he goes out by night to survey the wall and sees the true work that is cut out for him.  Later too, he encounters a great deal or resistance to the project, yet he does not despair.

As I read this passage and think about the monumental undertaking this must have been for the people of Judah, I can’t even imagine the amount of negative thoughts that must have been plaguing Nehemiah and the people of Judah as they looked  at the task they had to accomplish.  This would only have been worsened by the continual taunting and jeering that came from Sanballat and the others with him who did not want the people of Jerusalem to finish the wall.  Yet Nehemiah keeps his focus right where it needs to be, and as a leader, keeps the focus of the people where it needs to be as well.  This casts a sharp contrast between Nehemiah and the kings of Israel and Judah that we were reading about not so long ago.  He doesn’t loose hope or turn to the gods of other lands, but instead does the practical thing of arming the people and ensuring that they be on guard, and then reminds them that it is not their might, but the power of God that will fight for them.  Nehemiah is not detured in the slightest, but instead keeps his focus spot on, and we see the result: the work continues and the enemies are frustrated and deterred.  God has once again shown his faithfulness to His people, a people that this time have turned and placed  their trust fully in Him.

Day 137: Ezra 8-10; Sins of the Exiles

Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, Ezra doesn’t find everything perfect among the people.  I imagine him arriving and there being a lot of celebration or that kind of glassy-eyed look that one gets when they start a new job.  We often call it the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything seems ok, nothing really going on to upset anyone.  Everyone is happy that you’re there, no one is looking for problems.  Ignorance is bliss… but not for Ezra.  When he arrives in Jerusalem, he gets right to work.  We read about him being set by Artaxerxes, the king Persia, who allows Ezra to return to his own land with any that want to go, and gives Ezra a blessing for his journey.  Ezra rounds up the people, which are listed in chapter 8 and beings his long journey to Judah.

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who l...

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who led about 5,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon to their home city of Jerusalem in 459 BCE. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, when he arrives, it would be understandable for him to take a few days break before he gets to work… but not Ezra.  No, he jumps in with both feet.  No sooner has he arrived in Jerusalem than an official approaches him and lets him know what the situation is.  Some of the people of God, the returned exiles have intermarried.  This is a major violation of the Law of Moses.  The people of Israel were God’s people, set apart by God Himself to be a holy nation, a “royal priesthood.”  They were supposed to be the representatives of God to the world; a community blessed to be a blessing.  Part of the Law that they were to follow was that they were not to intermarry with other nations.  It was forbidden because of the nature of the people of God being set apart.  It was also forbidden because God knew that the people would be drawn away from him and to the idols of the spouses of other nations.  Its just asking for trouble really and God wanted to make sure that they weren’t exposing themselves to that kind of temptation.

Ezra Prays for the People Photo Credit:

Ezra Prays for the People
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The prayer of Ezra is a beautiful prayer recognizing the sinful state that they are found in and the true fact that they are unable to do anything about it.  He recounts the people’s current predicament and God’s amazing wonders, abundant faithfulness, and unconditional love.  It kind of reminds me of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Sadly, this particular passage of Scripture has been misquoted many times as a reason to Scripturally oppose inter-racial marriage.  These people take the verses of Ezra completely out of context and think that it is ok to judge people because the person that they love is of a different race or ethnic background.  That is simply not what is being said here.  The Law of Moses was very clear on the reasons for not intermarrying with these certain culture.  It had to do with the sin that they committed before the Lord and the overwhelming temptation that it would have brought on the people of Israel (not that they really needed it).  God had chosen this people and set up the Law that He did so that the people of God would fulfill the purpose that God called them to, being a light and blessing to the nations.  In any case, taking Scripture out of context and using it as proof texting for one’s own personal agenda or to further one’s own beliefs that do not jive with the rest of the Bible is wrong, and it proves nothing except ignorance.  We have to remember that these things are written in a place and context in which we are not familiar.

Besides, today’s reading isn’t about the law that was broken and the sin that was done as much as it is about repentance that takes place and the forgiveness that is given.  The people don’t simply discover the sin and say “oh well” as their fathers would have done before the exile.  Instead, they repent and turn back to God and the Lord honors their repentance.  Sadly though, Ezra ends here on a note of dissonance, pointing out that some of these inter-marriages have produced offspring.  Now these families are broken… and that is where the book ends.  Why do you think this is?  Perhaps pointing out the difficulties in following God?  Perhaps being a cliff hanger for Nehemiah?  Maybe its just something to leave you thinking, and perhaps in some uncomfortable place as we try to figure out how God is at work here to.  What do you think?

