v.1 Azariah’s other name was Uzziah, the name by which he will be called several times in this chapter (cf. v. 13). There is a good bit of interesting material about Uzziah’s reign in 2 Chronicles 26, including the fact that he was a man who “loved the soil.” We can imagine him as a man who was always putting about the palace gardens, asking questions about his farms and his flocks and herds, Eager to inspect his agricultural holdings from time to time. He was also a successful warrior against the Philistines and the Arabs of the Transjordan. The nation prospered during his long reign.
It was near the end of Uzziah’s reign that Isaiah began his prophetic ministry.
v.5 We learn in Chronicles that Uzziah’s leprosy was God’s judgment for the king’s unlawful usurping of the priestly role of burning incense in the temple. There we read that his early successes in war and as a builder had made him proud. In other words, the son had learned nothing from his father, Amaziah, who had also grown proud and been punished for it.
Jotham began to reign, in other words, while his father was still alive. This sort of co-regency was common in the ancient world.
v.9 Again and again in these summaries of the reign of Israel’s kings we hear that such and such a king “did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.” We should shudder at the lasting effect of one man’s infidelity and disobedience. Generations virtually without thought followed Jeroboam in the course he had set. What was so natural for them because Jeroboam had made it normal in Israel was to lead to their ruin and destruction.
v.12 With Zechariah the promise of the Lord to Jehu that four generations of his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne was fulfilled and, at the same time, we come to the end of Israel, the northern kingdom, as a stable and ordered state. Over the last 20 years of its existence Israel would have six rulers, but only one of them would die of natural causes. The stability that the Lord’s promise to Jehu had guaranteed is now a thing of the past. A nation usually gets the politics and the rulers it deserves.
v.13 Assyrian records refer to Shallum as “a son of a nobody,” indicating that even they knew he was a usurper and not a legitimate king. [House, 330]
v.14 Violence begat violence and Shallum’s reign, begun in assassination, ended the same way a mere month later. The promise to Jehu now no longer standing in the way, violence returned with a vengeance. According to Josephus, Menahem was the commander in chief of the army. Israel has fallen apart. She has had four rulers – to call them “kings” would be to pay a compliment to these men they didn’t deserve – in a single year!
v.16 Pagan idolatry invariably produces brutality, as it does in our society today, and so it was in Israel. This would be the last time an Israelite king could manage an effective sortie against another nation. Menahem’s butchery marks a new low in the conduct of Israel’s affairs and the narrator expects his readers to appreciate this.
v.19 Pul is another name for the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-pileser. In fact, it is an interesting detail, a mark of the historical accuracy even in the details of the OT narrative.. Pul was his throne name and was in use during the time under consideration in 2 Kings 15. Tiglath-pileser was how the emperor was known at the time Kings was written but not at the time of the events themselves. [House, 331]
v.22 Menahem’s seizing of the throne coincided with Assyria’s return to the Levant after fifty years of being preoccupied with rebellious powers to the east. At this point the Assyrians were content simply to extract tribute and to leave a representative at court who would report to Nineveh as to the behavior of the client king and his state. This historical detail emphasizes the draconian taxation that was necessary to pay off the Assyrians.
v.25 Pekah is a short form of Pekahiah and was a common name at the time. Josephus informs us that Pekah’s attack on the palace occurred during a banquet when no one would be alert or suspecting danger.
v.26 It appears that Pekahiah continued his father’s policy of appeasing the Assyrians and this led to rebellion on the part of army commanders, Pekah being their leader.
v.27 The “twenty years” requires some overlapping with the previous two rulers, suggesting that even in the earlier reigns Pekah was an active rival, if not co-ruler with Pekahiah.
v.29 In 734 B.C. Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian emperor, marched into Palestine, took control of the coastal route, the trade route toward Egypt, and incorporated Galilee into his provincial system of imperial control. This was the beginning of the elimination of Israel as an independent state. [Wiseman, 256] It is noteworthy, again, how all of this biblical history is confirmed independently in other ANE sources. But still there are a number of scholars who are determined to believe that we can’t rely on the Bible for its narrative history of still earlier events, from Solomon and David backwards. It is remarkable how candid Kings is and how accurate, reporting history that is not to Israel’s credit! Other ANE annals did not do this!
