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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

2 Kings 16

Verses 1-20

2 Kings 16:1-20

In the seventeenth year of Pekah.

A people’s king and priest, or kinghood and priesthood

The kinghood.

1. The de-humanising force of false religion. Ahaz was an idolator.

2. The national curse of a corrupt king-hood.

3. The mischievous issues of a temporary expediency. Ahaz, in order to extricate himself from the difficulties and trials which Rezin and Pekah had brought on his country, applies to the King of Assyria.

(1) He degraded himself. He sold himself as a slave to the king whose help he revoked. He loses his self-respect, which is the very essence of true manhood. Another mischief of his temporary expediency was--

(2) He impoverished his people. This silver and gold belonged to the nation. It was public property. What right had he to dispose of a fraction?

The priesthood. Urijah is the priest. There seems to have been more than one of this name, and nothing is known of him more than what is recorded in this chapter. He was a priest, who at this time presided in the temple of Jerusalem. He seems to have been influential in the State, and, although a professed monotheist, was in somewhat close connection with Ahaz the idolatrous king. Two things are worthy of note concerning him.

1. An obsequious obedence to the royal will. The Assyrian king having taken Damascus, is followed by Ahaz to the city; in order, no doubt, to congratulate him on his triumphs. While at Damascus, Ahaz is struck with the beauty of an altar. He seems to have been so charmed with it that he commands Urijah, his priest, to make one exactly like it.

2. An obsequious silence to the royal profanation. See what the king did, no doubt, in the presence of the priest. This fawning, sacerdotal sycophant not only “did according to all King Ahaz commanded,” but he stood by silently and witnessed without a word of protest this spoliation of the holy temple. (David Thomas, D. D.)

Verses 10-15

2 Kings 16:10-15

And King Ahaz went to Damascus . . . and saw an altar.

The cosmopolitan in religion

This is an incident familiar to all Bible students. You know that King Ahaz, and it is saying a great deal, was about the most foolish and weak king that ever sat upon the throne of Judah. After the time of Solomon the kingdom was threatened by the neighbouring kingdom of Israel, which had made a league with the King of Syria, whose centre was in Damascus. They had already besieged Jerusalem ineffectually. It was the time when Isaiah the prophet was carrying on his ministry in the holy city. He advised this weak and foolish young man to have no fear whatever of the two powers that were leagued against him, He described them in that uncomplimentary phrase of two “smoking stumps of firebrands”--what you would describe as spent forces--and advised the young king to be quiet, and trust in God. But trust in God was not original or clever enough for Ahaz. He was one of the men who thought that you might trust in God when you had exhausted every other resource. So, instead of trusting in God, he proceeded to do the very opposite thing--to strip the temple of Jehovah of its vessels of gold and silver, to strip its walls of the platings of gold, and to send this gold, with some treasures from his own house, as a present to Tiglath-pileser, the King of Assyria--the Roman Empire of that day, threatening and menacing every other power--and he said: “I am thy son and thy servant; come and save me out of the hands of the King of Israel and the King of Syria.” And the device succeeded; the glittering gold secured the strong arm of the Assyrian king. Tiglath-pileser conquered Syria, led away the king of it captive, established some sort of a seat at Damascus; and Ahaz went up to visit him, and while there turned things over in his own mind, and, thinking that religion was very useful to a politician, he came across a heathen altar--an elaborate and aesthetic altar--and it occurred to him that it would be another original thing to enlarge the original scope of the temple at Jerusalem, and to bring something of an ornate character into its service, by erecting there an altar of the exact pattern of the thing he had seen at Damascus. Having unfortunately a creature who was supple and obedient, in Urijah the priest--the very opposite of Isaiah the prophet--having sent an exact pattern of the altar by special messenger to Jerusalem, his assiduous and time-serving priest had it all ready by the time of his return. It was put in the centre of the sanctuary, and now said King Ahaz to his supple and accommodating religious functionary, “I am not going to desert the old altar, it is to be kept on the premises, it is to be moved a little to the north; the great altar is to take the central position, the altar with the heathen embellishments upon it, with heathen and corrupt associations connected with it, is to have the centre; but I am not going over to heathenism--God forbid!--I have a very tender place in my heart for the old altar, and in the day when trouble comes, and when perhaps this brilliant experiment in religion has failed, in the day when darkness falls, the old altar will do for me to inquire by.” He did not know that he was mocking God when he did that.

