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Having done all to stand.
Nothing that honors God ever results from the church taking its cues from outside sources.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
For some, history is a dreadful subject. You shudder to broach the topic of reading, let alone studying, history. That might sound like torture more than anything else. There are so many names and dates and details, all of which make it nigh impossible to keep everything straight. Who’s this king? And why is he important? And he’s attacking because of what? And he’s related to who? I admit, it’s often treacherous treading the waters of history. It’s easy to get lost out there, especially when you’re wading through the depths of biblical historical narrative. Be that as it may, I’ve come to find great delight in the Old Testament narratives of history — precisely because nearly all of them stand in unison to affirm that the One True Author and Authority of all these histories is none other than Yahweh himself.
While mighty men and influential kings assert their will, nothing happens outside of God’s will. His Word is the dominant, overriding force of history, every moment of which unfolds according to his sovereign Word, not man’s. That, I think, makes for a good thesis by which we can understand the historian’s intent behind tracing the histories of God’s people through the Books of the Kings. Tracking with the winding accounts of the downfall of God’s covenant people is a resonant endeavor — and not just because I enjoy pondering the events of history and how they echo today, but also because the story of Israel’s and Judah’s downfall is our story, too. The tragedy which befell God’s people bespeaks the tragedy of humanity. The collapse of king after king after king is a mirror preserved for the likes of you and me. And this mirror is held up for us in order that we might seen the disintegration and devastation which ensues when sin and sedition and strife become normative.
Indeed, the mirror of history shows us exactly what it looks like when God and his Word aren’t just ignored but are abandoned entirely. And the painful part is that we’re meant to see ourselves in that reflection. That’s a tedious endeavor, to be sure. But within the realization and admission that we have more in common with history’s failures, we, likewise, confess that we are desperate for a deliverer. For outside aid. For assistance that comes to us. And that’s sort of the point of history, I do believe. History is the painful realization that we aren’t the ones who can save the world but, rather, we’re the ones who get saved. We are the helpless whom God delights to strengthen. We are the lost whom the Son traverses high and low to find. Realizing that puts us in good company, situating us right where God wants us: at his feet ready to receive what he delights in giving.
Spitting on your heritage.
After switching back-and-forth between the kingdoms in chapter 15, 2 Kings 16 focuses solely on the kingdom of Judah. The historian picks up right where he left off, with Jotham’s son Ahaz ascending the throne (2 Kings 15:38; 16:1–2). It will soon become clear that with Ahaz’s coronation, the apple has fallen woefully far from the true, as the saying goes. The utterly awful Ahaz proceeds to bring Judah to all-time-lows socially, politically, and spiritually. The truly disturbing fact, though, lies in his blatant disregard for his Davidic heritage. Rather than establish his ways “in the sight of the Lord,” Ahaz follows “the way of the kings of Israel” and “the abominations of the heathen,” trampling all over the rich history of promise and hope which was given to the kings of Judah (2 Kings 16:3–4; cf. 2 Sam. 7). He was content with imitating the waywardness of Israel’s kings and mimicking the wickedness of pagan overlords.
And the kicker is that it’s Ahaz himself who’s paving the way for this latest embrace of debauchery. He’s the ringleader of this descent into darkness, most glaringly exemplified in his appalling act of making “his son to pass through the fire” (2 Kings 16:3). Ahaz sealed his commitment to obey his newfound pagan deities by burning the flesh of his own son, which serves as the grotesque epitome of rejecting God and his Word (Jer. 7:31; Ezek. 16:21). The king’s atrocious embrace of infanticide was an overt transgression of God’s ancient command to his people that such practices be abolished out of the land (Deut. 18:9–10). God’s chosen people were to have nothing at all to do with such horrific rituals and heinous customs. Thus, while King Ahaz might’ve thought of himself as a “progressive” leader, what with his wholesale implementation of these new worship practices, he was actually regressing the people of God by several centuries. This isn’t progress, this is going backwards.
This regression manifests politically, too, as Syria and Israel make war with Judah (2 Kings 16:5–6). (According to the chronicler, the Philistines and the Edomites were, likewise, wreaking havoc along Judah’s borders [2 Chron. 28:16–19]. Ahaz was truly in a pinch.) During the conflict, Ahaz loses control over the city of Elath, which was a critical trading port at the mouth of the Red Sea. Judah’s economy was gut-punched by these incursions, leading to the entire kingdom to feel the squeeze. And who do you think King Ahaz turns to in this time of desperation and abject need? That’s right, Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria. This tactic isn’t all that surprising, as Ahaz already demonstrated a flagrant disregard for anything remotely related to Yahweh. Even still, it’s somewhat shocking how hastily and pitifully he turns to the Assyrian overlord for aid. He bows before Tiglath-pileser, referring to himself as his “servant and son,” and asking him to be his savior (2 Kings 16:7). And to sweeten the deal, Ahaz decides to liquidate the bank accounts of the temple and the palace in order to pay off his new despotic deliverer (2 Kings 16:8–9).
