ISRAEL AND JUDAH REUNITED
Series of Devotions
delivered during Morning Chapel Hours
in Presbyterian Theological Seminary (PTS), Dehra Dun, India
2 Samuel 3: 38
1 Kings 11: 29-39
1 Kings 13: 11-32
2 Chronicles 13
2 Chronicles 17: 1-9
Ezekiel 37: 15-28
Let’s be one! The world yearns for unity, amidst of tensions, conflicts and violence. Division appears to be rather just natural: divisions between tribes, nations and races.
There is a yearning for unity in the church, which suffers so much division – sometimes it appears even inevitable, yet we confess that the church is one, and Jesus himself prayed for it (John 17)!
There is something special about the division, in the Old Testament times, between Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah in the south. The people of God, the holy nation, was split into two. The partition had its deep roots in history; it had certain natural causes. But it was unique in this sense: God himself had a hand in it, he wanted it – to a certain extent – and explained why. It was due to human sin as well as to his anger about that sin. It was a terrible reality. How could it ever be repaired?
He was the only one who could reunite them. And he promised to do so. A promise that was to be fulfilled in the New Testament, in Jesus Christ himself.
Let us consider the gap, and be comforted by his promise.
I delivered these sermons, or devotions, at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dehradun, in the morning chapel worship during the academic year 2007-08. The passages may be unusual as subject matter for preaching and a little tough, more so than when we would just turn to John 17. But, as always with Bible meditation, once it is done patiently and carefully, it is richly rewarding.
The picture shows the ‘Monument to three charters for National Reunification’ at Pyongyang, North-Korea (photo by Kok Leng Yeo, via Wikimedia Commons).
2 Samuel 3: 38.
Scripture Reading verse 28-39.
When you enter Gandhi Park, you will soon see a statue of Gandhi. That is obvious: the park is named after him, and then, we remember him thankfully as the one who gave eminent guidance to this country. But there are more statues in the park: Subhas Chandra Bose is there, as well as a smaller head that looks similar to his.
There are many statues and monuments in India, both great and small. People are remembered, and their achievements, with reverence.
However, the favour of the people is changeable; and so are the favours and affiliations of those in power. In one cartoon by Laxman, the official gives directions to the craftsman: if the statue is solidly made so that it can hardly be removed, then it is o.k. to just change the name.
For which person in the Bible – more specifically in the Old Testament, where we are now – would you opt if a statue would be erected? Moses? David? Elijah? Daniel? Maybe, when it comes to this book, 2 Samuel, even for Joab: after all, he has surely had his merit for David, as his commander-in-chief.
But certainly not for Abner. In the first place, after king Saul’s death, he led the continuing resistance against David, the rising new king (while Saul’s son was weak and insignificant). Secondly, he behaved immorally with one of the concubines of the late Saul, which – in those days – meant he attempted a coup [cu:], and, when called to account, he just talked back.
Yet, that is what David did, in the words of verse 38, on which I am focussing this morning: [READ.] David, in his speech, erects a statue for Abner, who has been killed by Joab and, just the same day, buried.
O.k., he does so, probably, after having been questioned, and challenged, by his men: his close friends, his comrades, his ministers – as he is king for some years now; king in Hebron, in the south; king of Judah. “Do you not realize…?”: this appears to be a response to a question.
David, is your distress about Abner’s death not a bit exaggerated? You told the people, as well as those in office, to mourn publicly. During the funeral, you walked behind the bier, personally. You made a lament for Abner and presented it. And even after the funeral, you continued fasting, although we urged you to eat something, as is usual, a comfort after mourning. And then, your curse on Joab and his relatives was really terrible!
O.k., it was cold-blooded murder, by Joab; pre-meditated; treacherous. It was not justified in any way. True, Abner had killed his brother, Asahel, but that had happened in war; and only after repeated warning. Of course, Joab felt furious. But he should have controlled himself, as a disciplined soldier, and servant of the crown. What he did was personal vengeance. David, if you would just have condemned Joab, we would have understood.
Also, Abner’s death was a political loss for David. Abner had just defected to David and become his ally, promising him to persuade the North to accept him as king. And then, David’s display of mourning is smart politics: a positive attitude towards the servants of Saul, a gesture towards the survivors among his servants and his followers, which may move them to accept him more readily as the new king.
But David is apparently so upset, personally, and distressed – there must be more to it!
Friends, this is about the God’s chosen king, the man after his own heart. He – as, much later, Paul, when preaching the gospel, summarizes it: He would do everything God wanted him to do. Our king, Jesus, is the son of David. This is about the kingdom of God: which policy will prevail there; how conflicts will be dealt with. This passage teaches us about justice in the kingdom of God.
Let us consider who these men were. Joab, Abishai and Asahel – the three brothers, they were David’s nephews; sons of his sister Zeruja. We know that David was the youngest of eight brothers; Zeruja must have been much older than he; his nephews may have been about his age. Surely, all of them must have sympathized with David in his plight, being persecuted by king Saul.
They were warriors; skilled soldiers, all of them, each in his own way. Abishai was in David’s band when he was fleeing for Saul – so were, perhaps, the others –, roaming around, a growing group of outcasts and disgruntled men, up to a few hundred, fleeing for Saul and trying to provide for a living.
Abishai volunteered in joining David when he sneaked into Saul’s camp and took his spear and his water jug away.
Joab would conduct raids in the areas and tribes of Israel’s enemies; and he would come back with a great deal of plunder. Asahel was exceptionally good at fast running: “fleet-footed as a wild gazelle”. Apparently, he was proud of it. When pursuing Abner in the battle, although Abner warned him repeatedly, he would not stop chasing him. Finally, Abner killed him. Asahel’s soldier’s pride became fatal for him.
Such were David’s close relatives. Such were their virtues. David himself was the most skilled warrior of all. That was a virtue at that time, when Israel was surrounded by enemies, the Philistines and many others. Together, they were comrades-in-arms.
The nephews are more or less indispensable to David. Joab will be his commander-in-chief, and Abishai also will be among his ‘mighty men’, who are listed in a later chapter. Under David’s leadership, they would fight the battles of the Lord, as Scripture calls it.
David cannot deliver justice and execute the murderers – Joab and Abishai, the brother and accomplice – at this moment. I am weak, he says, and they are too brazen. Many readers, commentators, have criticized David because of this. But I don’t think this was recorded in Scripture for us to find fault with him. David is a rising king; not a rising sun – as other kings would have their appointed chroniclers depict them, flatteringly; as Akbar had his Abu’l-Fazl. That is not David’s way; that is not Scripture’s way. David cannot kill his relatives around him as, in other situations, many claimants to various thrones, the later Mughals and others, would do. The kingdom of God is in the make.
And then, there is Abner. He was likewise, a warrior. He had been the commander of Saul’s army. And he, in his turn, was Saul’s cousin (as you say: ‘cousin-brother’). In those early days of the kingship in Israel, it was not unusual, and not improper, that close relatives would serve as co-workers.
