Abide: 2 Kings 17-25
How do we learn from failure? Especially the end of an organization as large as a kingdom? What if two kingdoms fall? Today, as we look at the end of both Kingdoms of Israel, I hope that we can explore what it means to understand a people’s historical failures and recognize that modern people are just as capable of failing, despite being God’s chosen peoples, as ancient peoples. How do we avoid the hubris of declaring ourselves indestructible? How do we embrace the humility needed to rely on God and trust His word? We discuss that and much more in today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
How do we learn from failure, especially when looking at the end of an organization as large as a kingdom or even two kingdoms? Today, as we look at the end of both kingdoms of Israel, I hope that we can explore what it means to understand that people’s historical failures and recognize that modern peoples are just as susceptible to failure despite being God’s chosen peoples as ancient nations. How do we avoid the hubris of declaring ourselves indestructible? How do we embrace the humility needed to rely on God and trust His word? We discuss that and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stewart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal as a research fellow at the Maxwell Institute. In each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by Carolyn Lowman, one of our research assistants. Carolyn is an Ancient Near Eastern history Hebrew Bible major here at BYU from Southern California. After she graduates, Carolyn plans to be a seminary teacher.
Joseph Stuart: Carolyn, welcome back.
Carolyn Lowman: Thank you, glad to be here.
Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled to have you here. Now Kristian, we are looking at 2 Kings chapters 17 through 25. Although of course, we may bleed over a little bit into other chapters as well. But what’s going on in this part of 2 Kings?
Kristian Heal: So the Book of Kings recounts both the glorious zenith and the bitter end of kingship in the land of Israel. The end of the northern kingdom of Israel is described in 2 Kings 17, and the end of the southern kingdom of Judah is described in 2 Kings 24 and 25. Just before the end of the kingdom of Judah, comes the prophesied reign of King Josiah described in 2 Kings 22 and 23. The spirit is filled with political conflict. But the real battle is for the hearts of the people of Israel. This has been the case since the Exodus. The lure of the gods of the Earth, the convenience and mystery of worshiping in the high places, the compelling stories about and promises of Baal and Asherah, the splendor of foreign temples that simply demanded imitation, the ease of worshiping like one’s neighbors, all of these things conspire repeatedly against Israel’s devotion to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As we reach what appears to be the climax of the entire Deuteronomistic history, the narrative arc that spans from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings, the problem of Israel’s religious infidelity is finally solved. Josiah is the key to understanding everything that has gone wrong. There was no king like him before we are told, who turned back to the Lord with all his heart and soul and might in full accord with the teaching of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. Yet, even the extensive and vigorous reforms of Josiah were not enough to save Judah from destruction. His predecessor Manasseh, whose long reign was dedicated to following the apparent practices of the nations, was responsible for God determining to bring such a disaster on Jerusalem and Judah, that both ears of everyone who hears about it will tingle. “I will wipe Jerusalem clean as one wipes a dish and turn it upside down,” says the Lord. “I will cast off the remnant of my people and deliver them into the hands of their enemies, because they have done what is displeasing to me and have been vexing me from the day that their fathers came out of Egypt to this day.” Thus despite the righteousness of his grandson Josiah, the Lord did not turn away from his awesome wrath, which had blazed up against Judah because of all the things Manasseh did to vex him. As Adam Miller might say, these chapters describe the days before the end of the world.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that overview, Kristian. The end of the northern kingdom as you said, as described in chapter 17 of 2 Kings. Can you tell us more about what’s going on here?
Kristian Heal: So chapter 17 describes in its six opening verses, the conquest of the kingdom of Israel by Assyria. Nearly three times as many verses are then devoted to the narrator’s commenting on this conquest. The commentary opens with an unequivocal explanation. “This happened because…” [Hebrew] If we have been paying attention, we know exactly why this happened. The Lord has been warning the people of Israel repeatedly, warning them that if they did not stop worshiping other gods and going after the customs of the nations, they would be exiled from the land. As it says in verse 13, the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer saying, “Turn back from your wicked ways and observe my commandments of my laws according to all the teachings that I commanded your fathers, and that I transmitted to you through my servants, the prophets.” Just about every indictment in verses 7 through 23 of this chapter is repeating what God had already told the children of Israel from Exodus up unto this point. So at the top of this list of things, reasons why the kingdom of Israel fell, is the fact that the Israelites sinned against the Lord their God who freed them from the land of Egypt, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Everything else is just the specifics of this overarching act of betrayal, of infidelity as it were. The specifics were important, especially for the earliest readers of this history living in exile in Babylon, looking back over their history, the moment is captured poignantly as we imagine these people reading this history of Israel in Babylon wondering how this ever happened. And it’s captured in the opening of Psalm 137. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept as we thought of Zion.” In this plaintiff state in exile, with their land only a memory, the religion of Israel took shape and became a religion that could sustain Israel’s faith in the face of adversity for the next two and a half thousand years and more.
