A postmortem for the people of God.
What you lose when sin becomes your one true love.
One of the most popular genres of television entertainment is, no doubt, the crime drama. Legal-procedural shows pepper TV station time slots, largely retelling the same narrative over and over again, with slight variants, and a modicum of personality, to keep audiences engaged. Notwithstanding which show you’re watching, though, the most critical scene often occurs early on in each episode, as the detectives visit the coroner’s office to hear a postmortem report on the body at the center of whatever homicide they’re investigating. After a thorough examination, an approximating time and cause of seething is determined, which jumpstarts the inquiry as they piece together some such murderous puzzle. Forgive me for being cheeky, but, in a way, the historian assumes a similar role in 2 Kings 17, as he proceeds to perform a “historical autopsy,” if you will, in order to pinpoint what led to the demise of God’s people in the northern kingdom of Israel.
A deep cut.
This entire chapter is, essentially, a postmortem report on the people of God. The historian begins by surgically relaying the factual status of Israel’s leadership. Hoshea, son of Elah, had come to power, the latest in a line of conspiratorial benefactors who had assassinated their way to the throne (2 Kings 17:1; cf. 15:30). Once there, however, he continued the trend of kings bowing the knee to whomever was reigning in Assyria at the time (here it’s Shalmaneser). Hoshea bows as low as he can in front of Shalmaneser, calling himself “his servant,” and giving him gifts of tribute as a sign of deference (2 Kings 17:3). This isn’t all that shocking at this point in Israel’s history, but what is surprising is just how low Hoshea is willing to stoop to benefit himself.
Eventually, Shalmaneser uncovers a “conspiracy” between Hoshea and the king of Egypt (2 Kings 17:4), which, I suppose, just goes to show that it’s true what they say: “Once a conspirator, always a conspirator.” Whatever Israel and Egypt had in mind, though, didn’t at all sit well with Assyria. He puts a kibosh on their scheme, imprisoning Hoshea and marches upon Samaria, Israel’s capitol. (One historical sidebar to note the scholarly debate about who actually completed the siege of Samaria. Whereas Scripture ascribes it to Shalmaneser, recovered Assyrian inscriptions give credit Sargon II, Shalmaneser’s successor, credit for that feat. Some believe that while Shalmaneser began the assault, Sargon II finished the job. Other say that the Scriptural version is the historical one and that Sargon II was exaggerating the details a bit. Nonetheless, Samaria was taken. For more on the history of event, see Davis, 2 Kings, 244–45.) The historian notes:
Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:5–6)
The siege is a success. Samaria is overrun, with its citizens forcibly resettled throughout the Assyrian empire. Families are violently snatched from their homes, helplessly watching as Assyrian transplants repossess what was rightfully theirs (2 Kings 17:24). This, of course, was the Assyrian method. With each new land that they conquered, they quickly expanded their kingdom by deporting the natives, displacing them somewhere else, and relocating some of their own people, along with other refugees, to their newly acquired territory. This feat of logistics is what propelled Assyria to world dominance during those days. And such is what had become of the Land of Promise.
The historian’s reminder cuts the deepest on this point: the people of God who were promised an everlasting place were now dis-placed. Israel was ripped from their home, out of the land of “milk and honey” and into the badlands of foreigners. They were, in a way, back in the wilderness again. Why? Well, because “the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God” (2 Kings 17:7). Yahweh had explicitly warned them that this would happen (Deut. 28:62–66). But they egregiously ignored such cautions, flinging themselves into the embraces of idolatry and iniquity. They made their bed, and now they had to lay in it. And we might be satisfied to leave it there but the historian doesn’t want his point missed. Israel had, indeed, done a number on themselves, resulting in the people of God losing a great deal more than just their land. They lost everything.
The loss of purpose.
One of the keys to effective Bible study is taking note of the repeated words or phrases in a given text. This is often the author’s way of highlighting a certain theme or drawing attention to a specific point. For example, it would be one thing for the historian to say that Israel became the servants of Assyria, but he doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he drives the point home that Israel had lost itself entirely to Assyrian rule and influence by repeating the title “king of Assyria” some six times in a mere four verses (2 Kings 17:3–6). By this, he makes it evident that the people of Israel had lost all sense of purpose and direction, so much so that they were all but swallowed up by their new Assyrian friends. Rather than blessing the nations (Gen. 12:2–3; 18:18; 26:4; 28:14), they became “like the nations,” like “the heathen” with whom they had become so enthralled (2 Kings 17:8, 11, 15). “Israel,” Rev. Alexander Maclaren comments, “had made itself like the nations whom God has used it to destroy, and now it shall be destroyed as they were” (3:1.40).
