The uncompromising God.
The One whom we are called to fear is also the One who calls us to repent and believe and find rest in his nail-scarred embrace.
One of the patterns the historian employs throughout the Books of Kings is his regular use of comparison and contrast between kings and kingdoms to highlight the consequences of a misplaced faith. That theme remains as the undercurrent of these historical books, which everywhere show what comes about as a result of untoward social, political, and, especially, religious allegiances. The complicated compromise of Solomon’s reign is still seen rearing its ugly head even generations later. Indeed, despite the varied downfalls and outcomes of the kings of Israel and Judah, their foibles can all be traced back to one particular fatal flaw: compromise.
The undoing of God’s people, which led to centuries of suffering and adversity, was a direct consequence of their compromised loyalty to Yahweh. He was no longer revered as their sole deity, no longer their indivisible source of wisdom and instruction, no longer their first recourse when disaster struck. In his place, other gods had wormed their way into the hearts of God’s chosen people. Accordingly, at the end of 1 Kings and the beginning of 2 Kings, the historian places side by side two kings who are, on the surface, vastly different. But, upon closer consideration, they are revealed to be much more alike than they would ever care to admit. Juxtaposing these two rulers, likewise, reveals that which dooms the modern believer, too — namely, the subtlety and severity of compromise.
The subtlety of compromised dependence.
We are first introduced to Jehoshaphat back in chapter fifteen, where we’re briskly told of his accession to the throne following the passing of his father Asa (1 Kings 15:23–24). He’s not mentioned again until chapter twenty-two, when we’re suddenly made aware that he and Ahab have apparently made peace and are contemplating going to war with Syria (1 Kings 22:2–4). Throughout that war-time narrative, the historian paints Jehoshaphat in a rather condescending light. He certainly doesn’t do Judah’s king any favors, making him appear gullible, doltish perhaps, even if well-meaning. Without any context, we see Jehoshaphat pledging manpower and horsepower to Ahab’s cause without reservation (1 Kings 22:4); we see him proceed with battle-plans even after Micaiah’s formidable prophecy (1 Kings 22:17, 29); we see him go along with Ahab’s ruse to hide himself on the battlefield while he leads the charge like a peacock (1 Kings 22:30); and we see him shriek for mercy when Benhadad’s men track him down in hot pursuit (1 Kings 22:32–33). All of which to say, King Jehoshaphat is no General Patton.
It’s worthwhile to note this generally demeaning tenor to the historian’s record of Jehoshaphat’s tenure as Judah’s king in light of both the closing verses of his account (1 Kings 22:41–50) and the chronicler’s version of the same events (2 Chron. 17—20). The closing verses of chapter twenty-two read almost like a bulleted list of historical details of Jehoshaphat’s time on the throne, with almost no editorial comments added. Even a brief examination, however, reveals a king who compromised on one too many occasions. And a closer look exposes this king of Judah as a mostly okay albeit conflicted monarch who couldn’t get out of his own way.
The good that Jehoshaphat brought about was truly good for the people of Judah. We’re told that he “walked in the all the ways of Asa his father,” and that he did “that which was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Kings 22:43). The chronicler is even more positive, making mention of his utter disregard for Baal and undivided devotion to Yahweh (2 Chron. 17:3–5). What’s more, he endeavors to rid his domain from any residual sodomy and pagan influence left behind by his forbears (1 Kings 22:46; 15:12). His would be a kingdom braced and buttressed by Yahweh alone (2 Chron. 17:9). Jehoshaphat’s commitment to walk in the ways of King David brought about a season of blessing and abundance for the people of Judah. The proliferation of Yahwistic doctrine under his rule reinforced Judah’s prominence on the world scene, with surrounding nations deferring to Judean might and valor (2 Chron. 17:9–13).
And yet, for however praiseworthy Jehoshaphat’s monarchy was, it was still riddled with iniquity. The historian makes sure to mention that despite his efforts to reform the people of Judah, “the high places were not taken away; for the people offered and burnt incense yet in the high places” (1 Kings 22:43). The “great awakening” experienced under Jehoshaphat’s rule wasn’t as sweeping or total as it first appeared (2 Chron. 20:32–33). Which, I think, has a direct effect on his misguided decision to “make peace with the king of Israel” (1 Kings 22:44). That his doctrinal leanings weren’t as strict as they ought to have been made it that much easier for him shake the hand of one of the most salacious and sacrilegious kings in Israelite history (2 Chron. 18:1–4). Apparently, Jehoshaphat was blind to the ecumenical predicaments and pitfalls that would accompany such an alliance.
