On Reformation Day

I am not a scholar of the Protestant Reformation nor a historian. So I understand that what I’m about to write isn’t nearly as informed as I’d like it to be. But still I feel convicted to write something, however flawed.

Today we often speak of the Reformation, the schism that divided Western Christianity into Protestants and Catholics, as a theological debate. To us it’s a doctrinal divide over the taking of communion, the role of the Virgin Mary, and the authority of the pope (among other issues). It begins and ends with a stuffy academic named Martin Luther nailing a letter to a church door in Wittenberg and toddling off to construct a new institution.

But even a casual browse through “infallible” Wikipedia quickly reveals another dimension. The cultural and religious revolution we call the Reformation took centuries. And for much of that time it was nothing less than a war.

Thanks to certain radicals within the nascent movement, Europe plunged into conflict over which church was the true Christianity. A series of revolts and wars in which religion occasionally took a backseat to politics snowballed into a history of violence that extends over a hundred years. Peace treaties designed to end the fighting often exacerbated the problems, sometimes resulting in the displacement of whole populations because states chose to be either Protestant or Catholic. Propaganda turned Martin Luther’s 95 Theses into an origin story around which Reformers could rally and stir public sentiment; propaganda that has succeeded to the present, since we still observe October 31 as Reformation Day.

I’m a Protestant, or at least that’s my official label. But I find little to celebrate on Reformation Day. To my mind it’s rather like asking me to celebrate the day my parents got divorced. Because that is really what the Reformation was: the divorce of the Church. Messy, drawn out, and extraordinarily murderous.

In England, Queen Elizabeth enforced attendance at Church of England services by the death penalty. In France, the tension between the sects led to a series of assassinations and mob violence known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The religious conflict played a less prominent role during the Troubles of Northern Ireland in the 20th century. This war is not a thing of the distant past.

The history of Protestantism is soaked in bloodshed and violence. Our argument with Catholics has not been purely academic or limited to theological debate. It has often meant that people have been killed for what communion they take, for which church they attend, for praying with a Hail Mary.

When I glance at the briefest of internet summaries, trying to piece together a picture of the ebb and flow of social history, I find myself wondering why we modern Protestants aren’t ashamed of the Reformation. Indeed the name itself is something of a fallacy; the church did not reform in the way Luther wanted it to. Instead it split asunder with a terrible and prolonged force whose aftershocks we can still feel.

In my interpretation of the Bible, in my theology, and in my official church affiliation I am Protestant. But there are days I am not proud to be. Reformation Day is one of them.

A Tale of Two Women (Proverbs)

The Book of Proverbs is just what it says on the cover: a collection of sayings that teach basic principles for right living. But its opening chapters form a kind of prologue or introduction that lays out the mindset behind the proverbs themselves within the framework of a father teaching his son. This is a book that seeks to pass on to future generations the ways of wisdom.

Two key verses present the core principle of Biblical wisdom:

“The fear of [YHWH] is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (1:7)

“The fear of [YHWH] is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (9:10)

“The fear of the Lord” is a phrase often used and just as often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean we’re supposed to see God as a monster under the bed or a hurricane coming to wipe out everything in its path; the word “fear” has changed greatly over time. In this context it refers to an attitude that mixes awe, reverence, and humility. With that posture the search for wisdom can begin. I described wisdom before as “an orientation of mind and life which is aligned with God and His intention.” It requires the fear of the Lord to seek out that alignment, but the fear of the Lord is also an alignment in itself. To be reverentially in awe of God, having an orientation that fears the Lord, is paradoxically both the point of departure and the destination.

Another core principle of the Book of Proverbs is the contrast between two ways of living: the wise and the foolish. (4:10-27) This is done using the literary technique of personification.

The personification of abstract concepts is something we do even today. Whether or not you’ve been to New York City, you’ve seen the statue of Lady Liberty standing proud, holding up a torch to light the world, welcoming immigrants to American soil (she is, after all, an immigrant herself from France). Likewise most prominent courthouses in major cities around the world will have some sort of representation of Lady Justice: blind to partiality and favouritism, a scale in one hand to carefully weigh the evidence, and a double-edged sword in the other to carry out a fair sentence.

