We are taking a large chunk of text tonight because these two chapters together take us to a major turning point in the history of both the northern and the southern kingdoms. In the south Ahaz takes Judah further from the Lord than she had ever gone before and this occurred at the very moment that Israel ceased to exist as an independent state, destroyed on account of the very sins that Ahaz was now causing Judah to commit. Here we have a classic illustration of Santayana’s dictum: “Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Or as the homely Southern aphorism has it: “There ain’t much education in the second kick of a mule.”
One of the things, however, I want you to appreciate more and more is what is nowadays called “biblical theology.” All theology is supposed to be biblical in the sense that it arises out of the teaching of the Word of God. But over the last century or so there has come to be a division in the discipline of Christian theology between systematic theology and biblical theology with biblical theology concentrating more on the way in which the Christian faith is taught in the run of the biblical narrative itself. There is that in the teaching of the Holy Scripture that you would be very hard pressed to find in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof or even in Calvin’s Institutes. You couldn’t look up very easily in the index of a systematic theology how the world works and how God’s kingdom grows and suffers decline and then grows again in the world. But the Bible teaches us these things in its narratives.
The geo-political background of this history is the growing influence of Assyria in Palestine. In 734 B.C. the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-pileser had campaigned as far south as the border with Egypt, though sticking largely to the coastal plain of Palestine.
v.2 This judgment that Ahaz did not do what was right follows a succession of kings of whom it was said that they did right. If they did not do everything right, they did mostly right in the eyes of God. Ahaz was twenty probably when he began to reign as co-regent with Jotham in 735 B.C. He became sole ruler after Jotham’s death in 732.
v.3 This seems to be a reference to the cult of Molech, mentioned as far back as Solomon’s time in 1 Kings 11:7. Usually such terrible things were done in times of crises, when people were desperate and willing to do almost anything to secure help from the gods and Ahaz’ reign was marked by crises. [House, 336]
v.4 He did what pagans do in other words.
v.5 This is the conflict known as the Syro-Ephraimite war. Syria and Israel had pressured Judah to join them in forming a united front against the Assyrians and when Ahaz refused they took arms to force his compliance and perhaps as well to prevent what eventually came to pass, viz. his alliance with Assyria. We learn in 2 Chronicles 28 that Judah suffered many casualties in this war, but in the event was able to keep Aram and Israel at bay.
v.6 This is the first instance of the term “Jews” in the Bible. It is a single word in the Hebrew, “Judahites,” we might say, which is what Jews means, “men of Judah.”
v.9 This is precisely what Isaiah the prophet had told Ahaz not to do. He should have trusted the Lord instead of the Assyrians. Assyrian intervention was bought with a heavy price. From this point on Judah was a client state of Assyria. It was in the midst of all of this turmoil and danger, if you remember, that Isaiah delivered the prophecy of the virgin who would conceive a son to be called Immanuel. He had challenged Ahaz to ask God for a sign that God would deliver Jerusalem from the invaders. Ahaz had refused.
The chronicler adds in 2 Chron. 28 that Edom and Philistia were also attacking Judah, taking advantage of the pressure being put on her by the nations to her immediate north. Ahaz was humbled, we read in 2 Chron. 28:19, because of his unfaithfulness to the Lord.
v.10 Assyrian annals record that not only Ahaz but the kings of Ammon, Moab, Ashkelon, Edom, and Gaza also brought their tribute to Damascus and pledged their loyalty to their new master. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Alexander the Great and this same thing constantly happened to him. After a great battle in which he defeated some great king, the nearby lesser kings would come bringing presents to pledge their fealty to him. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
v.11 The altar was presumably of Assyrian type and so to build it in Jerusalem would not only show Ahaz’ loyalty to his new masters but, for Ahaz, must have seemed a case of moving up in the world. So little did he regard the Law of God!
v.13 His was a mixture of rites, what we might call today a “blended” service. He still offered the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, but not on a Mosaic altar. Ahaz was in effect adapting Judah’s worship to the customs of the nations who lived around her.