As the historian retraces the winding tale of Israel’s tragic fall, he reminds them of how they forgot their deliverer so rapidly. “For so it was,” he writes, “that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, which had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods, and walked in the statutes of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made” (2 Kings 17:7–8; cf. Num. 14:11; Deut. 1:32; 9:23; Ps. 78:32; 106:24). They ran after “other gods,” fearing them above the True and Just One who had rescued them. They walked not according to the word of Yahweh but according to “the statutes of the heathen,” judging their way of life better than what Jehovah had prescribed and promised. They did “as did the heathen,” building temples, erecting idols, venerating high places for all manner of vile liturgies (2 Kings 17:9–12). They did exactly as their Lord had told them not to do:
They left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. (2 Kings 17:16–17)
And what was the result? In short, they became a people of purposeless drivel. “They rejected his statutes,” the historian declares, “and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them, that they should not do like them” (2 Kings 17:15; cf. Jer. 2:5). This, indeed, is a damning indictment. The people of God had become like what they followed. They chased after worthless idols and, in so doing, became worthless themselves. Israel might’ve thought that their newfound worship practices gave them something worthwhile. But all they were left with was a heap of nothing — no home, no place, no purpose.
This is what sin always does. It takes you into a place of “vanity” and purposelessness. And while it’s not likely that anyone sets out with that heading in mind, such is the unassailable destination. Sin cannot lead you anywhere but into the badlands. It ushers you out of the blessing of God’s purpose and into the brokenness of your own perilous choices. The people of Israel didn’t decide on a whim to betray their One True God. They lost their way and chose to go after “something else,” Someone else, as a result of a series of choices to cling to anything but God himself. Likewise, no one wakes up and says, “I think today’s a good day to wreck my family.” “I think I’m going to become a raging drunk or a dumpster-diving heroin addict.” Those are the usual aspirations after which human beings strive. And yet, that’s precisely where sin steers you. It conducts to those spots the more you give in to its charms, with each successively erroneous decision being accompanied by a “this isn’t so bad.” But it is bad. It’s way worse than you could ever imagine.
The loss of presence.
As Israel whored themselves out to pursue their own iniquitous ends, all they ended up buying was the wrath of Yahweh. They “sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only” (2 Kings 17:17–18). Their continued stubbornness to do “as did the heathen” only served to stoke the flames of God’s righteous indignation, culminating with their out-and-out removal “out of his sight” (2 Kings 17:18, 20, 23). This, to be sure, is the enduring note of judgment which came down on Israel’s head. They forfeited their place in the land of promise, yes, but more significantly, they lost their privileges to the presence of God himself.
The loss of Yahweh’s presence was regarded as the most devastating fate to befall anyone. It signaled a removal of blessing, hope, favor, and assurance. One might be reminded of King David’s most desperate plea in Psalm 51, where he cries out, “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). There was nothing worse for the people of Yahweh than to lose the presence of Yahweh. No one ever wished for such an end. Indeed, the violent act of Israel being ripped away “out of their own land” is akin to the tragedy of Eden, where Adam and Eve were, likewise, forced “out of their own land” and, simultaneously, out of the presence of God. And, it would appear, that history has repeated itself in the exile of Israel.
What stands out, perhaps, is the fury of the Lord which is directed at the children of Israel. The image of God fuming at his people plays right into the popular way in which he’s regarded and understood. The God of the Old Testament is “the God with a half-inch fuse.” H’es quick-tempered, hot-headed, and always eager to pull the trigger on punishment. Though common, this view of the Lord is more than a little distorted. It’s derived out of a mistaken focus on only what occurs when God is “provoked,” entirely missing the persistent patience shown to the provokers. “They served idols,” the historian recalls, “whereof the Lord had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing. Yet the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 17:12–13).
