Monday, April 19, 2010

Isaiah 32-39: More Prophecies and a History Lesson

Okay, so I'm behind again, but only a little.  The great thing about Isaiah is I can lump a lot of chapters together pretty easily because it's a lot of words about a few key ideas.

And the first key idea in this passage is what the heading in my Bible calls "The Glorious Future."  As before, this is describing a time in the future when there will be a righteous king and basically the world will be the way it should be - people will listen to the truth, understand what's right, and cheaters really won't prosper, and that sort of thing.  But then he switches gears again and talks about trouble that is coming, and it seems to me that this time he gives a deadline: about one year from when he is speaking is when things are really going to go downhill and Jerusalem will be abandoned.  But then it says that the Spirit will be poured out on us, and everything will become good again.

So then Isaiah talks more about the judgment that's to come, and how basically the instruments of judgment will be judged themselves because they aren't righteous either.  And then he describes the God who is doing all this, how God is going to be exalted in all this, how He is the source of security, and how those who live according to His laws are the ones who will be able to stand the judgment because God will save them.

Then it talks about a more universal judgment (I think the last chapter was talking about Judah specifically) and how God is going to judge all the nations for their wickedness and the whole earth - the whole of creation - will be affected by it, even to the mountains and the sky.  I think this is describing the Day of the Lord - the final day of judgment - but Isaiah specifically mentions Edom in this particular chapter and says that it's going to be completely uninhabitable for men and that only wild animals will live there.

And once again, there's a full-circle effect when Isaiah talks again about a future time of peace and prosperity for Judah.  This has another favorite verse of mine, verse 4, which says: "Say to those with anxious heart, 'Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you.'"  There's a song based on this verse that we sang in church when I was little, and I really liked it.  In my Bible, whenever I read a line that I know from a song, I put a little music note mark next to it.  It's so neat to see where the songs I know from church originated.

Then there's a history lesson, and I think it's almost word-for-word from 2 Kings.  It's the story about Sennacherib invading Judah during the reign of Hezekiah, and how the army commander taunts the people, but they don't say anything back, and how Hezekiah prays and asks God to deliver them, and He does.  What I didn't mention last time was that Isaiah was involved in this story.  See, when Hezekiah hears what's happening, he sends for Isaiah and asks him to pray for the people who are left in Jerusalem.  Isaiah tells them not to be afraid of Sennacherib or of Rabshakeh (that's the name of the army commander, I think it's funny) because God will make them leave and Sennacherib will die in his own land.  That's basically all Isaiah says, and it happens just as he predicted.  We see Hezekiah's prayer again and God's response and the aftermath, how Sennacherib departed from Judah and was later killed by his own sons while worshiping a false god at home.  Kind of ironic, isn't it?  Sennacherib's commander bragged on and on about the powerlessness of all these other nations' gods and the might of Sennacherib.  Well, in the end, neither Sennacherib's own might nor his own god were able to save his life.

Then we have the story of Hezekiah's sickness again, and it's the same story again except for this time there's a poem that Hezekiah writes after his recovery about being sick and God healing him.  And finally, the story that makes me cringe, about the king of Babylon paying a courtesy visit to Hezekiah and Hezekiah showing him all the valuable stuff that the king of Babylon thinks would look great in his own house.  And of course, since we've already read Kings, we know exactly what's going to happen.  But in case we didn't, Isaiah tells us.

So what I think is cool about this passage is that after a bunch of prophecies about what's going to happen someday, we see a story about some of Isaiah's prophecies coming true.  So we know he's not just making all this up, and I think this story is to sort of silence the nay-sayers.

This was probably my shortest entry in a while, but I am saving the next passage for next time, because it's one of my favorites.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Isaiah 24-31: Present Suffering, Future Glory

I took my advice and found a book to help me understand the stuff I'm reading a little better, and it's been very, well, helpful.  The book is called Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible and it's a 1992 edition so I don't know how accessible it is today, but I really like it because it gives a lot of background historical information and, at least in what I've read so far (just Isaiah), it summarizes the verses without trying to add a slant to them like some commentaries do.

So we left off in chapter 24.  Chapter 24 is about the final judgment of the earth and everything basically being completely destroyed in in.  One of the things it says that I have a question about is in verse 21, where it says "the LORD will punish the host of heaven on high."  That refers to the angels, right?  I don't think it's a reference to heavenly bodies, because of course they're amoral, and because the next line refers to judging the kings on earth.  So maybe this is when Satan and his angels are thrown into the lake of fire.