Day 136: Ezra 5-7; Rebuilding the Temple

Yesterday we read that there was some trouble in Jerusalem as the process of rebuilding the temple continued.  Some of the people from the land, possibly people from the Northern Kingdom who we would now know as Samaritans, wanted to have a part in building the Temple.  When the people of Judah say no, there is trouble and the building is suspended for a while.  However, when we pick up the story today, it seems that the building has been restarted and is well under way.  The people are diligently at work building the walls of the Temple and all the many things that go into it.

Dedication of the Temple Photo Credit:

Dedication of the Temple
Photo Credit:

Remember a while back, we talked about how we should always be looking for God in the narratives and stories that we read in the Bible?  I think that this is a really good place to be doing that.  Not only has God allowed for His people to travel back to Jerusalem, something that didn’t happen in these old empires, He has again provided a way for them to continue working on the Temple.  And whats more, He continually provides a way for all this to happen just as He said he would.  God is continuing to be faithful to His people even after exile just as He said he would in Leveticus 26.  There is a lot about the curses that God would bring upon His people for their disobedience, yet even at the end God says that He will be faithful to them even in their exile and if the people would turn to them, He would hear them and forgive them and continue to be faithful to them.

After a great deal of hard work we read that the Temple is finished and dedicated.  What an awesome sight this must have been.  Though, even as we read yesterday, I’m sure it was a drop in the bucket compared to the 1st Temple, yet even in this we see that the people have been faithful to God and God has intern blessed them with all the resources and funding that they need, as well as the support of the most powerful ruler of the known world at that time.

What we are seeing here, in many ways, is a fundamental re-identification of the people of God.  Like we talked about in books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, what the returned exiles need here is a way of re-identifying themselves with who they are and whose they are.  In many ways they were “dismembered” in the exile, sent back into the wilderness to be stripped of what they had become, and have now returned to the land that was a part of their identity.  Through the book of Chronicles we see that they have looked back into the past to identify themselves with God through the story that is their Story, the ancestors that are their people.  The re-dedication of the Temple followed by the celebration of the Passover is a fundamental part of their “re-identification,” or their being “re-membered” as the people of God.

Celebration of the Passover Photo Credit:

Celebration of the Passover
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This also helps us to draw a parallel, one that is evident in the Bible throughout history, the parallel between water and blood.  We draw this parallel when we celebrate… you guessed it… Baptism!  In all the other wilderness experiences that we have seen Judah go through there was one thing that was in common, the passing through of the waters, which we related to Baptism.  Think of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan, all of these times were points at which Israel was being re-identified some how.  First from a group of slaves into a people of God.  Then from a group of nomads to a nation of God.  They were re-identified through the waters, and each time they either celebrated or had just celebrated the Passover or the rehashing of the covenant.  When the people returned from exile, a 70 year wilderness experience, they may have had to cross the Jordan… the Bible doesn’t say, but they immediately begin the work of recovering their identity.  They start sacrificing to God again, the rebuild the Temple (their spiritual center in the whole world), and they celebrate the Passover, the one feast that sets them apart.

What of the parallel between blood and water then?  In Baptism, we claim that a person is sealed as a covenant member of the people of God.  In circumcision (which is bloody) this was also true of the people of Israel.  When the people of Israel crossed through the Red Sea or the Jordan they were also making a statement that they were God’s people following His command by His power.  In Baptism, at least in infant baptism, we make vows saying that we will raise our children in the ways of God and we will do it by the power of God.  The Passover then, a holiday of remembrance that celebrates that passing over of a household that has blood on its doorpost, a sign that they are indeed the people of God.  Interesting, this is why John refers to Jesus at “the Lamb of God.”  What reference do you think John is making when he refers to Jesus in this way?

Day 135: Ezra 1-4; The Exiles Return

The book of Ezra is written by Ezra himself.  He also wrote the book of Nehemiah and is considered by many to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles.  Ezra was a writer, obviously, and one of the priests that returned to Jerusalem when the exiles returned.  We pick up the story of Ezra and the exiles basically where we left off yesterday.  The end of the book of 2 Chronicles, as you read, spoke of the people of Judah being allowed to return to Jerusalem.  Today we encounter that narrative and many of the names of the people who embarked on this journey.