The deportation of the nation’s leaders and selected experts to Assyria indicates that Israel had become nothing more than a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. It is also the indication that Assyrian policy had now developed in a new direction. From now on she would depopulate the lands she conquered and settle them with a mixture of people from other captured territories. By this means she hoped to reduce or eliminate resistance. You may remember that this will be the origin of the Samaritans of whom we read in the Gospels. They were the descendants of the people Assyria brought into Israel to repopulate the territory when she had carried off its original inhabitants and scattered them throughout her empire. Israel was now reduced to a tiny kingdom just 30 miles wide and 40 miles long.
v.30 The Assyrian annals also mention Hoshea, though predictably there is no mention of the popular uprising against Pekah, only of the Assyrian decision to ratify the coup. This is how it reads: “They overthrew Pekah their king, so I set Hoshea as king over them.”
v.32 After the rapid and ominous changes in Israel the narrator returns to the southern kingdom, to its more stable life, and to Jotham who was mentioned earlier (vv. 5, 7).
v.33 Almost all the good kings of Judah had Hebrew mothers and the bad ones typically
v.35 As was typical of the “good” kings of Judah, Jotham did not centralize the people’s worship in the temple in Jerusalem, a failure that exposed the nation to all manner of pagan ways of thinking and living. It was during Jotham’s reign that the ministry of the prophet Micah began.
v.38 The author of Kings mentions as the Chronicler does not the attacks against Judah by the Syrians and the Israelites in league together but does not mention that by his faith in the Lord Jotham successfully defended his territory from these attacks by the construction of defensive fortifications, nor does the narrator mention here Jotham’s successful war against the Ammonites, the result of which was three years of substantial tribute. All of this success came, we read in 2 Chronicles 27:6 because Jotham “ordered his ways before the Lord his God.”
We’ve come almost to the end of Israel, the northern kingdom. Hoshea would be Israel’s last king, if you are content to dignify an assassin with the title of king. The die is cast. Intimations of judgment surround her now. Though long the more powerful of the two states, Israel and Judah, Israel now is diminished to the point that she is an irrelevance. But while one assassination has followed another in Samaria, Judah has enjoyed the long years of Uzziah’s reign, a measure of peace, and substantial prosperity. But Israel was long past learning anything from the comparison of fortunes. She was spiritually dead.
It is during this time that the prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah were delivering God’s word to his people, but largely to no effect. There is something terribly solemn about a people descending into darkness who still cannot be made to accept that they are at fault and have brought this judgment upon themselves. Pride is such a powerful and insidious influence upon the mind that men will think almost anything to avoid admitting fault.
On Easter Sunday I had a conversation with a non-Christian man who asked me why I thought people did not believe. I told him that I thought the two primary reasons were pride – the good news absolutely requires the admission of great need; if you are to trust your life to a Savior you must believe that you need to be saved – and sinful desire – people have an uncanny ability to recognize from a distance that becoming a Christian would mean a radical change of lifestyle and the repudiation of some favorite behaviors. I wish now that I had thought to say that those two reasons for unbelief – and they are, without a doubt the primary reasons – reflect the two principle definitions of sin. That is, most people don’t believe in Jesus and commit themselves to following him because they are sinners. And being sinners they are fundamentally and profoundly two things.
- First they are proud. The first choice of many Christian theologians for the basic nature or intrinsic character of sin is pride, superbia. It is the desire to be as gods that got us into this mess and it is the insistence that we are gods, our own rulers, our own judges, masters of our fate and captains of our soul that keeps us in darkness. Nothing is further from the truth than that we are gods and yet virtually any guru or self-help maven can make a buck by telling people that they are gods and have power within themselves to solve all their problems. So here came the Lord’s prophets and here comes the Word of God today saying that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). No wonder the good news of salvation in Christ has been a hard sell! It is a direct assault on the heart of man’s natural concept of himself. The prophets were constantly exposing Israel’s pride, her women and her men.
“…the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks…mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet.”