The Book of Proverbs similarly presents two contrasting personifications to express two contrasting principles: Wisdom and Folly. Wisdom is said to cry aloud in the streets, calling for people to come and seek her out (1:20-33, Chapter 8), and to hold long life in one hand and riches and honour in the other (3:13-18). Folly also cries out to the people passing by, but “she is seductive and knows nothing.” (9:13) Wisdom cries “Come, eat of my bread / and drink of the wine I have mixed.” (9:5) But Folly declares, “Stolen water is sweet, / and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” (9:17)

There is another contrasting pair of women, distinct and somewhat different from that of Wisdom and Folly. Where the allegorical figures represent contrasting principles, this second pairing describes people who epitomize contrasting lifestyles based on those principles: the Adulteress and the Wife.

In Chapter 7, the father instructs his son for a third time to keep sexually pure; he describes an encounter between a “young man lacking sense” and an adulteress woman:

“And behold, the woman meets him,
     dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
     her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
    and at every corner she lies in wait.
She seizes him and kisses him,
    and with bold face she says to him…
‘Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
    let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
    he has gone on a long journey…'” (7:10-19)

The book ends with a poem celebrating a very different sort of woman, one who is “far more precious than jewels”, a wife of righteous character:

“The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant;
    she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night
    and provides food for her household
    and portions for her maidens.” (31:11-15)

Both the Adulteress and the Wife are described as having riches and furniture covered in fine linens. But in particular the things they say and the product of their speech is at odds. The Adultress: “With much seductive speech she persuades him; / with her smooth talk she compels him.” (7:21) The Wife: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, / and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (31:26)

Ultimately, the Book of Proverbs returns to where it started and the theme with which it began its discourse: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, / but a woman who fears [YHWH] is to be praised.” (31:30) There are many aspects, qualities, and applications of wisdom, and the book delves into all of them. But its beginning and its end is the fear of the Lord.

Job: Suffering And The Search For Wisdom

If there’s one thing all of us are trying to do, no matter our religion or background or situation, it is to understand the world we are part of. Life comes with mysteries and whatever we think we know never seems to be enough. Tucked in the middle of the Old Testament, between the histories and the prophets, are a group of texts called the Wisdom Books. They are written to grapple with the tough questions. Wisdom literature is interested in how the world works, how humanity fits into it, and the implications of God’s sovereignty over all.

What is wisdom? That is probably one of the most difficult questions of all, and the Bible deals with it in places other than the Wisdom Books. But a simple and workable definition I’ve come across is this: Wisdom is an orientation of mind and life which is aligned with God and His intention. The literature in this section of the Bible is written from such an orientation.

There’s something you should know about how I read the Book of Job. It may seem heretical to some, but I actually consider this particular book to be a work of fiction. That doesn’t mean I consider it untrue, just that the narrative and characters are invented in the author’s head. There are many examples in the Bible of stories being used to teach Godly principles; why not an entire book? The time and place are obscure; Job is said to live in “the land of Uz”, a place name which remains unidentified (though other, known places are referenced in the text — all outside Israel), and no historical period is obvious or even implied. The high degree of stylization, with most of the book written in poetry, is another element which points to a possible artistic construction.

But fictional or historical, the Book of Job is written to emphasize the timelessness and universality of its key theme: If God is just and good, why do the righteous suffer? We meet a man whose name is Job, who is as righteous as any person can be and worships God with all his heart, yet who is still allowed by God to be the victim of cruel and horrible suffering. The book is a dialogue between Job, his three friends, and another man called Elihu, which quickly develops into a heated argument on the nature of suffering. In this philosophical roundtable debate, everyone is searching for wisdom.