Exiles Return to Jerusalem Photo Credit:

Exiles Return to Jerusalem
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However, before we really get in to the book of Ezra, we need to get some background.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter we see that this is happening so that the Word of the Lord that was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah would be fulfilled.  This right here should clue us in to the fact that we might have missed some of the story in all of this.  Who is Jeremiah?  When did he say this?  Why was this not recorded?  Well… actually it was.  The problem that we run into with the cannon of Scripture is the way that it is divided up.  The Bible is divided up into different sections that are not necessarily in chronological order.  As we saw going into the book of Chronicles, we took a step back in time and rehashed the whole of the story of the kings.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are all books that fall into this same category, the category of historical books.  Genesis through Deuteronomy are considered to be the Torah (which means law or teaching in Hebrew).  The books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the three that we will be engaging over the next week are considered to be history books.  From there we will go on to the wisdom books of Job – Song of Solomon, and then get into the prophets, of which Jeremiah is one.

In any case, the background that we are looking for here comes from Jeremiah 25 and Jeremiah 29 and concerns the length of the exile that will take place and also how the people will return.  Today’s text and all that follow in Ezra and Nehemiah speak to the nature of the return of the exiles of Judah.  So we have passed over 70 years worth of happenings of God’s people in exile.  Much of this will be filled in with people like Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others.

Rebuilding the Temple Photo Credit:

Rebuilding the Temple
Photo Credit:

In the mean time, as we look here, the people have returned and start to rebuild the Temple of God.  The first thing they do is set up an alter and begin sacrificing to the Lord.  Interestingly, before they do anything to even protect themselves, the people of God worship Him.  What a testament to their life of faith, something that would have done them well 70 years ago.  From there they go on to start the building process by laying the foundation of the Temple.  This is, no doubt, a momentous undertaking, but one that they do joyfully.  Ezra records the reaction of the people when they finish laying the foundation, a mixed bag to be sure.  Many rejoice, the young people that have known nothing but captivity and had heard only stories of the glory of the Temple of God.  Others weep, the elderly who had seen the glory of the original temple and see the horrid state that it is in now.  These mixed emotions though, are blended together, a community of the people of God lifting up their voices to God.

I wonder if we feel free to lift our voice to God in whatever way we feel led on any given day, much less a Sunday.  Would it be ok in your congregation to cry?  Weep?  Shout for joy?  While I’m not sure that this is the take home message of today’s reading, it does make me think about our worship on Sundays (I am a worship leader after all).  These people were able to react in whatever way seems right to them, whether it be a shout or a cry… no one looked down on them, no one judged them, and ultimately the people, who were being faithful to God, lifted up one voice to God.  I wonder what that looks like in our churches today?

Day 134: 2 Chronicles 35-36; Josiah Through Zedekiah and the Exile

The final chapters of the book of 2 Chronicles ends in much the same way the the book of 2 Kings draws to a close.  Josiah, after celebrating the Passover with the people of Judah and many that come from the decimated Northern Kingdom of Israel, makes a grave error (no pun intended).  All of this happens around 600 BC during rise of the Babylonian Empire.  Pharaoh Neco, also known as Necho II, honoring an alliance that has been formed with Assyria, needs to travel north to aid the Assyrian military in its resistance against Babylon.  To do this, he must travel through the land of Judah, something King Josiah doesn’t allow.  The resulting battle on the plains of Megiddo ends in Josiah’s death and the first “conquering” of Judah by Egypt.  Judah becomes a vassal state of Egypt, paying tribute to Pharaoh, having a king that was installed by Pharaoh Neco on the throne.

The Fall of Jerusalem: The Temple Burned Photo Credit:

The Fall of Jerusalem: The Temple Burned
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Oddly enough, even in all of this turmoil, we can see in many ways how God is at work.  Unfortunately the first way is in the words of Neco, which the writer of Chronicles tells us is actually the words of God.  Somehow, in God’s grander plan, Egypt is meant to go up and fight against Babylon.  We could speculate on this for a good long while.  Perhaps Egypt and Assyria were being used to protect the now revived people of God from the increasing threat of the Babylonians?  Perhaps this was a test to see if Josiah was listening for the Word of the Lord?  Who knows… What happens though, is also an amazing act of God.  It is unusual for a leader of a foreign country to install a member of the country’s royal family as the ruler after deposing the current ruler.  Yet God is at work, preserving the line of David just as He promised He would.  Even in all of this chaos, God is still very much in control of things.

