Friday, August 12

Second Kings 13: This chapter, which takes up the reign of the “other” Jehoahaz (in the Northern Kingdom), also relates the death of Elisha. The career of this thaumaturge did not end with his death; even his corpse was able to give life to another dead person, because “even after his death he still had divine power” (Josephus, Antiquities 9.8.6).

This incident, more-or-less appended to the biblical account of Elisha, sparked the imagination of later writers. One of the earliest interpreters of the scene, Sirach (2nd century before Christ), interpreted the incident not only as a miracle (terata . . . thavmasia ta erga—Sirach 48:14), but also as a prophecy. Indeed, Elisha’s “body prophesied” (eprophetevsen to soma—48:13). Such a prophecy, which Sirach mentioned immediately before Israel’s destruction by Assyria in 722 BC (48:15), was important to him, because it pointed to the Lord’s coming restoration of the Chosen People.

Indeed, the description of the phenomenon here in Kings is worthy of closer attention. The Greek translation known to Sirach says that the dead man “lived and rose on his feet” (my rendering of the Greek text of verse 21: ezesen kai aneste epi tous podas avtou). In fact, this is almost verbatim how the prophet Ezekiel narrated his vision of the dry bones—those famous bones which “lived and stood on their feet” ezesan kai estesan epi ton podon avton—Ezekiel 37:10).

In the original context of Ezekiel’s vision the resurrection of Israel’s dry bones was a prophecy of the people’s restoration after the Babylonian Captivity. In its larger canonical context—the Holy Scriptures taken as a whole—it also prophesied God’s victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Sirach, apparently reading the story of the risen dead man here in Kings through the prophecy of Ezekiel, regarded that miracle as a foretelling of what lay ahead for the people of God. In his following chapter, in fact, where Sirach treats of Ezekiel (49:9), the reference is followed immediately by the prayer that the bones of the twelve Minor Prophets should be revivified.

This interpretation of Sirach is consistent with his earlier mention of the future life of those who fall asleep in love (48:11). It is also consonant with his treatment of Isaiah near the end of chapter 48, where he speaks of “what was to come to the end of time” (48:25). That is to say, Sirach placed this incident here in Second Kings 13 within the much larger perspective of biblical prophecy.

The final part of Second Kings 13 tells how the Northern Kingdom, after the death of Hazael of Damascus, reclaimed Israelite cities that earlier had been seized by Syria (verse 25). In context, it appears that the author of this story regarded this repossession as a fulfillment of Elisha’s final prophecy (verse 17).

Saturday, August 6

Second Kings 14: The cozy arrangement between Israel and Judah at the time of Ahab is now very much in the past, and the present chapter tells of new strife between them as we move into the eighth century before Christ. The relevant kings are Jehoash of Israel (802-786) and Amaziah of Judah (800-783).

Amaziah, taking a firm grip on Judah, promptly avenges the murder of his father, but without seeking retaliation against the descendants of the murderers (cf. Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18 passim). Thus, he secured his throne with a humane gesture that proved to be popular. Then, he goes against the Edomites in order to regain for Judah a southern port at Aqaba, or Elath (verse 22).

Next, Amaziah challenges his fraternal neighbor to the north. This effort was not successful; Jehoash captures Amaziah, takes copious spoils, and then goes home, leaving the kingdom of Judah in shambles (verses 8-14). Later reflection on this tragedy concluded that Amaziah was punished for worshipping Edomite gods, a deed evidently related to his recent defeat of the Edomites (cf. Second Chronicles 25). The summary here in Kings (verses 14-22) is relatively non-committal, though the author does admit that Amaziah, as a king, fell short of David (verse 3).

Amaziah, assassinated in a conspiracy in 783, was succeeded by Uzziah (also called Azariah), who would have a long and—from a political perspective—successful reign all the way to 742, the year that Isaiah received his calling (cf. Isaiah 6:1).

In 786, however, three years before Uzziah came to the throne in Judah, there emerged in the north the longest reigning monarch of Israel, Jeroboam II (786-746). Although Jeroboam’s rule was a great political success, the biblical writers take an invariably negative view of it; here in Kings it receives a mere seven verses, nor is it so much as mentioned by the Chronicler.