When David had stealthily taken Saul’s spear and his water-jug, from a safe distance he called Abner: the officer who should have cared better for his king. So, at that time – the young David must have felt that it was a very long time, the years of persecution by Saul – at that time, Abner was an adversary of David’s – together with all the people at Saul’s court and in his army.
Even after Saul’s death, Abner remained loyal to his house, his dynasty, and helped Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth on the throne. He protracted the conflict: between the two houses, two families, or clans, Saul’s and David’s.
Warriors they were – David’s nephews, and Saul’s cousin and his men –, each in his own right. They were two parties, two armies. At this time, even the whole nation of Israel is divided: David is king in the South, while the North is still under the influence of Saul’s house. They are at war, for several years.
We are familiar with the partition of the nation later only, after king Solomon’s death. But even before, there has been much inner conflict. During the time of the judges, there was much lack of unity; there was even turmoil, at the level of families and towns, as well as between tribes.
Now, since a few years, Saul is dead, and David is king, rising in power. And now, at this moment, even Abner, the one mighty man of the opposite group, is dead. Killed by treachery, murder, yes… But… history goes on, isn’t it? Rowdies they were, Abner as well as Joab and his brothers, all of them… But Abner is dead, and David’s relatives are alive – two of the three brothers, that is – and he needs them as his mighty men!
And, after all, isn’t it understandable what Joab has done, vindicating the honour of the clan – is that not what can be expected from any kshatriya?
David can go on; David can continue to rise in power, together with his faction!
But that is not how David feels. At this moment, he is upset. And he erects, in his speech, a monument for Abner.
He remembers the time when he was a young servant at the court of Saul; a very young officer. It was the time before he had to flee, escaping Saul’s anger. He ate at Saul’s table, as a courtier, together with Abner. They were comrades-in-arms at that time. Together, they fought the battles of the Lord. So did Abner, even after David had to leave.
And that’s what David wants to continue. He wants to unite Israel, the people of God.
He was faithful to Saul, all the time, even though the king persecuted him. He would not lift his hand to the Lord’s anointed. He is now faithful even to the memory of Saul’s commander-in-chief.
David is not a rising monarch, who does away with the former one, the past dynasty. He is a rising servant. He wants to fight the battles of the Lord, to serve his project, which is one, through the generations. He will serve the unity of the people of the Lord even across the generations, the old and the new. He will unite even the dead and the living – people of the Lord.
In the kingdom of God, there is no ‘realpolitik’; politics that regards everything from the angle of power – who is in power? Congress may need to continue the coalition with the left, reluctantly, because no other possible coalition partners are available. India may be almost silent about the violent oppression by the regime in Burma, because it wants to keep ‘peace’ in the region. But in the kingdom of God, it does not work that way.
Yes, there is a place for all kinds of people. For a variety of clans and tribes. There will be family ties. The kingdom of God will deal with conflicts. It will deal with hurt feelings, with lost honour. Teaching to love one another, it may start with teaching to respect one another, each the other person’s place in the order of the kingdom.
There is a place for arguments. There is a place to cross swords in an honourable way. Nothing of these things is neglected. It will be solved. It will be overcome. Justice will be done. Things will be put right. Righteousness will prevail. Factions will not outdo one another – even now that the disobedient king is being replaced by the ‘man after God’s own heart’ –; they will not defeat one another; they will not efface [ifeis] one another. They will be reunited, in the unity God himself has founded.
That is not just politics. That is a vision. It is David’s passion. That is why he is so emotional at this moment.
For entering the kingdom of God, it is not enough that you are in the king’s (Christ’s) clan, in his faction, in his party, in his army; on his side. You are expected to understand his vision, his zeal, his passion; even his spirit; to respect it, to accept it, to submit to it, and, ultimately, share it.
Stand firm!, Paul says; over against the enemies. Take the armour of God. And in this context he urges us to be one.
1 Kings 11: 29-39.
Scripture Reading verses 26-40.
Closing Hymn: My song for ever shall record. TH 101.
Available tunes: Duke Street (preferred), Truro, Old Hundredth.
The church is one. That is what we confess, together with that very church.
This faith is very much on trial. The church looks hopelessly divided. I am not speaking about all kinds of sects, cults, or the church of guru’s, or whatever may call itself church. I am speaking of the true church, the one that is built on the foundation of the Lord’s gospel. This church looks hopelessly divided. But we believe that Christ came down to save and glorify one church, even his. Therefore, we take refuge to the gospel of the one church.
I have often wondered what the relevance is of the Old Testament message of the partition of Israel – the Old Testament church. And I ever remain convinced that no church leader – whether self-appointed, or the chairman of a synod, or a superintendent – will ever receive a message: Your denomination should be divided, and you will have ten churches; your rival leader will have two, including the large one in the city with the office compound.
Such a message came to Jeroboam.
Still, it happens in secret. The prophet Ahijah – note that he is from Shiloh, in the north, the old place of the tabernacle, which is not in use anymore – meets Jeroboam in the field, in a lonely place. Appointment to the kingship in Israel has been a sensitive matter, again and again. But also, God wants to explain his policy, in its pure content, before things happen, looking as if they are a result of circumstances, in a secular manner.
There is something peculiar about this prophecy: it is a promise to Jeroboam; at the same time, it is a judgment on the kingdom of Israel, and the kingship of the house of David.
Imagine: a new dress! Notably; we would complement our friend: Do you have a new dress? A kurta, or a sari. Looks good! A fine fabric. He, or she, will wear it confidently, proudly even. It is like shining. And then – this person takes it and tears it in pieces!
Yes, it is devastating. The kingdom of David, and Solomon – it ruled the world, so to say; the whole world from the river Euphrates in the East, with its ancient civilization, a centre of power, again and again, in the Old Testament world, to the sea in the West. A whole range of kingdoms paid tribute to David and Solomon. But the glory is short-lived, like that of so many kingdoms in the world: after one zenith, one shining ruler, one Ashok, one Akbar, the decline begins.
It is torn apart. What will be left is two pieces, a larger one in the north, and a smaller one – although with the greater culture and legitimacy – in the south.
It will appear to be a matter of power, or lack of power. Rehoboam will appear a less able ruler, lacking in wisdom, conceited. That is the way of the world. But it is the Lord’s policy: a judgment on the sin of king Solomon, the son of David. You may get the impression of the weakness of old age. Wouldn’t we excuse it, to a certain extent, in this brilliant king, who received so much love from the Lord, so much blessing; who prayed this touching prayer at the dedication of the temple, this lasting model of intercession? But now, in this prophecy, the LORD expresses his anger. Idolatry – even as the temptation of power; wealth and prosperity breed corruption – it provokes the LORD to flaring jealousy.
Let us humble ourselves, friends. The glory of the world… but not only that; even the glory of the most excellent among God’s people, the greatest leaders – it is short-lived. The root problem is not conflict between strong personalities; not the turmoil that so often accompanies succession, as Indian history tells us. It is sin; sin that provokes God’s judgment. Even over Solomon’s glory falls the shadow of the cross.
The second point that is remarkable in this prophecy is the dominating stature of David.