The main position and thrust of everything Job’s friends say can be easily summed up: “Those who are innocent before God are blessed by Him and those who are guilty of sin are punished. Therefore, Job, you must have done something wrong or else you wouldn’t be suffering like this.” (ex. 4:7-9) Everything they say and argue comes out of this point of view. Job’s response to this particular assertion is to point out its untruth: “People prosper and live in comfort without regard to their moral status,” he says, “and very often it’s the wicked who do well in life while the righteous have hardship.” (ex. Chapter 21)

This leads to one of the other main themes of the book, an exploration of what exactly righteousness means for a fallen humanity. We are told quite clearly that Job is a righteous man and yet he himself asks, “But how can a man be in the right before God?” (9:2) Job’s speeches are noteworthy in that he is the only one who directly addresses God at any point; Job prays while all his friends attack him. His prayers become interwoven with the argument over righteousness, so that Job is moved to pray for an arbiter between himself and God’s judgement. Job argues that within this system of punishing the wicked and blessing the righteous there is no way for a righteous man to prove himself so. He becomes angry with his so-called friends, asks God tough questions, and says he will wait for God to grant him an audience and give him the answers. “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (2:10)

The characters in this story search for truth and wisdom, but ultimately the book leads to the conclusion that wisdom is found only in the mind of God. He alone is the source of true understanding as Job acknowledges in these poetic words:

“With God are wisdom and might;
    he has counsel and understanding.
If he tears down, none can rebuild;
    if he shuts a man in, none can open.
If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
    if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
With him are strength and sound wisdom;
    the deceived and the deceiver are his.
He leads counselors away stripped,
    and judges he makes fools.
He looses the bonds of kings
    and binds a waistcloth on their hips.
He leads priests away stripped
    and overthrows the mighty.
He deprives of speech those who are trusted
     and takes away the discernment of the elders.
He pours contempt on princes
    and loosens the belt of the strong.
He uncovers the deeps out of darkness
    and brings deep darkness to light.
He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and leads them away.
He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth
    and makes them wander in a trackless waste.
They grope in the dark without light,
    and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.” (12:13-25)

Job continues this theme in Chapter 28, in an even more beautiful “hymn of wisdom”. All of this foreshadows the climax of the story, when God Himself finally shows up in a whirlwind to grant Job’s request for an audience. And what He says is not precisely what we expect to hear.

He affirms for the most part what Job has said about the source of wisdom, and expands on it as only He can. But at the same time He also takes Job to task a little bit; in all of Job’s lamenting and anguish, even in his panegyrics on God-as-wisdom, he did not fully acknowledge the hidden things of God. God reminds Job that even though much is revealed about Himself in the grandeur of the universe, the secrets of that grand universe’s creation and control are a mystery. Job’s response is twofold. He declares that he will be silent before the voice of his God, and submit to his Maker.

To Job’s three friends, God is ultimately forgiving — thanks to the intercessional prayer of Job — but still He says, “My anger burns against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7) In this He affirms the earlier assertion that in everything Job said he never sinned, because his desire was always to appear before God in righteousness and know the truth.

Ultimately, when we discuss or contemplate wisdom and the suffering that we find in this world, when we turn to God and ask why, we are all delving into places that no one in history has ever fully understood. The Book of Job presents a world where we are all children in our understanding of how the universe works and how God rules it. For the author of this story, wisdom — that orientation of the self which aligns to God — is found in the understanding that God alone is truly wise, and in submitting to His wisdom instead of building our own.

Like much of the Old Testament, things are left in the tension of irresolution. Job may have the blessings of his life restored and even doubled, but our questions on the nature of suffering and wisdom are left hanging to find a complete answer.

A Pure Identity (Nehemiah)

Nehemiah (ESV)

It’s worth noting that the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are not really two separate books in the original Hebrew Bible. They form one text which became split later on for no clearly discernible reason. Scholars today like to refer to them as Ezra-Nehemiah in the absence of a better alternative. Whether we think of them as two books or one, the same continuous story is being told: the return of the Israelites to their homeland after the Exile. And the same theme runs throughout: the restoration of the community and its identity in God. There are four ways this is brought out in the narrative.

The first is through physical reconstruction. Cyrus allows the Jews to return initially for the specific purpose of rebuilding and rededicating the temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed during the Babylonian invasion. Decades later, Nehemiah is sent in by another Persian king to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. This may not seem like a very symbolic task, but it actually carries with it a large amount of meaning. Walls do more than protect a city; they define boundaries for the people to say, “This is the place we live in. This is our home.” In defining those boundaries, the people are also free to nurture an identity within the niche they have carved out for themselves.