Appearance had become their god. The admiration of others was their heart’s desire. As for the men, if they were wealthy they trampled on the poor with no thought of the misery of their neighbors. If they were poor they cheated others as poor as themselves. And all of that because they put themselves first! Pride! As Thomas Aquinas put it: “The inordinate love of self is the cause of all sin.” [ST I, ii, q. 77, art. 4]
- Second human beings are a caldron of evil desires. Is that not perfectly obvious to anyone who opens his or her eyes upon the world in which we live? That is the second candidate for the basic nature or intrinsic character of sin: evil desire or concupiscientia. The prophets who spoke to Israel during these years were constantly exposing the evil desires that lay behind Israel’s betrayal of the covenant Yahweh had made with her. She loved the sensual worship of the pagan deities because it fulfilled desires that Yahweh’s worship did not and would not. It was erotically charged, it was dramatic, and it was violent. They got at worship what people today get from pornography and video games! They loved money and so were willing to oppress others in order to accumulate more. Read Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos: drunkenness, sexual immorality, dishonesty and graft, rampant materialism and acquisitiveness, indifference to the poor and the suffering of others. It goes on and on.
Now it doesn’t take much thought to realize that superbia (pride) and concupiscientia (evil desire) are really two sides of the same coin. When man became the center of his own world he began to think the purpose of his life was to serve himself, his own pleasures and happiness. And any honest man or woman who considers his or her ways would have to admit that this is precisely what he thinks and how she lives: as if they occupied the center of the world and as if the world itself existed for them! Even man’s religion became, at last, simply a means of acquiring things for himself, the worship of himself being his highest priority. God existed now only to help him obtain his wants. Religion continues to exist but it has been denatured, turned into a calculation of personal benefit; one way, but only one, in which a person seeks what he or she desires.
So why do people not repent and believe? Because they do not want to admit how bad and how needy they actually are – they have too much invested in the godlike view of themselves that they have so long entertained – and because they do not want to give up the pleasures that submission to God would require them to surrender. We see it in Israel in the 8th century B.C. and we see it everywhere we look today. It is the nature of man as a sinner that explains everything in this world; everything. It explains why people won’t believe and it explains, finally, why they do. Because, by the grace of God, they discover themselves to be sinners and know they need a Redeemer more than they need anything else.
But there is something else here about Israel’s stubborn unbelief, her persistent unwillingness to admit her fault, to repent of her sins, and to trust herself to the Lord God. Sin is, as it were, a living thing, a virus or a plague. It grows, it is contagious, and, unless it is arrested it finally kills. This is what is meant when Paul in his letters, once in 1 Corinthians (5:6) and once again in Galatians (5:9), warns his readers that “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Sin, like yeast, spreads through the entire body into which it is put. In Corinthians Paul was clearly worried about the alarming possibilities of the tolerance of sexual sin in that church and what must come from that toleration if it persisted. In Galatians he worried about the spread of the principle of legalism, of works righteousness, of self-salvation among the Christians in central Asia Minor and what must eventually come of that. One reason for this, of course, why the leaven leavens the whole lump, is that the more proud sinners sin the harder it becomes for them to admit their sin because there is so much more to admit. The more abortions women get and men pressure them to get, the harder and less likely it becomes for society to admit it is complicit in a great evil; too many people now exist in the society who would have to admit that they committed a great evil; and so with any sin.
Israel lived for 200 years after the division of the kingdom, almost as long as the United States of America has existed as a separate nation. In some ways that is a long time. Throughout her life the Lord kept his Word alive among the Israelites. He proved himself Israel’s God on Mount Carmel, in Israel’s wars, and so on and time and time again – especially during the miracle working period of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha – he completely discredited the pagan gods that Israel found so attractive. And all through this time, as we noticed, there were believing men and women in Israel, whether the widow whom Elisha helped, or the girl who put Naaman on to Elisha, or the sons of the prophets, or the men who returned from the north to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chron. 30:10-11), a trip for Israelites that carried with it some real risks.
But as time passed, the influence of the believing remnant in the north weakened until it had virtually disappeared. And keeping pace with the declining influence of those who remained faithful to Yahweh, the spiritual culture of Israel steadily worsened and coarsened. Even Ahab was not as cruel as Menahem. And there was never a time of such instability and political violence as there came to be at the end.