Dominating in two ways. In the first place: God is determined to remain faithful to him, to his promise to him, to his descendants. Decline and fall as in the politics of this world is ruled out. Well, we may say, from hindsight: it will be even worse. Erstwhile rulers have died in exile; sons have imprisoned their fathers in order to seize power, or even killed them; but hardly any monarch or prince royal was crucified like a criminal. But even so: David’s descendants, although they are humbled, will not be dethroned. It will not be forever. God keeps the whole world, but most specially his chosen one, in his hand.
David’s house will be continue to rule in Jerusalem – “…the city where I chose to put my Name”. God remains faithful to his plan; faithful to his city, where his temple is, where the ministry of atonement continues to be conducted. He is faithful to the theocracy: king and priest, joined together in their office. He will humble David’s descendants, “but not forever”. Jeroboam gets a great promise; yet, ultimately, David’s house will prevail.
That means that Jeroboam… – yes, he has a point, when he considers, once in power: My people may continue to go to Jerusalem to worship there!
He gets a great promise: a dynasty that will rule for many generations; it will be blessed. At the same time – yes, it is not just his own feeling afterwards, it is implied even in the prophecy itself already: in a certain sense, he will have to play second fiddle.
Which monarch would like that? He may have to learn it! Well, why not? Why not be blessed while playing second fiddle? If he feels it’s a problem, he can consult the prophet! Ahijah – he will be around, he will be available! Jeroboam won’t forget; he will remember the prophet – unfortunately, only when it is too late… But he could have got the Lord’s guidance!
David’s name dominates in this prophecy in yet another way. He is the model of kingly rule in Israel. Jeroboam is called to follow his example: “…Do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and commands, as David my servant did…”
These words are the more striking, as we know that Jeroboam was not a godly man at all. Not only do we know from hindsight: he would erect the two golden calf statues, at both ends of his kingdom; he would be remembered as such: “…his sin, which he had caused Israel to commit” – he would be remembered as such all through the history of Israel.
But also right from the beginning – notice how he is introduced: as one of the adversaries of Solomon in the later years of his reign. Two were from outside, he happened to be from inside. He “rebelled against the king”. “This is how he rebelled against the king…”: That is the heading of the whole section. How different he is from David, when we compare both designated kings: when his predecessor tries to kill him, he just flees to Egypt – which Israelite would want to go there? – waiting till Solomon would be dead.
And this brings us to a final striking feature of this prophecy. Why did God do so? Why did he choose this man, who is not promising in any way?
Yes, he has ‘leadership qualities’! That is what many churches would appreciate in a pastor-to-be! Solomon, in one of his many construction projects, had noticed Jeroboam’s leadership qualities, and that’s why he had promoted him to a high position in the hierarchy of this construction ministry.
Jeroboam appears to be Solomon’s choice rather than God’s choice. Spiritually, when it comes to godliness, he does not have any qualities. “If you do whatever I command, as David my servant…”: God knows, right from the beginning, that he won’t.
God makes an entire arrangement, a construction for the future, for a divided kingdom… Two kingdoms, two dynasties, would coexist, peacefully, though weakened by the partition… but both of them faithful to God, faithful to the example of David, the original model… And in this way, God’s initial purpose would be served, and ultimately fulfilled.
We would say: God could have saved the effort, of this promise to Jeroboam, this extensive prophecy, this whole arrangement!
But he didn’t. He did make this arrangement. Yes, he hits the house of David with a severe judgment. But he is not overwhelmed by frustration. He does not just act in flaring anger. Patiently, he goes on. He does not abandon the works of his hand. He has more than one string to his bow.
His pledge to David, his commitment, will stand. The constitution of David’s kingship will stand. Ultimately, all kings can be compared to David as the model – that is not a concept of the later historians, the human authors of the books of Kings and Chronicles; that is implied in God’s prophecy from the beginning.
In all the turmoil of later history – first, there will be war between the two kingdoms, for many years; it would have been devastating in the end; later, and even worse, there will be a kind of solidarity: they will almost outdo one another in apostasy and idol worship… In all this turmoil, the faithful Israelite, both in the northern and in the southern kingdom, could have looked back to the original charter, to God’s arrangement for both kingdoms, and be encouraged: God had an orderly plan, directed towards an eternal future.
Friends, if we submit to God’s discipline, we will recognize, amidst all the turmoil, even the wickedness of leaders, his enduring plan; the order of his constitution. We will recognize his plan with David, and his descendants; his successors… Ultimately, we will recognize Christ.
Was Israel divided? Yes, it was. Is Christ divided? No, he isn’t. Even in the awful partition, God knew what he was doing.
1 Kings13: 11-32.
Scripture Reading: 1 Kings 13: 1-22, 31 and 32.
Closing hymn: Oft in danger, oft in woe (TH 479).
Suggested hymn: Thy Word is a lamp to my feet (TH 671).
You may come across the same feeling, the same inclination, even nowadays, in a run-down church; a spiritually run-down church. Where the Word of God has once been preached faithfully, by a dedicated missionary and pastor; but the preaching has become superficial, shallow; man is preached, and how we should behave, but God’s greatness, and his wonderful deeds, are not done justice anymore. Worship has become formal, ritualistic. Or, false teachings have crept in, and the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is neglected. The true dedication to the ministry has faded. Or, some activities may still be going on, but only aiming at people’s entertainment; not at their knowledge of Christ and a godly life and their salvation.
In such a deplorable situation, you may come across this same feeling of nostalgia that we find in that old prophet, living in Bethel. Nostalgia towards the true and living Word of God.
First, we find it in the king, Jeroboam. It is not long after the partition; the division of Israel in two parts: Judah, the southern kingdom, with king Rehoboam in Jerusalem, and Israel, the northern kingdom, with king Jeroboam. The latter is working at consolidating his position as a king. He has established his residence. And he is establishing a worship of his own: two golden calves. He has built an altar of his own, and he will perform the sacrifice himself.
When the prophet from Judah has come, and prophesied against the altar, and God confirms the prophecy by splitting it apart – Jeroboam has stretched out his hand to the prophet and said: “Seize that man!” But then he is not able to pull his hand back again. God humiliates him. He is very embarrassed; you can imagine: he becomes kind of ridiculous. He humbly asks the prophet: “Pray for me…!” The prophet does so, and the arm is healed.
Then Jeroboam invites him for dinner, and promises him a gift. That is not just hospitality. It is… Let us consider what it really is. It is recognition on a certain level. It is not real repentance and conversion. The real problem is not acknowledged and not addressed: the apostasy, the false worship, luring the people of God away from the worship at the temple in Jerusalem, the place God has chosen, where he dwells. The king does not cry out: I have sinned! There is only a certain recognition on the human level: Yes, you are a man of God! …Connected with some recognition on the level of human religiosity: You have supernatural power… you are a kind of charismatic prayer warrior. I have benefited from your intercession. And then… after all, we are brothers, isn’t it?
