God exiles His people when He must. What about us?
Throughout the first two books of Kings in the Old Testament, we are given a chronicle of the waywardness of the divided kingdoms of the Jews, Israel and Judah, under a long string of kings. During this period, superstition and idolatry are rampant, and reform and a return to the Lord are rare. God is revealed as gradually preparing to dispossess His people of their homeland as a punishment for their failure to keep His covenant. In the reign I am about to examine, many in Israel have already been dragged into exile by the King of Assyria, and the prospects for Judah are far from rosy.
But as we learn from 2 Kings chapter 23, under the reign of King Josiah (c. 640–609 BC), the high priest Hilkiah rediscovered the long-neglected Book of the Covenant while superintending restoration work in the Temple. That this book had been unused for so long is a witness to a long period of waywardness on the part of the Jewish people. Even among those few kings who tried to be faithful to the Lord, there was no adequate instruction. But when Josiah heard of the discovery, he was both alarmed and penitent, and immediately set about the process of religious reform.
To us, a remarkable effort
Now for generations, the kings had pretty much gone their own way, with one or another occasionally trying to eliminate false gods and restore genuine worship. But Josiah’s reforms seem prodigious. Here is a partial list of his accomplishments:
- He gathered the people and read the Book of the Covenant to them, renewing the covenant with the Lord on behalf of all (23:1-3).
- He destroyed all the sacred vessels in the Temple that had been made for “Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven” (23:4).
- He deposed the priests whom past kings had ordained to make offerings in other places than the Temple, and also those who “burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of heaven” (23:5).
- He destroyed the houses of the male cult prostitutes (12:7).
- He removed all the priests from the cities of Judah and “profaned” the high places where they had made offerings of all kinds (23:8-9).
- He defiled those locations which were used by the Jews to burn their sons and daughters as an offering to Molech, to put a stop to this practice (23:10).
- He removed the horses, chariots, altars and buildings which had been dedicated to the sun (23:11-12).
- He defiled the high places that had been built by Solomon for the worship of Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Milcom (all to please his foreign wives), “and he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim [usually poles or trees set up to honor a pagan goddess or otherwise to symbolize a pagan cult] and filled their places with the bones of men” (23:13-14).
- He also went into Samaria, destroying all the shrines and high places previous kings had made there, and sacrificing all the priests on their own altars (23:19-20).
- He commanded all the people to “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant”, which had not been kept completely since the time of the Judges (23:21-22).
- Finally, he put away “the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord” (23:24).
In summary, we are told of Josiah: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (23:25).
And yet the sacred author is forced to a bitter conclusion:
Still, the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations…. And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” [2 Kgs 23:26-27]
Within a short time, Josiah was killed in battle by Pharaoh (of Egypt), and within a few years, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon captured Jerusalem. By 597 BC, he began deporting the people of Judah to Babylon. This “Babylonian Exile” would last 70 years.
To God, remarkably insufficient
While the reforms of Josiah were quite dramatic, it is to be doubted how deeply they took root among the people. Reading the Book of Kings is like reading an extended litany of rulers who led their willing people into every kind of abomination, in both Judah and Israel, with occasional rulers popping up who favored the worship of the Lord, and who periodically took some significant steps in that direction, only to leave much undone and, in any case, to have the good swept away by the next monarch. To draw a telling parallel from our own day, I cannot help but think of both Europe and America, in which we elect one set of rulers after another who push us (not very unwillingly) into an ever-increasing paganism, only to be dragged back a baby step or two through some minor political victory, after which the whole cycle begins again.
The Books of Kings are full of references to God’s anger at the waywardness of both leaders and people. Whole reigns are summarized with words like these concerning the king: “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of [previous King X] and in his sin which he made Israel to sin” (e.g., 1 Kgs 15:34).
How like our modern times this is! We all seem to be subject to a comfortable political manipulation. We consider it a great victory when we take one or two tiny steps back from the abyss, only to be led eagerly forward as a people on the next occasion. This is unlike some earlier and later periods in Jewish history—and also unlike some earlier periods in our own—when we actually suffered imprisonment and even death rather than drifting along with the monotonously degenerating times.
But my point in choosing to concentrate on chapter 23 of the Second Book of Kings is simply to suggest that we cannot presume on God’s mercy too much. There comes a point of no return, when God sees that a people and perhaps even an era are essentially lost, that this particular phase of the Divine plan must end. Such was the case with Adam and Eve in the Garden, with Noah’s generation, with those at work on the Tower of Babel, with the Jews in Egypt, with Moses’ inability to enter the Promised Land, with the end of the era of the Judges, with the line of King Saul, with the heirs of David and Solomon, with the divided Kingdom and the Exile, with the suffering of the Jews under Greeks and Romans, with the mission of Jesus Christ, and, indeed, with the often repellant history of those who make up the Church Christ founded.
God never, ever acts in ways that are bad for us. But He does reach a time when, on any given trajectory, He knows He has done all He can do without violating our free will. He reaches a time when He recognizes our definitive refusal to take refuge in the shadow of his hand (Is 49:2)—a time when He can only lament for us, for the Church we claim to honor, and for the nation we inhabit, as he lamented for Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!”
God cannot help us if we assume we have merited His sacrifice when “those others” have not. Are we convinced yet that something more is needed? What are our own righteous substitutes for embracing the Cross? The efforts of even the deeply committed King Josiah were reckoned by God as too little, too late.
So we must ask whether our own exile—as persons, as families, as citizens, and even as Catholics—must also be recognized as God’s last resort. Indeed, we must ask whether that exile has already begun—and whether we even possess the grace to feel the pain of it.
This our exile. This valley of tears. And then, when Christ speaks once again of His betrayer, the most important question of all: Is it I, Lord.... Lord, is it I?
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Posted by: maryebaranski5728 -
Apr. 19, 2021 9:20 AM ET USA
I remember reading this for the 1st time many years ago. I could feel the tears of joy the people felt at hearing the words of the Book. I am glad to read your commentary on the whole piece! It really struck me how despite Josiah's efforts, the people were still obstinate in their heart and they were again exiled. My heart hurts in all of the confusion of today, exiling all from each other is painful but I question that it will change obstinate hearts but I hopefully pray so!
Posted by: miketimmer499385 -
Apr. 14, 2021 9:59 AM ET USA
Do you think that in light of the contradictory positions taken by Cardinals Burke and Gregory in regard to the proper conditions for the distribution and reception of the Eucharist, there might finally be a dogmatic position affirmed at least by American bishops? Those of us at this site who see the truth of your commentary, I'm sure, see this as the most obvious reason paralleling the Old Testament for an intercession of God in the Church today. Our bishops can't continue their contradictions.