The reason for this negative assessment of Jeroboam II is not difficult to discover. The pages of two contemporary prophets, Amos and Hosea, are filled with complaints of the apostasy and the social and economic injustices that received political support from Jeroboam II.

That is to say, we now move into the period of the literary prophets, the four great voices of the eighth century: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. In some respects we learn more about the period from the prophetic oracles of these books than we do from Kings and Chronicles, books which were composed later. Indeed, beginning in the eighth century, we now have more immediate literary sources for information on the period. This will continue to be the case for the rest of Hebrew history, until well after the Babylonian Captivity.

Sunday, August 7

Second Kings 15: In this chapter rather little attention is paid to the reign of Jotham (verses 32-38). We know that his father, Uzziah, being struck with leprosy as a punishment for his sins, was obliged to take Jotham as a coregent in the latter part of his life (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). This period seems to have lasted from about 750 to Uzziah’s death in 742 (Isaiah 6:1). Jotham then reigned in his own name from 742 to 735. His sixteen years on the throne (2 Kings 15:33; 2 Chronicles 27:1), then, must include both of these periods. This chronological complexity would explain why Josephus (Antiquities 9.11.2 and 9.12.1) leaves out all time references for Jotham.

Both Kings and Chronicles attest of Jotham that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” each also admitting the king’s inability to exercise much influence over an unfaithful nation. From Isaiah and Micah, both books partly composed during his reign (Isaiah 1:1; Micah 1:1), we gain some sense of the national infidelity that Jotham was obliged to face.

While Second Kings (15:35) mentions Jotham’s construction of the “upper gate of the house of the Lord,” the Chronicler (27:4-6) goes into much more extensive detail about the king’s building projects and especially his conquest and treatment of the Ammonites.

Jotham is praised for not pursuing his father’s example of usurping rights over the Temple (27:2). Also unlike his father Uzziah, who acted exactly as he pleased, Jotham “ordered his ways before the Lord his God” (27:6). This is an expression of praise we do not often find in the description of biblical kings!

This expression also hints at a potential problem. It is possible that both Kings and Chronicles were puzzled by the reign of Jotham, particularly his inability to get the citizens of Judah to follow his lead. He is faulted in neither source, though they do not tell much about him. Jotham did not enjoy the longevity and success that the Book of Proverbs promises to a wise and virtuous man.

Jotham thus becomes a sort of tragic figure, even though the Bible does not stop to reflect on the nature and dynamics of the tragedy, as it does in the case of Job. One is especially struck by Jotham’s resemblance to Job in one particular—namely, the almost “individual” nature of his righteousness, in the sense that nobody would pay his example much attention. In the case of Job this moral insouciance is found in his wife and children. In the case of Jotham we see it in the citizens of Judah, but especially in his unfaithful son, Ahaz.

Jotham is treated, rather, in the way the Bible treats Abner—as a decent man who did not, in fact, receive all that we would expect a decent man to receive. In these two historical books, Second Kings and Second Chronicles, the Bible does not pause to reflect on this anomaly, even to reflect that it was an anomaly, any more than it does in the case of Abner or, even earlier, righteous Abel.

The Chronicler’s chapter on Jotham is, in fact, the shortest chapter written by that author, and he limits himself to his precise task—to chronicle, to record the story of Jotham. Without drawing our attention to it, he describes a reign much shorter and less rewarding than the reigns of some of Judah’s other righteous kings, such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Even as he was dying, Jotham’s enemies prepared to invade his kingdom (2 Kings 15:37-38).

The Chronicler advances no thesis with respect to Jotham’s story. He does not indicate, in even the faintest way, how we should view the problem of theodicy implicitly posed by this story. He not only does not answer the implied question. He does not even mention that the story has a question. On all this he remains silent.