v.15 “Inquire by” seems to be reference to divination, the pagan rituals – especially the inspection of animal livers – by which the gods were consulted as to the future, a practice strictly forbidden in the Law of Moses. Alexander the Great was always consulting omens, thinking he needed to know what plans the gods had so that he could make his plans accordingly. But Yahweh’s people do not need to know the future. You don’t need to know what God is planning tomorrow or the next day, or the next week, or the next month, or the next year. You need only to obey the commandments of the Lord and entrust your fortune and your life to him; to live in faithfulness to the Lord in the confidence that he will keep his people and do in their lives what is good for them. Additionally, the omens were as likely to be wrong as right. Divination was a crock in the ancient world and frankly, if you read ANE sources, you get the impression they knew it was a crock. It is certainly a crock today! I read the other day of a new study in which a scholar reviewed more than 8,000 predictions made by university types, so-called “experts” in the social sciences, economics, and so on. That’s the modern Western form of divination! Their rate of success in predicting the future was the same as yours would be if you simply flipped a coin.
v.18 It is by no means clear just what v. 18 means, nor why Ahaz did what he did. He could have needed the metal for the tribute he needed to pay to Tiglath-pileser, but it seems that he had already paid that tribute. Perhaps it was for next year’s assessment. Or perhaps he simply preferred the architecture he saw in Damascus to the appearance of the temple in Jerusalem. [Provan, 246] Whatever his motivation he was concerned either to impress or not to offend the King of Assyria. Jerusalem’s temple, Yahweh’s temple was being redesigned to please an Assyrian king!
17:2 It is not known why Hoshea is said to have been less evil than the kings of Israel before him. Whatever this may refer to, and whatever reform might have been attempted, it was far too little and far too late.
v.3 Shalmaneser V was the successor of Tiglath-pileser as King of Assyria.
v.5 Hoshea unwisely calculated that Egypt would come to his rescue if he rebelled against Assyria. The fact of the matter was that Egypt was in no position to come to Israel’s or Judah’s rescue and wouldn’t have been interested in doing so. That tends to suggest that Hoshea was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The siege of Jerusalem is reported in Assyrian annals. It took place from 724-721 B.C. Of course, Samaria was the last citadel to be taken. By that time the entire country would have been under Assyrian control and largely depopulated. Samaria was later rebuilt as a provincial capital of the Assyrian empire.
v.6 And with that laconic report, a single verse, Israel, the kingdom of the ten northern tribes, was wiped off the face of the map and its people dispersed into the population of the Assyrian empire. The Jews, as they have come down to us in modern times, are almost entirely the descendants of the citizens of the southern kingdom. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom – Naphtali, Zebulun, Ephraim, Dan and so on – lost their ethnic identity and their blood was mixed with race of countless other peoples.
v.7 What follows is a theological interpretation of Israel’s history and the reason for its final destruction, an explanation much longer than the account of Israel’s fall. [House, 339] God had redeemed them and made them his own people. He had given them his covenant with its laws. In that covenant he had promised to bless them if they were faithful and curse them if they were not. But they had rebelled; they had defied his law. He had called them to repentance by his prophets but Israel repeatedly ignored these warnings. The Lord had been patient. But Israel would not listen. And so the threatened curses of the covenant fell upon them at last. God had proved faithful to his word as Israel had proved unfaithful to hers. Notice that the historian here passes over all the political and military developments that led to the destruction of Israel. He is interested only in the ultimate cause, the real reason for what happened. God is on his throne and he does what pleases him in heaven and on earth. The Assyrians were just pawns, executing the will of the living God they did not even know. This is the theology of Kings.
v.18 As we know, Benjamin was by this time included in Judah, the far larger and more influential tribe in the southern kingdom.
v.19 The specter of similar doom now hangs over Judah for the same reasons. Jeremiah will say that Judah’s sins were even worse than Israel’s because she saw the judgment of the Lord brought against her elder sister, her sister to the north. She saw God’s punishment and still she did not repent. [Jer. 3:6-11]
v.23 “The Lord removed Israel out of his sight…” A terrible thing to hear. I read the other day the remark of the 19th century Scottish pastor John Milne of Perth.