But then in chapter 25 there is a song of praise to God, which kind of seems weird after a chapter of death and destruction, but it's because the judgment makes way for restoration, healing, and everlasting peace.  I think it's like what Isaiah said about Egypt, that the LORD strikes, "striking but healing."  It's as if the two go hand in hand, like you can't get healed unless you first clean up the mess - like if you break a bone, you have to get it set for it to heal properly.  For some reason, this is the way God likes to work.

One of my favorite passages is in chapter 26, which continues praising God for His preservation, providence, goodness, and majesty.  It goes like this (I memorized it in KJV): "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.  Trust thee in the LORD forever, for in the LORD Jehovah is everlasting strength" (26:3-4).  This is one of those "anchor" type verses for me.  What I mean is, it's one of those things that just reminds me to trust in God and anchors me to Him, so to speak, because not only is He the source of my strength, but He is also the source of my peace.  And that's very important, as I've been discovering lately.

It says in this chapter that God's hand is clearly at work in the world, but some people just don't see it.  It says that our own efforts are futile when we try to do things ourselves, but God can make even the dead live - it's God who makes all our efforts and actions produce something real.

Next it talks about Israel being delivered and restored, that through their suffering they'll turn to God and be forgiven, and they'll return to the land and worship God.

Chapter 28 goes back to the bad news.  After dwelling on the wonderful result, Isaiah focuses for a while on the events that must happen to produce the result - the conquer and captivity of Israel.  This was written just before the fall of Samaria, but not very much before.  And at the time, the people of Judah are continually following the example of Israel, so Isaiah's message is really for them, telling them what's going to happen to Israel and warning them that they're next if they continue on that path.  Judah is acting like a teenager right now - teenagers think they're indestructible.  They can't imagine ever getting in a car accident, or becoming deathly ill, or anything like that.  Judah is thinking that whatever bad stuff comes their way, it won't really hit them, but there's absolutely no reason for them to have that security because they're not hiding in God, and they know it.  The warning continues through chapter 29.  It sounds like the people of Judah are following God on a superficial level - claiming YHWH as their God, following the traditions God established way back in Exodus, etc., but there is nothing behind them.  It says "their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (v.13).  It reminds me of a line in Romeo and Juliet, in which Father Lawrence criticizes Romeo's "love" for Rosaline, saying "thou didst read by rote that could not spell" - somebody who pretends to read something that they actually have memorized, because they can't even spell.  In other words, there's no mental process, no comprehension, no analyzing or even thinking about what is being done; it's just a routine, like washing your hands.  That's all God is to them.  But God knows that a day will come when these spiritually blind and deaf people will see and hear and worship God from their hearts.

Chapter 30 describes a current event.  Judah has made an alliance with Egypt during the Assyrian invasion of Samaria, and they think that means they're safe.  This chapter starts off with something I think is very important - it says, "woe to the rebellious children . . . who execute a plan, but not Mine: (v.1).  Sometimes we - and I'm talking about Christians now - make a plan that we think is very sound and reasonable (Egypt was still a major world power, probably a good ally), but just because you are a Christian and you made a plan, doesn't mean it's God's plan.  Just because you're a Christian and you're doing something, doesn't mean you're acting on God's behalf.  Like, all this talk about judgment and vengeance and the wrath of God?  If you act in those ways, and you're a Christian, it doesn't mean you're executing God's justice and vengeance and wrath.  It says that Judah went to Egypt without even consulting God.  Do we really take time to seek God's will before making a decision, or do we simply make a decision based on what we've already decided we believe about what God wants?  This is a very relevant warning, I think, and I mean that for myself too.

So basically, God says the alliance will fail and Judah will be humiliated.  But then there's great news.  Verse 18 says, "Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.  For the LORD is a god of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him."

That verse is like a breath of fresh air to me.  It tells me two things about God: first, that God is patient with us.  I know I've mentioned this before, but one of my favorite parts in the Bible is 2 Peter 4:9, where it says God "is patient with you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to be brought to salvation."  God is waiting on us.  Just like in My Fair Lady where the dad says "I'm willing to tell you; I'm wanting to tell you; I'm waiting to tell you!"  God is willing, wanting, waiting to lavish His grace and compassion on us.  Why is He waiting?  Because He wants us to want it, I think.

The second thing this verse tells me is that compassion is just.  People make a big deal out of the supposed dichotomy between justice and mercy (or grace, or love).  In God's reality, they are the same thing.  God isn't 1/2 Justice and 1/2 Mercy, or mostly mercy with a little bit of justice, or something like that. This verse says that God is gracious and compassionate because He is a God of justice.  Isn't that amazing?

So once the people wise up and realize this, then things will be just fine.  God Himself will be the teacher of the people and all those idols are going to be thrown away forever, and even the land and the animals will be blessed, and the light - the light!  The moon will be as bright as the sun, and the sun will be seven times brighter than it is right now.  Why?  Because God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).  It sounds glorious to me.

