The ESV has Abijam; the NIV Abijah as does the ESV in the parallel text found in 2 Chron. 11. Different spellings of the same name are commonplace.
Abishalom is another version of the name Absalom and, according to 2 Chron. 11:20 this Absalom was none other than David’s rebellious son who was killed in an abortive effort to seize power from David his father. Maacah was Rehoboam’s favorite wife and so her son, Abijam was made prince among his brothers and intended for the throne. This becomes a complication because later, in v. 10, we read that the mother of Asa, Abijam’s son, was also Maacah the daughter of Abishalom.
There are two ways of understanding this. One is to take “mother” as grandmother, as “father” in v. 11 – where we read that David was Asa’s “father” – obviously means great-great grandfather. The only problem with that is that in every other instance where a king’s mother is identified in the narrative it seems to be the actual mother and it seems to be a point of some importance to the narrator to identify the king’s mother. It is a striking statement here in v. 10 when we have just read that his father’s mother was the same woman. The other suggestion, taken more seriously by commentators nowadays who are getting used to the fact that subtle messages are often incorporated into Hebrew narrative, is that Asa was the product of an incestuous relationship between Abijam and his mother. Imagine someone first hearing Kings read and hearing the same name within a few verses as the mother of two different generations of men. He would ask himself: how could that be? We are going to read later in our text that Maacah was a particularly wicked woman whose influence in the kingdom was particularly baleful (v. 13). She was a devotee of the sensual worship of Asherah and, as a result, Asa had the good sense to remove her from her position as queen mother in Judah. [Provan, 126] An incestuous marriage would have been the worst sort of violation of the Law of Moses (Lev. 18:7), but not the sort of thing that would be entirely unexpected of a woman like Maacah. She was noted for her utter indifference to the warning that Yahweh would drive his people out of the land if they practiced such “abominations” (Lev. 18:28) and so polluted the land.
Rehoboam is mentioned instead of Abijam because the war was the continuation of a conflict that had begun between the houses of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. The names don’t need to change because it was the same old war.
Now you hear a statement like this, a general account of what a king did and you have to put yourself back into that situation. You have to realize that this reforming effort on Asa’s part would have been hugely unpopular with a significant portion of the population. Many would have come to enjoy the sensuality of pagan worship, and the sense of fitting into the ANE world; others were involved in the business of making the idols; and, as is always the case, others who didn’t worship at the high places nevertheless had loved ones who did and resented the suggestion that they were doing something evil. The Kidron Valley, east of the city, was the location of the Jerusalem’s main rubbish dump.
Because Abijam’s reign had been so short Asa may have become king when still a minor. That may have contributed to Maacah’s influence as the queen mother. It would have been when Asa was older and had acquired the full authority of his throne that he was able to depose her.
Asa reigned forty-one years in Jerusalem, a long time. He would, in fact, be king of Judah while five different men were king of Israel to the north. Baasha was the second of these five Israelite kings.
In other words, there were already treaty relations between Judah and Syria and Asa was counting on their continuation. Syria was Israel’s northern neighbor so pressure from Syria would immediately relieve the pressure on Judah as Israel turned to meet a far more serious threat.
Ijon and Dan lay at the northern limit of Israelite territory near the headwaters of the Jordan river.
Tirzah was to remain Israel’s capital city until replaced by Samaria.
What is described here is a massive call-up of Israelite men to eliminate the Israelite outpost and to fortify with the same stones and timber the town of Geba in the territory of Benjamin some 13 miles north of Jerusalem. Mizpah has been excavated and massive fortifications from the period have been uncovered, oriented northwards (i.e. against an attack from Israel) and strengthened against chariot attack. [Wiseman, 157]
Last time we examined the question as to whether Rehoboam was a believing man or not. We do not face that question in the case of these two men. What we have in Abijam and Asa is the pattern that will continue throughout the remainder of the narrative of Judah’s kings. Abijam is the characteristically bad king and is described in terms that will be used again and again, and Asa is the characteristically good king and is described in the way that good kings will be described. Both are measured by the same standard. How did each compare to David. In Abijam’s case, his heart was not wholly true to the Lord as it was in David’s case and he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord as David had done. In Asa’s case, he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord as David had done.