Something similar we find in the old prophet living in Bethel. He has been a prophet since the time of the unity, the time of Solomon. He is experienced in the Word of God, the God dwelling in Jerusalem; the living Word. He has experienced… I am inclined to express it in words familiar to us, the New Testament words of Hebrews 6: he has “once been enlightened, (…) shared in the Holy Spirit, (…) tasted the goodness of the word of God…” But now, partition has come, and false worship is being introduced in the city where he lives. At this time, he does not receive a word from God. He realizes that his colleague, the younger prophet from Judah, has. He may even envy him. That other man brings the true Word, the living Word!
This old prophet knows that what he is going to do is wrong. It is deceit. He defies the word of God. With a lie, falsely referring to a revelation from God, he invites him to dinner.
That is not just hospitality. It is an invitation to fellowship. After all, we are brothers! We are even colleagues!
Envy apart, this expresses nostalgia. Nostalgia towards the word of God, that he has experienced in the past, that is now being disobeyed, brushed aside in this city – it has come, alive! Let us have fellowship! We may not be obeying it; yet I would like to have it close to me for some time again!
You may come across a similar feeling in a spiritually run-down church, when you preach the true Word, or share it privately, and commend it and argue for it. Yes, you have a point, brother. Ah, you are privileged that you believe this! Well, things have changed here. We have become a different type of church. But, after all, differences apart, we are brothers, isn’t it? We spring from the same root. Each in his own way, we intend to worship one and the same God!
But that is not what God had planned, what he was after, at this time!
Let’s realize, in the first place, that he has sent this prophet from Judah to Israel. Not to any other country. There were lots of places around, in Gentile countries, where false gods were being worshiped, and sacrifices were offered on altars that God detested. But only his own people, who are apostate now, his designated king, in his residence, at his official altar – he has received the prophecy. This is a privilege… They know him, they are his, they have received so much – their responsibility is so much the larger; they are so much the more serious in danger!
God could have sent a prophet from the north. There were some left. Ahijah is still there, in Shiloh; he is not yet old at this time. Later on, he will appoint and send prophets to Israel and its kings, some of them from the northern kingdom. He might even have sent this same old prophet; after all, just a few hours later, he does speak to him.
But initially, he doesn’t. He sends one from the south, to prophesy against the northern altar. He wants to remind Jeroboam and his people, even in this way, of the true altar, the true sanctuary, where he dwells, in the south, in Jerusalem, which is still available, still accessible!
He sends a very serious warning; a prophecy of terrible judgment. Still, it is a measure of discipline; there is time left for repentance and conversion!
And he does not want it to be diluted by an atmosphere of fellowship. He does not want it be played down by this sense of “After all, we are brothers”. Even this command: “You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came”, aims at emphasizing the urgency of this prophetic message. The Word should come like a flash of lightning; if it leaves any impression, if it reminds people of the truth, the true God they know so well – let it just sink in, let them think it over, so that they will repent and convert!
That’s why God now, afterwards, disciplines his unfaithful servant from the south so seriously: with the death penalty, announced by a prophetic word, which explains it in advance.
It had sounded so attractive, the words of the old prophet: “Now an angel has said to me something different, so feel free to come with me and let us have a meal together”. Finally, some recognition; finally, some acceptance, and some fellowship from a senior colleague.
But it was not acceptance of his message; not acknowledgement of the Word of God. An angel will not contradict God himself.
The prophet from the south has violated the Word of God himself. He has allowed it to be taken less seriously.
Now it is clear to everybody; it is talked about, it will come in the news: the lion has killed him, but not devoured him; nor devoured the donkey; it has just remained standing quietly beside the body. This is not an accident. This is a sign from God.
Friends, let me reassure you, and I think you will understand: this passage is not meant to encourage us to fast any time we are out for ministry. That would be a shortcut.
But it does mean: in our ministry, when we are called to convey the Word of God, we are called to obey it ourselves in the first place. If you have to choose between obedience and fellowship, you have to go for the former. Don’t allow the seriousness of the Word of God to be diluted by your own conduct, your own attitude. If it is brushed aside by those who have come to know it – it does happen, no doubt – it should not be your fault.
Finally, the old prophet changes his attitude. Still, he sympathizes with his younger colleague from Judah, as he had felt before. But now, there is more: he acknowledges – which, in his heart, he must have known all the time: “The message he brought against the altar – it was a message from God, it will certainly come true”.
The body is brought back to Bethel, and the old prophet has it buried in his own grave.
There will be a twin grave in the graveyard, with a twin tombstone. It is remarkable. And the story connected with it is remembered. A couple of centuries later even, when it comes true, everything he has prophesied, in the most gruesome way – by that time many other kings have reigned over Israel; none of them really repented and mended his ways; it went from bad to worse; the kingdom of Israel has been destroyed; the people have been exiled; all this has happened long, long ago; and king Josiah comes and desecrates the altar and the graves in Bethel; and he notices this particular grave, and asks: “What is this?” – even then, people can tell him exactly what had happened, long, long ago. Many must have just shrugged their shoulders about the story, and neglected it – still, the grave had remained a speaking monument.
Neither of the two prophets is mentioned by name. They are not commended to us. But the Word spoken is, testified by both of them.
God’s apostate [a’posteit] king, and his people – they may have turned their back to God and brushed his Word aside – the altar must have been restored very soon afterwards, and it has been functioning for some more time, and it has remained there all the time – but that does not mean that they are rid of God’s Word; that they are rid of him. They cannot wash their hands of it. They will have to face it anyway.
Friends, let us be encouraged. Sure, it is one of the most discouraging things you may face in this world – how do you feel about it? A church, where the Word of God has once been preached faithfully, people have been enlightened, they have shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word of God, but it has all come into spiritual decay. You may have had an active part in it, or your father, or your pastor – but in the end, there is no response anymore.
Don’t feel that it is just a tragedy. Don’t feel that the Word of God has failed, and come to nothing. Don’t feel discouraged to continue to uphold it, and honour and obey it yourself, and preach it. It is never powerless. Whenever and wherever it has been faithfully conveyed, it will come true.
2 Chronicles 13.
Closing hymn: O Lord most high, with all my heart (TH 44).
Tune: When I survey the wondrous cross.
PH. – King who?
Reader. – King Abijah.
PH. – Who’s that? Never heard of.
R. – He was a king of Judah.
PH. – Really? Some time I was assigned to memorize the whole list of kings of Judah. Still I remember many of them. But Abijah… No… Where was he in the list?
R. – He was the son and successor of Rehoboam.
PH. – Yes, Rehoboam I know. He was the son of Solomon. And he was the first to reign after the partition. But then… Abijah? What kind of a king was he?
R. – He reigned for three years. And he committed all the sins his father had done before him, it says in the books of Kings.
PH. – Well, he cannot have been very important.
R. – Still, there is this whole chapter, a long chapter, a whole story, here in Chronicles! Weren’t you told the stories of the Bible in Sunday school?
PH. – Sure, but not this one.
R. – Why not?
PH. – I don’t know. Maybe because it is in the books of Chronicles. They are often more or less neglected.
R. – Would you tell it yourself in Sunday school?
PH. – I don’t know.
Actually, I don’t like this story. O.k., it is the word of God, we have to accept it. But this lengthy speech does not sound quite healthy. It sounds too self-confident, and self-righteous; conceited even. Like the Pharisees! It is very simple-minded. You are the villains, we are the heroes; even in the worship of the Lord.