We readers, however, are not limited by the interest and intent of the Chronicler or the author of Kings. Taking into consideration the whole of the inspired literature, we acknowledge and even reverence the quiet dilemma presented by Jotham’s career. We do this, not only because we read the Bible, but also because we read our own hearts. Inasmuch as the Creator has placed in the human conscience the metaphysical sense of justice, we expect God to treat righteous Jotham as a righteous man should be treated, and we are set back on our heels, as it were, at the sight of this righteous man whose righteousness is not acknowledged nor rewarded.

Jotham’s reign, then, becomes for us a sort of foreshadowing of the Cross, where the supremely righteous Man is not treated as we instinctively feel a righteous man should be treated. We know, after all, that “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love” (Hebrews 6:10). The question quietly posed in Jotham is loudly answered in Jesus.

Monday, August 15

Second Kings 16: We come to the reign of Ahaz of Judah (735-715), a period documented, not only in Kings, but also in the Book of Isaiah. During this time, Assyria begins to flex new muscles, with the intent to take charge of the entire Fertile Crescent.

In 752, ten years before Isaiah’s prophetic call, the Assyrian Empire adopts Aramaic, the common language of the Fertile Crescent, as its official language, in addition to the traditional Akkadian. Assyria is about to enlarge its field of influence, and the careers of the kings of Judah and Israel—as well as the prophetic ministry of Isaiah—are set within that geopolitical context.

This was the whole point of the notice at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” These were the years from 742 to 687 before Christ, the absolute high point of Assyrian power. Tiglath Pileser III, who became emperor in 745, just three years before Isaiah’s call, ruled until 727. Other notable emperors of this period were Shalmaneser V (727-722), Sargon II (722-705) and Sennacherib (704-681).

With respect to Assyrian warfare during this second half of the eighth century, the extant art of the period confirms what is described in the Bible; it depicts charioteers breaking through enemy lines that have been decimated by Assyrian archery. Following the chariots comes the infantry, to make certain no one escapes.

An extant and excavated inscription of Sennacherib illustrates this process:

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane…I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles…I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.

The terrain of Mesopotamia largely determined this style of warfare. On the open plain, defensive posturing was not possible. Assyria’s two major cities, Asshur and Nineveh, stood between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which afforded only minimum protection. It was the Assyrian style to “take it to the enemy.” Survival depended on the total destruction of an enemy. We gain some sense of this in Isaiah 5, which gives us a very graphic presentation of the invincible Assyrian might, using a staccato style evocative of a Blitzkrieg:

No one will be weary or stumble among them,

No one will slumber or sleep;

Nor will the belt on their loins be loosed,

Nor the strap of their sandals be broken;

Whose arrows are sharp,

And all their bows bent;

Their horses’ hooves will seem like flint,

And their wheels like a whirlwind.

Their roaring will be like a lion.

In response to this Assyrian threat, Syria and Israel form a military league. Feeling threatened by this coalition, Ahaz of Judah appeals directly to Assyria for help. As the present chapter shows, this appeal simply makes the Kingdom of Judah a mere vassal of Assyria, thus introducing new forms of apostasy and idolatry.

Tuesday, August 16

Second Kings 17: We come now to the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the deportation of the Ten Tribes, and the enforced “importation” of foreigners into the Holy Land by the forces of Assyria.

An individual named Hosea (not to be confused with the prophet of that name) assassinated King Pekah and seized the throne in 732 (15:30). In fact, it was Shalmaneser V of Assyria who placed on the throne, making him a vassal of the empire. The record of this development was inscribed in a contemporary document, the Nimrud Tablet, in which Shalmaneser testified, “They deposed Pekah, and I set Hosea over them.”

When Hosea proved treacherous to the Assyrian alliance, however, he was removed from the throne, and the new emperor, Sargon II (722-705), deported great masses of the population to the east; they were never again to return.

Sargon recorded this event in another contemporary (and fragmentary) inscription, the Nimrud Prism: “At the beginning [of my rule . . . the city of the Sa]maritans I . . . who let me achieve victory . . . carried off prisoner.” This partial testimony supports what is said here in Kings: “In the ninth year of Hosea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria” (verse 6). The year was 722, the first year of Sargon’s reign.