But then Isaiah reminds us of what else is going to happen -  judgment against the wicked and the proud.  Listen to this - "burning is His anger and dense is His smoke" (v.27, I thought it sounded cool) - fire, overflowing torrent, consuming fire, cloudburst, downpour, hailstones.  And God says Assyria will be terrified - they better be!

Finally, God condemns the Jews for trusting in Egypt and not in Him, because Egypt itself is going to fall, and it's God who will be the deliverer in the end.  The chapter (and this passage) ends with a call: "return to Him from whom you have deeply defected," because when the rubber hits the road, every other defense is going to fall.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Isaiah 13-23: Judgments Against Other Nations

Okay, I know this is a huge chunk of chapters, but I'm going to catch up to where I've read today (although I'm a little behind in my reading).  Basically, I'm lumping these chapters together because they all have something in common: they are (mostly) not about Israel and Judah.  These are prophecies about the falls of other nations.

The first one to be named is Babylon. Basically it says that God is going to use Babylon to carry out his judgment against Judah, but then it says that God will judge the whole earth.  Isaiah mentions something that becomes a common theme in prophetic books: the day of the LORD.  It's the day when God will judge the earth once and for all, and it will be so terrifying that even the sun, the moon, and the stars will not shine.  Then going back to Babylon, Isaiah says next that Babylon will fall to the Medes.  I wonder what the state of the Mede empire was at this time.  They're from Persia, I think.  And Isaiah talks about Israel, once it's been restored, taunting Babylon once it's been conquered

This is where there's that famous line where it calls Babylon "star of the morning" and "son of the dawn."  In Hebrew, those nicknames are pronounced Lucifer.  I'm not sure when the idea that Lucifer was Satan, the devil, first came about, but this is one of the two passages of Scripture that mention this name (the other uses it to describe the king of Tyre).  Scripture never actually says that Lucifer = Satan, so this passage may or may not be referring to him.  I just wanted to point that out.

Next there's a quick judgment against Assyria and one against Philistia.  Following this is a longer judgment against Moab and another long one about Damascus, which was in Aram.  Basically, they're all going down.  Then there's a prophecy about Ethiopia, but I don't really get it.  I'm not sure whether it's saying that bad things are going to happen to them or not, but it seems to say that the Ethiopians will serve God.  And you know, Ethiopia was one of the first Christian nations.

Then Isaiah talks about Egypt, and it's basically the same story - they'll be conquered by somebody else, all the proud people will be humiliated, the land will be desecrated, etc., but it says that the affliction will make Egypt return to God, and then God will heal them.  In fact, he talks about Egypt almost the same way that he talks about Israel: it says God will send a Savior to deliver them, that God will make himself known to Egypt and they will know him, they will worship Him, etc.  I know that Egypt was a Christian nation for a time, before it became Muslim.

There's a short break here - God tells Isaiah to go around naked and barefoot for three years, to serve as a sign against Egypt and Cush (Ethiopia) because they will be taken captive by Assyria.  I find all this really interesting, actually.  Did these other nations hear Isaiah's prophecies about them?  Did he travel to them or send messages so they would know what was going on?  God sent the prophet Jonah to Ninevah; I wonder if he sent other prophets to other nations, especially since it seems he is very concerned with them.

Then he talks again about Babylon falling, and then there's a really short one about Edom, but I don't know what it means.  It's just somebody asking "Watchman, how far gone is the night?" and the watchman replying "morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; come back again."  I don't really know what that means.  Any ideas?  And then another short one about Arabia, and I don't so much get that one either.  I think it's saying that Arabia will lose its splendor and suffer some kind of loss.

Then there's a prophecy about something called "the valley of vision."  I don't know where that is, but they are going to be in mourning and suffering, but then God will set up somebody named Eliakim and put him over Judah, so I guess the valley of vision is something to do with Judah or Jerusalem.  But he's going to fall too.

Finally there's a judgment against Tyre.  I'm not sure where Tarshish is in relation to Tyre, but it's mentioned a lot too.  Like all the other places, it's going to be destroyed, but only for 70 years.  Then it will rise again and be just as bad as it was before.

So from reading this passage, I learned that I don't know very much about what's happening here.  I know a pretty good amount about Israel, but when it comes to all these other places, I don't have a clue.  I don't know if these prophecies came true or if we're still waiting for at least some of them.  I always thought I knew a lot about the Bible, but I've found an area where I need more study.

Isaiah 1-12: Bad News, Good News

All right, so now we move into Isaiah.  I'm going to put up a sidebar that lists the books of the Old Testament in the order they appear in the Tanakh, so you know that I'm really not being arbitrary.