In our churches in the Netherlands, there has been a lot of debate, in the past decades, about the true and the false church. Well, that is even in the confession; the Belgic Confession. And I think we will still agree with it, that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church. But then… The Westminster Confession speaks rather about pure and less pure churches (which is understandable in the historical context).
Anyway, in that recent debate, the point was too much emphasized, and one-sidedly. And then, self-righteousness may creep in; and I feel it did creep in. It was not always a healthy debate, and this passage reminds me too much of it.
Well, we are not obliged to consider this speech as directly the word of God. It is in the Bible, and for a good reason; we have to consider it. But it is not like a prophetic word; a word of a true prophet. There are many such prophetical words, in Kings and even more in Chronicles. And then it often says: “Thus says the Lord…”
This speech is different. It is not a prophetic word; it is the king who speaks. And then, it does not speak to us, so to say, from outside. Instead of God’s word, it rather sounds like ‘our’ word. We do this, we do that.
And it is spoken by a king who is not commended to us. He “committed all the sins…”, and so on – we heard. And he reigned only three years. He cannot have been old yet when he ascended to the throne. This looks like a judgment of God: an early death – although that is not stated.
This is the speech of Abijah. It may have been written by a ghost-writer. Maybe a prophet. Still, that does not imply that we have to consider it right away as the word of God.
But then, even so, the Lord endorses it, apparently. There is no trace of criticism at all. Quite the contrary, God grants the victory in the subsequent battle to the state of Judah; to Abijah and his army!
Even though he may not entirely approve of the text as it is – the cause that Abijah pleads he apparently supports.
Let us consider the other side! Let us imagine that we are at the receiving end of this speech: with Jeroboam and his army.
The message reminds us of the promise God had given to David: his sons would be on the throne forever. We all testify to that: not only that he had promised it, but also that he has fulfilled it. Even now, the son of David, Jesus Christ, is on the throne; and he will be forever.
And then Jeroboam – he rebelled against his master, king Solomon. Yes, it was God’s plan that he would become king of ten tribes; the prophet Ahijah had prophesied it. But that does not mean that the way in which he ascended the throne was legitimate! Compare David: he Would never lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed. Jeroboam did rebel. Not everything that is said here about his rebellion we can check from other sources, other Bible passages. Maybe the responsibility of Rehoboam, his part in the secession, is minimized. But what is said about the new worship that Jeroboam has introduced, is true. And it is really terrible. People in Israel may have got used to it. They may even agree with Jeroboam; it is sensible religious policy, isn’t it? Many soldiers in his army have a relative or a friend who has become priest at Jeroboams altar… Good! But Abijah exposes it in all its nakedness: as just human religiosity and policy. And he compares it to the worship as God has instituted it, long ago, at Mount Sinai, in his law. That is still going on in Judah, in the temple in Jerusalem; carried out faithfully every day. Once more, the ten tribes are reminded of the true worship of the true God. They are forgetting it!
The books of Kings say about Abijah: “His heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God (…)”. A liberal commentator may say that the author of Chronicles twists the facts according to his view and purpose: as Abijah was granted victory, he cannot have been that bad. Let us approach the text carefully and with respect.
“…Not fully devoted…” That sounds not too harsh. It is not the same as: ‘He did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord’, as the formula runs about many kings. Actually, the same is said about Solomon in the later years of his reign. Abijah’s sin may have clouded the proper way of speaking to their brothers. Yet, here, Yahweh uses him as an instrument to confront Jeroboam and his army; his people. “Men of Israel, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your fathers, for you will not succeed”. As we are meeting for battle now – think again, before we clash!
It is true, friends. Jeroboam and his people are not in a position to complain – as is often done in church in theological debates –: “Your speech does not sound nice. We miss the brotherly love in it. After all, we are brothers, isn’t it? You sound too self-righteous, even conceited. Where is the real humility the Lord requires?” No, they had better pay heed to the warning, and think again! God is faithful, in confronting them, holding the mirror up to them, once more, while the truth is being distorted and even silenced in their country.
You may consistently try to find the right tone, even in a heated debate between truth and lie, guidance and deception. As the apostle Peter says: “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God”. But there is no excuse to disguise the truth, or hide it, or not heed it.
If only the Judeans, and especially their kings, had remained faithful to what they are saying here! Faithful to the true worship of God…!
And then, the terrible thing happens: the brothers clash. One part of the nation, God’s people, against the other. Maybe we’d better not call it a ‘civil war’. It is a war between armies, in the battlefield; not in the streets. Still, it is a war between brothers. Many must have relatives across the border.
This is the first time after partition that they give battle. It had happened when David had ascended the throne in Judah only. But after that there has been a long time, over 70 years, of peace and unity and prosperity.
Does God approve of this fraternal war? It was Judah’s initiative; and he gives them the victory!
Once before, Judah had prepared for battle against the Northern kingdom. Rehoboam did. But then the Lord had said – through a prophet –: “Do not go up to fight against your brothers (…), for this [the split of the kingdom] is my doing”. Rehoboam has a responsibility in the split. But now his son is going, trying to reunite the nation under the dynasty of David – which, after all, was God’s original plan.
This one battle is the beginning of a long war. “There was war between the king of Judah and the king of Israel, as long as they lived…” – this statement recurs several times. It must have been a serious blow to both brother-nations: suffering, grief, anguish, and economic decline.
What did it result in, in the long run? No unity. Yes, there have been more positive contacts later on; but it was not favourable to the worship of the Yahweh. Israel would seduce Judah to spiritual decay. Judah, in the end, would become as wicked as Israel, and they would be ruined as well as the northern kingdom, although two centuries later only, in exile, with the temple of Yahweh destroyed. All in all, it was not really a ‘holy war’.
Has Yahweh always been at Judah’s side? No. Already, during the later days of Rehoboam, he has inflicted them a serious military blow, because of their lack of faithfulness to Yahweh: king Shishak of Egypt had invaded the country and carried off many treasures. And when it says: “There was war between the kings of Judah and Israel”, apparently the outcome varied. Once, when a later king of Judah, Amaziah, was really over-confident and did not trust in the Lord, God even granted the victory in the battle to Israel.
Here, it is not stated that Abijah consulted the Lord before he went to battle. He just went. It does not look very spiritual.
Why, then, does God give victory to Judah this first time? It is not only in this first battle. This is the beginning of a time of rising power for Judah, and weakness for Jeroboam.
What happens? Yes, the initiative is clearly with the southerners. Abijah announces: the “priests with their trumpets will sound the battle cry against you”. And that happens.
But… it happens only when they are left no other option; they are under heavy pressure by Jeroboam’s army. Jeroboam does not heed the speech and the warning of Abijah. While Abijah is speaking, he envelops Judah’s position and lays an ambush behind them. Then, the Judeans, who came so confident, are scared. After the speech, instead, they cry out to the Lord. Then only, they attack.
