2 Kings 11:1-20

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Remember now where we are in this history. Jehu, appointed by the Lord through his prophets Elijah and Elisha to be the new king of Israel, has executed, assassinated really, both the kings of Israel (Jehoram) and Judah (Ahaziah) and Jezebel, the queen mother in Israel. That left a power vacuum and an uncertain succession in Jerusalem into which stepped Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah, the queen mother in Judah, who may well have been Jezebel’s own daughter. She acts like it. If so, Jezebel’s daughter had the same strong will as her mother.

And, a loyal daughter of Israel’s royal house, she had no loyalty to the house of David or to Yahweh’s promise to David’s line. Baal was her god as he had been the god of her parents. There was a Jezebel in Judah too! So Athaliah attempted to eradicate the Davidic line by killing every possible descendant of Ahaziah, whom Jehu had killed. It looked very much as if the Davidic line would come to an end and the promises of God regarding an eternal king to sit on David’s throne would come to nothing. But in a story full of high drama, the line is rescued in one little child thanks to a faithful woman, the wife of a faithful priest (2 Chron. 22:11).

Text Comment

v.1       Athaliah hoped to reign herself as queen mother or perhaps later to arrange for some favored individual who had her mind about things to become Judah’s king. But had she got her way there would not have been a descendant of David who could possibly have become king in Jerusalem. To exterminate the competition was her goal, hence the “whole royal family”. As we will now see, she missed one.

But, take note. These were her grandchildren that she was ordering murdered. Such is the heart of the woman who grew up in the religion of Baal! Paganism (such as we are witnessing the rebirth of in America in our day) does not produce mothers, but anti-mothers, as it did here. [Leithart, 225]

v.2       Jehosheba would have been Jehoram’s daughter by another wife and so Athaliah’s half-sister and Joash would have therefore been her nephew.

Josephus tells us that the room in which the infant boy and his nurse were hidden was a temple store room in which spare furniture and mattresses were stored. Perhaps this was in the priests’ living quarters next to the temple.

v.3       Those years were the only years in which a descendant of David was not ruling Judah until the Babylonian captivity.

v.4       The Carites are probably the Kerethites who were part of David’s royal bodyguard (2 Sam. 20:23).

v.9       The NIV and even to some extent the ESV has made more simple some complicated Hebrew narrative. It is not easy to tell just who comes from where and does what. But, in any case, the soldiers, together with the priests, would have constituted a sizeable force.

v.10     Typically soldiers would come into the temple unarmed, so Jehoiada armed them from the weapons that were kept in the temple as museum pieces.

v.12     The “testimony” would be some form of the law of God, symbolic of the new king’s obligations to obey that law and to see to it that his people did as well.

v.14     Probably one of the two pillars before and beside the door into the sanctuary, the pillars named Jakin and Boaz if you remember from the account of the construction of the temple.

“All the people of the land” is the kind of hyperbole, exaggeration for effect that is common in the Bible. But this phrase is the origin of a concept precious to many Jews still today: they are the הארץ עם , the people of the land. I think there is a major Jewish daily newspaper in Israel with that Hebrew title.

Tyrants often lose touch with the actual state of affairs and Athaliah was no exception. Completely misreading the situation she unwisely drew attention to herself and fell right into the hands of her enemies. David had, much more wisely, left town when he learned that his son Absalom was conspiring against him.

v.17     Judah had lived by now under two apostate kings, Jehoram and Ahaziah, and a queen mother who was still worse and so the nation needed to rededicate itself to the Lord and the covenant. This Jehoiada arranged for Judah to do in a solemn ceremony. How far Judah had gone from the Lord and the covenant is indicated by the presence of a sanctuary to Baal in Jerusalem, just as there had been one in Samaria until Jehu destroyed it.

v.18     There is a great difference between the destruction of the worship of Baal in Jerusalem and what Jehu had done in destroying the same worship in Samaria. In this case the people dominate the reform; the eradication of Baalism was supported by, it was even an act of the people. In Israel Jehu destroyed Baal’s temple and his priesthood but the people had little part in the destruction. Obviously, so it seems from this narrative, the reform has more popular and institutional support in the south than the north and would, for that reason, prove more long lasting. And that would prove to be the case.