And, as you know if you have read Kings before, what we have here is going to become very familiar as we make our way through the book. We will have a king introduced, a king of Israel or of Judah, and then immediately be told whether he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord as David his father had done, or whether he did not do what is right in the eyes of the Lord and, instead, followed in the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat. This is what matters to the narrator: did the king do what was right, was his heart devoted to Yahweh, or not.
This makes for an interesting confirmation dovetailing neatly with the point we were making this morning from 1 John 2: there is a moral distinction in human life between those who do what is right and those who do not, between those whose hearts are committed to the Lord and those whose are not, which is simply another way of saying the same thing.
There would have been nothing particularly noteworthy about this, certainly nothing controversial, in generations past, but this emphasis on moral distinction, between those who do right and those who do wrong, has become increasingly problematic in modern Western culture. There are many reasons for this, but at bottom all forms of paganism – and that is what our modern culture has become, a pagan society in the technical sense of the word – is monistic, not dualistic as is biblical Christianity. It is important to remember this, to take the issue back to its root, because the monism of our culture’s worldview not only explains a great deal and predicts still more, but accounts for the enthusiasm with which people nowadays welcome such fundamental and, one would think, obviously dangerous and unwise ideas, choices and changes. They make complete sense to the people who watch television, who get their information from the internet, and who breathe our modern air. We live in an increasingly pagan world and that paganism is as natural to our contemporaries as it was to the inhabitants of the ANE.
What I mean is that paganism has an inevitable preference for one rather than two. The distinctions between men and women, between heterosexual and homosexual, distinctions that the modern culture increasingly wishes to abolish are simply good examples of paganism’s preference for the unity of reality. Homosexuality has been called by its intellectual practitioners the religious “sacrament of monism” (spiritual One-ism)—the “joining of the opposites,” the perfect expression of what they call a “non-dual spirituality” which is the natural, unthinking, usually unexamined, spirituality of a great many of the people you know who are the products of this culture. Here is one observer of our modern situation:
“The fact is, by legalizing ‘gay marriage,’ America is becoming officially pagan. We are converting from a “hetero-cosmology” of Two-ism, to a “homo-cosmology” of One-ism. [“Hetero” in Greek means, “the other” or “one of two”; “homo” in Greek means “the same.” “Homo” by the way in Latin means “man” but in Greek it means “the same.” “homoousios” “the same nature.” This was a very important term in the Aryan controversies of the 4th century. God the Father and God the Son are “homoousios” they have the same nature whereas the Aryan’s argued that they had a different nature. ] We no longer believe that there is a transcendent God, outside the universe, who has revealed to us how we are to relate unselfishly to Him and to one another.” [Peter Jones, Truth Exchange (8/22/2010)] Such a conviction about otherness, about two-ness, of God would be the death of all paganism and all pagan thinking and philosophy!
This refusal to credit absolute distinctions, to credit the existence of two in nature instead of one, a basic two-ism or dualism which has been our philosophy for 2,000 years and certainly for 1,000 years in the West, eliminates the theoretical possibility of absolute categories of right and wrong, of good and evil. This is the inevitable implication of paganism because in paganism there is no fundamental antithesis between creator and creature or between God and nature or between nature and anything else. Everything is the same, everything is one. Paganism’s god is in you and you are moving toward becoming God yourself. Behavior may be helpful or unhelpful, rational or irrational, welcome or unwelcome to others – in the face of hard-edged reality they can hardly abolish all distinctions – but the fundamental distinction, that between absolute right and wrong, that between God and God’s creation is anathema to paganism. In Christian philosophy God is one thing and nature, his creation, is another, but in paganism there is no such chasm, no such distinction or dualism, all of that is utterly inconsistent with paganism and yet it is absolutely fundamental to biblical Christianity.