It is a fact of life in this world, a fact as easy to demonstrate as virtually any fact, that spiritual corruption worsens over time. It does not reach a point of stasis where it remains unchanged for many years, nor do cultures generally improve morally apart from momentary changes provoked by crises or from revival brought by the Spirit of God. Great books have been written about the decline and fall of great civilizations and it is a large part of the human story not only that civilizations fall, but how they fall, rotting from within. I think it was Arnold Toynbee who said, “civilizations don’t simply die, they commit suicide.” And so it has been, and so it is today. That is an interesting and important observation for Christians to ponder as they think about our world, the world in which we are living and are seeking to minister the grace of God. I’m not a prophet, but one does not need to be a prophet to say that, absent a God-given revival, the best days of the United States are behind her and things are bound to get much worse as time passes. We’ve already descended very far into that maelstrom of vices that have sucked the life out of many peoples before us. It would be the most foolish sort of patriotic illusion that would lead someone to think that it will be different for us because we are Americans. In fact, what is obvious is that we are marching in lock-step with civilizations that have lived and died before us and what happened to them will happen to us.
But that isn’t as important as another observation, still more sure because taught and shown in the Word of God time and time again. What is true of cultures or civilizations in general, is still truer of the history of Christian society, of the church, beginning with Israel and continuing to the present day.
We heard this week of events in two old and once great Presbyterian churches, the Church of Scotland, which is the mother of most of the Presbyterian churches of the Western world, and the Presbyterian Church USA. In some ways it is no stretch at all to compare both churches to Israel in the twilight years of the divided kingdom. They have continued to maintain the profession of faith in Yahweh, but they have shown themselves on many occasions and in the run of their daily lives largely indifferent to the revelation of God as it has been given in Holy Scripture. Whether it is positive doubt expressed by any number of ministers about the accuracy and authority of the Bible, or concerning events that, one would have thought, were fundamental to any genuine Christian faith, such as the resurrection of the Lord Jesus or his ascension to heaven, or an unwillingness to enforce the law of God among her people, these are churches that still have a tinge of historic Christianity to them, but lack all evidences of genuine loyalty to the Lord and his truth. Their pronouncements sound very modern but rarely do they sound very Christian.
Both of them have been heading toward the normalization of homosexuality and its lifestyle, a normalization our elite culture now considers the mark of truly enlightened people. This past week we learned that the PCUSA has now approved the removal from its Book of Church Order the requirement that its ministers be either married to a spouse of the opposite sex or remain sexually chaste in singleness. A Minneapolis presbytery voted for the change and its was the vote that gave the advocates of this change the 2/3 necessary for passage.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is to discuss the report of its committee on May 23rd. But one has only to read the report to doubt that the General Assembly will maintain biblical standards of sexual life. Once again a great church has capitulated to the culture and proved that it has nothing to offer that the culture doesn’t have already. If the church cannot confront sin, either as pride or as evil desire, it has no message, no good news, and no reason for being.
But the point to be made from 2 Kings 15 is that no one should ever have doubted that this day was coming or that there will be further betrayals of the Word of God still to come. When higher critical views of the Bible were introduced in both the Scottish and American Presbyterian churches in the later 19th century, the church was assured by the advocates of this highly skeptical view of the historicity of the Bible that nothing of any importance hung in the balance. The old gospel would still be proclaimed; the Christian life would still be preached to the church. But, of course, it wasn’t so. Those who embraced those views first were the first ones to discover that they could no longer believe some of the central tenets of the faith. And as the years passed, the faith itself slipped from the hands of the church. The Presbyterian Church in America, a small fraction of the size of the PCUSA, has many more missionaries than the older church – which used to have a great many wonderful gospel missionaries – because the PCUSA is not sure any longer that it has anything important to say to the other cultures of the world. It is more concerned to respect those cultures and their religious diversity than to see men and women converted to faith in Christ. Theology always tells. And a church that has lost its Christian theology will invariably soon be a church without missionaries, without evangelists, and without preachers capable of stirring a congregation with the truth of God’s Word. A church that has embraced Darwin is very likely to be religiously environmentalist, but highly unlikely to teach its people that their very lives and bodies belong to the God who made them. A church that embraces the virtue of toleration, of moral relativism, you can be sure will not long remain a church from which the message of the coming judgment and Christ as the only way of salvation are proclaimed to its people and to the world.
And what is true theologically is also true ethically. First the church ignored the Bible’s prohibition on women in church office. Then it lost interest in any form of discipline so that there are now few consequences or none if members or ministers, for that matter, commit any number of sins. The famous actor, Jimmy Stewart, a lifelong Presbyterian, when he proposed marriage to a woman who had been married before and divorced, had to appear with her before a commission of the Los Angeles presbytery to get permission to marry her in the church. I suspect most ministers in the Los Angeles Presbytery of the PCUSA nowadays wouldn’t believe that story if they heard it, so little does their church take any notice of the biblical laws of marriage and divorce. So why should we be surprised that today they have taken the next step and are ready to normalize homosexuality as an acceptable form of life for Christians?
