With this episode, we’re going to continue our journey through the major sections of the Great Story. We pick it up at the end of Moses’ story and overview the continuation of the overall narrative through the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament.
This episode if brought to us by the letter “C”:
Cycle of broken humanity
Crying for a king
Chaos of power (in the Northern Kingdom)
Continuation of David’s line (in the Southern Kingdom)
Constructing the past
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Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. Ezra 4:4 (NIV)
I’m on the road this week for business. I rarely sleep well when I’m on the road. My brain is buzzing from long days of meetings with our client and it is often hard for me to shut down my brain long enough to sleep. I have found that one of the things that help me sleep is to have something familiar playing quietly near me like a favorite audiobook or documentary. Last night, it was Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, that accompanied me to my dreams.
As I woke this morning the nine-part documentary was still playing as it told of how Ulysses S. Grant was able to finally defeat the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee had successfully defeated a long list of Union generals before Grant. Lee’s army was severely outnumbered and his resolute strategy was to discourage the Union’s resolve to wage war. It was working. When Lee won a battle, the Union’s response had always been to retreat. When Grant lost a battle, however, he refused to retreat. Grant continued to march his army forward no matter the cost or casualties. As one of his soldiers said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”
I then read today’s chapter. The Hebrew exiles have begun construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the repair of the walls. Their regional enemies, however, fear a rebuilt and powerful Jerusalem. So, they set out to thwart the rebuilding. Their strategy? Much like Robert E. Lee, they set out to discourage the Hebrews and break their resolve to rebuild.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message tells me, as a follower of Jesus, I am engaged in a Level Four spiritual struggle. With the resurrection of Jesus, my enemy’s defeat is made certain, but it did not break my enemy’s resolve. Along my life journey, I have found that the enemy’s strategy is basically the same as Lee’s and the same as the Hebrews’ neighbors in today’s chapter. The enemy wants to discourage me, to diminish my faith and break my resolve to trust and obey the One I follow.
Will I retreat like a long list of Union Generals who always backed down despite overwhelming odds in their favor? Or, will I continue to march forward in the face of an enemy who continually works to discourage me from that resolve?
As I ponder this morning, I can’t help but desire that it would be said of me in the spiritual realm: “That Tom Vander Well. He don’t scare worth a damn.”
When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family. 2 Kings 11:1 (NIV)
The ancient stories of blood, corruption and political intrigue continue in today’s chapter. As we pick up the stories of royal succession, the nation of Israel had now been divided in two for almost a hundred years. The northern kingdom, called the Kingdom of Israel, had been led by a succession of kings who killed and conspired to both gain and hold the position. The southern kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Judah, continued to follow the royal line of David. Judah trusted Nathan’s prophetic promise that the throne of David would be established forever and, through David, the Messiah would come.
Jerusalem was the capital of Judah and Solomon’s Temple continued to be the center of worship for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, worship of the local fertility god, Baal, had become popular in Judah just as it had been in the northern kingdom of Israel. Just like Queen Jezebel in their northern counterpart, Judah’s Queen Mother Athaliah was a Baal worshipper.
When Jehu seized power in the north, he killed both Joram, King of Israel, and Ahaziah, King of Judah. Athaliah saw opportunity to make a power grab of her own. She, like Jehu, also followed the bloody playbook of ancient takeover and commenced killing all of her son’s children (her own grandchildren) in order to establish her control and make sure the nation could not put one of her grandchildren on the throne.
There was also a religious element to Athaliah’s massacre. Destroying the “whole royal family” would essentially end David’s line. Doing so would render Nathan’s prophecy moot, and it would end the possibility of the prophesied messiah to come. This would cripple the worship of Yaweh and make way for the ascendency of Baal.
Athaliah’s plot is foiled when her infant grandson, Joash, is secreted away from her and hidden in the temple. David’s line survives to eventually give birth to another infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
This morning I’m thinking about the ways our present reality hinges on past events. Wendy and I have been watching the television series The Man in the High Castle which is predicated on the notion of what life might have been like if the Allies had lost World War II. Historians studying the American Civil War tell us just how close Abraham Lincoln came to losing the election of 1864, which most likely would have led to a peace settlement between the Union and the Confederacy. How different our lives might have been had that happened. Lincoln’s faith was not well-defined, but he came to believe that the purposes of the Almighty were perfect and had to prevail.
So it is that I wonder about our own present realities. There is much turmoil in the world and much angst and anxiety. Here in my little Iowa town I have little power to do much about the course of history. I can only influence the lives around me and leave such legacy as I am able. Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus I believe that there is a plan for this Great Story. Jesus made it clear that He came to fulfill the plan that had been laid in the law and prophets, and He said there was a plan for how the Great Story would end, as well. Like Uncle Abe, I’m trusting that the purposes of the Almighty must prevail.
The Israelites went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and they inquired of the Lord. They said, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites?” Judges 20:23 (NIV)
The violent gang rape that had taken place in the previous chapter of Judges now becomes national news and sparks corporate outrage. The other 11 tribes of Israel muster an army and demand that the perpetrators of the act be delivered up for justice. Their fellow countrymen from Benjamin refuse. The tribes of Israel find themselves on the brink of civil war.
This morning as I read of the events described I thought of our own civil war here in the United States. I thought about the name itself: “United States.” Many smaller states united as one. It was not unlike the 12 tribes of Israel, spread out and occupying their own geographic territory, but with no strong central government to bring unity. In Ken Burns’ classic documentary of the American Civil War it is explained that, prior to the war, it was common to say “the United States are” (plural). After the war, we began to say “the United States is” (singular). As the end of the book of Judges, the nation of Israel is having a similar experience.
Today, I’m thinking about the need we have as humans in society for strong central leadership and authority. Without it, smaller societal groups with strong identity and disparate ideas quickly fall into conflict that can turn divisive, violent, and deadly. We need law, order, and the freedom to express our ideas. We need a system that allows for reasonable exchange and compromise.
Chapter-a-Day Psalm 50
“But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God.” Psalm 50:23 (NLT)
For those of us in the U.S., the Thanksgiving holiday is just a few weeks away. Today’s chapter reminds us multiple times that God is honored by “sacrifices of thanks.” I believe if we were truly honest we would admit to giving little thought to the act of actually giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Despite a nod to sharing one thing we’re thankful for before we dig in to our meal, I tend to believe that our hearts and minds are more typically filled with thoughts of food, football and black friday shopping.
When Abraham Lincoln issued his proclamation making Thanksgiving an official holiday, he was clearly calling U.S. citizens, divided in two by a terrible Civil War, to a day of humble and sincere thanks-giving to God. In the days before a national election, when it seems that our nation is largely divided into two camps of thought and engaged in a war of words, I think it might be beneficial for us all to read Lincoln’s plea for ourselves [note: italics added]:
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.