This fundamental difference between Christianity and paganism is why C.S. Lewis regarded Hinduism as the antithesis of Christianity. He once wrote that the “only two serious philosophical options for an adult mind” are Hinduism and Christianity. The fundamental distinction between the two is that in Hinduism the absolute is immanent in nature not above it and separate from it. Hinduism’s god does nothing, demands anything. [B35] That is so because Hinduism’s god is not above or separate from nature but a part of it. The Upanishads, the holy books of Hinduism, say “The idea “one” is the source of all truth; the idea “two” is the source of all error. But in Christianity “two” is essential to reality because God and the creature are not one and the same. They do not share the same nature. If a Hindu announced to his guru that he had discovered that “I am God,” the response would be, “Congratulations; you finally figured it out. You have entered into an understanding of deeper reality” If an Israelite in Moses’ day had said the same thing he would have been stoned for blasphemy. That is how fundamental the difference ultimately is. In the paganism of the ANE the gods were very much part and parcel of the natural world. If people were not gods themselves, they inhabited the same nature; they were subject to the same forces and the same caprice. The gods acted very much like human beings and human beings acted, in the nature of the case, very much like their gods. The difference between themselves and their gods was one of scale not of kind and nature. In Hinduism enlightenment consists in the realization that we and everything else are all, ultimately one. In Christianity enlightenment, true understanding, consists in the realization that God made you, you are his creature, that he remains far above you, distinct from you and from the world; that he is holy, is the ruler and judge of all the earth, and that the great question of your life is that of your relationship with this other, far greater person. [cf. Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 166]
From this difference between one and two, between monism and dualism, between pantheism and an antithesis between God and man, come in train all the other differences that are multiplying between our culture’s worldview and that of the Bible and the Christian faith. For example, the modern religious devotion to the theory of evolution is a triumph of monism as evolution is the denial of the antithesis between God and nature. There is only nature and if there is something we want to call “God”, it is something that exists in nature and is are part of that nature. Don’t suppose that the draw of monism and the ethical and moral liberation from constraint that it bestows is attractive only to the university professor and the media mogul. It is the persistent message being fed to everyone in our culture and embraced in many ways, however unsuspectingly, by the largest number of people in our land.
Florence and I went to Victoria a few weeks ago for a night and a morning to celebrate our anniversary. After dinner we went to see the new Julia Roberts film “Eat, Pray, Love.” It is supposed to be a story about a woman searching for the meaning of life who finds it, or at least some of it, in India at an Ashram. It was a tedious film and never seriously engaged the question, but it reminded me that even after the debacle of the flirtation with Indian gurus in the aftermath of the 60s the draw of the East continues to be present in our culture and perhaps is strengthening even now. It was a debacle well known to inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest who were here when Antelope, Oregon became Rajneesh, to which place Hollywood trooped in great numbers, at least until the guru himself was indicted on immigration charges and forced to return to India, thereby depressing the market for Rolls Royce cars in the Northwest for a couple of years! Roberts herself, who was raised a Roman Catholic, has recently claimed to embrace Hinduism. Not terribly surprising really. That is not a jump for someone in this culture. It is a small step. For those not interested in the practice of Hinduism, for those who visited India and found out what religion is like in its practice, postmodernism is a cheap substitute. Everything is the same, including the moral codes of human beings. There are no absolutes – there cannot be because there is no “two” but only “one” – so there can be no fixed antithesis between right and wrong.
No one can read the Bible and imagine that such is its view. There is antithesis, natural and moral, everywhere one looks. One king did what is right and the other did what is wrong. One king was good, the other bad. One served God the other did not. But it takes some biblical sophistication to appreciate the nature of this antithesis and to explain it to ourselves and even more to our children and to others. This moral antithesis can be confusing to even a faithful reader of the Bible.
What I mean is that Abijam was not by any means the worst king that Judah had. There were kings who did much worse than Abijam did. Indeed, the account of Abijah’s reign in Chronicles reports that some good things happened too during the short reign of Rehoboam’s son. Abijah won a great victory over Jeroboam by making explicit appeal to the name of the Lord and to Yahweh’s covenant with his people. Asa, on the other hand, though identified clearly as a good king, indeed, he is the first of eight kings of Judah who are said to have done what was right, was not without serious fault himself. Indeed, we read that already of David himself, the standard for all following kings, in v. 5. David did what was right except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. There was a dark blot on David’s moral record. Indeed, the entire second half of David’s reign was a cross between the ineffective and the pathetic. The narrator is kinder to David here than the facts required him to be.