The decline of Judah is recorded in rapid succession in chapter 36, although the reality is that it took over 20 years from Josiah’s death for the final collapse of Judah to actually take place.  Josiah died in roughly 609 BC and the fall of Jerusalem takes place in 586 BC.  In that time we read that none of the kings that are in place do anything that remotely resembles anything good in the sight of the Lord.  Even during this time though we see that God tries and tries to get the attention of His people.  We read that God has compassion on them, despite all the evil they are doing.  He sends a number of prophets, many of whom we will read in the coming months to warn the people of the impending doom that is coming, to beseech them to turn back to God, yet all of it seems to be in vain.

Map of the Exile and Resettlement Photo Credit:

Map of the Exile and Resettlement
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There is a common thread that runs through these last few chapters that I see when I read them.  It has to do with the voice of God.  Throughout the life of Israel, both the united and divided kingdoms, we read a great deal about the voice of God.  It comes from the priests and the prophets, even from the book of the Law.  Sometimes it comes from random places, like the mouth of a Pharaoh.  Yet it is always present.  What is presented to us here is what happens when a ruler and a nation do not listen for, recognize, or pay attention to the voice of God.  Scripture says, “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, 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 rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”  The result was the complete destruction of a nation and their exile.  While I hesitate to draw any direct connections to our country from the Bible, I think these words could ring loud and clear for the Church today.  Do we know where God is speaking?  Do we recognize the messengers that He is sending?  Or do we laugh and mock them… until their is no remedy for us either…

All is not lost… exile is not permanent… God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  We read at the end of this book the bridge into next books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell the story of those returned, those for which the books of the Chronicles were written.

Day 133: 2 Chronicles 33-34; Manasseh, Amon, and Josiah

Spiritual State and the Kings of Israel Photo Credit:

Spiritual State and the Kings of Israel
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Back and forth we seem to be going at this point.  Good king… bad king… good king… bad king… good king… and now we’ve come to Manasseh, arguably the worst king of Judah.  According to what we read today, Manasseh did more evil in the sight of God than the combined evil of all the nations that were present in the land of Canaan prior to the conquest of Israel back in Joshua.  This comment is made in a two-fold manner, I think, in that it is meant to communicate two particular things when it comes to the nation of Judah under the reign of Manasseh.  First, it is communicating the sheer quantity and quality of the evil that is being done.  Manasseh too has burned his sons and set up alters and places to worship other gods, even in the courts of the temple.  He also sets up an image of another god in the Temple itself.  All of which are utterly detestable in the sight of God.

Also, the phrase about the amount of evil done by Manasseh and the people of Judah during this time period is meant to draw a parallel between the people of God at this time and the many nations of people that were exterminated by Israel when they conquered the land of Canaan, a judgment that was brought on them because of the evil that they were doing in the sight of the Lord.  Judah, now, as we are told, has done more evil than all of them put together.  What happened to those nations?  Judgment.  The writer of Chronicles is drawing this parallel, showing that even though God is patient, there is a limit to it, and a limit to how long He will tolerate sin.  We see this in in Genesis 15 when God says to Abraham, “…for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”  When it was complete, they were wiped out.

Josiah Finds the Book of the Law: Photo Credit:

Josiah Finds the Book of the Law:
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Unfortunately, this parallel is drawn and confirmed by Huldah the prophetess to King Josiah many years later after the book of the Law has been found.  God speaks through her to King Josiah saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book that was read before the king of Judah.  Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore my wrath will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched.

This is bad news for Josiah, due largely to the sins of his grand father.  Yet even today’s reading is not without its message and juxtaposition between good and evil.  Remember, the audience that is bring written to is the returned exiles of Judah.  The writer of the Chronicles is indeed recounting the history of Judah, that they may know who they are AND that they may better know the God that they worship.  Two times in today’s readings we see a profound repentance and the mercy of God.  One is of Josiah, the repentance of whom stays the wrath of God for at least a generation.  The other though, is a bit more profound in that the man classified as doing more evil than that of 10 Canaanite nations, and quite possibly responsible for bringing about the exile of Judah, also repents of his sins while in captivity in Babylon.  Does God leave him to his imprisonment?  NO!  In fact, God restores him to the throne and we read that it is then that Manasseh knows that the Lord is God and he turns from his evil ways.  Is this not true of us as well?  When we turn from our sin, we understand all the more how great and abundant the grace of God is.