“I see that nothing is really terrible but the wrath of God. Other troubles can be borne, triumphed over, and made to work for good; but the wrath of God withers and destroys. Who can bear it?” [Cited from the biography by H. Bonar; in BOT 573 (June 2011) 32]
v.24 This is the origin of the Samaritans whom we meet in the Gospels. Israel not only lost the Promised Land themselves, but saw it inhabited by others.
v.28 For centuries later the Samaritans would be scorned as “proselytes of the lion,” that is, as people who came to worship Yahweh only because they were afraid of the big cats. [Wiseman, 269] There is irony here, to be sure. If only Israel had heeded the warnings and the earlier punishments that God had meted out to her she wouldn’t have lost her place in the Promised Land! [House, 343] What this priest would have taught them we don’t know. Was he a faithful priest or one of the typical priests of Israel? What follows indicates that what followed was hardly a revival of true faith in Israel.
v.33 In other words, Yahweh was simply another god, the local god, whom they worshipped as they worshipped the gods from the places whence they had come. The entire description of the worship of these new colonists who have occupied the towns and villages of Israel’s Promised Land is ironic. You will get the idea of the narrator if in your mind as you read put quotation marks around “fear” in v. 28 and vv. 32-33. They feared the Lord only as a local deity like all the other deities of the ANE pantheon. Which is why in the very next verse, v. 34 we will read that they did not “fear” the Lord. The first readers of Kings and we together with them are being warned that such worship is not true worship of the Lord. Many will be religious; the question is whether a person’s religion is true!
v.34 Now follows for emphasis one more theological statement explaining Israel’s demise. This is the great message of the book and the author wants his readers not to miss it.
Now there are a great many applications to be made of the history of Israel’s doom.
- We could speak of the folly of idolatry, how little good it has done to any people, but certainly how little good it did for Israel. The one living and true God gave her the Promised Land. Idols not only could never have given her such a gift, once Israel began to worship the idols of the ANE world she lost what she had enjoyed by the grace and power of the one true God. Ahaz no doubt thought that the gods of Assyria must have been more powerful than his gods. That is the way pagans think. It never occurred to him that Assyria was a hammer in the hand of the one true and living God, proof of which would be furnished later by Assyria’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Paganism has always failed human beings. It has a track record of 100% failure.
- We could also speak of the dehumanizing and corrupting effects of pagan worship and worldviews. The Lord’s prophets of this period, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah describe an Israel in which people mistreated one another as a rule, in which greed was rampant, government was corrupt, injustice tolerated at the highest levels of society, in which sexual immorality was commonplace. It is true that this society was conquered by a great imperial power, but it was first true that this society had collapsed from within and had grown weak through its own enervating behavior. And, of course, the same thing would eventually happen to Assyria itself. Idolatry causes a people to grow weak, not strong; evil, not good. Once the door is opened to idolatry and it is widely embraced in a people and a culture, there is little that people will not do. If somehow in a time machine we could go back fifty years and tell people what Americans now do as a matter of course, they wouldn’t believe you. It would offend them, the very thought that as a people we could descend as low as we have descended in the year of our Lord 2011. No one would ever sacrifice a child to Yahweh! But multitudes of children all over the world have been sacrificed to all manner of pagan idols. I said I have been reading of the conquests of Alexander the Great. What people took as a matter of course in those days, in those cultures, is nothing short of horrific. The treatment of women, of children, of enemies was bestial. Alexander had some good points, to be sure; he could be kind and he could be loyal; but he committed so much pure evil against so many human beings that it is hard to credit the better angels of his nature. Cruelty is paganism’s inheritance; which is why we are becoming more and more cruel as a society. But cruelty is utterly forbidden in the Law of Yahweh. The true God will not have his people behave cruelly to others. It is one of the most powerful recommendations of the gospel that those who embrace it, really embrace it, those who become the willing followers of Jesus Christ are always better human beings for doing so. Their lives are always enriched; they become more loving, more kind, more honest, more faithful. Paganism does not have the same effect; never has, never will.