The second way identity is restored is by opposition. In both books the Jews face people (usually Persian officials) who scheme and plot to get the rebuilding projects stopped. But in Nehemiah especially, the community of Judah unites against the opposition. The possibility of violence hangs over their work: “Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each laboured on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built…So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.” (4:17-18, 23) Being united against a common enemy is an effective path towards growing closer as a community.

The third way the text tells us of restored Jewish identity, strange though it seems, is the lists of names. There are of course many places in the Bible where such records dominate, most commonly in giving genealogies. But here the list of names (given in both Ezra and Nehemiah) has an even greater purpose. It is a census of those who have returned from the Exile. It is, in effect, their entire country. These are the people who will rebuild the community and make a fresh start. Maybe such things are boring or even meaningless to us; these people lived millennia ago, so why should we care what their names and numbers were? But names, especially in the ancient world, are important. Behind each name is a living and breathing person with thoughts and hopes and dreams and a relationship with God. All right, so I do skim over them when I read. But as I skim I think about the variety of experiences the list represents. And I think of the movie Schindler’s List, where another list of names comes to represent something beyond itself. “The list is life,” as one character puts it.

The last and most important piece of restored identity comes in Nehemiah chapters 8 to 10. Here is how it begins:

“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that [YHWH] had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law…And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed [YHWH], the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped [YHWH] with their faces to the ground. Also…the Levites helped the people to understand the Law,while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (8:1-8)

It is, of course, the restoration of the Covenant relationship with God. This is the one element of Jewish identity which ultimately defines the identity itself. Before the Exile (and in fact its very cause, according to the Bible) Israel had largely ignored God and His Law, meant to bind them fast to Himself. They were supposed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, but developed into a country of idolaters who forgot the reasons behind all those silly rules. Now, having been through the experience of the Exile, of being removed from the promised land, they return — both physically to the land and spiritually to God. Note too how, as the Torah is read, the priests are there to interpret it for the congregation. The text is vague on the logistics of Bible study for literally tens of thousands of people, but we can assume they ask many of the same questions of interpretation and application that we do today. The cultural and historical gap between the written word and the people reading it had, by this time, certainly grown very wide indeed. But they muddle through, much as we do; they confess their sin and ask forgiveness; and they celebrate the feasts and the festivals to help them remember what God did for their ancestors. They repent. They seal the Covenant again, and another list follows of the leaders who seal it on behalf of the people. It’s a profound picture of Israel seeking to restore the purity of what is ultimately the most important part of their identity. They seek for their identity in God.

The restored community is not without its problems. The issue of intermarriage crops up again in Nehemiah, along with others, mostly to do with the administration of the temple and the sacrifices. A more serious problem involving foreigners gets a brief description, but enough to give us pause. Apparently on reading the Law and learning that because the Ammonites and Moabites denied help to Israel after the Exodus, the people decide to expel foreigners living in the land. This time there is no mention of whether they worship God or not; the text only speaks of their descent and ethnicity. A too-literal reading of the Law? A righteous attempt at eliminating idols? We’re not told. But it is clear from these last sections of Nehemiah that this new community of Israel is not perfect. This is reflected in the prayers offered by both Ezra and the people:

“But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by [YHWH] our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within His holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us some reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves…” (Ez. 9:8-9)

“Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins.” (Neh. 9:36-37)

It is important for the narrative to emphasize the continued rule of Persia through all of this. Although Israel may be allowed to return to their land, they are still under foreign authority. Though they have been preserved and saved from utter destruction, they are still not free.

***

And this is where the Old Testament ends. That may sound ridiculous if you look at a Bible’s table of contents, but chronologically speaking the story of the Old Testament ends with the return of Israel and the renewal of the Covenant. All the books that follow, the Wisdom literature and the Prophets, fit somewhere into the history that has already been outlined. So it’s appropriate that chapter 9 of Nehemiah includes a wonderful poetic summary of the whole story to this point, from God’s creation of the world and the deliverance from Egypt to the Exile and the Return. It is more than a summary; it tells the story of the endless dance God and Israel do, a cycle of steps from intimacy to faithlessness to renewal — life, death, and rebirth. And most of all it remembers the steadfast love of God through it all.