Isaiah was written during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah - who, if you remember, were really good, good, really bad, and really good, respectively.  So this was right around the time of Israel's fall.  The prophecies in Isaiah are mostly about Judah and Israel, but there are some about other nations too.

The beginning prophecies are about Judah and Jerusalem, and they are condemning the sin of the people.  Now this is interesting to me, because this was written mostly during the time of good kings.  But if you remember, the high places were still in place all the way until the reign of Hezekiah.  What it sounds like to me is that the people were basically following the law, sacrificing to God and observing the feasts (with the exception of Passover) and whatnot, but they were also serving other gods and just not doing good.  So God says that he doesn't even like their sacrifices or feasts or any of the things they do "for" him, so that he's not even going to listen to their prayers anymore.

The first several chapters go back and forth between good news and bad news.  The bad news is, God is going to destroy Jerusalem and Judah to judge them for their wickedness and idolatry.  The good news is, he is going to restore Jerusalem and people will worship God from their hearts.  The bad news is, first will come a day of judgment against all the people who are proud, adulterous, who don't take care of the poor and needy, who take bribes and permit sin, and against the leaders and rulers who are corrupt.  The good news is, there will always be a remnant of the faithful.  Even though God is not going to punish Judah, he is not going to leave them alone forever.  He's going to make sure that Judah never entirely forsakes him, and he's not going to forsake them either.

Then Isaiah describes a vision that he has during the year that Uzziah died.  He has a vision of the throne of God, what Paul calls the "third heaven," and he sees these angels called seraphim gathered around God's throne.  These seraphim are so high up on the angel hierarchy that they are actually in the direct presence of God, standing before his throne all day and night, and yet even they must cover their eyes with two of their wings.  And all day long they say to each other, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory."

What I understand about the Hebrew language is that they don't have comparative or superlative suffixes like English and other languages do.  That is, we add the "er" and "est" suffixes of words to show degrees of how extreme something is.  Hebrew doesn't have that; instead, the word would be repeated - twice for the comparative, three times for the superlative.  (Another way to state a superlative would be to say "X of Xs," as in "king of kings" and "song of songs.")  So it would be like, instead of saying "better," they would say "good good," or "good good good" for "best."  That is what they are doing here.  As my old Bible teacher said once, "God is not 'holy.'  God is not 'holy, holy.'  He is 'holy, holy, holy.'"

When Isaiah sees God like this, he is completely overwhelmed by the holiness, the perfection, the goodness, the righteousness, the otherness, the un-humanness of God.  God is holy - holy, holy, holy - and Isaiah knows that he is not.  He does what every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he falls flat on his face.  Then he does the second thing every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he acknowledges his sin.  But then, amazingly, one of the seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips.  Now, it doesn't say so, but I have to imagine that this would hurt, even in a vision.  Don't you think?  But the coal cleanses him.  And then God asks for a messenger to send, to speak on his behalf - as if he really didn't know who he was going to send.  And Isaiah, quite unlike Moses, volunteers to be sent wherever God wishes him to go.  I find it interesting that it's only after Isaiah's been cleansed that he mentions being sent.  I don't think this means we have to overcome our sin and become perfect in order for God to use us, though.  Remember, Isaiah didn't actually do anything to become clean - he just acknowledged his uncleanness, and it was God who declared him clean.  I think this means that in order to receive God's calling on our lives, we have to acknowledge our sin and accept his cleansing forgiveness.  And I think that the process of cleansing may not be painless.  I don't think it was for Isaiah.

One thing I have always wondered is whether this vision took place before Isaiah received the prophecies recorded in chapters 1-5, or if the whole thing is written chronologically.  It seems as if this story is the beginning for Isaiah, but I don't know.

Then it goes back to prophecy, and this time there's a specific context: Ahaz, the bad king, is at war, and God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to be afraid because Judah is going to win.  God invites Ahaz to ask him for a sign to know that this is true, but he says he will not test God.  But God says he will give a sign himself, and guess what it is?  "A virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."  Immanuel means "God with us" - this is the first time Isaiah references Messiah, I think.  I wonder if Ahaz knew that this sign was not really related to his little battle.  Because then God goes on to tell about more bad things that are about to happen to Judah, and also, that Israel and Samaria are going to fall.  That happened during the reign of Hezekiah, from what I understand, so it must have been pretty close to the time.

Then there's another Messiah prophecy.  After a bunch of talk about gloom and darkness and destruction, it says that the gloom is going to end, that the people who are walking in the darkness will see a great light, and the light will shine on them.  Deliverance is going to come in the form of a child, who will be given the throne of David, but he's more than just another king.  It says he will be called Mighty God and Eternal Father - somehow, this child is going to be God.  I wonder what the Jews think about these names, what they thought at the time this prophecy was written.  Obviously they are holding on to the part where it talks about him reigning over David's kingdom, but what about the part where it calls him God?