This “deal with the devil” is even more inexcusable when you consider that it was none other than the eminent prophet Isaiah who offered Ahaz a timely word from the Lord during this exact crisis (Isa. 7:1–9). This oracle assured him of deliverance, of consummate victory over his invaders. But even after Ahaz was given this word of divine counsel and comfort and assurance, he proceeded to spit upon those words as he rushed to kiss the feet of that Assyrian tyrant. Dale Ralph Davis sums it up well when he writes, “Ahaz repudiates the Davidic covenant as he licks Tiglath-pileser’s boots” (233).
Rebellion with a capital-R.
This, of course, was very cutting edge, very “progressive” for the kingdom of God’s people. After Tilglath-pileser routed Judah’s adversaries at Damascus, Ahaz decides to pay a visit to that site of Assyrian triumph, perhaps looking to stay in the good graces of his new Assyrian savior. Once there, however, he becomes enamored with the way the people of Damascus worshiped. He sees their altar and immediately knows he has to has one for himself:
And king Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus: and king Ahaz sent to Urijah the priest the fashion of the altar, and the pattern of it, according to all the workmanship thereof. And Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that king Ahaz had sent from Damascus: so Urijah the priest made it against king Ahaz came from Damascus. And when the king was come from Damascus, the king saw the altar: and the king approached to the altar, and offered thereon. And he burnt his burnt offering and his meat offering, and poured his drink offering, and sprinkled the blood of his peace offerings, upon the altar. (2 Kings 16:10–13)
It’s notable, I think, that the historian mentions the city of Damascus some six times in a mere three verses, which is a not so subtle nod that this venture to bring the religion of Syria back home to the people of Judah was not at all what God had in mind. It’s an appalling, reprehensible move. And once again, it’s King Ahaz who’s at the center of it. He copies the plans and commissions the priests to build this new altar according to his exact specifications. And to further emphasize Ahaz’s defiance of Yahweh, the historian tells us all about how he meddles with the layout and liturgy of God’s house, moving the altar and interfering with the offerings (2 Kings 16:14–18). This, to be sure, was way more serious than a simple afternoon of rearranging furniture. This was an unabashed act of contempt for the authority and dignity of God’s Word. It’s Rebellion, with a capital-R. You almost can’t get more obvious in your disdain and disgust for Yahweh and his Word than the attempt to refashion his worship according to what suits you.
The priest who doesn’t fold.
In the end, all Ahaz accomplished was to bring the people of Judah into full submission not to Lord Jehovah but to Lord Tiglath-pileser. He was their master, their director. But, in a way, I’m not as bent-out-of-shape by that. Ahaz was a thoroughly corrupt king — and corrupt leaders are going to act corruptly. No surprise there. What is surprising, though, is the glaring inaction of Urijah the priest. Urijah is the “man of the cloth” who’s mentioned throughout Ahaz’s idolatrous initiative, but each time he comes up, he does a whole lot of nothing (2 Kings 16:10–11, 15–16). He’s an incredibly passive priest, caving to the whims of his mad king and following along with whatever venture he had brewing. Urijah protested nothing, made no stand for truth, and offered little in the way of resistance or resilience, even as his king trampled all over the precious words and ways of God. It’s alarming how pathetically this spineless steward of God’s truth abdicated his calling as a priest of God. Instead of upholding the power and preeminence of the Word, he relinquishes said calling in favor of appeasing his king. “As you wish, oh king,” I can hear him say.
Incidentally, while King Ahaz might get most of the attention throughout this chapter, what with his child sacrifice couched as religious progressivism, Urijah the priest is the more critical character. For better or worse, he is our proxy, our example. In a way, he represents the church. As a priest, Urijah’s assignment was to maintain and cultivate a holy reverence in the hearts of the people of God through the ministry of the Word of God. Nothing and no one was to trump the authority of that Word, and the priests were to see to that. In a similar way, you and I have been given the same charge. We are God’s “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). We’ve been ushered into priestly service by the blood of Yahweh incarnate (Isa. 61:6; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Which means that we, too, have been called to minister God’s Word into the hearts and lives of everyone around us, a.k.a., the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). This, to be sure, cannot be done if we’re kneeling before the whims of the world.
Nothing that honors God ever results from the church taking its cues from outside sources. When the church resigns itself to the impulses of politicians or personalities, it has already lost. When the absolute authority of the King Jesus is compromised, everything else will soon follow suit. Compromise is swiftly followed by crumbling. It’s like that old adage says: “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” Urijah’s failure serves to remind us of the gravity of our errand. Ours is a world not too dissimilar from the one described by the historian — one that’s fraught with disarray and disorder. And what are God’s priests to do in such an environment of upheaval? What are we to do as the world around us rushes hastily to “hell in a hand-basket”? In short, “take your stand”:
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph. 6:11–13)
The priests of God are those who relish and revel in the concrete truths of his revealed Word. They stand in the armor of God which is afforded to them in the gospel of God. They abide the growing maelstrom of compromise and corruption not because they possess some adamantine resolve, but because they are flanked by a greater Priest who doesn’t fold, or fail, or waver in his ministry on behalf of his beloved. Instead of indifference, this Great High Priest is interested and concerned for the well-being of those under his care, so much so that he’s willing to take their place of death if it means they are preserved. The “merciful and faithful high priest” of the gospel (Heb. 2:17) puts himself in harm’s way in order to secure the eternal welfare of those he loves.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).