“Many years You bore with them and warned them by Your Spirit through Your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in Your great mercies You did not make an end of them or forsake them, for You are a gracious and merciful God.” (9:31)

A Difficult Repentance (Ezra 7-10)

Ezra 7-10 (ESV)

Repentance is a word that gets thrown around a good deal and sometimes we don’t really know what it means. It often gets confused with confession of sin and asking for forgiveness, but it is in fact a distinct step in the process of personal atonement. Repentance is the piece of the puzzle without which confession is nothing but empty words. It means to turn away from sin, not just confessing you have done wrong but also making an effort to never return to that place in your heart.

A little more than halfway through the book, the narrative jumps ahead in time. 57 years after the temple is rebuilt and dedicated, Ezra himself (a direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron the chief priest) comes onto the scene. His mission is to reestablish the right practice of the Law in Jerusalem. In other words, he comes to lead Israel in repentance. The area of repentance told of at the end of the book is one which is difficult to read in our modern pluralist society; it concerns the intermarriage of Jews and foreign women.

Ezra prays for God’s forgiveness: “For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.” (9:2) The language used shocks us, and with good reason. It sounds uncomfortably similar to something a Nazi might say. But the term “holy race” might be better translated “holy offspring”, the descendants of Abraham — Israelites. The Bible has been teaching us to this point they are only holy because of the Covenant relationship with God. And as the Bible has also shown, Israel has been constantly tempted to idolatry and forsaking of the Covenant by the influence of other peoples. So the problem with intermarriage here is not ethnic purity (everyone in the region was more or less one ethnicity anyway) but the potential for apostasy.

The text is completely silent on what happens to the women after they are sent away; the last verse of Chapter 10 says that some of them have borne children, which doesn’t make the situation any easier for us to come to terms with. One peculiar feature about the story is that the list of Jews who have intermarried is surprisingly short considering the gravity all of this is given. It may be that the actual number of offenders was small, but another possibility exists. Since this is an issue of religion, it’s possible that some of these foreign wives have adopted Judaism either now or when they were first married. We’ve seen before in the Book of Ezra how the Passover was kept “by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship [YHWH], the God of Israel. (6:21) It’s possible that something similar happened here. But again, the Bible doesn’t say.

It’s probably the most difficult part of the Law to understand, this separateness between Israel and the nations that God commands. But it’s part of His effort to ensure that Israel will have a distinct and pure identity as His chosen people. This is largely what the narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah is all about.

(To Be Continued…)

Weeping And Rejoicing (Ezra 1-6)

Ezra 1-3 (ESV)

Cyrus the Great, king of Persia in the 6th century BC, has a reputation among historians as a fair-minded and benevolent ruler who respected the customs and traditions of the people he conquered. The so-called Cyrus Cylinder is a copy of his decree that Babylonian temples and cities are to be rebuilt following their destruction in war. With the conquest of Babylon, one might say Persia inherited the Jewish people who were still in exile. According to the Bible, it was Cyrus who allowed the Jews to gradually return to their land and rebuild Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Ezra says this was done “that the word of [YHWH] by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled,” referencing the prophet whose book comes later in the canonical order.

There is a great deal for the Jews to be joyful about in these scenes. At long last they are home and worshipping God once again. But we are told that “many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (3:12-13) The emotions are overwhelming, mixing into one another indistinguishably.

Were the old men crying tears of happiness? Were they crying because they knew the new temple would not be as beautiful as the old? Were they asking forgiveness of God for the sins that had led to the Exile? The author doesn’t tell us. It may have been all of these reasons at once.

Ezra 4-6 (ESV)

One thing the Book of Ezra does make clear is that there is also something to weep about in these circumstances. The Jews have not returned home to an empty land exactly as they left it. It seems the Assyrians have been settling other conquered and exiled people in the area. Scholars also suspect that some Jews may have been left behind during the Exile, who have now forsaken the Law. Whoever they were, the text refers to them almost exclusively as “people of the land”. They do not worship God and they have little desire to see the temple rebuilt. They begin a program of opposition to the returned exiles and the reinstatement of their religion. Another king of Persia, Darius, comes to the rescue. He confirms Cyrus’ decrees regarding the construction and provides more money to pay for it, as well as materials for sacrificial offerings.