Day 132: 2 Chronicles 30-32; Hezekiah's Reign

If we take a look at the chart from yesterday, we see that Hezekiah‘s reign was a complete 180 degree turn from his father Ahaz.  He actually turns out to be one of the best Kings in Israel, second only to Josiah, who we’ll read about in the next two days, because of the amount of reforms that take place in Judah during his reign.  Right from the get-go Hezekiah goes after cleaning up the temple and getting things back in order so that the people that worship the one true God once again.  He tells the priests to consecrate themselves and the Temple as well.  They do so happily and offer so many sacrifices that there isn’t enough priests to do all the sacrificing!

Hezekiah Celebrates the Passover Photo Credit:

Hezekiah Celebrates the Passover
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Second, Hezekiah reinstate the Passover Celebration which, if you remember back in 2 Kings, hadn’t been celebrated since the time of the Judges.  This is an important celebration for the whole of the people of Israel, both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in that it was commanded by God in Exodus 12 to be kept every year for all generations.  It might have been kind of understandable for the people not to keep this during some of the bad seasons that they endured, like the evil king Ahaz or others like him.  But to find out that they had been completely unfaithful in following the command of God and hadn’t practiced it since the time of the Judges (several hundred years earlier)??? wow… just wow…

I think in many ways this is a confirmation of the Hebrew idea of backing into the future, the notion of the Hebrew concept of time and identity that we talked about that the beginning of 1 Chronicles.  The locus of their identity was found in who they were as a people.  This was especially true of them as a people of faith, chosen by God to be a nation that was to represent God to the rest of the world.  Apart from the narrative of God’s choosing Abraham and calling him out of the land of Ur in Genesis 12, the Exodus was really the defining moment in Hebrew history.  This moment was surrounded by God’s power on both sides, from the killing of the first born to the crossing of the Red Sea.  In reality, if the people of God weren’t remember this, they were likely not remembering the true nature of their identity.  Not knowing who you are makes it a lot easier for the things around you to define you.  This may be one of the reasons that the people of God continually fell into sin.

Sennacherib's Siege on Jerusalem Photo Credit:

Sennacherib’s Siege on Jerusalem
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If we follow in this, we see the strength that comes with remembering who you are and living into it.  When Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, invades Judah, the people could have crumbled in fear before him, turned to other gods, or just plain given up.  Yet that doesn’t happen here… not in the slightest.  Hezekiah not only leaps into action making physical preparations for war, he also makes spiritual preparations, reassuring the people of who they are and whose they are.  They are not where they are today because of what they have done, but because of the blessing of the Lord and His continual faithfulness.  Sennacherib may say whatever he wants to say about God, but as Paul so eloquently writes many hundreds of years later in Galatians 6, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”  The people of God stand firm in their faith to God and God is faithful, as He always is, to His people as well.

It is interesting that this particular passage would come up on a Sunday, during the Easter season, when we have celebrated one of the 3 high points of the Christian year and are about to celebrate another.  In a time that the Church is struggling to find its identity in a changing culture, we are reminded today of the power and faithfulness of God in times of trouble.  We celebrate our identity in the risen Lord on Easter and yet we struggle day after day, week after week with the many things that would otherwise seek to define us.  While I am not saying that this shouldn’t be a struggle, it absolutely is a struggle… we are about to celebrate another major identifying mark of our faith: PENTECOST.  Next Sunday, a week from today, we will gather to remember that our Risen Lord did not leave us on earth to fend for ourselves, but that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a seal of Christ in us.  We do not face the hordes of evil in this world alone.  No… we walk every day with the Spirit of God in our hearts and in our minds, that we may stand up to the whatever Sennacheribs we might encounter knowing that God is forever faithful and always with us.