Wise people saw this coming miles away; it was inevitable. Sin is restless. It is always seeking the next conquest. The Devil is happy with a listless and message-less Christian church. But he is happier still to have a church that is in active opposition to the teaching of the Bible. He then can insinuate into anyone’s ear the whisper: “not even Christians can agree about homosexuality; some approve, some don’t, but give it time and all will approve.” That was the gist of the LA Times editorial on the PCUSA decision.
And what has been the result of this century of theological and spiritual downgrade in these two churches? Their numbers have collapsed and with them their influence. Just like Israel that was now a tiny kingdom of 30 miles by 40, the once great PCUSA is an American irrelevance. It is a rapidly shrinking church growing old at an astonishing rate. In 2010 the median age of members in the PCUSA was 61! Four out of every five members is older than 45. It is a church with no future; with death writ large over its congregations and sanctuaries. And the situation of the Church of Scotland is even worse. One recent moderator admitted that the impression is that people who go to church nowadays no longer have their original hair color! Church buildings are being sold in droves. Some predict that by 2030 – that’s nineteen years from now – the national church will have largely disappeared. Its membership has fallen below 500,000 (and that is a membership still much larger than its regular attendance) and continues to drop significantly year after year. The national church gets hardly any of the nation to come to services on Sunday. No one cares what it thinks except the few who still participate in its life. It wields no influence, no leadership in the country. It is a curiosity, like some old antique.
In fact, these churches are Israel in the times covered by the narrator in 2 Kings 15. They have become wards of a larger state, in this case not Assyria but wards of the prevailing Western, decadent, sensual culture, doing its bidding, dutifully paying tribute, and speaking only what it has been told to say.
All of this is deeply depressing. It ought to be. I find myself very discouraged by what I see in the culture and the church and, naturally, worried for the life of my children and grandchildren. You ought to be discouraged as well. You ought, of course, to rejoice and be glad in your own salvation and the hope of everlasting life, delight in the fact that God has promised to be your God and the God of your children, and that you have a life to live for him; in some ways a life that counts for more because you must live for Christ in a time of spiritual darkness. For that reason your Christian life can shine brighter than it might otherwise have done! “Sorrowful and always rejoicing” is how Paul described the Christian life and some of that sorrow for us must be the miserable, humiliating condition of the church in our day, and the dying of what is left of our civilization. We’d all love to live in a day of great things in the kingdom of God and there are Christians today, millions upon millions of them, who are living in such a time in other parts of the world. But not here, not now.
But then think of the few faithful folk in Israel in those long ago days. What was there for them to do but to mourn the unbelief all around them, to bear witness to the truth as they were able, and to lift their hearts to God for help in their time of need? We don’t like to think in such terms. We are Americans after all and we cut our teeth on the fact that anything is possible if only we will apply ourselves. Well, it isn’t true. For some time it wasn’t possible that Israel would recover herself, would repent and turn back to the Lord. Hosea said it straight out: Israel had passed the point of no return, nothing was going to change. She was spiritually dead: deaf, and dumb. It was going to end badly and anyone with his wits about him should have known that. And if they were incapable of reading the signs, they had Hosea and Amos and Micah and Isaiah to tell them what was coming and why.
I cannot tell you how or how fast the final collapse will come or even if it will take the form of a collapse and not simply a slow, agonizing death. But the church is dying in the West. It is dying by the numbers, it is dying in its influence, and it is dying for the same reasons Israel finally died. That is the lesson of 2 Kings 15 for the readers of the Bible today. The Lord can arrest that spiritual decline if he will. But absent revival, the leaven will leaven the entire lump. Always has; always will.
These are reasons for us to take great care with our children and to prepare them for the life they must live and the conditions they must face. We are to teach them to love the Word of God with an unshakeable and impregnable loyalty. These are reasons for us to be still more grateful that God has made himself known to us in a time when he has not made himself known to great multitudes of people who live around us. These are reasons to be still more determined that if the light is dying, we will not keep our candle under the basket (Matt. 5:15 ESV).