Joseph Stuart: We live in a very different day and time than the ancient Israelites from the northern kingdom. But it seems that some of the things that they’re facing are things that we face as well. What does their destruction reveal about the dangers facing modern Latter-day Saints?
Kristian Heal: Their challenge, as one commentator, Richard Nelson, observes, was to avoid syncretism. He continues, “Any attempt to fear the Lord, while serving other gods on the side is not really fearing the Lord at all.” So, syncretism he goes on, “…undercuts the covenant which is founded on God’s law.” So what is syncretism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenants or practices, especially in religion, or philosophy. So what does that look like in our lives? And how does syncretism perhaps undercut the covenants that we have entered into as we try and think about how perhaps we could apply the scriptures to ourselves? To put it in abstract terms, syncretism is like trying to walk towards two destinations at once. If one of them is the covenant path walking towards God, and the other the path of the world, seeking after the things of the world. If we’re trying to do those both at the same time, we’re engaged in syncretism. And unsurprisingly, we arrive certainly not at the end of the covenant path.
Joseph Stuart: So as you were saying that, I was thinking about how regardless of where we live, we live in the world. There are certain things that are going to pull at us intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually. So how do we balance the need to stay on the covenant path maintaining traditions and doctrine, while also recognizing that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God that may require us to realign or require a paradigm shift on our part?
Kristian Heal: This is really important. I think the answer has to be a principle based answer, rather than a list of rules, rather than a list of things that we have to do because those can sometimes change or be modified or changed with circumstances. But principles can lead us to where we need to go. And there’s an antidote to syncretism in both the Old and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the answer is given in the summary of generations of prophetic warnings to the people of Israel, “Turn back from your wicked ways,” this idea that you need to, the response to syncretism, the response to trying to do these things at the same time. Just turn around, turn back, turn away from going down that wrong path and get back on the right path. As President Nelson put it, “If you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope of my heart to please come back.” Here we see a consistency of prophetic voices to simply come back onto the path that you’re called to by God. The New Testament is similar but slightly different and it’s framed much, in my mind, in terms of love. The question is, what do you love? And the thing that you love is the thing that you’re pursuing. So in 1 John chapter 2, we’re given this admonition. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” And then it goes on, “If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” So we find ourselves in a situation of mutual exclusivity. We can’t love both things at the same time. For all that is in the world it says, “…the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life is not of the Father, but is of the world and the world passeth away and the lust thereof, but he that do with the will of God abideth forever.” Lust here, just simply means desire for. The desires of the flesh, the things which make our bodies happy, the things which we’d like to look at that we want, the pride of life, the things that make other people want to look at us, these are things that the New Testament is suggesting, are taking us off this path of loving God, of pursuing God with a singleness of heart. So by reframing this question in terms of love, we then ask ourselves the question, not what am I doing, but what do I love? Who do I love? And we know the answer to that question by what we seek and the will that we seek to do, the things that we do. So if we do the will of God and we seek the glory of God, so we know what we’re doing, because we’re seeking the will of God and seeking the glory of God. “And if your eye be single to my glory,” the Lord told the saints in Kirtland, “…your whole body shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you and that body was just filled with light comprehendeth all things.” So we see in this, as we kind of think about how we can apply these things in our own life, that Israel’s and our own downfall comes from ignoring the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me or in the words of Jesus, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Our salvation comes from keeping this commandment.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it also brings to mind what the Savior said that where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Now switching tracks a little bit, Carolyn you’ve researched the life of King Hezekiah and he’s been described as a proactive King. What does that mean?
Carolyn Lowman: So he did things that kings before him weren’t able to accomplish. Like he removed the high places, which are places of worship for false gods and idols like Baal, and cut down and broke down all the other images of idolatry, which included the nehushtan, or the brass serpent that Moses made that later became an idol for the children of Israel. No other king had been able to do this and Hezekiah just gets it done. He also restored the practices of the temple. You can tell that he’s the king that’s trying to the world Lord as best as he can.
Joseph Stuart: Is there a story about Hezekiah that particularly resonated with you?
Carolyn Lowman: The prophet Isaiah comes to him and tells him that he’s about to die and to get his house in order because there’s not much time left for him. Then Hezekiah prays beautiful prayer pleading with the Lord to remember him and he weeps. And it’s just absolutely beautiful. I love this, this chapter, these verses. Then the Lord says to Isaiah, “Turn again and tell Hezekiah, the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer. I’ve seen thy tears, behold, I will heal thee.” I love that the Lord calls Hezekiah the captain of his people. That’s so tender, very sweet. And he also says that he has seen his tears and heard his prayers. I think that is something we all would love to hear from the Lord.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you for sharing that. Now another king that we encounter in these chapters is King Josiah. Kristian, how did Josiah prepare Judah for life in the Babylonian exile?