But for now, Israel is not doing so hot.  I think this next prophecy is against the ten tribes that now form the nation of Israel, specifically, because it mentions Ephraim.  Ephraim is only one tribe but its name becomes synonymous with the nation of Israel.  God says they are proud and they do not seek God, that the teachers are leading the people astray.  There's a repeating phrase in the next several paragraphs: "His anger does not turn away, and His hand is still stretched out."  Basically Israel is acting wickedly, even in tribe fighting against tribe.  So God says that Assyria is his instrument for justice and judgment.  But, don't forget, Israel was God's instrument of judgment against Canaan, and now they're getting busted for their own sin.  Well, the same thing is going to happen to Assyria, because they're not good either.  So basically God is saying that after he's done with Israel, Assyria is going to be judged as well.

But then there's more good news: another Messianic reference, and it talks about a time of paradise - the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard with the goat and things like that.  When that happens, the remnant of the Jews will be restored from all the countries where they will be scattered to.

So this has been kind of a cyclic passage - good news, bad news, and super good news - the news of a coming Savior.  The thing is, Israel has gotten itself really screwed up, screwed up beyond repair.  God wants his people to return to him, but their hearts are so hardened that it's going to take something really drastic to repair the damage that's been done.  For almost the first time, we're getting a glimpse of what God has planned.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2 Kings 21-25: The End of Judah

Now we've come to my third favorite king (David is my second): Manasseh.  However, I'm not going to tell you why he's my third favorite king, and it's not going to make sense either unless you've read 2 Chronicles, because Manasseh is bad.  He is arguably the most evil king of Judah, because it is Manasseh's evil acts that move God to decide to hand Judah over to Babylon, and do it soon.  Manasseh rebuilds the high places that Hezekiah had just gotten rid of, he puts altars to false gods in the temple, he worships heavenly bodies, he sacrifices his son, he practices witchcraft and divination, and so forth.  It says that "Manasseh seduced them [Judah] to do evil more than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel."  Remember that when the Hebrews took the promised land, they were not just fulfilling God's promise to give the land to Abraham; they were executing God's judgment against the sins of the Canaanites.  The Canaanites were so evil and so unrepentant for so long that God decided to wipe them out.  Judah, under the reign of Manasseh alone, becomes even more evil than the people they destroyed.  That is bad.

And this is all that the book of Kings has to say about Manasseh.  I find that really odd, because there is a lot more to his story than this, but since the Tanakh puts Chronicles at the very end, you won't find out the twist for a long while.  So you'll just have to sit there and wonder why the heck this evil evil person is my third favorite king of Judah.

Manasseh's son Amon becomes king, and he is evil like Manasseh.  His servants conspire against him and assassinate him, but the people of Judah round up the conspirators and execute them, and put Amon's son Josiah on the throne.  Josiah is a mere eight years old at the time, the second youngest king in Judah's history (Joash was 7).  Josiah is a good king, a very good king.  While some of his servants are sprucing up the temple, they find the book of the Law and bring it to Josiah and read it to him.  When Josiah hears the words - the words of Moses, the first five books of the Bible - he tears his clothes.  He is totally convicted - and this is a good king already, remember.  He wants to know what is going to happen to his country because they have not kept God's laws, so he sends people to ask this prophetess named Huldah, and she tells them that God's wrath is burning against Judah, but because Josiah heard the words of the LORD and paid attention to them, the destruction God has planned for Judah is not going to happen during his lifetime.  So then the king gathers all Judah together and reads the entire Torah to them and makes a covenant with them before God to keep the Law and follow Him with heart and soul.  Then he institutes a bunch of reforms, and chapter 23 lists all the bad stuff that he eradicated from Judah, and it's cool.  Josiah did not do things halfway, I'm thinking.  He gets rid of all the altars everywhere to every god and goddess, he destroys the place where people burned their sons and daughters, he tears down the houses of the male cult prostitutes, he defiles the high places that had been rebuilt by his grandfather, he executes all the priests to false gods, and basically just goes on a rampage throughout his whole country, destroying everything that had been an idol for Judah.  Finally, he goes back to Jerusalem and reinstitutes Passover, which has not been observed since the days of the judges.  That means even David and Solomon did not observe Passover - this book has been lost for a long time.

And just like Hezekiah, the author of this book tells us that "before him there was no king like him who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any arise after him."  Hezekiah, it seems, followed the LORD from the beginning.  It seems almost like Josiah turned to God because of the Torah that was found in the temple.  Maybe if that book hadn't been found, he would have just been okay.  I really believe that the Bible, even though it was written a long time ago and each book was written specifically for a particular group of people in a certain time and place, is relevant to every generation and every culture.  The Torah was already old when Josiah heard it for the first time, and he realized that those words were for him.  I think we should have the same response to God's Word that Josiah did.