The king’s attitude may not be highly spiritual. Yet, still, they worship the true God, the God of David, the God of Jerusalem. They trust in him – it is not just a pretext; it is not just self-confidence and conceit and complacency, as it would become later on. They cry to him, and the priests from the Jerusalem temple raise the battle cry – in God’s name.
And then, God is gracious. And serious. He does not feel: Well, there is just spiritual decline – let them fight, and destroy one another! He does not become indifferent.
Still, he distinguishes between the true worship and the apostate worship; between calling on his name, and idolatry.
Once more: If only Judah had remained faithful to what they confess here – all the time! If only they had persevered in this attitude, this approach: the true worship of Yahweh, and trusting in him alone! And: if only Israel had heeded the warning, and the outcome of the battle, and, after their defeat, humbled themselves and sought the Lord again!
Friends, in your ministry, you may become seriously concerned about the spiritual state of your church (as we are here about Abijah and Judah). That is o.k. Please remain sensitive to what is going on, instead of lowering your standards and concealing your concern – that is not real love –; or, even worse, slide down together with your church, your congregation.
But even if you confront God’s own people, if you have to – don’t just rebuke them. Instead, speak about God. Show them what he has given to them, and is still giving them. Continue to impress on them the difference between the true worship of the true God and trust in him, and idolatry and apostasy. Continue to impress on them the privileges God has given to them. Continue to trust in the Lord yourself. Continue to trust that he will be faithful to his people. Lead the people in that genuine confidence.
And, on the other hand, if your church is criticized, or even your denomination is criticized, by fellow Christians, consider what is said. Don’t be indifferent to it, or just defensive: This is our church; this is the way we do it! Or even become indignant. You’d better remain humble before the Lord. They may have a point!
Then you will see his grace, his faithfulness, instead of his judgment on shrinking back and apostasy. You will not have to face defeat.
2 Chronicles 17: 1-9.
Concluding hymn: Thy Word is a lamp to my feet.
You may be dismayed because of the situation in your country: the growing gap between rich and poor, the corruption, the politics being about persons and power rather than serving the people. And then you may feel a certain nostalgia for the past. Where is the Gandhi and the Nehru for today; where the Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel? Where is the selfless dedication – for all their shortcomings and mistakes – to the nation? Where are the true leaders? Isn’t the nation – for all the rise of the economy – rather declining?
The Judeans had all the reasons for such nostalgia towards the past, when this book – these two volumes of ‘Chronicles’ – were written. Only a small minority had returned from exile. And they did not enjoy independence. The house of David was, and remained, humiliated; whoever descended from it had better keep himself low-profile; the king of Persia ruled. And they were a minority in their own country; insecure; almost besieged by unruly tribes around them.
Do these books – Chronicles, and, for that matter, Samuel and Kings also – express such nostalgia? What about this passage? Jehoshaphat was a great king – even though David and Solomon had been even greater. He was an able ruler, a godly man, he was prosperous, he was mighty. That was long ago! Nothing of this greatness has remained! Where is the Jehoshaphat for today, and the Hezekiah and Josiah?
Yes, that is the situation in which these history books were written. Yet, there is no nostalgia. Quite the contrary – if only you read, not only carefully, but also in faith. The promise to David is still there! The promise of a dynasty, for a never-ending future! A promise of a godly king, of peace and prosperity, even more than had ever come true up till now. This promise still stands out. The people are still involved in a process – so these books point out – that will lead, ultimately, to that Golden Age.
When we interpret this history this way – even today, not everybody does it –, then it is encouraging. Especially a passage like this is encouraging. In Jehoshaphat, God’s faithfulness to his promise becomes apparent. The line of David and Solomon, and their successors, the good line, the promising tendency, is continued.
The relationship between God and Jehoshaphat is good. That is described at some length, in some abundance of words, in the middle section of the passage we read, verses 3-6. You can hardly tell what preceded and what was the consequence – Jehoshaphat’s godliness or God’s blessing. The relationship is reciprocal. It is a real covenant relationship.
Jehoshaphat distinguished himself clearly from the kings in the sister-state Israel – there, in those days, the worship of the golden calves was succeeded by the worship of the Baals and Asherahs becoming the official state religion, under the rule of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Jehoshaphat’s “heart”, on the contrary, “was devoted to the ways of the Lord”. The continuity is clearly stated: “He walked in the ways his father David had followed”. He “sought the God of his father”. Not only in private, also in his policy. Not only did he worship him, he also consulted him: What to do, which direction to choose, which priorities to follow? There were special ways, in the Old Testament, in which Yahweh could be consulted – his special revelation had not yet been completed. Not only he himself worshiped the Lord, he also took measures against the idolatry in the country – “he removed the high places and the Asherah poles from Judah” – yes, we should never idealize the ‘religion of Israel’; idolatry was going on, it was popular practice among at least a part of the people; not only in the Northern kingdom but also in the south. But it is not legitimate; the king counteracts it.
Let us now focus on the very first things that are told about Jehoshaphat’s reign: verses 1 and 2. He “strengthened himself against Israel. He stationed troops in all the fortified cities of Judah and in the towns of Ephraim that his father Asa had captured”.
That does not sound very friendly. After all, it is a sister-state. They were brothers; descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; one people. When people would travel from the north, to visit relatives, or to worship Yahweh, the God of their fathers, their common God, in his temple in Jerusalem, they would see the stern walls of those cities, rising up, the watchmen on the towers, and patrolling soldiers, heavy-armed, and armoured chariots.
In our culture, we would see border stations guarded by sentries; we would have to go through strict checks of passports and visas. As if we were going to an enemy country!
Yes, there had been war between the two countries for many years now; if not continuously, battles and border conflicts every now and then. And Judah had proven stronger. They had trusted in the Lord, although sometimes not wholeheartedly – Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa; and the Lord had blessed them and given them victory. Jehoshaphat continues this policy; he reaps the fruit: his father, and grandfather, had made conquests in the border area, and Jehoshaphat fortifies the captured places, so that the gains from the war won’t get lost.
It doesn’t look friendly. But the king takes the promises of God seriously. They require action. The city of God, his temple, his worship, needs to be protected. Imagine: your brother has turned to idolatry, away from the worship of the Lord, hostile towards it. It may affect your family! It may affect your people! This requires measures to be taken. Your area of authority needs to be protected against being immersed by the powers of apostasy. The true worship of the Lord needs to be safeguarded against the seeping in of idolatry. It can so easily happen. Even without influence from outside, it is there. But that is not a reason to resign: After all, nothing can be done about it; let it be. Quite the contrary. If not all evil worship can be wiped out, at least the flood should be stemmed!
A friendly pastor is not naïve. The shepherd who is dedicated to the flock knows the lurking dangers that threaten the people of God. “Once saved, always saved” – that is not an objective truth, which can just be taken for granted. It requires faith, steadfast, watchful. Backsliding is not a danger that can only come from inside, from the heart of children of God. It also looms large from outside. False teaching can easily creep in; it is there very much all around us. It may even come from brothers, who have not been faithful to God’s doctrine. Liberal theologies, and various types of humanism, are rampant even within churches. The true leader is aware of the wolves that will do damage to the flock. That is one of the reasons why you do theology here. You will want your church, your denomination, be wise about what is good, but also innocent about what is evil, as the apostle Paul says. Blessed is the church with leaders who distinguish, realize the difference, and take adequate measures; who draw clear lines, confessionally: This is what we stick to; thus far and no further!