- Or we could speak of the profound lesson taught here that God’s people must remain apart from the culture and the philosophy of the world around them. As in the ANE, so today the pagan culture around us cannot be accommodated to a biblical life, a biblical faith, or a biblical worldview. There must be that in our lives that proclaims the very significant difference between us and our living and that of the people around us. There must be that that identifies us as heretics in a culture of materialism, relativism, hedonism, sexual license and so on Israel’s temptation was to want to be like everyone else, not to be holy because the her Lord was holy and so inevitably different in many ways from the people around her. Succumbing to that temptation was her ruin. It is the price of faith to be different! Young people must learn to accept this, and not just accept but glory in that difference. People are going to think you are odd! But what do they know? Being the same as everyone around you is to be less than you ought to be; to be different as the Lord would have you be different is to enter into your inheritance and to find human life in its fullness and richness. The pressure to conform is one of the most powerful in human experience, almost as powerful, sometimes as powerful, as the drive to live itself. That is why we need to prepare our children and to remind ourselves that again and again in our life in this world to be faithful to the Lord will require that we be different from those around us in the way we think, in the way we live, and, especially, in the place we give to God in our hearts and lives. The culture will always win out unless Christians are pressing hard in the opposite direction!
There are many such lessons we might draw from this material and especially from the account of Israel’s end and the reason for it. But I want us at least briefly this evening to consider this history in its larger context, as a specimen of the history of the kingdom of God in the world. There is a philosophy of history that Christians must embrace if they are to understand their own place in the world.
The Lord made a promise to Abraham that he would give to his descendants the Promised Land. The exodus and the conquest were eventually the means by which Yahweh made good on that promise, humanly speaking as unlikely a thing as has ever happened.
But now Israel has lost the Promised Land? Not only has she been driven from the real estate, but as a people she has been scattered to the four winds. What is to become then of that ancient promise? Here we have a question of biblical theology, not systematic theology. Here we must learn to read the Bible as it is written and gather its lessons as they come to us in the course of the history that is recorded in Holy Writ. Here we must follow a biblical thread of argument and explanation. The definition of a single word will not suffice, nor will the explanation of a single doctrine. What do we learn then when we take the Bible as a whole and consider its history as the revelation of the will of God?
- First, from the very beginning there was at one and the same time in God’s covenant an unconditional dimension and a conditional dimension. It was never possible that any other result would ensue from God’s covenant with Abraham but that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed and that his descendants would inhabit the Promised Land forever. But, at the same time, it was possible from the very beginning for the covenant to be broken and its promises forfeit. We hear that already in Genesis 17 and it is a point much and often elaborated later. Both Israel and David were promised an eternal kingdom (2 Sam. 7:7-17) but Israelites and Israel’s kings could lose that kingdom and we have seen many of them do so. It is the theological point made twice at length in the text we have read. Taking all of the Bible together we conclude that Israel cannot lose the Promised Land and that Israel can lose the Promised Land. Or we could put it this way. Christ will build his church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. But, at the same time, unless we continue in faith and obedience, so we are warned countless times in Holy Scripture, OT and NT alike, we will not receive what was promised. “For,” as we read in Hebrews 3:14, “we have come to share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence to the end.” This last, of course, is what Israel did not do and hence her destruction at the hands of the Assyrians and her banishment from the Promised Land. What is true of the church as a whole may or may not be true of any individual or any generation of its members. No point is more obvious in the Bible taken as a whole. There is salvation in macrocosm and salvation in microcosm in the Bible; there is the salvation of the church of God and there is the salvation of a particular individual or family or generation. Of the one we can be certain; the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church of God; of the other we can be only as certain as faith, hope, love, and obedience justify certainty in regard to any individual or group of individuals. Is this not obvious in the Bible? Is it not right?
- Second, the covenant stands firm. The Word of God is absolutely reliable. What God said would happen if his people betrayed him, is precisely what did happen. And what God said would happen regarding the salvation of his people also happened. All the world has been blessed through Abraham and his seed, through Israel, and finally through Israel’s greatest son the Lord Jesus Christ. There were blessings and there were curses in the covenant and we have seen both come to pass according to the faith or the faithlessness of God’s people. The Word of God stands forever and its truth is proved as much by the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed as by the blessing that comes to those who believe. This too is absolutely fundamental to the Bible’s theology, its message, its proclamation and is found on virtually every page of Holy Scripture.