1. Have you met this man Ahaz? I have seen him. He is a type, and the type is not extinct. He is like a man who has gone away from the Church that gave him all that he was ever worth, and he says that he has not gone away from it. The old altar is not put away, it is only in practice that he has gone over to another Church--for family reasons, and for aesthetic considerations. I think you have met the man, and know the type. The cosmopolitan in matters of religion, the man who comes to you and raves about the wonders of Buddhism; and he asks you if you have read the Vedas and the Zendavesta, and if you are acquainted with Confucian philosophy, and if you know that there is really a great deal of truth and merit in heathen religion. Now nobody would deny that this man had made some sort of a discovery, as Ahaz did, but nobody sensible has ever thought of denying that there is a certain element of truth in heathen religions. God has not left Himself without witness; He has not been doing nothing in the great heathen countries through all the ages; He has spoken here and there; and there may be enough truth in a system to hold it together for centuries. But you may be sure that the man who talks in this way has not on the spot considered the product of heathen religion, and when he talks of the picturesqueness of many heathen customs, he has forgotten the degradation and the uncleanness and the shameful superstition and the unutterable cruelty and lies that are connected with the religions that he praises. Either the Christian religion was designed and destined to supersede and supplant all others, or it was not, and we must make up our minds. Study comparative religions if you will, but the man who studies the Christian religion, and digs deeply into it, contents, will find a glory that takes to itself every scattered ray of glory that is in every other religion, and repels all that is base and degrading and unworthy. If the Christian religion is not intended to supersede and supplant all others, if the faiths of the world were sufficient by themselves to save the world, even the faith of Judah, with its doctrine of one righteous and holy God, then the Incarnation was a superfluity, and the cross and bitter passion of our Lord were altogether unnecessary, The cosmopolitan in religion does not dig deeply enough into the glory that excels, to see that it does excel all other light.

2. But I go on to speak, the next place, of this man as the type of a man who will do anything, right or wrong, in order to succeed. Why did he erect the Assyrian altar, or a pattern of it, in the temple at Jerusalem? Not because it was false, or because it was true; the man did not understand religion a bit; it was a kind of penny-in-the-slot business; them was magic in it; you did something, and something came out of it, and he knew nothing better than that. But he knew that this altar was the altar of a powerful nation, and that the men who worshipped at it were succeeding, and there is where we make the mistake to-day. We are worshipping success, right or wrong. Of course you want to succeed; it would be exceedingly foolish on my part, and useless to suggest to any man before me that he should not desire passionately the success of anything with which he is connected. There is a danger of worshipping success in the Christian Church, of sacrificing inward things for numbers and wealth in the character of the Church. Naturally, I want my business to succeed, but I want to know how the dividends are earned. That is a question that every Christian man should ask. Naturally I want my party to succeed, but the party had better journey in the wilderness for fifty years than sacrifice any of its sincerity and its views for the sake of office. I would say in all earnestness that my ambition to succeed, and yours, must in all things be strictly subordinated to our ambition and purpose to do the will of God everywhere, and when we stand upon the threshold of an enterprise we must not admit anything into it, if we know it, that will clash with the will of God, and that will not be in accordance with our conscience. What is religion? What do some people think it to be? Is it a series of ecclesiastical and ceremonial operations, which God will accept as an equivalent or a substitute for a man’s heart obedience? Is it an endeavour to get the Most High over to your side, right or wrong? Is it not a feeling after God, and finding Him, and then submitting the whole life, with all its possibilities of success or failure to the absolute and undisputed authority, and will of God?

3. I think I can see a little bit of a parable in this sad history. There is a temple of God in the heart of every man here to-day which should be kept inviolate for Him, and the golden vessels in it are the convictions that God has created in your heart; and you must say, in the sight of God, “I will not sacrifice one of these to ward off any impending danger, to buy over any strong thing to my side; here I stand, I can no other; where God has placed me, whatever comes.” I know what it means, I have graduated in business, and I know it--how you are tempted to stretch a point here and there in the presence of new combinations, in the presence of new competition and anti-Christian customs. There is a crisis coming on, and they tell you that if you will not bribe people and drink with people, and do this, that, and the other, you will not succeed; and you say, “I know it is abominable.” Will you whittle away the abominableness of it until you make it fit for you to do it? Or will you say, “I can fail, but I can’t stifle my conscience, and I cannot stifle the voice of God in my soul, I cannot do evil that good may come.” Whenever you are tempted to do it, remember the apostle’s words about the people who do it--it is a strong word, not a bit too strong--“whose damnation is just.”