And so with Asa. We read in v. 14 that, though he reformed worship in Judah in important ways, he did not go so far as to remove the high places, the local sanctuaries that would tempt Judah into idolatry again and again. It was a failure that would result in the constant need for reformation throughout Judah’s history; at least until Hezekiah destroyed the high places as part of his more comprehensive reform. But there is more to be said to Asa’s discredit. We have here the bare account of Asa’s negotiations with Ben-hadad, the king of Syria as a means of stopping Baasha’s advance southward toward Jerusalem. But in 2 Chron. 16 you will read of this same diplomatic maneuver and of the Lord’s displeasure over it as amounting to a failure of faith on Asa’s part, trusting in Ben-hadad instead of Yahweh himself. And when the Lord’s prophet condemned Asa for having done so, the king put him in prison! So much for submission to the word of the Lord! He also oppressed some of his people later in his reign according to the chronicler. When his foot disease appeared late in his reign, we read again of Asa that he did not consult the Lord but only his doctors. Asa started well but finished badly. The author of Kings is kinder to Asa than he needed to be – interested as this author was in only the general matter, not the details – but the account of Asa’s diplomacy even here may well suggest a failure on his part. The readers of kings will know very well the rest of the history and would have known that this alliance with Syria was to prove devastating in its consequences as the years passed. It was a singularly bad idea as a way of securing Judah’s peace and safety.
We expect to learn that a man who did right in the eyes of the Lord did right, not that he did some good things and a number of really bad things as well. And we expect to learn that a king who did evil in the eyes of the Lord did obviously evil things, not that he was in some respects a decent king. The world, to put it mildly, does not get this. They see the ambiguity and conclude that in every life there is some good and some bad. How can you call a person who does good things evil and a person who does evil things good? Christians, where is your absolute distinction?
But the distinction is absolute in the Bible, everywhere in the Bible. Being good clearly does not mean being perfect and being evil clearly does not mean that a person never does good things. Good men stumble in many ways and there is honor among thieves. The Bible’s use of the term “sinners” is another example of the absoluteness of the antithesis between good and bad people, even though their behavior is invariably a mixture of good and evil.
In the OT and the NT the term “sinners” is used of the unbeliever even though the Bible makes it unmistakably clear that even the most devout and holy believer in this world remains a sinner. In Psalm 1 we read that the righteous man does not stand in the way of sinners and in Psalm 37 that sinners will be destroyed. In context there is a clear distinction being drawn: the righteous will not be destroyed; so the righteous are not sinners, at least not according to this use of the term.
In the NT you find the same usage. Paul can say that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners,” and Jesus that we should treat an unrepentant Christian as a tax collector or sinner. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord uses “sinners” in this same way. He says, remember, that even sinners love those who love them. In other words, “sinners” is a synonym for unbelievers. But we Christians are sinners too. We continue to sin; surely that makes us sinners as well.
So how is it that the Scripture makes this categorical judgment that some men are good and some are evil, some are righteous and some are sinners, when their behavior is not by any means all of one thing or the other? The answer comes in several parts. Taking Holy Scripture together we can say
- As we said this morning, the Scripture is interested in the root, the fundamental direction of a person’s life. Is it Godward or manward; is it toward obedience or away from it; is it motivated by faith in God and love for him, or by self-love? The deep principle of a human life will eventually – in the world to come – demonstrate itself in totality. Those who are controlled by the Spirit of God will finally be morally perfect and good out to their fingertips. Those who are controlled by the flesh and the devil will finally become the ripe fruit of the principles of unbelief and rebellion against God. They will be evil in thought, word, and deed. This is the scariest thing about unbelief: what it must become when it expresses itself fully and its effects are no longer mitigated by contrary forces as they are in this world. Most people are not nearly as bad as they might be because of the pressure to be accepted by others, the fear of the loss of reputation, their regard for the judgment of others, because of the threat of punishment or unhappy consequences that ensue from evil behavior, or because of the moderating influence of so much good still in the world and among human beings. But when those forces are withdrawn, as they will be in the world to come, and evil has full sway, unbelieving human life will become as ugly as we only now and again see it to be in this life. That is what hell will be, men as their nature will make them when given free rein to do so!