The Persian kings sound really wonderful, don’t they? They sound like righteous men who love God and want to see His will be done. But this is not exactly what the Bible tells us. Though it certainly views their actions as being the will of God, it gives no reason to think that they themselves had a particular heart for Him. In fact the culture of the Persian capital, like Babylon before it, was one of religious pluralism. The kings may have believed the God of Israel existed, but they did not worship Him nor does the formal honorific language in Cyrus’ and Darius’ decrees give anything to indicate that is anything beyond that — formal honorific language. The Book of Ezra continues placing God as sovereign over and above all rulers and kings of the earth: “They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia…” (6:14b) There is only one decree which truly matters to the author of this text.

This first half of the book of Ezra ends with a brief paragraph that is nevertheless staggeringly profound. After decades of exile, after the obstacles to reconstruction, the Jews gather at last to remember their past deliverance:

“On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were clean. So they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for [YHWH] had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria [by now this is the same person as the king of Persia] to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” (6:19-22)

There is no mention of weeping. The tears, for now, have been wiped away.

Exile (II Kings 18-25)

II Kings 18-20 (ESV)  II Kings 21-25 (ESV)

The time has come for God’s people. At this point in the story, the northern kingdom Israel has fallen to the Assyrians. “And this occurred because the people had sinned against [YHWH] their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom [YHWH] drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced.” (17:7-8) The use of Covenant language here implicitly expresses what isn’t said aloud: that Israel has broken the Covenant made after the Exodus, and has done so almost continuously for generations now.

Now it is the southern kingdom of Judah which falls to the Babylonians, the tragedy of which is so climactic that the rest of the Old Testament (except for the Wisdom books) dwells on it to the point of obsession, allowing us to interpret the Exile as the next major turning point in the grand narrative of the entire Bible. All the prophetic writings either speak about it specifically or the theme of God’s judgement in general.

Historians are writers who seek to examine and explain the past. The historians of the Bible do so in theological terms. For them, human history is seen through the lens of God’s relationship with people and specifically with the Jews. The Assyrian invasion is not just an empire absorbing a smaller nation to expand its power and influence, but an instance of God enacting judgement. In a way, we seem to see people’s free will abrogated in favour of God’s will. The writers stress the sovereignty of God over human affairs in Chapter 19:

But I know your sitting down
     and your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.
Because you have raged against me
    and your complacency has come into my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came. (19:27-28)

The sovereignty of God is a key theme in the historical books of the Bible, especially because it justifies God’s judgements over unrepentant people. This is something God has been doing ever since the beginning of the world, according to the Biblical writers. In fact the fall of Judah resembles nothing so much as the Fall described in Genesis. Just as Adam and Eve choose to do the thing that God explicitly forbids, so do the Israelites. Just as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, so the Israelites are sent into exile. The Exile then becomes a kind of second Fall.

The expulsion from the land is perhaps the most significant part of the story. The land was a key element of the Covenant, promised by God to Abraham and delivered to the Israelites after the Exodus. Now it is taken away. Almost as if God says, “Very well. You’ll break your half of the bargain, so I’ll break mine.”

Almost…but not quite. Because as with God’s curse against the serpent in Genesis 3, there’s the faint glimmer of something else going on.

The bulk of the narrative, for all its tragedy, is spent on the stories of two kings, Hezekiah and Josiah, who both try desperately to bring the people back into the Covenant relationship. Though not enough to turn the tide, we can’t help but be left with the suggestion that there is still something good at the heart of Judah and the people, a desire to return to the worship of God. In Hezekiah’s story, we meet a figure who becomes not only very important in the Biblical narrative but actually becomes a Biblical author: the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah brings the words of God to the king, comforting him with the answer to prayer and also a brief, almost unnoticeable line for the future: “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.” (19:30-31) Isaiah expands on this small promise later, turning it into one of redemption and restoration for the people of Israel.

God seems to give up on the Covenant, but doesn’t. He still has a plan.