THE LAST DAYS
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
II Kings 24, 25
When Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, was first performed in 1949, it held up for a war-tired nation the emptiness of American values. Willy Loman, the salesman, was a back-slapping, life-of-the-party guy who drifted through life on the philosophy that a successful guy knew the right people and was well liked . He taught this philosophy to his sons and he lived with this deception until near the end of his life, when his business associates, his sons and even Willy Loman himself realized it was all wrong as a philosophy.
And what did Arthur Miller think? A journalist asked him how he explained the power of the play. Miller said all Americans face this tension, "the fear that one has lied to one's self.... What the play does is to make the individual ask himself whether his rationalizations about himself are not leading him to an ultimate rendevous with a dreadful reckoning."
Miller's view of America is exactly like the situation at the end of 2 Kings, which describes the end of Judah, the last days of a grand experiment which didn't work.
We know, as Christians, what it means when we talk about the last days. It means those troubled times before the end of the world comes and Christ returns. What did it mean for Judah at the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 6th century BC? It meant the end of life as they knew it. It would be as if our vacation homes were destroyed; the stock markets collapsed; retirement funds and bank accounts are taken from us; we are separated from our children. Lawlessness increases so that it's dangerous to even be out on the streets. It is as if the army of a foreign nation has invaded our country and their soldiers were everywhere.
Some 600 years before the time of our passage in 2 Kings 24,25, sometime in the 13th century BC, Joshua stood on the border of Canaan. His task was to get the people of Israel, only recently escaped from Egypt, and in a different way, escaped from God, to get them ready to enter the land God had promised them, this land, Canaan. As Joshua stood on the banks of the Jordan River, God spoke to him. He said:
Let this book of the Law always be read when you worship; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
Centuries later Israel, who had been a promising young people, somehow never lived up to the promise. We know the reason why that was so. They did too often what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. They were betrayed by bad leaders and by consistently neglecting the very law that was to keep them in God's way. The last kings were a sorry lot. The only man of promise among them was not a descendant of David, but a grandson of Shaphan, the secretary of state under Josiah.
Let me sketch the family connections so you can have them in your mind as we see the result of not keeping God's laws.
Josiah had three sons. The oldest was Eliakim whom the Babylonians called Jehoiakim. We meet him in 23:36. Since he was the oldest we might expect him to be the next king when Josiah dies; but he was pro-Egyptian and hence passed over as king by the Babylonians, who chose his younger brother to be king. Jehoiakim had a son, Jehoiachin, who would also be king.
Jehoiakim's brothers were Jehoahaz and Zedekiah. They would also become kings, but they were all a bad lot. All did evil by that objective standard, "in the eyes of the Lord." Just as bad, they were hot and cold in their allegiance to Babylon or Egypt. All ended up prisoners of war in either Egypt or Babylon in whom they trusted rather than trusting in God. They did not read the law of God and they did not follow it in their lives. Frankly, the result was disastrous.
Jehoahaz, whom we meet in 23:31, (whose given name was Shallum) was appointed king by Necho II of Egypt because his older brother had suspect loyalties to Egypt. But political ideas change - as we are observing in this strange presidential nomination process in our country - and Neco II had Jehoahaz, whom he had appointed King, put in chains and taken away to Egypt. He appointed his brother, Jehoiakim, king in his place.
In the meantime the political balance of power changed and Egypt was defeated in battle by the Babylonians. Jehoiakim, according to 24:1, became a vassal of Babylon. In 601 BC, after reigning for three years over a nation subject to Babylon, Jehoiakim seems to have been emboldened by the retreat of Babylon from Egyptian forces, which sent them back to Babylon to re-equip, and Jehoiakim rebelled. Enough of this, he said.
The Babylonians, too, said, enough of this, and they sent the armies of neighboring vassal countries against them. These countries were only too happy to have a chance to attack Judah. 24:2 says, "the Lord sent" these forces. And indeed, since history is the fulfillment of God's plan, these attacks are part of God's judgment on Judah. Verse 4 specifically says these attacks came because of how Manasseh had disobeyed God's law. But then all the other kings after him disobeyed God's law - with the one exception of Josiah. Things are rapidly falling apart.
Some 700 years before these events, in Deuteronomy 29:19, 20, Moses gets the people of Israel to agree to make a covenant with God, and then Moses warns them, "If a person... thinks, 'I will be safe, even though I persisted in going my own way'," he's wrong. This attitude will bring disaster, not only on him, but on the land. And now it's happening, in the fulness of time. God is big on working in the fulness of time. And this is the conclusion of 2 Kings about the matter, in 24:4, "and the Lord was not willing to forgive." Not that anyone was asking for forgiveness. That is a characteristic of sin. When sin begins, a person's conscience is still sensitive, but when a person continues in sin, he becomes enmeshed in it. He can no longer see the wrong. That's trouble.