This is even more emphasized in the light of some of Jehoshaphat’s later actions. It is already hinted at here in our passage: “In his early years he walked in the ways his father David had followed…” Later on, it became different.
The secular historian will say: Jehoshaphat was an able ruler. Yes, and he was blessed. And then, apparently, he felt strong. And from a position of strength, you may become inclined to a different type of policy. Peaceful coexistence; negotiations; and then: agreements, friendly relationships, gradually closer; alliances…
It may appear smart policy. That’s what Jehoshaphat did. He arranged a marriage between his son, Jehoram, and a daughter of Ahab, king of Israel. Her name was Athalia. You know that name. It did great damage to the dynasty and to Judah. But for the watchfulness of others, it would have led to irreparable downfall.
Of course, in connection with the marriage of his son, Jehoshaphat visited the father-in-law. And together with Ahab, he went to war. And, as God wanted to kill Ahab, and told him so, Jehoshaphat himself got in serious peril. And after having survived, a prophet rebuked him: How can you make an alliance with those who hate the Lord? Yes, they are brothers, but you know them…!
In this light, the menacing walls and towers with heavily armed soldiers were prudent policy. Be friendly to your brothers, but keep their evil influence at bay!
And then, when the border is closed, the book is opened – the book of the word of God. Jehoshaphat appoints teachers who have to teach God’s law to the people, throughout the kingdom of Judah. A group of officers of the king, a group of Levites, and a couple of priests. We would say: church and state join forces. Priests and Levites are teachers of the law; that is part of their office. They are experts in God’s wisdom.
Jehoshaphat sends them out to the towns. Local seminars are held. The people don’t even have to travel, as they used to do to the Jerusalem temple. No fuss, no expenses; the word of God comes to them.
Why does Jehoshaphat do so? It was not commanded by God; not explicitly. Regular worship was there, according to God’s law, carried on by the priests and Levites.
But Jehoshaphat not only applies God’s law according to the letter. And he has not left the study of God’s word to the theologians: the priests, the prophets. He must have read and reread it and reflected and meditated on it; yes… as it was commanded in the law: If there will be a king, he must have a copy of the law with him, and have it read to him regularly. He has done with the law as is expressed in Psalm 119: “O, how I love your law! / I meditate on it all day long”.
He applies it in a mindful way, in a maximizing way: It is not enough that the leader of God’s people, the shepherd, knows the law; all of them should. It is not enough that the priest knows the law, and can bring sacrifices and perform rites as prescribed; the people themselves should know how to approach God, in a way that pleases him. It is not enough that the Levites praise God in the temple; everybody should do it, in their hearts, and in their homes.
The law of God is addressed to all, even when it speaks about the duties of some. The law speaks not only about sacrifices, but also about mutual respect; about marriage, family and sexuality; about property; about conflict management. Later on – in chapter 19 –, Jehoshaphat will appoint judges; he gives them directions, like the edicts of Ashoka but far more universally promulgated – all of us own a copy. But not only judges need to be impartial, and government officers free from corruption; all people should be sincere and reliable, and righteous among themselves.
Jehoshaphat has realized, apparently: It is not enough that people are outwardly protected, by fortified cities and garrisons, from idolatry and false teaching. They need to be vaccinated with the preventive medicine. He wants them not only to be innocent about what is evil, but also wise about what is good. They need to be equipped with the armour of God, so that they can defend themselves against spiritual harm.
How would you call this campaign? It is no reformation. Reformation implies a renouncing of something evil, replacement of false doctrine by the truth. Jehoshaphat provides something new, which had not been there before.
It is not a revival. It does not focus on the response of the people, their acclaim.
Shall we call it development work? Isn’t it empowerment?
It is people’s education. It is a national education programme; offered to all citizens. A common minimum programme. This will enable them to live a worthy life, a decent life.
Not all Indian citizens receive this education. The government is often alleged to spend too little money on education. But even in government schools, this is not included in the curriculum. This is the privilege of the people of God.
Is this something of the past? The policy of one excellent ruler in history, like Ashoka, in an irretrievable golden age, which we can look back upon only in nostalgia?
No. This is a period in God’s policy, in the chain of history in which he fulfils his eternal plan.
We have a king who writes the word of our God in our hearts, not only those who study theology but all the citizen of his kingdom.
We are privileged to be involved in this policy! Let it live in our heart and mind!
Ezekiel 37: 15-28.
Closing hymn: The church’s one foundation.
In the past months, every time when it was my turn, we have read passages on the split between Israel – the northern kingdom – and Judah: the two parts of God’s people. They were sister-states; they were closely related; they were brothers. Both of them were God’s people. Yet, they had parted ways.
Both of them were responsible for this separation. In the south, king Rehoboam had been foolish, not listening to the serious complaints of his people. He lacked the attitude of serving leadership, which his father Solomon had displayed from the beginning of his reign. He was conceited. Being raised as the son of the king, he felt: I am the king, I can do what I want.
At the other side, the northerners had rebelled against the legal king. They followed a leader of their own: Jeroboam.
The brothers had split. It was their responsibility. At the same time, it had been God’s work; even primarily his work. He had promised the ten tribes to Jeroboam. He had humiliated the house of David, because of Solomon’s idolatry. It was a punishment; a stern measure of discipline.
Ever since, each had its own king, and they followed their own policy. Often there was war between them. Each had its own periods of prosperity and of distress.
Even so, through the years, and even centuries, God continued to address both of them as his people. He sent his prophets to both of them.
Yet, there was a big difference; or even many differences. The south had Jerusalem, the city God had chosen. There was his temple. There, the worship was conducted as God had instituted it in his law.
In the north, right from the beginning, idols were erected and worshiped. Later on, even the Baal worship was officially instituted. Palace coups took place; generals seized power – whether God had a reform plan, or they did it just on their own. They managed for a long time – God was patient – but in the end, they were conquered and led into captivity: it was a traumatic experience for all the people.
In the south, the dynasty of David reigned, to which God had given his promise: this dynasty would reign forever. Sure, they also had wicked kings, from time to time. There were so many serious flaws in the worship of Yahweh. Still, time and again, they had a righteous king, who revered Yahweh and cared for the temple – the building, and the proper conducting of worship; he would carry through a reformation if necessary.
You may well say: both kingdoms differed as the true and the false church. Or – as this is the language of the Belgic Confession; let us also put it in the wording of the Westminster Standards: a pure church and a very less pure church, almost like a synagogue of Satan.
But then, in the south, too, idolatry became popular – even though it was resisted by many. It became even rampant. The south imitated the north; it matched it in idolatry – idolatry to power, to the superpowers around, making alliances with each one in turn. It provoked the Lord to anger, to the point that no reformation could avert it anymore.