Our biblical historian reflects on the theological significance of these sad events, ascribing their cause to the idolatry that had prevailed in Israel since that fateful day in 922 when Jeroboam had revolted against the house of David (verses 7-23). Throughout that whole period, when the Lord “spoke by all his servants the prophets”—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea—the divine word was treated with insouciance and contempt by the kings and their people.

The Assyrians, following their practice of deporting rebellious populations, not only removed the masses of the Israelites to the east; they also imported eastern peoples into Israel. These intermarried with what was left of the local population, thus creating a hybrid race known in Holy Scripture as the Samaritans. This new race, which followed a different form of the biblical faith (verses 24-28), also continued the infidelities of the earlier Israelites in the land (verses 29-41). In due course they were evangelized, however, by Jesus and the Christian missionaries (cf. John 4 passim; Acts 1:8; 8:4-8).

Wednesday, August 17

Second Kings 18: Because of the relatively short life of his hapless father Ahaz, Hezekiah (715–687) was a young man—only twenty-five—when he assumed the throne of Judah.

The new king, moreover, inherited a mess. His kingdom was impoverished by his father’s irresponsibility, and much of the Holy Land lay in ruins from local wars and a recent invasion from afar. Seven years earlier, in 722, the Assyrians had destroyed the kingdom of Israel, to Judah’s north, and then deported the great masses of its people to regions over in the far end of the Fertile Crescent.

Furthermore, Hezekiah well knew that his own father had been the culprit responsible for earlier inviting the Assyrians to interfere in the politics of the Holy Land (2 Chronicles 28:16–21). The problem was part of his father’s own legacy, then, and the new king himself was obliged to pay annual tribute to Assyria, further impoverishing his realm.

Over the next two decades, however, Hezekiah undertook measures toward resisting that ever-looming menace from the east: First, he endeavored to reunite the remnant of Israelites in the north with his own throne in Jerusalem, thus enlarging his realm by restoring the borders of David’s ancient kingdom. In this effort he was somewhat successful (30:1–11).

Second, Hezekiah strengthened Jerusalem’s defenses by cutting an underground conduit through solid rock, so that water could be brought secretly into the city from the Gihon Spring. This remarkable feat of technology, unearthed by modern archeology, is recorded not only twice in the Bible (Second Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30) but also in the contemporary Siloam Inscription. In this effort Hezekiah was very successful.

Prior to either of these efforts, however, Hezekiah initiated a religious reform, convinced that the nation’s recent apostasy under his father Ahaz was the root of Judah’s unfortunate plight. Thus, he began his reign by purifying the temple, lately defiled by pagan worship (2 Chronicles 29:3–19), in order to restore the edifice to the proper service of God (29:20–36).

Unlike the unbelieving Ahaz, who treated a spiritual dilemma as merely a political problem, to be addressed by political means, Hezekiah was determined to regard the spiritual dilemma as exactly what it was.

Indeed, Hezekiah’s programmatic reform maintained the proper priority indicated by our Lord’s mandate that we “seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.” Nothing else in Judah’s national life, Hezekiah believed, would be correctly ordered if anything but the interests of God were put in first place. What was first must emphatically be put first, not second or somewhere else down the line.

Thursday, August 18

Second Kings 19: Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria (704-681) seems to have attacked Jerusalem twice, once in 701 and again in 688. The details of these two invasions, it appears, have become somewhat entangled in the three biblical accounts (Second Kings 18—19; Second Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36—37), Josephus (Antiquities 9—10), and Sennacherib’s own record. Historians speak cautiously on this matter, however, and the hypothesis of a double invasion is far from certain. (Indeed, the biblical dating of Hezekiah’s accession to the throne is troublesome [18:1]; few historical difficulties in the biblical text have proved so intractable.)

Certainly there was at least one siege set around Jerusalem—it was impossible to take this elevated city without the effort of a siege. In addition to the biblical testimony on this point, we have the inscription of Sennacherib on the “Taylor Prism” in the British Museum: “But as for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not bow down in submission . . . I shut him up like a bird in a cage in Jerusalem, his capital city. I put guards around it and turned back to his ruin anyone who exited the city gate.”

