Closure

Part 5 and the conclusion of "Kings: An Epic Bible Story You've Never Heard"

"Jeroboam's Sacrifice at Bethel" - Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

PREFACE

“Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.’”

1 Kings 13:2

Introduction

This is the end of a five part series. If you haven't read parts 1-4, you had better get busy.

Some prophesies in the Bible are fulfilled twice. The first time is in an immediate but transient way  and the second time is in an ultimate and eternal way. For instance, as Isaac follows Abraham up the mountain and asks about the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham answers that God will provide a lamb. On that day, God does provide the sacrifice, but in Jesus Christ, God truly provides the sacrifice. When the Israelites cover their doors with blood at Passover, they are saved by the blood of the lamb, and in Jesus Christ, they are truly saved by the blood of the lamb. Throughout Kings, when God sheds mercy on Judah, he cites his promise to keep the line of David on the throne forever, but then we read about the travesty of the line of kings following David. In Jesus Christ, God truly keeps the line of David on the throne forever.

This pattern can also be observed in the case of a particularly striking prophesy made by Isaiah during the reign of Hezekiah's father, Ahaz. Recall when Judah was invaded by the kings of Israel and Aram. At that time, Ahaz was approached by Isaiah and told not to fear but to trust in God and ask for a sign. Ahaz turned from Isaiah and took matters into his own hands, but Isaiah would not be ignored. As Ahaz turned his back, Isaiah proclaimed that there would be a sign despite Ahaz' disobedience. The sign he gives him is one of the most famous prophesies in the entire Bible and is even quoted in the very first chapter of Matthew. It is so loaded with preconceived meaning that I think it is important to reiterate the historical context:

Ahaz is among the most wicked kings Judah has ever had. At about the time he became king, he would have had a son named Hezekiah who was about 10 years old. Despite his father's influence, Hezekiah will grow to be the most faithful king Judah has ever had. During the end of his father's reign, Israel and Aram will be conquered by the Assyrians. Fourteen years into Hezekiah's reign, king Sennacherib of Assyria will attack Judah and lay siege on Jerusalem. Jerusalem will prevail, but only through an unexplainable rescue by God himself.

Before any of that happened, this is what Isaiah told Ahaz:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

Isaiah 7: 10 -17

This is the last installment of "Kings: An Epic Bible Story You've Never Heard". It's called "Closure" because it's about the fulfillment of prophesy, but just as the story of Abraham and Isaac wasn't completed by the provision of a ram, the Passover wasn't completed in the escape from Egypt, and the sign for Ahaz wasn't fully embodied by the reign of Hezekiah, this ending is only the most immediate and transient.

PART 5: CLOSURE

Hezekiah provided the leadership Jerusalem needed during its time of need, but he was an island of goodness inserted between two of Judah's worst kings. His son Manasseh was even worse than his father Ahaz. Manasseh rebuilt everything Hezekiah had destroyed and undid everything Hezekiah accomplished, hitting a new low for Judah. Manasseh reigned for fifty-five years, during which he created some serious political turmoil. After his passing, his son Amon only survived as king for two years before his government was overthrown and his eight-year-old son Josiah was put in his place. 

Eighteen years into his reign, Josiah began an effort to repair the temple which would have been in a sorry state. During the reign of Hezekiah, many of the most valued treasures from the temple we sent to Assyria and during the reign of Manasseh, the temple was repopulated with altars to false gods. As in the days of Ahab in Israel, the people of Judah had forgotten their identity and their God. Few relics remained in the temple. While rebuilding, a few priests found the Book of the Law. (These would have been the first few books of the Bible) The book was brought it to Josiah who sat down and read it for the very first time in his life. Upon reading it, he tore his robes, a gesture of severe anguish. (Read Deuteronomy 28-29 to understand why.) Josiah believed his people were doomed for how they had offended the Lord and he felt their destruction was imminent. His realization caused him to act in a big way.

First, Josiah called everyone together and read the Book of the Law in their presence, making a public proclamation of his promise to obey and serve only God. He then sent priests through the temple and across the region to tear down any and all forms of idol and false god worship. The Bible  is pretty explicit about all of the places and objects Josiah removed, burned up, smashed, and destroyed, but to summarize: Josiah was extremely thorough. It says he slaughtered the priests of the high places. He even went to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (its former inhabitants were captured by the Assyrians) and cleaned it out.

Then the story hones in on a particular moment:

Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also. Then Josiah looked around, and when he saw the tombs that were there on the hillside, he had the bones removed from them and burned on the altar to defile it, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things.

The king asked, “What is that tombstone I see?”

The people of the city said, “It marks the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and pronounced against the altar of Bethel the very things you have done to it.”

“Leave it alone,” he said. “Don’t let anyone disturb his bones.” So they spared his bones and those of the prophet who had come from Samaria.

2 Kings 23: 15-18

Thus, the promise that was made to Jeroboam in the very beginning was fulfilled. There is a sense of finality about Josiah's actions, as if it's not just the end of idol worship, but the end of an era. In concluding the story of Josiah, the Bible says,

Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.

Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to arouse his anger. So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘My Name shall be there.’”

2 Kings 23: 25-27

There were only a few more generations of kings after Josiah. Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon was increasing in power, leading an empire that had become strong enough even to overthrow the Assyrians. At last, Judah fell and its people were taken to join their brothers in captivity. Half a century goes by and, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we can go on to read about the return from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple. Nehemiah is the last historical book in the Old Testament, ending about 400 years before the birth of Christ.

So why tell this story? What is the point of it all? When I began writing , I had a few simple goals. First, I think it's just an amazing story that is so rarely talked about. Secondly, the books of Kings provide the backdrop for every major and minor prophet in the Bible. Knowing this story therefore informs the others. But both of those reasons is temporal. The question shouldn't be why am I telling this story, the questions is really: why does this story exist? Why did it happen like this? Why would God split Israel into two kingdoms, declare it is his own doing, allow one to go completely off into the deep end and the other to follow close after, just to nicely bookend it with this prophesy of bones?

I think this story demonstrates that God is who he said he is. In Exodus, there is an amazing conversation that takes place between God and Moses. For the first time, the Israelites have been found worshipping a golden calf, not long after God delivered them from Egypt. The betrayal of the Israelites is a situation not unlike many of these episodes from the books of Kings. Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai to discuss this with the God of the universe who sees all of time as clearly as we see the present. Aware of the entire future of Israel, God says:

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-neckedpeople. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Exodus 32:9-14

The end of 2 Kings is a lot like this very moment, one thousand years earlier. I guess the amazing closure of this story isn't the prophesy of bones, but this prophesy of betrayal: God knew these people were undeserving from the onset and he was willing to destroy them the very instant they began to worship other gods. If we are to learn something, it is that then, now, and forever, God is both a jealous God while being slow to anger and abounding in love. He is capable of two contrasting states (Exodus 34:4-7) but nothing communicates more clearly than a story. Just listen to these two verses:

Nevertheless, for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah. He had promised to maintain a lamp for David and his descendants forever.

2 Kings 8:19

...and compare that with...

Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to arouse his anger. So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘My Name shall be there.’”

2 Kings 26-27

That is the same, unchanging God and yet we, as humans, have to ask, "Which is it? Make up your mind!" It truly is both. That, to me, is the most profound lesson. Through Jesus Christ, God brings the disaster from which he relented when Moses interceded.  Jesus is the substitute by which God removes 'Judah' from his presence. As Isaiah writes,

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

THE END OF "KINGS: AN EPIC BIBLE STORY YOU'VE NEVER HEARD"