According to philosopher Frances Fukuyama, “the great events that shape our time often spring from very small causes that one could easily imagine having happened differently.” This from an article he entitled “It Could have been the German Century.” He was speaking of the 20th century. [Cited in P.K. Helseth, “On Divine Ambivalence: Open Theism and the Problem of Particular Evils,” JETS 44:3 (Sept. 2001) 507-508.]

Fukuyama harks back to the German army’s bungling of the early campaign against France in September 1914, the first month of the First World War. Had the German army been commanded by a better general than Alexander von Kluck – cautious, hesitant, and timid, advanced to supreme command just before the war started – and if the Germans had attempted to take Paris by sweeping around the French left rather than their right, it is entirely possible, it is even very likely, that the history of the 20th century would not have been anything like what it proved to be. Here is Fukuyama:

“What might have happened had the Germans won in early September? They most likely would have swept on to Paris by the end of the month, forcing a capitulation by the French government (as happened in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and again in May 1940). A quick German victory would have left unimpaired the cultural self-confidence of 19th century European civilization. The 8.5 million casualties of World War I would not have spawned a radical revolutionary movement in Russia called Bolshevism. With no German humiliation there would have been no occasion for rabble-rousing on the part of an unemployed painter named Adolf Hitler, and therefore no National Socialism…. [Moreover,] no Russian revolution and Nazism means there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, no Cold War and no Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions. Decolonization and the emergence of the Third World might have taken placer much later absent the exhaustion of the British Empire after two world wars and the rise of radical revolutionary movements in Eurasia. And the U.S., which came of age as a great power due to the world wars, may have remained the isolationist paradise fondly remembered by Patrick Buchanan.” [508; cited from “It could have been the German Century,” The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 31, 1989) A10]

All of that if only von Kluck had conducted the battle as any number of more able German generals would certainly have done! If but this one thing had happened differently, the whole world would be different today. As Pascal famously put it, if only Cleopatra had had a shorter nose, the entire history of the world would have been different!

Well something like that is before us this evening in 2 Kings 11. It is not too much to say it this way. Indeed, the narrator virtually invites us to think of it in this way by putting in that very first verse the startling statement that all of David’s house, the whole royal family, had been destroyed! We later learned that wasn’t entirely the case, but the first statement we come to says that it was. That is what everyone but a very few people in Jerusalem thought had happened. What if David’s line had been destroyed as Athaliah intended to destroy it and as she came within a hair’s breadth of destroying it?

Well, think. There would have been no royal house of David from which the promised Messiah could have been born. Joseph, remember, was a descendant of Joash as his genealogy in Matthew 1 makes clear! There would have been no Joseph and Mary and no Jesus. There would have been no John the Baptist either, or the ministry, or the miracles, or the cross, or the empty tomb, or ascension to the right hand, or Pentecost; there would have been no Gospels, no New Testament, nor would there have been the spread of Christianity through the world, and, to make a long story short, you and I would not be in this house of worship tonight and the world would be a much, much more sinister and dismal place, absent the influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the impossibly great significance of the daring-do of some faithful folk as we read of it in 2 Kings 11, who proved to be the means by which the Lord preserved the house of David, the promise of David’s final descendant, and the gospel and kingdom of God in the world.

No doubt it occurred to you that this is by no means the only time in the history of redemption that the prospects of the kingdom and people of God hung by the thread of an infant boy whose life was being sought by cruel rulers. Moses was allowed to live when he was supposed to be killed upon his birth; he was hidden after he was born because of the anti-Jewish pogrom then underway in Egypt, and then, the Egyptians all unsuspecting, allowed him to grow up in their midst unrecognized for who and what he was to become. And still more important, the Lord Jesus was spirited away from Bethlehem to Egypt for a time and then grew up unrecognized in Nazareth of Galilee, right under the noses of other so-called “kings” of the Jews. [Provan, 221] And, in those cases also those babies were saved from death by the bravery, the determination, and the hutzpah of some faithful people, just as Joash, all unknowing, was saved by Jehosheba and Jehoiada and a cast of minor characters. Why don’t they make this movie instead of remaking Robin Hood again and again?