Unfortunately, God has already made up his mind about Judah, and he is still going to let them get conquered by Babylon - but not just yet.  Just like he did with Canaan, he is waiting until they are past the point of no return.

Josiah's son Jehoahaz becomes king, and dangit, he's evil.  After having such a great dad, I'm at a loss as to why Jehoahaz turned away from all the good that had been accomplished in the preceding chapter.  It just goes to show you, people are individuals.  I don't know what kind of dad Josiah was, but there comes a point at which you can't guarantee the outcome of your child's life, I guess.  I'm not a parent yet, and that's already a scary thought to me.

Up to this point, it seems like Judah has had a fairly okay relationship with Egypt, but now the pharaoh imprisons Jehoahaz and sets up a different son of Josiah, Eliakim, in his place.  Jehoahaz, unfortunately for him, is held captive in Egypt and dies there.  Eliakim, meanwhile, is renamed Jehoiakim by Pharaoh, and has to pay him tribute.  He is also bad, by the way.  It's starting to look like all the good that Josiah did, was for nothing.  It only lasted one generation!

So now Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, starts encroaching on Judah.  At first Judah becomes kind of a vassal state or something, because it says that Jehoiakim serves him for three years.  But then he rebels, and so marauders from a bunch of different nations - Chaldeans, Aramenas, Moabites, and Ammonites - start attacking Judah, and the author tells us it was at the command of God, to carry out his judgment because of the sins of Manasseh.  Man, how would you like to be held responsible for the downfall of your whole entire country?  It just goes to show you, leaders and authority figures are held to a higher standard of accountability than everybody else, because they are examples, and they can influence people to follow God or not.

Jehoiakim dies and his son Jehoiachin becomes king (you can tell a country is nearing its end when the names become less and less creative).  Egypt has all but fallen to Babylon by now, Jehoiachin is only 18, also does evil in God's sight, and he only lasts three months before Nebuchadnezzar sends his army to Jerusalem.  Jehoiachin surrenders and is taken captive along with his family and a ton of people from Judah - the brave, the strong, the skilled, the talented, the educated.  Nebuchadnezzar sets up I guess Jehoiachin's uncle? Mattaniah as king, renaming him Zedekiah, who is also evil, and he tries rebelling against Nebuchadnezzasr.  So Nebuchadnezzar marches again against Jerusalem and pretty much just demolishes the city.  He kills Zedekiah's sons in front of him, then brings him to Babylon bound, and the whole of Jerusalem is burned.  Some random person named Gedaliah is appointed as governor over what's left of the people of Judah, who advises the people to serve Nebuchadnezzar - because as long as they paid tribute to him, he really was a pretty reasonable guy I think.  But a bunch of people flee to Egypt, although I'm pretty sure it was also under Babylon's control to some extent.

Remember Jehoiachin?  He's still in Babylon in prison, but he gets released and Nebuchadnezzar puts him back on the throne of Israel and treats him nicely, because he knows that Jehoiachin is going to be submissive.  And it works out pretty well for Jehoiachin after that.  He stays under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb, but he gets to keep his life, and his job, and he actually gets paid to be king for the rest of his life.  And that is the end of the story.

So man!  Judah sure went out with a bang.  I have to wonder, all those kings who tried rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar, it doesn't say any of them tried seeking God during that process.  And what I wonder is, if they had turned to God, would things have turned out differently?  God had already made up his mind to destroy Judah because of Manasseh, but because Josiah was repentant, he delayed the destruction.  I really think that if any of the successive kings had been good like Josiah, God would not have brought the destruction so soon.  But I think God knew what was going to happen.  It's sad, because Josiah tried so hard to turn the country around, but in the end it didn't work.  I don't know why.  In the end I guess that the people of Judah had hardened their hearts, and when you get to that point, it's very hard to turn back.

Believe it or not, from here the Tanakh goes to Isaiah.  So when next I write, we will be hearing from the Prophets.

2 Kings 16-20: The Fall of Israel; Hezekiah

After Judah's stunning string of good kings, Jotham has a son named Ahaz, who is not just as bad as all the Israelite kings, but arguably even worse, because he practices human sacrifice with his son.  Now for me, the inference that I've gotten from my reading of the Bible so far is that sacrificing one's child is one of the most detestable and evil things that a person could do in God's eyes.  And I don't think there needs to be any explanation as to why.  Humanly, spiritually, socially, in just about every conceivable way, this is an evil act and you have to be really screwed up to do it, I think.  I mean, we're talking about taking your living breathing child whom you have raised from birth, and setting them on fire.  People like that deserve to have their fingernails and toenails pulled off one by one, then their fingers and toes chewed off one by one, and . . . well, you get the picture.