The besieging general, Rabshakeh (if this was a personal name and not a rank), taunted Hezekiah (18:28-35), who responded by praying in the Temple (verses 1, 14). In this respect, it is instructive to contrast Hezekiah to Saul at an earlier period; faced with a nearly impossible military crisis, Saul panicked, Hezekiah prayed. The words of his prayer are preserved (verses 5-19).

The Prophet Isaiah knows, apparently from the Lord, that the king has been praying, and he responds with a prophecy that encourages Hezekiah to hold fast and continue to trust in divine guidance and help (verses 20-34). This prophecy makes explicit reference to the Lord’s covenant with David. That is to say, the present chapter ties the outcome of this siege to an abiding concern of the biblical author, the inviolability of the Lord’s covenant with the Davidic house. As in those dire days when, for six years, Athaliah usurped the Davidic throne, so in the present threatening situation God remains faithful to His oath to David. Trust in God is not an abstract sense that “things will turn out all right.” It is related to the Lord’s specific promises contained in a covenant form.

The reference to “the angel of the Lord,” who slew the besieging Assyrian army, is theological. Exactly how the angel accomplished this is not specified.

The context of the besiegers’ withdrawal, furthermore, is the recent insurrection of Tirhakah back in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Sennacherib is slain in the insurrection and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (680-669).

Friday, August 19

Second Kings 20: This chapter includes three parts: Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verses 1-11), the delegation from Babylon (verses 12-19), and the final assessment of his reign (verses 20-21). It is difficult to date the first two of these components, notwithstanding the specific reference to “fifteen years” in verse 6. Since that same verse seems to presuppose an Assyrian threat, the reader wonders how Hezekiah’s sickness is chronologically related to the events of the previous chapter. None of this is clear.

Isaiah, consulted about the king’s sickness, apodictically foretells his death (verse 1). Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, is unconditional: “you shall die, you shall not recover.” Yet, as the event shows, this prophecy of Isaiah, like that of Jonah, is reversed. Apparently bothered by this paradox, Josephus (Antiquities 10.2.1) omits Isaiah’s first prophecy and narrates only the second, that in verses 5-7).

With respect to Hezekiah’s prayer (verse 3), we observe four things about the king: First, he has walked in God’s presence, like such men as Enoch (Genesis 5:21), Noah (6:9), Abraham and Isaac (48:15), and, of course, David (First Kings 3:6). Second, Hezekiah has walked in “fidelity”—’emeth; that is to say, he has imitated the Lord’s own fidelity. Third, he has walked with his “whole heart”—leb shalem; his internal thought and resolve has had both integrity and proper direction. Fourth, he has done that which is “good”; he has endeavored to follow what God Himself considers to be “good.”

With respect to the medical remedy prescribed by Isaiah, the application of a fig poultice to drain ulcers is mentioned by Pliny (Natural History 22.7) and by two much earlier (second millennium before Christ) Ugaritic texts about veterinary practice.

Since Isaiah has now contradicted his earlier prophecy about Hezekiah’s death, we should probably not be too hard on the king for asking for an ’oth, a confirmatory sign (verses 8-11). We recall identical requests from Gideon and Joshua.

The movement of the sun’s shadow has to do with its progression on a set of stairs adjacent to the royal palace; a person could tell the time by the position of the sun’s shadow moving up the stairs. In the execution of the “sign,” the shadow moves backwards. The king, understandably, finds the phenomenon convincing.

In the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, during this period, the little kingdom of Babylon, still a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, is beginning to test the latter’s strength—finding it increasingly less impressive! Within a century, Babylon will make its move, finally vanquishing Nineveh in 609. In the present text, Hezekiah receives a “friendly” delegation from Babylon, not suspecting its full political significance. Unwisely, he displays signs of his kingdom’s prosperity to the delegation. The Prophet Isaiah, who sees reality far into the future, mentions—“Hear the Word of the Lord!”—the danger incurred by the king’s imprudence (verses 16-18). When sixth century editors put the finishing touches on the Book of Isaiah, they were much impressed with his ability to discern events so far in the future, convinced that they were witnessing, in their own times, the historical developments foretold by him.