The downward spiral of decline and apostasy continues with more of the same as we move into the final book of the Deuteronomic history, although there are some highspots too. The ministry of the prophet Elijah draws to a close and Elisha is appointed to succeed him. There are several stories about his prophetic work in chapters 2 to 9, my personal favourite of which is the cursing of the ‘children’ in 2:23-24, resulting in them being attacked by two bears. If you go down in the woods today …
This is a book of quite black and white heroes and villains. Ahab and his queen Jezebel stand out as highly evil characters, although it is interesting that ‘secular’ histories of this period laud Ahab and a great king and a mighty warrior. But of course the Deuteronomic historians aren’t interested in that, but only in the centralisation of worship in Jerusalem and the idolatry of the nation and its leaders. Later on Judah’s king Manasseh sinks to an all-time low by promoting mass occultism and the practice of child sacrifice, but in between are a few more minor villains who are assessed, as we have now come to expect, on their perpetuation or not of the rival sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan. Typical is this summing up of the reign of Pekahiah of Israel from 2 Kings 15:
23 In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah son of Menahem became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned for two years. 24 Pekahiah did evil in the eyes of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.
the sins of Jeroboam, of course, being the setting up of the rival shrines.
However there are some heroes too, leaders whose hearts seemed set on God and therefore the renewal of the nation’s life. After Ahab’s death Joash sets about restoring the physical Temple, opening its doors once again for worship, and later Hezekiah, with the help of his contemporary prophet Isaiah, attempts reform. After him Josiah again sets out of building renovations, and discovers some lost scrolls, probably parts of the book of Leviticus, which cause him to realise how far wrong the nation has gone.
But the reforms are short-lived, and in chapter 17 the Northern Kingdom of Israel goes off into exile in Assyria, followed in the final chapter by Jerusalem falling and people being deported to Babylon.
All in all it is a sorry tale. Like watching with a terminal cancer patient we read this history knowing that death is inevitable, and that even if there is an occasional better day, the direction is inexorably downhill. Later on, when the sadder and wiser historians seek to write up this sad tale and learn lessons from it, their viewpoint is simple: people abandoned God, so eventually he abandoned them. It’s pure Romans 1 theology, or, if you’ve ever read it, straight out of The Tale of Georgie Grubb.
We’re going, of course, to see that the exile was far from being the last word, but before we move on from this sad period we’re going to read it all over again, but written up from a very different point of view.