Exile and displacement was not at all Yahweh’s first resort. This moment in history wasn’t God flying off the handle at the first sign of rebellion. This was the Godhead’s only recourse after long, continued disobedience. Even after they had chosen to go “the way of the heathen,” God purposed to bring Israel back, sending them prophet after prophet, preacher after preacher, all of whom came bearing the message that all that was required of them was to turn around. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). Such is the digested form of the prophetic corpus. The impetus was to reveal the heart of the Heavenly Father, which was waiting for his people to turn back to him. Rev. Maclaren is insightful in this regard:
The more sin abounds, the more does God multiply means to draw back to Himself. The deafer the ears, the louder the beseeching voice of His grieved and yet pitying love. His anger clothes itself in more stringent appeals and clearer revelations of Himself before it takes its slaughtering weapons in hand. The darker the background of sin, the brighter the beams of His light show against it. Man’s sin is made the occasion for a more glorious display of God’s character and heart. It is on the storm-cloud that the sun paints the rainbow. Each successive stage in man’s departure from God evoked a corresponding increase in the divine effort to attract him back, till “last of all He sent unto them His Son.” (3:1.37)
The deepest and truest delight of Yahweh isn’t judgment but mercy. The mission of the prophet’s was simply to urge the people of God to believe in that. To believe that the Lord was waiting for them. That he was ready to receive them and freely forgive them (Isa. 55:7). But such is the insanity of sin, wherein it deafens such gracious invitations and deludes you into carrying on in willful, stubborn insolence. Israel refused to listen to the prophets’ pleas and, in so doing, went their own way. They chose “vanity” over against the presence of God. And that’s what sin always does. It’s displacing and disorienting. It snatches you out of the presence of God, taking you “out of his sight,” out of his fellowship, and into a place despair and defeat and ruin. That’s all that sin can ever leave you with.
The loss of promise.
It’s no stretch of the imagination to assert that God’s people had lost all sense of God’s promises. The Word of God was nothing to them. Such is why they turned from it so flagrantly — and why, now, they were being “carried away” (2 Kings 17:23). To heighten our sense of Israel’s disintegration, though, the historian reminds us who it was that inherited Israel’s land. “And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof” (2 Kings 17:24). Transplants from other Assyrian conquests now dwelt where the people of God should have been. And they brought their love affair with idols along with them (2 Kings 17:29–32).
At this point, Israel was no longer a nation marked by Yahweh’s gracious choice but by the obscene infatuation with and fabrication of lesser deities. Whatever was left of their faith had evaporated. Their land was overrun by revolting liturgies and ravenous lions (2 Kings 17:25–27). Israel had been assimilated by the atrocious activities of “the heathen” they envied, the effects of which endured “unto this day” (2 Kings 17:23, 34, 41). This note of finality is a reminder to the historian’s audience that these awful consequences still yet abide. The rehearsal of this tragic history was for the sake of those who were still displaced and dispossessed from their homes, their blessings, and their privileges as the people of God. Which is just to say that these words were first received by those who had nary a sense of the promises of God. Such notions were but distant memories.
This is what sin does. It distorts your memory so that God’s promises seem not only implausible but also impossible. The deceit of sin works like ear plugs, which muddles words into indistinct sounds. Similarly, sin muffles the Words of God into unclear, uncertain ideas. Such is the enduring lesson of this historical record, which not only serves to illustrate the consequences for sin on a national level, but also to demonstrate how sin affects us individually. Sin always takes out of the purpose and presence of God, and out of certainty that the promises of God are still ours. This is the truest side-effect of exile and rebellion. Sin takes you into the wasteland. It lures you in with the promise of greener grass and bigger plates of endless pleasure. But, in the end, it leaves you chewing on cud. Sin always over-promises and under-delivers.
Is there hope for sinners in such circumstances? Was there hope for Israel? Yes and yes. For Israel, deliverance was available so long as they feared the Lord their God exclusively. The historian urges them to remember that the crux of their faith was the recognition that there were no other gods worthy of their fear (2 Kings 17:25–39). “Covenant religion is exclusive religion,” Dale Ralph Davis asserts, “the faith that bashes our both-ands to bits with its either-or” (261). Likewise, for you and I, deliverance is readily available for we who put our faith in God’s exclusive Savior (John 14:6). Sinners are delivered by no other means than by the blood-strewn path of God’s only begotten Deliverer.
The good news is that because of Jesus all that we’ve lost to the wasteland of sin and death is returned to us in the power of the resurrection. He himself is the answer to our stubborn sins. In him, all the awful ramifications of exile are reconciled. This is who God is: he’s the One who delights in undoing what we’ve done and giving us what he’s done. He’s the One who gives us our purpose, quickening us “unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). He’s the One who gives us his unceasing presence, raising and seating us “together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5–6). He’s the One who gives us promise, that “in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). He’s the One who stands for every lost and weary sinner and waits with nail-scarred hands, ready to forgive.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).