4. This is a man who, like many people to-day, tries to do an impossible thing--to serve two masters--and he fails. He is going to keep in touch with the true religion, and he is going to give the central place in life to the religion that has only a grain of truth in it at best. He did not want to cut himself adrift from the old religion; he had a great respect for it, and he wanted to keep it on the premises, just as a man keeps a Bible on the premises. He is going to resort to it in time of trouble; it is as great a comfort to him as it is for him to know that there is a doctor somewhere in the vicinity if illness should come. It would be too shocking to give up religion. Yes, but you can relegate religion to the north side of the altar, and give it a subordinate place, or you think you can, and you fail to see that you are mocking it. A great many people say, “I like religion all very well in its place.” Where is the place of religion? Some people think the proper place for religion is in the pew, and it is to be left there with the hymn-book on Sundays, and returned to when Sunday comes back again. We do not understand the heart of religion until we understand that there is no place for religion in a man’s life unless it has the first place, because the Lord Jesus Christ will not be one in a Pantheon of many deities; it must be all or nothing. Not the main altar for business and pleasure and fame, and a little comer on the north side for Jesus Christ; but the supreme altar for Him, and He must govern your pleasures and your business. Until we can say, “For me to live is Christ,” we have not come to the heart of the Christian life. (C. Brown.)

The altar to “inquire by”

I call special attention to the last words--“and the brasen altar shall be for me to inquire by.” Ahaz directed first of all that his own offerings should be offered upon this new altar. He then commanded that the offerings of the people, the morning and evening sacrifices as well as special offerings, should be offered upon it. Nor did Ahaz stop here; for this is an illustration of the fact that when we begin to interfere with God’s plan, and to introduce into the divine economy of things our own improvements, we are only beginning a course of action which will become more daring and irreverent as time passes by.

1. Now I want you to observe how when once a man dares to interfere with Divine ordinances, there is no telling where such a course will end. The history of retrogression in this direction is a very striking one. Even Ahaz would not have dared to do all he did at once; but having once erected a heathen altar in the sanctuary of the God of Israel, the other things naturally followed. The first stop was the one which prepared the way for every other step. Ahaz had not been in sympathy with the worship of God from his earliest days. He had entered more and more into alliance with heathen powers. He had become a diplomatist in everything; even his religion had become a thing of diplomacy. The result was that the great brazen altar upon which the nation had offered its sacrifices for centuries was at length removed by him out of the way, and an altar of his own making was made to take its place. But even now, what did Ahaz say with regard to the old altar? Should it be removed right out of the temple? No, the man was diplomatic still. “The brasen altar shall be for me to inquire by.” Now this word 18 ambiguous, as ambiguous in the Hebrew as it is in the English.

(1) Ahaz may have meant to say, “Put that brasen altar on one side for the time being; I will think about it, and see what I shall do with it; I will not yet put it outside altogether. I will consider the matter, and see what can be done.” Or, what I think is far more probable:

(2) Ahaz, while he was prepared to offer all the sacrifices upon his own altar only, was not prepared to lose sight of the old altar, but intended to consult it whenever he got into difficulty. He thus practically said, “Put this old altar on one side, so that I may inquire by it when I find it necessary to do so.” Now that is a very striking course to take, and yet not very exceptional in one sense.