Here's how I see this issue. God's law, whether the OT law, or the principles of the NT revealed in Jesus Christ, provide a standard for moral action. When that standard is disregarded or disobeyed, not only is God wronged, but there is a change for the worse in people. This is where the last king, Gedaliah , a generally honest and good man, goes astray. He misjudges how evil people can be. Nebuchadnezzar did not make that mistake. According to Jeremiah 22, Jehoiakim was killed and thrown outside the city of Jerusalem by pro-Babylonian elements in the city.
Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim, then became king, 24:8. He reigned 8 months, 8 months of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, brought on because of his father's foolish attempt at rebellion against Babylon. With thousands of others, Jehoiachin is taken to Babylon as a prisoner. Jeremiah had prophesied this captivity in Jeremiah 22:24- 27. "I will hand you over to those who seek your life, those you fear - to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon." So the prophets did not give up their message. They continued to preach, continued to remind kings and people of their wrong. Perhaps they will repent, but they didn't!
Jehoiachin is sent captive to Babylon, and his uncle, and the third son of Josiah, Zedekiah, was appointed king by the Babylonians. He visited his people in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:59); he shows compassion on them, but according to the parallel passage in
2 Chronicles 36, he did three evils: 1) he did not listen to God's Word. 2) He broke an oath he had made to Nebuchadnezzar in God's name to remain loyal to Babylon. 3) He did not repent. He became stiff necked and hardened his heart, and he was punished exactly the way Proverbs 29:1 promises.
The fatal words about him are in 2 Kings 24:20, "Now Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon." Each of the sons of Josiah leads Judah further from God and now, Nebuchadnezzar, responding to Zedekiah's rebellion, sets up a siege of Jerusalem which lasts for a year and a half. Nebuchadnezzar destroys the city and the temple and brings many people into captivity. If only Zedekiah had paid attention to Jeremiah, the prophet, he would have saved both himself and Jerusalem. But Zedekiah had stopped listening to God and to his law a long time before this. And he didn't notice that God had departed from him.
There is a lot of archaeological evidence about this siege of Jerusalem and of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and the nations around it. There are records in the Babylonian Chronicles which have come to light about the tributes various vassal nations paid to the Babylonians. The events of the Bible have this parallel history in the histories of other nations. There are also prophecies about these things. For example, in Ezekiel 12:13, Ezekiel prophecies that Zedekiah will be taken to Babylon but not see it. Here in 2 Kings 25:7, we see how that happened. Zedekiah has his eyes put out and is then taken off to Babylon.
The Babylonians appoint a final king for Judah. His name is Gedaliah, grandson of Shaphan, the secretary of state under Josiah. He was a good man. In the chaos of a conquered and devastated country, he provided stability. Think of Afghanistan where no one is providing stability. Judah, after being destroyed by Babylon, was in the same kind of turmoil Afghanistan is in today. The seal of Gedaliah has been found at Lachish, another evidence of the truth of this history. Gedaliah, following the advice of Jeremiah, the prophet, advised the people to submit to the Babylonians. Notice that even though all the nation is lost, God's prophet is still there, speaking to the truncated nation and its last ruler. In Jeremiah 40 and 41, the prophet says that if the people remain in Judah and submit to the Babylonians, God will prosper them. Nebuchadnezzar was known as a fair-minded king. It was possible. But anti- Babylonian elements in Mizpah conspired to assassinate Gedaliah, and then they fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them.
The story ends with the Babylonians returning to punish Judah for killing Gedaliah, and Judah is put under the control of Samaria, the old northern kingdom. And it seems like all the promises of God for this people, rooted in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in Moses and Joshua and later still in David and all the faithful kings, have now come to naught.
What God will do next is completely unexpected; he will send his own Son into the chaos of the world because he loved these people, and he promised that whoever believes on this Son of His will not perish, but have eternal life. But that is hundreds of years in the future and in the meantime, because of their continual sin and unrepentant attitude, Judah is destroyed and the Babylonian captivity begins.
In our society people don't to talk about judgment. The Bible does not share this reluctance. The Bible says that when Jesus comes again, he will be the appointed Judge of all people. The basis for his judgment is clearly set forth in the Bible, and further, as Paul argues in Romans 1, there is in humans an innate sense of right and wrong which is a basis for judgment for those who don't read the Bible. Christians are judged on the grounds of their faith in Christ, and whether they have lived their lives on the basis of their faith.
Non-Christians are judged on the basis of their wilful choice of knowing what is right but choosing not to do it. Judgment is coming.
Mt 25:41, "Then he (the King) will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
(Sin is always self-centered.)
You want to know whether you are involved in sin in your life? Ask yourself, "What am I doing to help other people?" If Judah's problem was that they did not examine themselves in the mirror of God's Word, maybe that's your problem too. After all, that's why we read the Bible, to help us to see ourselves in the right way.
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