Then Aram and Israel combine forces and attack Ahaz in Jerusalem, and this is weird - he asks for help from Assyria.  I'm thinking this was a bad move, but he didn't know what Assyria was going to become.  Oh, and also, he sends more of the treasures in the temple to Assyria.  I'm surprised there's anything left in that place, because it seems like at least every two or three generations it's getting cleaned out for some kind of tribute.  You'd think it would be drained by now.

Thank goodness, Ahaz dies shortly after this story, and his son Hezekiah becomes king.  More about him later.

Meanwhile, Israel's next king is named Hoshea.  If that name looks kind of familiar to you, I think it must be a variant of Hosea.  I wonder if it is also a variant of Joshua or Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus).  I don't need to mention that he's evil, but in his reign the king of Assyria rises up against him, so Israel pays tribute to him, but then Hoshea conspires against Assyria with the king of Egypt somehow and stops paying tribute, so the king of Assyria throws him in prison.  Then they invade Israel, besiege Samaria for three years, eventually capture it, and carry the people into exile.  And that is the end of the nation of Israel.

In another rare moment, the author of this book launches into a commentary here and talks about why Israel fell, apparently because he wanted us to learn a moral lesson from this story - that's what ancient history books were all designed to do, by the way.  He writes that the exile happened not because Israel's kings weren't strong enough leaders or made bad political moves, but because the people sinned and turned their backs on God and trusted in other gods.  These are the main things that Israel did wrong, according to this passage here: 1) they worshiped other gods, built idols, etc., 2) they evil things that provoked God, 3) they did not listen to the prophets' warnings, 4) they followed the example of the nations around them, 5) they practiced human sacrifice, divination, and sorcery, 6) they led Judah into sin by example.

What happens next is that the king of Assyria brings foreigners into the land of Israel after he's taken a bunch of people out and into exile.  I think the idea was to mix the cultures by intermarriage, thus diminishing a sense of nationality, thus lessening the risk of a future uprising.  And the plan worked: the ten tribes of Israel are no longer distinguishable today, although a few of their mixed-blood descendants remain in the land, even to this day.  They are called Samaritans, and we will not hear about them again for a very long time.

Anyway, when these transplant people come in, they make up their own gods and sort of add the true God into the mix, into the pantheon as it were.  God did not appreciate this.  He doesn't want to be one of many revered objects in our lives.  You can't put him next to anything; I think it has to be just him and nothing else beside him or above him.

Back to Hezekiah.  Hezekiah, I will let you know, is my favorite king.  The first thing it says about what he did as king is that he broke down the high places!  He is the only one out of all the good kings to have done this!  He broke all the idols that the people were worshiping, even the bronze snake that Moses made for the people in the wilderness, because they were worshiping that.  Note: sometimes we can take a really good thing, a God-given thing, and make an idol out of it.  In contemporary terms, these things might be going to church, or religious practices, or service, or even, to some extent, the Bible (because the Bible is not actually God, although it was written by him).  Anything that we put before God himself, no matter how good it is, must be broken down and removed until nothing stands between us and him.  That is a freaky thing to think about, because there are an awful lot of things in my life that I value very much.

Now, everybody talks about how great David and Solomon were, but get this: Hezekiah was better.  The Bible says so!  It says, "He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him.  For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses."

Reread that phrase up there, "He clung to the LORD."  That brings such a powerful image to my mind.  It's one thing to keep something next to you, another to hold onto it; to cling to something is another matter entirely.  Here is how one dictionary defines that word:

  1. To hold fast or adhere to something, as by grasping, sticking, embracing, or entwining: clung to the rope to keep from falling; fabrics that cling to the body.
  2. To remain close; resist separation: We clung together in the storm.
  3. To remain emotionally attached; hold on: clinging to outdated customs.

To me, the word "cling" conjures up the impression of a life-and-death situation.  Like clinging to a life preserver when you're lost at sea, or something like that.  It's not a casual action; it is . . . a desperate, committed action.  When you cling to something, there is no way you are going to let go, ever.

So Hezekiah is my favorite king.