There are a number of very attractive minor characters in the biblical narrative. Think of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, who, at his master’s instructions went to Paddan Aram in search of a wife for Isaac. He was a faithful man, a man of prayer, who entrusted his mission’s success to the Lord and was honored by the Lord with the appearance of Rebekah at the well.

Or think of the Egyptian midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, who risked their own lives again and again to save the lives of Hebrew babies. There are many other such faithful folk, named and unnamed in the biblical narrative, people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Barnabas, Simon the tanner, and Lydia, people of whom we would know nothing had they not been taken up into the outworking of God’s plan for the extension and the progress of his kingdom in the world.

And here we have a chapter full of such people, whose faith was demonstrated in very practical ways. Here we have a nurse, a simple woman, so insignificant that she remains unnamed, who no doubt loved Yahweh and his covenant, believed in the house of David and the promise the Lord had made concerning it, and not only lived for some years in real danger, risking the wrath of Athaliah should she have been discovered caring for Joash, but spurned the reward that could have been hers had she disclosed the plot to the queen mother. What a contrast she makes with the spineless men of 10:1-7, the men who were supposed to have protected the king’s sons in Israel, but instead handed them over without a fight to Jehu. They refused to risk danger on behalf of their royal wards; this nurse courted it and welcomed it on behalf of the one prince of David’s line who remained alive. When the opportunity appeared, she seized it and made the most of it.

As the Scottish preacher J.S. Stewart once put it:

“A soul’s great hour sometimes leaps upon it, and destiny stands waiting all unexpected at the corner of some common road…” [The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 166]

So it was with this nurse. So it had been with Jehosheba. Lying behind the conspiracy was a man of greater prominence, Jehoiada, a sterling example of what a priest ought to be, and of whom we will have occasion to say more when we get to the next chapter. And his wife, Jehosheba, a member of the royal court, an insider, a relative of Athaliah who had a great deal to lose if she were caught, but who cared more for Yahweh’s covenant than for her place at the palace and in Jerusalem’s inner circle.

Then there were the priests and the soldiers. How many of them, associates of Jehoiada, or senior commanders of the temple guard were in on the secret during those six years? There must have been a number. Knowing human nature, the need to feed and care for a child who was never identified in public, the secrecy that must have surrounded his life especially when an infant, hidden away in a storeroom as he was, there were others who knew and perhaps a number more who suspected what was up. But Athaliah was never the wiser. No one courted attention, as so many will, by informing others of the secret he knew (“Now don’t tell anyone this, but I happen to know that…). For six long years the secret was kept secure. Remarkable!

And when it was disclosed it was disclosed to men that Jehoiada knew he could trust, men who acted without regard to their own safety or the safety of their families – who was to say what Athaliah might be able to do to those who sought to undermine her? – after all, she hadn’t hesitated to murder her own grandchildren and she had maintained her power for six years. Obviously she had force, and considerable force, at her disposal. But these priests and soldiers stood ready to do what needed to be done for the kingdom of David and for the honor of the Lord.

The house of David survived the fury of the house of Jezebel if only by the skin of its teeth and, as again and again in the history of the kingdom of God, it did so by the courage and the daring and the determination of some ordinary but faithful men and women. How different the situation in Jerusalem than in Samaria. In the capital of the northern kingdom the house of Baal was destroyed, to be sure. Jehu saw to that. But he did it by himself. Those who helped did so because they were under his command. There was no popular movement of support. No ordinary folk risked their lives and livelihood to purify the worship of God or the government of the people of God. But in Jerusalem it was a community of faithful people who saw the danger, acted to avert it, and at great risk put the rightful king back on his throne.

