The folly of Kings, 2: Divine justice, Divine mercy, and true hope
After the First Book of Kings, the reader steels himself against the Second Book. It summarizes the reigns of the remaining kings of Israel and Judah up to the Babylonian captivity, the vast majority of whom are summarily dismissed because they “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD”. But the Book does have its moments and, as we will see, its providential importance can only be described as explosive.
The most satisfying moments are provided by the miracles worked by the prophet Elisha, who had received a double portion of the great Elijah’s spirit when he was taken up in the fiery chariot in chapter 2. Most of these miracles are recounted in chapters 2 through 6, but the most famous—and perhaps the most pointed in terms of its message—is the cure of the leper Naaman, commander of the Syrian army.
You will recall that a young Israelite captive served as maid to Naaman’s wife, and told her that a prophet in Samaria (Elisha) could cure her husband. Consequently, the King of Syria wrote to the King of Israel, sending Naaman to him “that you may cure him of his leprosy” (5:6):
And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” [5:7]
But when Elisha heard of it, he sent to the king, saying: “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel” (5:8). What Elisha meant to convey by this knowledge is made quite clear in Naaman’s response to his cure: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (5:15). Like Naaman, we must take such lessons to heart.
The Second Book of Kings also includes Jezebel’s comeuppance, but I will not dwell on it. Further, it recounts the efforts at religious renewal by a few of the kings who were faithful to the LORD. Thus we learn of the slaughter of the worshipers of Baal by Jehu (chapter 10); the renewal of a covenant between God and the people under the priest Jehoiad (11); the repair of the Temple under King Jehoash of Israel, whom Jehoiada instructed (12); the comprehensive work of Hezekiah, King of Judah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done” (18:3); and the repentance and reforms initiated by King Josiah, culminating in the celebration of the Passover, after the high priest Hilkiah rediscovered the Book of the Law in the Temple (chapter 22).
But even Josiah’s efforts were too little, too late. The sins of Israel’s leaders and people had already led to their deportation by the king of Assyria. And in Judah, Josiah’s successors quickly reverted to form, with the same terrifying result:
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon…, a servant of the king…burned the house of the LORD, and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem…. And all the army of the Chaldeans broke down the walls around Jerusalem…and the rest of the people…the captain of the guard carried into exile. [25:8-12]
Mercy in Justice
The sacred author of the Second Book of Kings regards this outcome as inevitable. God had promised again and again that He would scatter His people and place them at the mercy of their pagan neighbors if they did not remain faithful to Him. There is a strong sense in this book that it was just a matter of time before God would exact justice for the near-constant infidelity of the people He had chosen to be His own.
But is necessary to recall here that, in God, justice and mercy are identical. The whole point of God’s justice is to bring those whom He loves to their senses so that they will turn to Him and learn the wonders of His love. In every situation in which this happens, God’s justice not only proves to be a signal act of mercy but is appreciated as such. We may assume the same is true when the final outcome cannot be traced, though we also know that those who refuse to turn back to God before their deaths cannot probe his justice to find the mercy treasured up within.
Despite its end in exile, there is a tiny kernel of hope in the Second Book of Kings, a brief passage pointing forward to the spiritual benefits of the Babylonian Captivity. Let us not fail to notice this vital glimmer:
It appears some years before the end, when Assyria’s King Sennacherib invaded Judah, mocking both King Hezekiah and his God. When Hezekiah heard of this, he tore his clothes, dressed in sackcloth, entered the Temple, and prostrated himself in prayer, begging for help. In response, God called upon a new prophet, and through this new prophet, the LORD said to King Sennacherib:
Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and haughtily lifted your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel?...I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came. [19:21:34]
It is possible to miss this tiny seed of hope. But if we water it just a little, it grows rapidly, as I will explain.
Renewal in something better
A little later, this same prophet responded to a severe illness suffered by Hezekiah by telling the king that the LORD would add fifteen years to his life. God also said He would deliver Hezekiah from the Assyrians: “I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” But then, just a little later still, the light of hope seemed to go out, when the prophet told Hezekiah:
Hear the word of the LORD: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. [20:16-18]
It is a measure of the King’s spirituality, perhaps typical of the level to which God had thus far raised the Jews, that Hezekiah thought these words of the LORD were good, “for he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’” (20:19). But there was something much deeper going on that that.
Hope refers to things yet unseen. This same young prophet, whose reputation was still in its infancy, was to become the prophet of the exile, the prophet of the love of God in every circumstance. He would speak in a moving and even lyrical style which had never been heard before. Through him God would make His people aware of His presence in a new and deeper way, even in the midst of earthly hardship.
This prophet, more than any other, went on to foreshadowed the mysteries of Christ and His Church. His father was called Amoz, about whom the only thing known is the name of his son. Here, then, in an exceedingly subtle yet truly magnificent episode, positioned on the very brink of the destruction of Jewish independence, and almost out of the blue—here, then, we are introduced for the very first time to the prophet whose name means ”Yahweh is salvation”, and whose great book is simply named Isaiah.
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