Kristian Heal: In the long history of the kingdom of Judah, there are a few high points. King Hezekiah is one of them and King Josiah is the last of these, the last bright light in this downward spiral towards eventual exile. But the whole story that we’re reading here, the whole story of the kingdom of Judah, I think is really meant to serve and to nourish the Jews in exile. The big question that’s being asked in exile, the big question that we’re thinking about at that moment, is how did this happen? We know that we’re God’s chosen people. We know that our Father is Abraham. We know that we’ve had these experiences. How did we end up here? We’re wrestling with this huge existential crisis. It must have been something similar to those moments that the Latter-day Saints had in the early history of the church, when these prophecies were given and then they were driven out. They build a temple in Kirtland, and are driven out. They build a temple in Nauvoo, and they were driven out. How does this happen? And it takes historians, you’ll be pleased to know, it takes historians to look back and write these stories to explain what happened here. Now these are a particular kind of historians and they’re trying to answer a really important question. And Josiah becomes one of the means that they use to answer this question of why things went wrong. And this is found in the description of Josiah’s reforms, what motivated his reforms, what he set about doing, and this whole experience which is described in chapter 22 and 23 of 2 Kings. So these reforms are too late to save Judah from exile. But they do give this model of how perhaps things could be different. Josiah was a young king. He reigned for 31 years, but he was 39 when he died in battle and in 622 BC, so this is just a few years before we have the story of Lehi and his family leaving Jerusalem. In 622 BC, when Josiah was in his mid 20s, he issued an order regarding the renovation of the temple. And this renovation seems to be connected with the discovery of what is called the scroll of the teaching, a discovery that changed the whole course of his life and his reign. When Josiah first heard the scroll read, it was brought from the temple, by his advisor by the high priest, he rent his clothes in lament. This is sort of a sign that we see in the Old Testament, a number of times when something awful has happened. And immediately he sent his trusted advisors to Huldah, the prophetess, so that she could inquire of the Lord on my behalf and on behalf of my people and on behalf of all Judah concerning the words of the scroll that had been found. Josiah wanted to know is this scripture. So he goes to find this out to the prophet who is in this case, Huldah, who is one of four women prophets named in the Old Testament, the other three are Miriam in Exodus, Deborah in Judges, and Noadiah in Nehemiah.
Joseph Stuart: So why does Josiah want the scroll verified? What’s he worried about in relation to its contents? Was it unsettling for instance, or did it provide new information?
Kristian Heal: When Josiah read this scroll, he was transfixed by it. He says, “For great indeed must be the wrath of the Lord that has been kindled against us, because our fathers did not obey the words of this scroll to do all that had been prescribed for us.” All of a sudden, the lights came on, as it were. And he saw the history of his own people described in their own annals and realized and looked around him and the kind of world around him, and realized that his people had not been living in accordance with this law laid out in the scroll. Most scholars assume that this scroll is what today we know as the book of Deuteronomy. That is the scroll that he’s talking about. And so perhaps this makes us want to go back to the book of Deuteronomy and read it with even more sort of care, thinking how this would look, not from the perspective of Moses, but from the perspective of Josiah as he’s reading this in this late period in the history of Israel’s kings. So what did the Huldah have to say about this scroll? Well, Josiah gets more than he bargained for, in some respects, because he not only learns of the truth of the scroll, but here’s a prophecy based on it. Huldah tells him that Israel is going to be destroyed. But, he himself is not. Josiah will not see this destruction because “…your heart was softened and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard what I decreed against this place in this inhabitants,” that is from reading the scroll,” that it will become a desolation and a curse and because you rent your clothes and wept before me, I, from my part have listened” declares the Lord.
Joseph Stuart: Once Josiah accepted the scroll, that scholars recognize Deuteronomy as scripture, what did he set out to do?