Now, to be sure, first and foremost, what we have here is the faithfulness of the Lord to his covenant and his promise. That is not mentioned in the chapter but we get the picture surely. He had promised David that there would always be a man to sit upon his throne and he preserved Joash in order to fulfill his Word. Yahweh would not let David’s house die because he had promised to preserve it forever!

But, as everywhere else in the Bible, the Lord condescends to use means, to take up ordinary folk – as ordinary as you and I – into his plans and purposes and to bring his kingdom to pass. This too is God’s grace, more grace I think than we often appreciate and understand: that he should deign to make use of us, that he should make something so important of our lives in his own kingdom: a nurse, a priest and his wife, and a few soldiers the means of preventing the end of history as we have come to know it! What heroes they were and are! And how good of God to make them so, to give them that honor, and to use them as he did!

Things were not as they should have been in the southern kingdom; not by a long shot. There were many in Jerusalem and Judah who had far too willingly and easily made peace with ANE idolatry and with the sensual and materialistic life that went with it. The church herself was corrupt to a significant degree. We would have to conclude that – even had we not plenty of evidence of that corruption from the narrative of Kings and Chronicles – simply from the fact that Athaliah was able to murder the royal house and able to maintain control of the government for as long as she did. She was able to outrage every principle of justice, honor and humanity and get away with it for six years. There is nothing to suggest that Jehoiada might have moved much earlier than he did or that all he had to do was to lead the population in an uprising against the queen mother. He had to move secretly and plan a sudden coup. And even at that he had to choose the conspirators wisely and make careful plans. Athaliah had far too much support in Judah. But there remained a sizeable number of Jews who knew what was right and loved the Lord and his Word and stood ready to fight for it when the moment was right.

And it is not too much to say that this has been the story of the kingdom of God countless times in its history, in many places and at many times. It has been the few who were willing to dare, the few who would not compromise their loyalty to the Lord, the few who were willing to risk everything, the few who seized the day! And then, because of those few, there were many more who were inspired to do likewise. Jehoiada, after all, could have accomplished nothing had not those unnamed priests and soldiers rallied to him. Had they not, Joash would have been killed at 7 years of age instead in his infancy and that would have been the end of the house of David which had been Athaliah’s plan all along!

Here lies the great challenge and the inspiration of this narrative, written as it was to place Jehosheba and Jehoiada and their cohorts, front and center; to make us admire them; to offer them to us as examples of faithfulness to God’s covenant in a dark and difficult time and of what ordinary people can accomplish when they are willing to take risks.

The other night I was bumped up to first class on my flight from Salt Lake City to Nashville. Whenever I have flown first class I have always had the same overwhelming impression: viz. that I am the sort of person who ought always to fly first class! So, as you can imagine, I was delighted to be called to the podium to get my new seat assignment. What they didn’t tell me at the time was that I would find myself across the aisle from a little boy, perhaps two years of age, perhaps not quite, who fussed, cried, or screamed virtually the whole way! Right at the beginning the father told the little boy that he couldn’t cross the line that divided their seat area from the center aisle and, as soon as he was told that, he put his foot out to cross that line! The parents kept him in check as best they could and I didn’t detect the signs that would lead me to assume that they were indulgent parents who failed to discipline their son. On a trip to Amsterdam years ago Courtney was a year old and she cried for hours and, of course, we know in that case that it wasn’t the parents’ fault!

But again and again I observed that boy struggling to do whatever it was his parents forbade him to do and struggling not to do whatever it was his parents wanted him to do and tried to make him do. The thought of doing their will – whatever it was – was an offense to him! The parents had the good grace to be embarrassed and to apologize, but who of us who are parents have not been in a similar situation? But, as I happened to be working on this sermon at the time, it proved, for me, a window on human life, on my life and on yours. We see ourselves in our children all the time, do we not? They aren’t sophisticated enough to hide their willfulness and willful they are! They do not want to be controlled; they do not want to live at another’s beck and call. They want to do what they want to do. Augustine made the behavior of little children, even infants the proof of original sin!