It's during Hezekiah's reign that Assyria conquers Israel and carries everybody off into exile, and they go after Judah too.  In fact, it says Hezekiah rebels against the king, which I guess means he stopped paying the tribute, and that really ticks off the king.  He's already conquered Israel so he goes after Judah next.  Hezekiah gives him more stuff from the temple but that's not good enough.  The Assyrian army lays siege to Jerusalem, and the commander of the army comes out to taunt Judah and insult both Hezekiah and the God he so faithfully serves.  Luckily, Hezekiah's people keep their heads.  The soldiers ask the Assyrian dude to talk in Aramaic instead of Hebrew, because I guess the regular people didn't speak Aramaic that well and they didn't want them to hear.  And when the guy keeps threatening them and jeering and stuff, none of the people give him any kind of response, because Hezekiah had told them not to say a word.  To have that kind of self-command tells me that Hezekiah must have been held in very, very high esteem.  I think the people believed in him.  I hope they also believed in God.

But Hezekiah is not nearly as confident at this point.  He hears what's going on outside and tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth.

Okay, so I have to make a sidenote here about tearing clothes.  There have been a couple references to clothes so far - the clothes worn by the Israelites in the wilderness didn't wear out for 40 years, Samson bet his fiancee's friends so many changes of clothes for answering his riddle, and part of the gift Naaman offered Elisha was a change of clothes.  I get the impression that these people did not have a lot of changes of clothes, if any.  The king probably had a few more sets than the regular people, but still, it had to have been expensive.  Understanding that gives a very new meaning, to me, to the custom of tearing one's clothes when one was in mourning.  It was not comparable to me tearing up my clothes, because I have lots of clothes and I can replace them pretty quickly and easily.  It seems to me, this would be more like me smashing my computer.  Yipes.

But then a prophet comes and encourages Hezekiah.  You might know him; his name is Isaiah.  He says that God will take care of the army without even fighting, and Jerusalem will be okay.  Hezekiah prays for deliverance - and what's awesome is that he doesn't pray because he wants to save his skin, or preserve his kingly power, or even to save the lives of all his people, although I'm sure all those things were important to him.  What he asks is for all the kingdoms around the world to know that the LORD is God.  Hezekiah was a good king because he valued God's reputation above his own, when both were being threatened.  And he knew what Israel was about, I think, that it was supposed to be a light to the Gentiles, a revelation of the character of God.

I think the next thing that happens is cool.  God sends an answer to Hezekiah through Isaiah, and this is the answer that's given to the army commander.  It's basically God slapping Assyria in the face and saying, "everything that you think your bad self did, that was actually me, and I am going to kick you to kingdom come."  And then he does, because the angel of the LORD strikes 185,000 soldiers by night and kills them, so they go home.    Somebody needed to show that Sennacherib who was boss, and God was the perfect person for the job (because he is the boss).

Hezekiah is doing just awesome, so awesome that what happens next doesn't make sense.  He gets sick.  Just like Uzziah, the good king who got struck by leprosy, Hezekiah becomes mortally ill, and Isaiah even tells him he's going to die.  I feel so sorry for Hezekiah.  His response to this news is very short, so short I can quote it for you.  It says, "Then he turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, 'Remember now, O LORD, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.' And Hezekiah wept bitterly."  That's all.

I don't know much about prayer, I have to admit.  Sometimes I feel like the more I pray, the better chance I have of God hearing and answering me.  And while I think there's certainly a biblical precedent for ceaseless prayer, sometimes all it takes is one sentence.  And Hezekiah didn't really even ask God to heal him.  He just asked God to remember him.  The image of this strong, wise, courageous king rolling over in his bed to face away from the prophet and just crying his eyes out, breaks my heart.  And I think it broke God's heart too, because Isaiah hadn't even gotten out of Hezekiah's house before God told him to turn around and tell Hezekiah that he was going to live for 15 more years, and moreover, God would totally deliver Jerusalem from Assyria.

I don't know why Hezekiah got sick, honestly.  God healed him pretty quickly after this incident, and it's not like Hezekiah was needing to be turned around or anything before he got sick.  Sometimes the things God does are inexplicable to me.  But I think what I learned from Hezekiah's story is that, while serving God may not prevent bad stuff from happening to you, when bad stuff does happen to you, it is good to find yourself on his side, because then he is on your side as well.

I love Hezekiah, but he does one stupid thing in his life (we're all entitled to something, I guess).  The king of Babylon sends him a get-well card and a care package, and once he's better, he comes over for a visit.  And Hezekiah is so hospitable to this king that he shows him all the valuable stuff in his whole entire kingdom.  Does the name "Babylon" ring a bell to you?  We'll be hearing from them again soon.  Now, Hezekiah must have trusted in God to protect Judah, and therefore thought there was no harm in showing Babylon exactly what they would get if they happened to conquer his nation.  But just because God is our protector, doesn't mean he gave us a license to be stupid.  I think God wants us still to make wise decisions, and Hezekiah's mistake will come back to haunt Judah - not in Hezekiah's own lifetime, thankfully, but sooner than you think.