Kristian Heal: The next chapter describes Josiah’s response to hearing the word of the Lord, both from the scroll and from the prophetess. Josiah saw that he had one shot, one opportunity to seize the thing that he most wanted, which was a kingdom free from idolatry. He decided that he was going to capture this dream and not let it slip away. So he’d lost himself in the work of rooting out idolatry and reforming the religious landscape of his kingdom. So Josiah’s reform seemed to have been thorough and comprehensive. His desire was to align the religious practices of the kingdom with the instructions found in the scroll. More importantly, perhaps he wanted to make a covenant to keep the commandments as they were presented in the scroll, and he wanted his people to do the same. So near the end of the era in the history of Israel, the period from the exile in Egypt to the exile in Babylon, Israel once again covenants with the Lord as it says in the scriptures, “…that they would follow the Lord and observe His commandments, his injunctions and His laws with all their heart and soul, that they would fulfill all the terms of this covenant, as described upon the scroll, and all the people entered into this covenant.” And surprisingly, perhaps as we hear the words of this covenant we hear echoes of the book of Deuteronomy. In this state now with the king and the people covenanted to the Lord, Josiah is then able to set about this business of rooting out idolatry, prescribed in the scroll of the covenant. And we noticed the kinds of verbs he’s using. I’m using the Jewish Publication Society version of this scriptures, “Josiah brought out, burned, suppressed, beat to dust, scattered, tore down, defiled, demolished, did away with, removed, shattered, cut down, abolished, slew, and did away with all of these signs of idolatry.” This was a determined and decisive program of reformation, the whole landscape, the world around them that they saw was transformed including even remnants of idolatry that had stood since the days of Solomon, things that had even survived Hezekiah’s reform efforts. Josiah even ventured beyond the boundaries of his kingdom to enact his reforms in the narrow lost kingdom of Israel.
Joseph Stuart: And one of these reforms is the reinstitution of the Passover. Why is that so significant?
Kristian Heal: It’s almost shocking that the Passover that we think as the quintessential religious festival of the Jews, could have been forgotten. But here we discover that the Passover had not been practiced during this time in Israel, that the Passover it says, “…had not been offered in the manner in the days of the chieftains.” What we read in the scriptures is, “…the Passover sacrifice had not been offered in that manner in the days of the chieftains who ruled Israel,” this is the period of the Judges, “…or during the days of the kings of Israel, in the kingdoms of Judah. Only in the 18th year of King Josiah was such a sacrifice, a Passover sacrifice offered in that manner to the Lord in Jerusalem.” We’re reinstituting something that had been completely lost for generations, for centuries almost. And this defining festival is the means by which Israel remembered that they were taken out of Egypt on the one hand, and that it was God who had done this for them. It’s the thing which bound the people of Israel to God and reminded them year after year, tell the story we hear in Deuteronomy. Tell this story. Write it on your hearts. Do this thing. This is the thing that you need to be remembering.
Joseph Stuart: So Josiah clearly does a lot. What are some of the key takeaways that you have from Josiah’s reforms that we might do well to remember as modern Latter-day Saints?
Kristian Heal: First thing we see is a rediscovery of the scriptures, and the scriptures having this transformative effect on him. Suddenly, the world changes. The lights come on. He sees his correct place before God. He sees clearly what he needs to do, how he needs to conduct his work in his world. Then we see a personal transformation happen. His heart was softened, he humbled himself, he felt remorse. So we see this willingness to reposition himself, visa vie God. In his own world, he was king looking down on his people. But now, the law became the thing to which he was willing to submit, and willing to submit in terms of his practice, and in terms of the practice of the people. Now the scriptures were guiding him. He looked to the prophets. He looked at the scriptures and he changed his life accordingly. He also renews the liturgy, this way that we have of regularly worshiping or remembering God. For us, the liturgy is the weekly sacrament meeting, in which we come together, we have this prayer which is carefully crafted, but it can become so sort of routine, that perhaps we forget the words. But it is the thing which binds us in memory, binds us together with God, and encourages us to remember him. And then he set about on this process of changing his world, of aligning his life and the life of his kingdom to the scriptures, to the commands that he had now understood to be doing right, and rooted out idolatry and the causes of idolatry.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah. For instance, I found it really interesting that Carolyn highlighted that the brazen serpent was one of those idols that the people of Israel had made into this shibboleth, had made into something that could not sustain faith in the way that faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could. Sometimes it’s the things in our cultural memory that end up getting in the way of our individual connection to God.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think as we look at ways that we can kind of apply this ourselves, there’s probably lots of room for application and perhaps in surprising ways. I think that it’s well to remind us that sometimes we can have things in our lives which we are entirely familiar with, comfortable with.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah like President Oaks, then Elder Oaks, as he preached this sort of good, better, best scale, that just because something is good doesn’t mean that it can be the best thing that we can be doing.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, precisely. I think that’s a really, that’s a really lovely way to put it in our terms. And so we’re being invited in these moments in these verses, as we want to make this application to ourselves, to ask ourselves some of the hard questions. What is it that I have learned from the scriptures? What changes have I been inspired to make? What is it that keeps me from loving God with all of my heart, might, mind, and strength? What habits do I need to change? What do I need to root out from my life or my way of life, so that I can better align myself with the way of God? These are the often the most difficult questions I know from my own mind because that kind of often happens that we quite like. Like watching too much TV probably, in my part, or doing something, you know, something which I could be doing, which is not a bad thing, but there are better things and there are best things as you remind us. So I think this is a really lovely reminder that there are moments, there are opportunities for moral reformation throughout our lives.
Joseph Stuart: That’s a great place for us to end today. Have a blessed week y’all.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)