To demand one’s own way – oh, of course, we never put it like that! – to do what we want to do, to live our daily life following the promptings of our own will, there is nothing noteworthy about that. It takes no courage and represents no risk. It is utterly predictable, banal. It is easy. And we all like easy!  One hardly has to give one’s life a serious thought. One just does what one does, day after day.

“Making a career of nothing – wandering through malls, killing time, making small talk, watching television programs until we know their characters better than our own children —  robs the community of our gifts and energies and shape life into a yawn at the God and savior of the world. The person who will not bestir herself, the person who hands herself over to nothing, in effect says to God: you have made nothing of interest and redeemed not one of consequence, including me.” [Plantinga, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, 188]

But that is not the life taught us in Holy Scripture; that is not the life of the children and servants of God. The Christian life is a difficult one, a dangerous one, a demanding one. It is like the life Bunyan described with all of its ups and downs, all of its dangers and crises in Pilgrim’s Progress. It requires courage and determination, and before it and above it is always looming this impossibly high purpose that we are to fulfill. Matters of eternal consequence and importance rest on the decisions we make and the deeds we perform.

It takes no courage – moral or otherwise – to do one’s own thing, to follow the crowd, to put up one’s finger to test the prevailing winds and then to march in the direction everyone else is taking. It takes no courage even to live one’s life with little purpose at all, just doing what comes naturally day after day. That is how most people live and far too many Christians. But it is not how Jehosheba and Jehoiada and their faithful nurse lived. They lived according to the highest principle, they did the will of the Lord God, they withstood the onslaught of the unbelieving world around them, no matter the danger this posed to them. Theirs was a life of spiritual accomplishment because they never consulted their own desire for safety, comfort, ease and pleasure. They had a calling to fulfill, a duty to perform. They were the furthest thing from members of the crowd, from the common run of human being. They lived theologically and covenantally. They lived for a purpose.

And, of course, we should too; and we can. What is it in our lives that amounts to the same challenge that Jehosheba and Jehoiada faced? In what ways have we the opportunity to protect and to advance the covenant and the kingdom of God? In what ways do we face risk and danger; what ways require sacrifice and weariness of us in doing what God approves? Well, I imagine it doesn’t take but a moment for any one of you to realize that opportunities to live that way and to do such things are around you at every moment of every day. The nurturing of your children as these nurtured Joash – we’ll see how well they nurtured him in the next chapter – the faithful maintaining of the covenant even in the teeth of official opposition is what we must do every day in this culture now so hostile to a biblical view of life. Every time we turn on our computer, Athaliah is there to tempt us to her side.

No; to live moment by moment actively aware of the battle, and engaged on the Lord’s side in the struggle for the soul of yourself, of your loved ones, of your friends and neighbors: that is the Christian life; and that is the life the Lord’s uses to further and foster his kingdom and bring it o its appointed end the history of salvation.

With no Joash the whole history of the world would be different. But, without your faithfulness, without the duties God has given you to perform, without the investment of your spiritual courage, determination and risk taking – that conversation with someone at work, that refusal to lie or to cheat when your boss expects you to do so – without your own daring through six long years of resistance to the cultural winds a great many things would be different and a great many wonderful things would never be in this world of ours. The coming of the Messiah may not depend upon how we live and serve the Lord in the year of our Lord 2011, but the salvation of other souls does and the strength of the church in the culture around us and the place of the truth in the hearts of many.

We have lives to live, you and I, things to do, kingdom work to accomplish. Our text is a fabulously beautiful and inspiring reminder of what God can make of and do through ordinarily faithful lives like yours and mine when we bend our wills to that end and purpose. Take heart brothers and sisters from this narrative. Take heart and make sure there is some reason for others, many others perhaps, to remember your name as having had some significant effect on the Lord’s work, your name as one who stood in the breach, your name as one who answered when duty called, your name as one who loved the Lord in ways that really mattered.