But the subtlety of Jehoshaphat’s compromise is further evidenced in the elusive anecdote which closes out his story:
There was then no king in Edom: a deputy was king. Jehoshaphat made ships of Tharshish to go to Ophir for gold: but they went not; for the ships were broken at Eziongeber. Then said Ahaziah the son of Ahab unto Jehoshaphat, Let my servants go with thy servants in the ships. But Jehoshaphat would not. (1 Kings 22:47–49)
Here we are obliged to consult the chronicler for a more fleshed out version of this same episode. Notice:
And after this did Jehoshaphat king of Judah join himself with Ahaziah king of Israel, who did very wickedly: And he joined himself with him to make ships to go to Tarshish: and they made the ships in Eziongaber. Then Eliezer the son of Dodavah of Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, Because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah, the Lord hath broken thy works. And the ships were broken, that they were not able to go to Tarshish. (2 Chron. 20:35–37)
Similar to his ill-advised alliance with Ahab, Jehoshaphat imprudently goes into league with Ahab’s son, Ahaziah. Their enterprise was to capitalize off of a southern district of Judah, Edom, in the trading industry. Seeing as there was “no king in Edom,” only a “deputy,” the Edomites didn’t possess much in the way of bargaining power. Jehoshaphat, therefore, could exploit their resources for his own benefit, which, seemingly, is exactly what he intended to do. He and Ahaziah arranged for a fleet of ships to be constructed in Ezion-geber, a port city along the fringes of the Red Sea. But all their plans were sunk, literally. “They went not,” says the historian, “for the ships were broken at Eziongeber” (1 Kings 22:48). The fleet never even made it out of port.
A perplexed Jehoshaphat is, then, confronted by the prophet Eliezer, who proceeds to expose the king’s duplicity. “Because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah,” he declares, “the Lord hath broken thy works” (2 Chron. 20:37). The rupturing of Jehoshaphat’s fleet wasn’t happenstance, it was divine activity and authority at work. There’s even a reference to this mishap in the Psalter, with the psalmist directly tying the tragedy at Tarshish with the sovereign intention of Yahweh: “Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind” (Ps. 48:7). Jehoshaphat’s inadvisable venture to reap profits in accordance with Israel’s godless King Ahaziah was the rotten fruit of his compromised dependence.
The appearance of blessing and prosperity colors large swaths of Jehoshaphat’s reign (2 Chron. 17:9–10; cf. Deut. 11:22–25). It’s hard to argue with the bulk of his accomplishments. The peace and prosperity and military prowess exhibited by his time on the throne certainly fosters an approving view of Jehoshaphat’s tenancy. But for however noteworthy and however commendable his efforts, his own shortcomings undermine his devotion. Jehoshaphat wasn’t dependent on Yahweh alone, but on his ability to collaborate with some of the most vile monarchs Israel ever churned out. His reign wasn’t entrusted to Yahweh’s watch-care but to his own wisdom. Accordingly, we are reminded that even the best of the kings of the Hebrews are unable to fulfill the Davidic standard of righteousness. Even the most exemplary of men fail, fall, and frustrate the holiness of God.
King Jehoshaphat, I think, shows us why it’s such a foolish errand to place our trust in princes (Ps. 118:8–9; 146:3–4; Jer. 17:5). They are prone to collapse, to compromise. They aren’t impervious to disaster. Their failures are readily apparent. In fact, in Jehoshaphat’s case, they’re remembered forever, inscribed in God’s eternal Word. And such is the historian’s point. The hope for Israel, for Judah, and for us is the same: a true and better King whose obedience would never be compromised, even as he marched towards his own execution (Phil. 2:8). Our hope isn’t dependent upon man, upon the arm of flesh, but upon the God whose fingers direct every determination of all mankind (Prov. 16:9). Yahweh’s children are called to uncompromising dependence precisely because ours is a God who is uncompromisingly committed to them. He’s after total devotion to his name, his Word, his cause, his truth. And he’ll stop at nothing in order to get a hold of our hearts, even if that means sinking our dreams.
The severity of compromised devotion.
The gravity of compromise which undoes even our best intentions is further revealed in the catalog of disaster known as Ahaziah’s reign. The historian includes the briefest of accounts of his brief time as Israel’s king at the close of 1 Kings, with 2 Kings 1 serving as a more comprehensive version of his demise. Ahaziah was the progeny of Ahab and Jezebel, so we might infer that he didn’t have much going for him when it came to the matter of ruling uprightly. Even still, Ahaziah chose to walk in all the dastardly ways of his parents, doing that which was “evil in the sight of the Lord,” chief of which was bowing before the surrogate god Baal (1 Kings 22:51–53). Israel’s heterodox era was, therefore, still very much alive and well with “Ahab Jr.” on the throne.