Day 131: 2 Chronicles 26-29; Uzziah through Hezekiah

Again today we encounter a great deal of contrasts in the reading.  We see the greatness of Uzziah and Jotham set next to the horrid abominations of the acts of Ahaz, which are then made right through the work of King Hezekiah in the first year of his reign.  In many ways, the narrative that we read today is much like the narratives that we have been reading through out the history of the Kingdom of Judah.  Some of the kings are good, and some are bad.  When the kings do what is right in the eyes of the Lord there is a great deal of blessing and prosperity that comes about in Judah.  However, when the kings do not do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, calamity ensues  enemies attack, and the king is even forced to take articles from the temple of God and use them to pay tribute to other nations, a fitting image of exactly what is happening spiritually in these times too.  Rather than giving to the Lord in worship, turning their hearts towards God and using that which has been set up for them to worship God in the temple, the evil kings turn their hearts towards other God and use what they have been given to serve them.  It is very fitting then, albeit sad, that the temple itself, which is their center of worship, is stripped, broken apart, and sent off to other lands.

King Uzziah's Pride Photo Credit:

King Uzziah’s Pride
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Today’s reading also includes a warning in the narrative of King Uzziah.  He is a great king and does incredibly awesome things for the Kingdom of Judah.  He follows God and and in return, God makes him strong.  All Judah’s enemies are subdued and the kingdom is blessed with great abundance in every way.  Yet we see in Uzziah’s foolish acts towards the end of his life, that in his strength he forgets the ultimate source of all that he has been given.  One might think that he is trying to offer incense out of the goodness and love of his heart to God who has made him strong, and that may very well be true.  However, in those days the law of the Lord was very clear about who was allowed in the temple, especially inside the temple, and who was allowed to offer sacrifices of that nature.  Even the person with the best intentions in Judah who wasn’t a priest was not allowed to be in there doing that.  This was an act for the priests who served as mediators for God.  The priests were set apart for this service as we read in Exodus and Leviticus.  Under no circumstances was Uzziah allowed to do this and, in reality, he is dishonoring God in this act.

The warning then comes in his punishment.  Rather than being repentant and leaving the Temple of God, Uzziah gets angry.  The Lord’s response is sad, but clear.  Uzziah, not recognizing who it is that has made him strong, and not being repentant in his sinful action, is struck with leprosy and thus cut off from the Lord and from the people that he is ruling.  He is made permanently unclean, an unfortunate punishment for the prideful sin that he commits.  In many ways Uzziah is the poster child for the phrase “pride goeth before the fall”

The Kings of Judah Photo Credit:

The Kings of Judah
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The other narratives in today’s reading play out in a variety of different ways in Judah’s history.  Some would say that Ahaz is the worst king of Judah, which is mostly appropriate to date, and we see what that evil and turning away from God gets the people of Judah.  He even goes so far as to burn his son as an offering, an act that is described in the Bible as nothing less than a complete and total abomination in the sight of God.  Unfortunately though, Ahaz does not go down in history as being Judah’s worst king ever.  However, even in this instance we see that God is faithful in bringing His people back, despite the calamity that falls upon them.  This comes in the form of King Hezekiah, whose life we read about starting today and will continue tomorrow…

Day 130: 2 Chronicles 23-25; Joash and Amaziah

Joash the Boy King Photo Credit:

Joash the Boy King
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Picking up where we left off yesterday, God has faithfully spared Joash (also known as Jehoash), the only living son of Ahaziah.  Despite the best efforts of the evil Queen Athaliah, Joash is hidden in the house of the Lord for what appears to be roughly a year.  I have to say, threat of death aside, that an awesome year that would be!  Anyway, after some time Jehoiada the priest took courage and rallied the people behind Joash.  He put a plan in place and set up Joash as King of Judah and had Athaliah put to death.  The reign that followed was mostly good, at least until after Jehoiada died.  As the narrative goes, Jehoiada was Joash’s counselor and directed him in the ways of the Lord.  During this time, the temple is rebuilt and the people follow after the ways of the Lord once again.  You’d think that this would be something coming out of the heart of the king, the one who has been saved by the faithfulness of God and spent a great deal of time living in God’s house, but it seems that most of this came on the counsel of the faithful priest Jehoiada.

Joash Repairs the Temple Photo Credit:

Joash Repairs the Temple
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When Jehoiada dies, King Joash appears to turn quite quickly from the ways of God.  We read that he ignores the temple and even the prophets that God sends to him.  Sadly, even the son of Jehoiada, the man that risked his life to install Joash as king, comes to Joash and tries to counsel him into returning to God.  Instead of listening though, Joash forgets his past and has the young priest put to death.  This act winds up getting him assassinated.