- Third, the Promised Land itself was always and from the beginning much more than a particular piece of real estate. It was, as we are told explicitly and repeatedly in Hebrews not only a sign of the heavenly country but understood by all the pious of the ancient epoch to be a sign of heaven itself. The land of Canaan was always more than acreage; it was a theological symbol, a seal of a greater gift, the gift of eternal life in the world to come. It was the tangible anticipation of something far greater and more wonderful than a place to live in this world, however fine a place it may have been. Fact is, Israelites all knew they were going to die, knew that they could not take their homes or farms with them when they did. But they also knew very well that the promise Yahweh had made to them was not merely that of some temporary benefit. The eternal God was offering his own eternal life to his people and the land was a sacrament of that greater gift and gospel. That is why in the New Testament the land, a reality that figures so large in the ancient Scriptures, virtually disappears. Eretz, land, is the fourth most commonly found noun in the Hebrew bible, but in the NT there is nothing about the land. As the revelation of heaven becomes more explicit and detailed, the need for the land as an anticipation of heaven lessens. And then, after Pentecost, as the Gentile world is embraced, the land which was peculiar to the circumstances of the single nation Israel, is replaced by the entire world. So, Paul tells us in Romans 4, citing Genesis 12, that Abraham was promised not the land but the world and Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount that the meek shall inherit not the land but the whole earth. Israel here lost the land; much more terribly she lost heaven itself and eternal life. Those who trust in the Lord get both, blessing in this world and perfect life in the world to come. In other words, Israel lost the Promised Land in one sense and the Israel of God still has the Promised Land in the other far more important sense. right and title to it. You and I have a home waiting for us in Canaan!
- Fourth, a key element in reconciling these different elements in the promises of the covenant or gospel is the reality of the remnant. Does Israel survive her exile to the lands of the Assyrian empire? Well in one sense she does not. Those Israelites are lost to us. They have disappeared. There is no tribe of Naphtali or Zebulun or Ephraim. But in another sense Israel continues in those who believe and who remain faithful to the covenant. Not only does the OT begin calling the southern kingdom of Judah “Israel” once again, indicating that Judah represents the continuation of the chosen people of Israel, in the New Testament Israel is a title used as well of Gentile believers who become the descendants of Abraham by their faith in Jesus Christ. Remember Paul’s defense of God’s faithfulness in Romans 11. The question was an obvious one. Since Israel rejected the Messiah when he came among his people, could it be said that God’s covenant with Israel had failed and that God’s promise had not proved true? In the event was Israel not Yahweh’s people forever? Paul replied that no one could say that and for two very good reasons. First, there had always been a double dimension to Israel, the people of God. Some were Israelites only outwardly, by ethnic extraction; but others were Israelites in truth, by faith in God and love for their neighbor. And so it continued to be. If Israel as a people rejected Jesus it was certainly not the case that all Jews did. The twelve apostles were Jews, most of the first Christians were Jews, and these Jews were the first to welcome Gentile believers in Jesus as new citizens of the Israel of God. And second, Paul says, God is not through with this ancient people yet. There is still even for ethnic Israel, for the Jews, a great day of salvation still to come when the people as a whole will return to God in true faith and love. In that sense too, Israel has not been lost to the kingdom of God. It may have been in large part grafted out of the olive tree, but it will be grafted in again.
All of these different elements of the Bible’s theology of the kingdom of God and the progress of history must be held together in our view so that we neither despair of Israel’s doom, real history as is the destruction of the northern kingdom and the obliteration of its people as a separate ethnic identity, nor fail to take seriously the first application of this history, viz. that we must remain faithful to the Lord, as Israel did not, or we will face the same consequences in time and eternity.
Christ will not permit the gates of hell to prevail against his church; his purposes will stand. But that will be no comfort for those among his people who, instead of taking his easy yoke and wearing it, have thrown it off and gone the way of the world. God’s Word stands firm. And for us that should be wonderfully encouraging. We can count on the promises to prove out. We who are on Christ’s side are on the winning side and the day will come when everyone in the world will know it!