- Second, the Scripture can speak so categorically about good and evil men, no matter the mixture of good and evil in the behavior of both, because good men do live good lives in a way evil men do not. We sometimes forget this but even sinful Christians live a better life – as God judges human life – than unbelievers, even very good unbelievers, do. We care for things the unbeliever does not care for; we do things, very important things, the unbeliever does not do. We worship God, we pray, we seek to obey his commandments, we try to persuade others to love, serve and trust him as well. However imperfectly we live, we live with the Lord before us, trusting in him for our salvation. There is a huge difference, an absolute difference between this kind of life and the life of an unbeliever. It is one reason why unbelievers so often see differences in us that we do not see ourselves, and notice differences between themselves and us that we often overlook because we are so disappointed by our sins. Asa stumbled in many ways, but he lived a different life than Abijam, so different that one could be called good and the other evil, one righteous and the other wicked. Faith makes a difference in the life one leads; it can’t help doing so.
As I have often reminded you, you have every reason to be confident in your Christian faith in this culture of ours. No one can really live with monism. No one really denies moral absolutes – the antithesis between good and evil – in his life, no matter how he may deny them when standing on his feet in debate. He doesn’t deny them at any other point in his life and living. He knows there is right and wrong and cares deeply about the difference. When he is arguing for his worldview he can say, with Einstein, that fundamentally there is no difference between the murderer and his victim, but he cannot be content with Einstein’s solution, any more than Einstein himself was: viz. that we have to act like such a difference exists even if it does not. And in every heart there is what Calvin called the semen religionis, the seed of religion. Everyone has an instinctive and indelible understanding of God as his or her maker, as above and distinct from him or her. It is inescapable to one made in the image of God. We should not doubt that there is, in fact, this absolute distinction between God and nature, between God and man, between good people and bad, between the righteous and the wicked. It is precisely what we should expect to find in God’s world, in the real world that we and our neighbors inhabit everyday!
But there is something else here. Why is Asa a good king, a righteous man? How does one become a righteous man who does what is right in the eyes of the Lord? It is a particularly pressing question in the case of Asa; a question that the narrator does not address directly. Asa’s father was not a righteous man. His grandfather was perhaps a righteous man but the testimony Rehoboam bore to his nation and his family was decidedly ambiguous. Idolatry had flourished in Judah during three generations of the family that produced Asa. His mother may have been his grandmother. If so his life began in a deeply sinful union between his parents. His mother was an out and out pagan idolater and no one has more influence on the spiritual formation of children than their mother. In neither Kings nor Chronicles is there mentioned some person or some influence that might have counteracted the sinful influences of Asa’s upbringing as the child of idolaters. Joash had a faithful priest, Jehoida, who led him as a boy into a life of faithfulness to God. Josiah may well have been deeply influenced by his grandfather Manasseh, as he grew up during the time of Manasseh’s furious repentance at the end of his life. Later Josiah found the scroll of Deuteronomy when the temple was being restored. But nothing like this is reported as having happened in Asa’s younger years. So where did Asa’s faith and righteousness come from?
It came from the gracious intervention of God. We can say nothing else. The Spirit of God reached down and changed this man’s heart and made him a faithful follower of Yahweh in defiance of all the influences of his home and his family culture. The only way that ever happens is by the sovereign grace of God. God is not only the wholly other one, the one who is distinct from his creatures and far above them, he is the one who loves his people whom he has made with an everlasting love and intervenes in their lives and calls them to himself and brings them to do what is right when otherwise they never would.
There is such a thing as a person who does what is right in the eyes of the Lord and now we know where such people come from. God makes him or her.