God's faithfulness - despite everything
If you want to get really depressed, read 2 Kings, the book in the Old Testament which covers the final years of the kingdoms of Israel (in the north) and Judah, where Jerusalem is situated. Spoiler alert – both kingdoms fail. At first sight it seems a fairly straight-forward, even lacklustre narrative of how each of these kingdoms are governed by their respective kings, who are assessed as either good in that they pleased God or bad when they didn’t. Most were bad. Incidentally, you need to know that originally they were a single kingdom under Saul, David and then Solomon before splitting into two in 921 BC with ten of the twelve tribes forming the northern Kingdom of Israel leaving just Benjamin and Judah as the southern Kingdom. This can get very confusing. Depending on where you are in the Bible Israel can either mean all the tribes of Israel or the just the ten northern tribes of Israel apart from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, which confusingly are called just Judah. I can only assume that the members of the tribe of Benjamin are either understanding or simply miffed. Why all this history? Because that is how we learn how God works, especially through the ordinary events of life, how we live our lives and especially how we are to live together. Above all, because of Jesus. His incarnation some two millennia ago means we need to have a working knowing of the culture and history of the Jewish people. For example, to understand Jesus you need to understand the Pharisees., more complex than we are normally led to believe. So going back to 2 Kings, I braced myself for two weeks of daily readings informed by the BRF Guidelines Bible. All those strange customs – what are the Asherah poles which keep being pulled down and then restored? And even stranger names: Meshullemeth, Nathan-Melek and of course, Awel-Marduk who – as we will discover - has a key role. It’s not a happy read. So many of the kings are not upto the job, especially in their devotion to God who has committed himself by covenant to his wayward people. Israel goes first. “So the people of Israel were taken from their homeland into exile in Assyria, and they are still there.” (2 Kings 17:23) That’s about 721 BC. So we are left with just the kingdom of Judah. Not much better. Despite the warning of Israel’s exile and then the great reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah, the cumulative sins of the kingdom inevitable lead to disaster as detailed in the last couple of chapters. It is a dismal read as Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invades Judah and takes their king as prisoner. Moreover they start to deport all the key people, draining Judah of its skilled personnel. And then the temple at mount Zion. As far as the tribes of Israel were concerned this was where heaven touched earth, where God dwelt with his people. Despite warnings of prophets such as Jeremiah, they saw the temple as a sure guarantee of God’s all-embracing protection irrespective of their behaviour towards him. Here the writer of Kings is unsparing in his description of how the temple is systematically ransacked. For example, “the Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried the bronze to Babylon.” (2 Kings 25:13) Through all this the Babylonians kept a tight control on who was king of Judah. For example in 597 BC, the Babylonian emperor made Mattaniah, the king’s uncle as king and showed who was in charge by changing his name to Zedekiah. Nine years later Zedekiah led a failed revolt and so “he was taken to the king of Babylon at Riblah, where sentence was pronounced on him. They killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon." (2 Kings 25:6f). And that’s it. The great history of Israel, then Judah, comes to a weary end. So “Judah went into captivity, away from her land.” (2 Kings 25:21). It’s all over. The tribes of Israel are to disappear into history like the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites before them. But hold on. Just one final paragraph. It’s worth quoting in full: “In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. . . . He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honour higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. “So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.” (2 Kings 25:27-30) Okay Jehoiachin is a king without a kingdom and without a throne, an exile in a foreign land, subject to the whim of the Emperor of Babylon. Yes, but his very survival gives God someone to work with, a single but sad remnant of the dynasty of King David. That’s all God needs if he is to keep his promise to Abraham. The writer of Kings may not have known this but it is Jehoiachin’s grandson, Zerubbabel, who is to be appointed governor of the province of Judah by the Persians, as they dismantle the Babylonian Empire some fifty years later. How the kingdom of Judah is restored is another story, preparing the way for the coronation of the true King of Israel with a crown of thorns.