Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Chronicles

 

It is as we move into volume 2 that we can see most clearly the difference in concerns of the Priestly strand as opposed to the Deuteronomists. We said that their version of the history was concerned less with answering the question ‘What went so wrong that we landed up in exile?’ and much more with keeping accurate records for official purposes, and with the correct ordering of the Temple and its worship. So Solomon, the builder of the Temple, gets an undue amount of space, as do the liturgical details of its dedication. His prayers are recorded presumably verbatim, and the roles of the priests and other worship professionals are given great prominence. Solomon’s pre-eminence is further enhanced with accounts of his wealth and splendour, and the visit of the Queen of Sheba who comes to admire it all.

Then the kingdom splits, and as you might expect it is the South, home of the Jerusalem Temple, which gets far more attention. Chronicles doesn’t appear to be all that interested in what is going on north of the border, and even in the accounts of the Southern kings there is a clear bias shown. The books of Kings concentrate on the bad kings and their outrageous apostasy: Chronicles is far more interested in the good ones, the ones who attempt to bring reform and renewal. So Asa, an early reformer, who gets just 15 verses in 1 Kings 15, warrants three whole chapters in 2 Chronicles 14-16. Attention is given to Joash, Josiah and particularly Hezekiah, but of course the inevitable happens: a difference of emphasis can’t bring about a different ending, and Jerusalem falls to Babylon in the final chapter.

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The Priests couldn’t change the ending, but they could see beyond it, with their slightly later dating. In the final 4 verses of the book we get some information which dates from decades afterwards, as Cyrus of Persia comes to power, the Cyrus who is going to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and begin the rebuilding of the Temple, although that’s next week’s tale. We haven’t quite finished with the Priestly writings yet: they’re going to continue with two further books. But although the ending is inevitably tragic, the Priests are able to see beyond it and find the seeds of new hope.

2 Chronicles is an easier read that volume 1, with a lack of boring lists of names, but to me the value of the Priestly writings, where they tell essentially the same story as the books of Samuel and Kings, lies in the completely different perspective from which they view things. I am challenged, as I think about my life and times, to ask myself about my perspective. Am I more interested in the villains or the heroes? Do I more readily see the disasters or the successes, of myself and others? Is my trajectory a downward rush towards disaster, albeit with a few small but temporary peaks along the way, or is it a story of hope, of reformation, of ultimate victory? Temperamentally am I a Deuteronomist or a Priest? It is easy to see God’s unfolding story from either direction, but as a bit of a misery I find that Chronicles has a hopefulness about it which can at times provides a great tonic for me when I am tempted to see sin more clearly than holiness, and the slide down rather than the climb up.

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Kings

After David’s old age his son Solomon succeeds him as king, although not without some more intrigue as his brother Adonijah makes a claim to the throne. Solomon starts well, building the Temple which David apparently had it in his heart to build, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to its final resting place (at least until Indiana Jones got his hands on it), and asking God for wisdom rather than riches, which meant that he got both. But as is so often the case, the seeds of his own destruction were present right from the start. His reign ended in national disaster, and we can, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, see the beginnings of this malaise early in his reign. There is the matter of his many wives and concubines, which of course flies in the face of the Deuteronomist’s concern for purity and separation. And in 5:13 Solomon conscripts labour to get the Temple built; in 9:15 this is described as ‘forced labour’, and in 11:28 Jeroboam is put in charge of this workforce.

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Jeroboam later meets a prophet who tells him that he is going to reign over 10 tribes, which does not please Solomon, so he flees into exile in Egypt until after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son, rather confusingly called Rehoboam, takes over the throne, but pretty soon Jeroboam takes the 10 northern tribes and splits the kingdom. There are two issues: Rehoboam decides to continue his father’s policy of conscripted labour, except that he is going to be a lot more vicious with them than Solomon was. Jeroboam is proclaimed king by the disgruntled northerners, and, in order to make the split complete, and to keep his people from going back to Jerusalem to worship, he sets up two rival sanctuaries, at the extreme north and south of the northern kingdom in Bethel and Dan. As far as the Deuteronomist is concerned this is the ultimate sin, offending so deeply as it does again the law of centralisation of worship which we encountered in the book of Deuteronomy. From now on all the successive monarchs are going to be judged on whether or not they perpetuated worship at these rival shrines. It is significant that not only is the location of these shrines wrong: they are also centred around two golden calves. Sound familiar? So God’s requirements about where he is to be worshipped are broken, as is his prohibition of idolatry.

 

From now on we have two parallel stories with accounts of the reigns of the kings of Judah, in the south centred around Jerusalem, and of Israel, in the north based in Damascus, a troubled place to this day. But for all its apostasy the northern kingdom was not abandoned by God: his prophets were active, and the stories of Elijah and later Elisha show his desire to stand against evil and to call the people back to himself. There is outright confrontation with the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal, and again as Ahab tries to confiscate a vineyard belonging to Naboth.

 

Again the twin themes of the Deuteronomist can be seen as controlling factors in the way this history is written up. We can also see the power of bad seed to grow bad crops and bad fruit, and the tragic story reminds us of the need constantly to purify ourselves and our motives, lest something unhealthy and unholy grows from our well-intentioned but unwise motives. But there is even worse to come – don’t miss next week’s thrilling adventure.

OT Lectionary 27th July Trinity 6 1 Kings 3:5-12

 

‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you’ – now there’s a challenge! What would you ask for?

A few years ago I was preaching on the National Lottery in a series on big issues. Is it OK for Christians to buy tickets? Is it just a bit of harmless fun? Is it a way to give to charity? In spite of having been brought up in a family where gambling was second only to genocide on the league table of sins, I decided that purely for research purposes I ought to buy a ticket before I spoke on the subject.

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I spent the week running up to my sermon knowing in my head that statistically I had no chance of winning anything, yet spending time fantasising about what I would do if I did. After all, someone has got to win! I mentally spent my £7 million several times over, and it was almost a relief when the draw happened and I had, as expected, thrown £1 down the drain. I could stop dreaming and get on with real life.

But what if God were to appear and offer us anything we wanted, guaranteed? Like Solomon, we’d be faced with a fundamental choice: wish stuff for ourselves or for others? Ask for something which I feel would make my life better, or something which would bless others? This reflects a choice we make, actually, most days. We make it in small ways: should I just drop my litter on the pavement because it’s convenient, or walk all the way over there to the bin because it would make town nicer for others if there were no rubbish all over the place? And we make it in big ways: do I vote at the General Election for the party I believe will make my life better, of the one which will benefit society at large (assuming of course that I can find one like that). And of course churches as well as individuals can make this decision. I’m reminded of the Welsh-speaking chapel which became swallowed up in the Cardiff conurbation, and saw an influx of non-Welsh speakers, but chose to continue to hold Welsh-language service because that’s the way they liked it. Needless to say they were dead within a generation, and you won’t need me to develop the other implications of this parable any further.

Note also that this decision comes for Solomon as a new phase of his life begins: he’s brand new to the job of being king, and pretty nervous about it. New starts give us opportunities to ask ourselves again ‘What do we really want?’ And are we more interested in blessing, or being blessed?

What we pray for reflects our heart. And of course the choices we make have implications. However, many would testify to the goodness of God who, when we make right choices, often gives us the other stuff as well.