Amaziah, son of Joash begins his reign in much the same way the his father did, by following the ways of the Lord.  Looking back, he has a lot to be thankful for too for the Lord was faithful in protecting his father and seeing him brought back to the throne of Judah that is rightfully his.  Amaziah does a great deal of good at the beginning of the his reign, and listens to and follows the way of the Lord.  Yet later on he too falls victim to the allure of other gods.  Even in the face of warnings from the prophets he strays from the Lord, bringing the people down with him.  His sin eventually winds up with his capture and the plundering of the city of Jerusalem by the Northern Kingdom.  In the end, Amaziah dies in shame, overseeing the a major back-slide in Judah.

I think that both of these stories, similar as they are, open our eyes to an apparent problem that is being encountered time and again in Israel.  Every time a king back-slides or does evil in the sight of the Lord it is because they are having a fundamental identity crisis in their lives.  Both Joash and Amaziah have a great deal to be thankful for.  In reality, both of their lives, and the lives of all of their descendants to come after them, have been spared by the faithfulness of God alone.  They are children of the covenant in a very real way, because God has spared Joash’s life in the face of great evil so that the Covenant with David may be fulfilled.  One would think that this would be easy to see, or at least remember, living in the house of God for a time.

To be honest though, I don’t think that this is just a problem with them… I think it is the fundamental problem that plagues all of humanity.  We are made in the image of God, creations of a loving God who seeks to have a relationship with us.  For Christians this takes an even more prominent role as God’s people, His covenant community here on earth.  We are united to Christ because of the grace that is shown us and the salvation that is offered to us.  This fact belies a fundamental identity shift in our lives that changed both who we are and whose we are.  Yet this world has no shortage of things that also would seek to help us define or “re-identify” ourselves.  We see who we truly are and who we are truly meant to be in Christ, and when we sin we see that we are not ourselves… at least not completely… not yet.  The next time that you sin and find yourself dwelling in the shame and guilt that would seek to bog you down, remember, you are who you are truly in Christ, the one who has taken away your sin and shame.  Remember too that day by day the Holy Spirit is working in you to re-identify and re-image you (sanctification) in the image of Christ, through whom we are made new and complete.

Day 129: 2 Chronicles 20-22; Jehoshaphat to Queen Athaliah

The Prayer of Jehoshaphat Photo Credit:

The Prayer of Jehoshaphat
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The prayer of King Jehoshaphat in our reading today, is quite possibly one of the least known, best prayers of the people of God in the Bible.  Jehoshaphat, having no where else to turn, goes to God and basically rehashes the Covenant with God, asking Him to act on their behalf because they have indeed turned their hearts toward Him.  The prayer really gives us a deep insight into the Hebrew Theological thinking as well, relating back in their ancestry, almost rehashing their history as an appeal to God.  We talked about this at the beginning of 1 Chronicles, how the people look to their past as a way of being closer to God.

This prayer, and the narrative of Jehoshaphat is also set in between the narrative of his father, Asa, and the following narrative of his son and grandson.  Remember back two days to the narrative of King Asa, towards the end of his life he is threatened by the Northern Kingdom.  What does he do?  Rather than seeking the face of God, he sends tribute to King Ben-Hadad of Syria for help.  In this act, the Lord calls him out and Asa becomes very angry and bitter at the end of his life.  Later, after the reign of Jehoshaphat, we read the narratives of Jehoram and Ahaziah (also known as Jehoahaz and not to be confused with the wicked Ahaziah that reigned in Israel).  They are simply evil and do not follow the Lord and we see very clearly the results that come of it.

However, Jehoshaphat does not follow in these evil ways, he does not place his trust in others, he is moved to prayer and places his faith in God.  What happens in this?  Not only does God promise that the battle against his enemies will be won, God says that they will not have to life a finger because “the Battle is the Lord’s.”  All they need do is believe and go out to face down their enemy.  No doubt this took some courage, I can’t imagine having to go out and face down an innumerable enemy army.  However, as they stand at the ready, Jehoshaphat rallies them saying, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.”  I have visions of Aragorn rallying his troops before the gate of Mordor or the Young King Peter leading the charge against the White Witch.  These analogies disintegrate pretty quickly, but you get the idea.  The people are rallied and God wins the victory… and the spoils of war are almost more than they can handle.