But he hit a snag. Not only was chaos riddling the realm (2 Kings 1:1), he suffered a serious injury after falling out of a palace window, which resulted in a crippling illness that overtook his body (2 Kings 1:2). The gravity of the king’s infection stirs him to ask the gods for a prognosis on his recovery. He specifically commissions his messengers to “enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron” to see whether or not he was facing a grim or gladsome outlook. Along the way, though, Ahaziah’s men are met by none other than Elijah the Tishbite, who, to no one’s surprise, serves as the voice of Yahweh’s Word of judgment. “Is it not because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron?” he accuses (2 Kings 1:3). “Has Yahweh departed?” the prophet knowingly asks. “Has he gone away, and that’s why you’re resorting to this lesser god? Inquiring minds would like to know.”
The messengers are paralyzed by the words, and even more so by Elijah’s ominous decree that their king’s bed of recovery is really his deathbed (2 Kings 1:4). This was not what they had in mind when the king sent them on their way. With the prophet’s message still ringing in their ears, though, the messengers go back to Samaria, having never made to Ekron. This, as you might imagine, leaves Ahaziah more than a little perturbed. “Why are ye now turned back?” he spits (2 Kings 1:5). They attempt to explain themselves by relaying their episode with the mysterious man who met them in the middle of the road with nothing but sinister proclamations regarding the king’s health (2 Kings 1:6). Desperate to know who this sermonizing scoundrel was, the messengers describe the phantom prophet as best they know how, at which point Ahaziah realizes, “It is Elijah the Tishbite” (2 Kings 1:7–8). A sense of dread likely filled the king’s fainting heart at the news. Like a gloomy specter, the prophet who had so discountenanced his mom and dad on none too few occasions had returned.
Ahaziah, though, was having none of it. He quickly dispatches a squad of men to seize that unruly man of God (2 Kings 1:9). Whether he intended to coerce Elijah into recanting his prophecy or if he just meant to execute him is impossible to determine. Either way, malevolence filled the king’s heart and his men departed to do his bidding. They eventually find Elijah “sitting on the top of an hill,” perhaps communing with his Heavenly Father. The pleasantries are scarce, with the captain of the host relaying the king’s orders, “Thou man of God, the king hath said, Come down.” To which the prophet responds in, perhaps, the most unexpected way imaginable:
And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:10)
Elijah greets Ahaziah’s welcoming party with a heavenly fireball, which definitely isn’t the most polite way to begin a conversation. Ahaziah, however, won’t take no for an answer, as he rounds up another posse to fulfill his mission (2 Kings 1:11). The results are no different, though, with no sooner than the orders being given that the whole gaggle of men are reduced to ash by a divine inferno (2 Kings 1:12). The third time’s the charm, I suppose, as yet another captain is dispatched with fifty men in tow to secure that elusive man of God and bring him before the king. Captain number three learned well from his predecessors, approaching the prophet not with more monarchial mandates but with the humble appeal that he and his men be spared (2 Kings 1:13–14). This captain knew he and his men were treading on thin ice, and he wanted to be sure he got his fifty back home to their wives. “Therefore,” he begs, “let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight” (2 Kings 1:13).
This encounter ends dramatically different than the previous ones, with “the angel of the Lord” reassuring his prophet that it was safe to accompany this group down the mountain (2 Kings 1:15). Elijah does so, presenting himself before the ailing king, where he re-administers and re-affirms Yahweh’s uncompromising prophetic word (2 Kings 1:16–18). Even after all those theatrics, the message hadn’t changed. There would be no alleviation for Ahaziah. He would “surely die,” with the infection claiming his life. This would leave the throne without an heir, which cleared the way for his brother Jehoram (a.k.a., Joram, the other son of Ahab, 2 Kings 3:1–3) to become the next king of Israel. What are we supposed to do with this fiasco?
Perhaps, at first, you are put off by Elijah’s churlish response to the 102 men who were commissioned to arrest him. Weren’t those men just doing their jobs? Why did they deserve to get incinerated like that? However interesting that thought-experiment might seem, any reservations you might have are quickly mitigated when you take careful notice of the text as a whole. It’s not inconsequential to notice the angel’s words to Elijah, which allay his fears concerning the third captain’s request. “Go down with him,” the angel says, “be not afraid of him” (2 Kings 1:15) — the obvious implication being that there was something to fear in the first two go-arounds. The combatants and their captains were dispatched to carry out a nefarious bidding. Such is why God saw fit to protect his prophet by twice answering his request for consuming flames to burn up his enemies (2 Kings 1:10, 12). But why was such a demonstration necessary? Because Ahaziah had acted as though God didn’t exist.