Both kingdoms had become equal in depravity. That’s how Ezekiel has pictured it in chapter 23. If I had had more opportunity, I would have discussed that chapter also – even though it is repugnant, picturing the apostasy as prostitution, and an excess of sexual desire – the kingdom of Judah as nymphomaniac.
Now, finally, Judah has joined the northerners in exile. They also had suffered – many casualties; they were terribly hurt, uprooted, and deported.
Until the last moment, as long as Jerusalem had resisted the siege, the exiles in Babylon had cherished hope. Still, the temple of the Lord stands! Still, the house of David reigns! God will not abandon us! Ultimately, he will save us, and we will all return!
All the time, Ezekiel had prophesied to them, in Babylon – as Jeremiah and other prophets had done way back in Jerusalem; Ezekiel had prophesied with words as well as with signs and silence: No. The judgment will come, to the point of ultimate destruction.
Now, it has come, and all hope has been dashed.
Then, the prophet speaks again. God speaks again, to him, and through him. He speaks anew. And, as a real pastor, a real shepherd, he seeks them, he finds them, where they are, emotionally – in their utter despair.
It is clear in the first part of this chapter: the vision; the vision of the valley of death: the valley of scattered bones. “Bones that were very dry” – it does not mean, literally, that the final, lethal blow had taken place long ago. Rather, it expresses the ultimate despair: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off”.
But it is also here in this passage. Ezekiel has to express, in a sign, with those pieces of wood, basically the same thing.
God seeks the people, and finds them, in their despair. Look: the piece of the North and the piece of the South – I join them together, I make them into one. Both of them (‘Ephraim’, as it was often called; ‘Joseph’, as it is called here, peculiarly) and ‘Judah’ – both of them have been ruined; destroyed; deported. – We are used to consider the exile as, geographically, very different in both cases: Israel went to Assyria, Judah to Babylon. But in reality, they may not have been too far from each other. The dominating superpower was different, but the areas overlapped to a large extent. – Both parts of the people have become captives in a foreign country.
But now (the Lord says), now that the real end has come – even now, I make a new start for you, and with you. The dry bones will be joined together; they will become alive! And – as you have become one in the judgment, one in death, so you will be one in your new life. That is one of the essentials of this new life: that you will be one again.
“My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd”. God goes back to the past, over four centuries ago (mind you: four centuries at that time was as long as it is now). There has been a relatively short period of unity. It was the time that David reigned, the man after God’s own heart, and his son. Wasn’t that the time of his favour, the day of salvation? One flock, one shepherd. This kingship of David will be restored!
This is a prophecy of the new covenant; a prophecy of Jesus Christ. It includes many more blessings – I won’t discuss all of them now, not even list them. Let’s just summarize them – a bit theologically – as: justification, and sanctification. Forgiveness of sins, and a new, holy life-style that pleases God.
The prophecy goes back to an even more distant past. As I said: it is peculiar that the northern part of the kingdom is called Joseph. That is very unusual; it happens only once or twice more in the Old Testament.
Joseph, and Judah. Joseph, the man who was despised and hated by his brothers, even by Judah, and went into slavery – but then, he became a saviour of his entire family: father Jacob and all his eleven brothers. And Judah, who saved Joseph from the death in the cistern – “After all, he is our brother, isn’t it?” – just to sell him to a caravan of slave traders. He had slid down, following his sons, in wickedness – until he admitted himself to be wrong; and then he vowed to care for his youngest brother, Benjamin, on their second journey to Egypt, and he fulfilled it, when standing before the vice-king Joseph, whom he did not recognize.
Joseph, and Judah – a special pair… of brothers. Divided – and yet, in the end, one. In the depth… and finally saved.
Joseph and Judah – they will be one; finally; by God’s grace only.
It has happened; it has been fulfilled. There were northerners among those who returned from exile, and settled again, in and around Jerusalem. There was Anna, from the tribe of Asher, to welcome baby Jesus, and tell about him to everybody who was willing to listen. There were the Samaritans, a mixed people, descending from northerners who had been left in the country, or even brought back. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, ministered in Galilee, the land of Zebulon and Naphtali; and even to the Samaritans: “He had to go through Samaria”, and meet the Samaritan woman at the well, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. “He had to…” – we may say: he had a burden for them; but then… no; rather: he had an assignment, from his Father, to preach them himself, the Messiah, the Christ; he was assigned to fulfil this prophecy by Ezekiel. When leaving for heaven, he told his disciples to preach him in Judea and Samaria.
And then, we see the whole nation, all the twelve tribes, in the book of Revelation: in the beginning, before God’s judgments hit the earth, in the first part of chapter 7 – the people is complete!: twelve times twelve thousand; not even one person is missing! And then, some may be cut off; others, even we, are grafted in… In the end of the Revelation, we hear once more of the complete nation: on the twelve gates of the new Jerusalem – three on each side – the names are written of the twelve tribes of Israel.
I have gone with you – briefly – through the history of the partition, the sad separation between the brothers, sons of the one family of God… I have done this with a purpose: to see what we can learn from it for the present situation of God’s people, its dividedness, its many splits, into countless denominations. Yes, we can learn from it; here are some conclusions.
In the first place: in the Old Testament, the split was… yes, the work of God; but then, it was not what he had intended for his people; it was a judgment, a measure of discipline.
And then, even though it was his work, people are responsible at the same time, by their weakness, foolishness, quarrel, and even wickedness.
So, we cannot take the separation for granted; let alone that we would enjoy it. “Let hundred denominations bloom!”? No! “How good and pleasant it is / when brothers live together in unity” (Psalm 133): “One body and one Spirit” – no, not just one Spirit, ‘spiritually one’, but also one body! – “…One faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4) – “How good and pleasant it is / when brothers live together in unity”; how sad it is, how miserable, when they don’t!
In the second place: God does distinguish. He does not just say: Well, they are all imperfect, they are all sinful, yet, they are all, equally, my people; all, equally, my church! No, he distinguishes where the true worship is found, as he has wanted it, as it pleases him – in the New Testament we may say, in the first place: where the true doctrine is being preached, and applied – and where there is digression, straying away from the truth, aberration, sliding back, down, and even worse.
In the third place: ultimately, we – the people of God – have turned out to be one in depravity. We have become one in deserving his judgment. Looking forward to unity, striving towards it, we can only do in basic humility.
In the fourth place: this prophecy finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. He is the ‘David’ of the prophecy – the fulfilled David, his great son, even far greater than David himself. In Christ, we are one: one flock, one shepherd; “…One Lord, (…) one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”.
In the fifth and last place: When we seek unity, and pursue it – do we? Do we feel it is important? Do we long for it? Do we feel it is worth our effort? Or do we just dismiss it? It is much more comfortable to be on our own, isn’t it?, with our own habits, our own preferences, our own traditions, our own ‘nest smell’… – But when we try, seriously, persistently – yes, we may often be disappointed; we may often feel that it is impossible; we may be discouraged, even to the point of despair… But no, we will not despair. We will keep holding on, on the solid basis of this promise, this prophecy. Not one word of God will be powerless, and fall to the ground, unfulfilled. We look forward to it: one nation, one shepherd – it will come true!