Aragorn at the Black Gate of Mordor Photo Credit:

Aragorn at the Black Gate of Mordor
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Like I said though, the narrative of Jehoshaphat is Juxtaposed between the pretty good and the really bad, and we continue on today to the really bad.  The reigns Jehoram and Ahaziah (again, also known as Jehoahaz and not to be confused with the wicked Ahaziah that reigned in Israel) are relatively unremarkable.  They are similar in nature, being completely evil in the sight of the Lord.  During their reigns all that was gained during the reigns of Asa and Jehoshapaht were lost; spiritual, geographically, economically, and the like.  There is continual strife within the families, which ultimately led to Queen Athiliah’s wicked reign and the almost extinction of the Dividic line of Kings.  However, as I said a couple days ago, we have to keep in mind the Lord’s covenant with David, something that the writer of 1 & 2 Chronicles wishes to impress on his readers as well.

He writes, in the midst of the narrative of Jehoram, “Yet the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David, because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever.”  This is a testament to the faithfulness of God in the face of evil and sinful leaders.  I think that the writer is communicating something else here as well to his audience, the notion that God is at work and working in the face of sin and rebellion.  Even when we can’t see God’s actions or the outcomes that He means to bring about, God is still at work in the world, always seeking to bring about His will.  What will?  The same Will that God has been working towards since the beginning.  The same Will that God has been working towards in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, and now the line of David… and it is the true nature and purpose of the covenant community (the Elect) of Israel… and of the Church today… “I will be your God and you will be My people, and through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”

Day 128: 2 Chronicles 17-19; King Jehoshaphat

King Jehoshaphat was arguably the first of the great kings of Judah.  As we have read throughout the books of 1 and 2 Kings, the spiritual state of Israel goes up and down based on the king that is reigning at the time.  We saw how the actions of Rehoboam and Abijah lead that Southern Kingdom wars and even servitude to other nations, and now with Asa and Jehoshaphat we see the flip side of the coin.  When the people follow God, worship Him, and do not go after other gods, the blessings shower down once again.  We see this very clearly with Jehoshaphat and the wealth and fame that is given him and how the “fear of the Lord” descended on the nations around Judah.

Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Joram Photo Credit:

Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Joram
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We read today about the many reforms that took place during the time of Jehoshaphat as well.  Interestingly, he does, in some ways, exactly what our Deuteronomy 17 passage about the Kings of Israel says he should do.  I think that this is the first time I have said this since we started reading about the Kings of Israel.  For us, this has been one of the laws that has guided our vision of what the kings shouldn’t be doing when they are walking in the ways of sin… kind of a “see, I told you so” thing from the Law.  However, there is a section in this chapter that also talks about what the king should do, and this is kind of what Jehoshapaht does, with a little extra on the side!

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.  And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them,  that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Not only does Jehoshapaht follow the laws of God, he appoints people to take the book of the law with them out to the people of Israel, to teach them the ways of the Lord.  Some of these names might be familiar to you as they were people mentioned in 1 & 2 Kings.  People like Obadiah, Micaiah, and Adonijah were also prophets that were mentioned as folks that talked to the King’s of the Northern Kingdom, particularly Ahab.  While he isn’t named here, this is also the time of Elijah and Elisha, who would be making appearances before Ahab and trying to bring back the ways of the Lord in Israel.

Ahab Killed in Battle Photo Credit:

Ahab Killed in Battle
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Speaking of Ahab, we encounter once again, the deviousness of the Northern Kingdom under king Ahab.  The narrative of Ahab and Jehoshapaht going up against the army of Ramoth-gilead is ultimately the culmination one of the worst kings in the Northern Kingdom.  Why it is that Jehoshapaht decides to go up with Ahab we will not know.  However, what is primarily pointed out here is how the leader and the people of the Kingdom of Israel have indeed fallen away from the way of the Lord.  Again, this is a narrative of contrasts, seeing Jehoshapaht’s desire to seek the way of the Lord in the face of Ahab’s false prophets.

Ultimately, given the context and the audience that is being spoken to here, the writer is pointing out the dangers of taking counsel with sinners.  There are many echoes in this narrative to Psalm 1.  Jehoshapaht is clearly a king that is living for God, but even so he finds himself in a situation where he must stand for his beliefs in the face of one who certainly doesn’t want to hear it.  Yet the King of Judah stands up for his beliefs and seeks the face of God in spite of Ahab’s displeasure, and it winds up saving his life.


Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.