Earlier in the narrative, when Elijah interrupts Ahaziah’s messengers and their errand to “enquire of Baalsebub the god of Ekron,” the prophet questions their motives (2 Kings 1:3). This question, however, was more of an indictment on Israel’s duplicitous faith. He is arraigning them by exposing Israel’s sheer neglectfulness and forgetfulness of her Deliverer. Yahweh had been replaced. The irrelevancy of the God of Israel during the heyday of Ahab’s reign of iniquity and idolatry was maintained in full force by Ahaziah. “For he served Baal, and worshipped him,” notes the historian, “and provoked to anger the Lord God of Israel, according to all that his father had done” (1 Kings 22:53). As Ahaziah aped the sins of his father, he absconded his people’s hearts, disabusing them of any Yahwistic affiliation and discipling them in the liturgies of “other gods.” This, as the bulk of the Old Testament makes plain, is something for which God has little patience. Yahweh doesn’t take lightly the notion that he can be replaced. Such is why it’s the first of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:3–5). He’s uncompromisingly serious when it comes to fidelity to his name, his person, his glory. We might rightly say that the first is the defining commandment, apart from which life doesn’t make sense.
You see, this entire affair with Ahaziah is almost carbon copy of the Contest at Carmel, at which the identity and veracity of the One True God hung in the balance. Whichever deity — Baal or Yahweh — ignited the altars, “let him be God” (1 Kings 18:24). Those were the stakes. Similarly, Ahaziah’s rash albeit unsurprising decision to call on Baalzebub for assistance in his hour of need was enough for God to act. He had frustrated Yahweh for the last time. It was time for more fireworks.1 On that hill, then, just as at Carmel, fire rained down from heaven to demonstrably evince who the real God was. It was Yahweh. It was always Yahweh. That maggoty Baalzebub was good for nothing. Only Yahweh was worth serving and worshiping. In both instances, the throne was never really up for grabs. Forever and always, Yahweh is the only one seated on it. Like Ahaziah, we just fool ourselves into thinking we can supplant him.
We demonstrate our foolish idolatry nowhere better (or worse) than we pretend that we can handle life on our own. That we needn’t go to God. That we have other, more reliable resources. Other measures of control. Other places to find cures, reliefs, remedies. “By taking first recourse to other helps and supports,” notes Dale Ralph Davis,2 “we subtly confess the inadequacy and insufficiency of Yahweh to handle our dilemmas.” Nothing could be more offensive or more foolish than to assert that God is not sufficient for something. Such is what the tragedy of Ahaziah brings to bear — namely, the utter foolishness exhibited whenever we concede our faith to something or someone other than Yahweh.
He is not a person with whom we should readily withstand. He is the One in whose presence we ought to rightly, humbly, wisely fear (Prov. 9:10; cf. Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 15:33). Whenever we compromise our devotion to the One True God, we always end up replacing him with some lesser version of who he is. Compromising on our fidelity to God alone puts us in league with the “lord of the flies.” Every surrogate god we manufacture is inferior to the Lord Jehovah, who alone reigns over every venture of man, good or ill. And only he is worth our devotion and our dependence.
Where might you be compromising your dependence and your devotion? Where might you be relying on and hoping in something other than the One True God to fulfill your deepest needs? As Jehoshaphat shows us, there are subtle avenues all around us that vie for our attention and affection, and end up compromising our dependence in the process. From there, it’s a short jaunt to compromising our devotion, too. Rather than fleeing to “another god,” the suffering we endure, the trials we undergo, the dilemmas we face are all burdens Yahweh allows in order that we would throw ourselves at his feet.
This might just be the most staggering truth of all. The glad tidings which are revealed on every page of Scripture announce that the One whom we are called to fear is also the One who calls us to repent and believe and find rest in his nail-scarred embrace. God calls for uncompromising faith because he loves you, me, and the world, uncompromisingly. And, what’s more, just as his Word of judgment is uncompromising (as this narrative reveals), so, too, is his Word of pardon just as uncompromising, unfailing, and unflinching. The sublime and sobering truth of this narrative is that Yahweh is a God of his Word. All things, in all times, and in all places occur “according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 1:17). Such is what ensures us that there will be an everlasting judgment at the End of Days. Such, too, is what ensures us that there is peace, hope, and grace afforded to us — precisely because this Word of Yahweh uncompromisingly sure in reprimanding and redeeming, convicting and acquitting, condemning and forgiving.
I like how Dale Ralph Davis puts it when he comments on this narrative: “What do you do when someone is so dense, so ‘thick,’ that he doesn’t grasp what fire (1 Kings 18:38) means? You send more fire (2 Kings 1:10b, 12b)!” (2 Kings: The Power and the Fury [Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020], 22).
Davis, 2 Kings, 19.