2. This conduct on the part of Ahaz in cautiously postponing the final decision what he would do with the altar he readily thrust aside, exactly illustrates what some men and women have done many a time. There are some here to-night who remember their earliest days with strange and conflicting feelings. Their earliest recollections ought to be to them exceedingly sacred. They remember the hallowing influences which surrounded them in their early homes, when simple piety reigned in that family. But possibly some of you have since then gone out into the world, and have done what Ahaz did. You have formed friendships with other men than those with whom your father would have fraternised; but then you have known more of life, as you say, and you have prospered more than your father ever did. As men of the world you laugh at the simplicities of your ancestors, and smile at the little they knew of the competitions of life, and how unequal they would be for the fight of to-day. Your father, you freely admit, was a good man. There can be no doubt about that; no one ever doubted his sincerity, his faith, for he was so childlike and simple; but, poor man, so you think, he did not know as much as you do; and then, after all, good as he was, hew as very narrow and bigoted in his views. On the contrary, you have learned, you think, to realise that there is good in everything. You favour all that because you say it is expansive, and shows broad thought and profound sympathies; and just as Ahaz never thought for a moment that he was worshipping other gods by his innovation, so you, with your broad charity and expansive views, are bringing into the religion of Jesus Christ what He never ordained, and after all think that the Spirit which inspired the apostles is going on inspiring you, but that very much more is taught you in this enlightened age than was ever taught them. Meanwhile, you have your cultured view of the Cross. You will not thrust it away as a useless thing, but you readily place it on one side. It is no longer the central fact of the Gospel. Christ died for an example; He revealed His unselfishness. Yes, the old altar must be put aside somewhere, somewhere on the north or the cold side, and you will erect your altar from Damascus where the old altar used to be. But in all this you do not want to commit yourselves finally. The thoughtful man, so you think, is the man who always delays decision. Ahaz thought so too, if we accept the first possible rendering of the words, for he practically said, “The brasen altar shall be for me to think about. I will see where I will finally put it. I am not quite sure that even now I have put it in its right place.” So you say, “I do not think that even now the sacrifice of Christ and the story of Calvary occupy just the proper niche.” They come in somewhere; but where, you think it very difficult to decide. Meanwhile, to make sure, you will thrust it aside and yet keep it within view; by and by you may see your way to have it right outside the temple.

3. Perhaps you have done something else. It has not been to you a question of opinion. You do not belong to these would-be clever and critical people, but still you are a practical man of the world. You cannot enter into the meaning of what they call higher criticism: you know nothing about it save that you have seen a flippant leader in the daily press; and you are not concerned about the discussion: you are business men, and cannot give time to all that. The Bible may be all that your dear old father thought it was, for all that you know; but then the world has its claims, you say, and you find that it will not do in the interests of your trade or your profession to have the old Cross placed too prominently, and the principles of the Cross observed too faithfully in your daily life, and so you must thrust that a little aside and have another altar that will be more respectable--one of the nondescript altars of Damascus. It was just so with Ahaz. He had to think of the King of Assyria. Suppose the King of Assyria paid him a visit: how very pained he would be to find there was no altar there like his own; or, even if there was, that there was another altar between it and the holy place, and thus precedence was given to that other altar! Thus Ahaz had to consider matters as a practical man. He was a man full of diplomatic wisdom. He knew that as long as he could keep in with the King of Assyria things would probably be right. Why, then, should he sacrifice all his prospects just for the sake of keeping that old altar in its right place? Thus, off it had to go to the northern side.

4. But you tell me you cannot be a Christian and get on. Well, what then? You reply that you must get on, that this is the highest necessity of living. Is it? If you cannot be a Christian and succeed, then let success go. Ah, but you reply that you must succeed. Very well, you follow just the track of Ahaz. You must get on, must you? To that end you must get into alliance with the world, and the spirit of the world, and ignore God and His altar. Face the fact. You go into life and come into contact with men who sacrifice principle upon the altar of gain in the profession or trade in which you are engaged. And you say, “Other men do that, and I must do it in self-defence. I must build this new altar, I must burn incense, not to God always, but burn incense upon the altar of prosperity and worldly advancement. It pays others exceedingly well to do this, and it should pay me.” This was precisely what Ahaz said with regard to the kings of Syria (2 Chronicles 28:23)--“Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me.” I know that all this description may seem to many of you to be exaggerated. Those of us who know something of the spiritual condition of men and women know that there is nothing more common than this. Think of it; look back over your conduct, and ask yourselves what you have done that is distinctly a service to the Saviour. What have you ever said or done in your life that would mark you out as a follower of Jesus Christ? How many a man thinks of coming by and by to inquire by that altar upon which he has offered no sacrifice! What is the altar upon which you offer your sacrifices? If it is the altar of worldly success; then require of it. Be true to your convictions and to your life. Do not be mean, and only turn your back upon worldly pleasure when it has turned its back upon you. Do not look to the world as long as the world can further your purposes, always retaining a thought of God as a convenience for a dark day or a troublous hour. That is the meanest and most degrading motive that can take possession of the human heart. (D. Davies.)

Using God for emergencies

There is a blunt frankness about the transaction, almost amounting to facetiousness, that interests one. The cool way in which the old heathen altar is put in the front of the temple, while the brasen altar is ordered on one side, yet not put out of sight, but reserved for special exigencies, when the Damascus altar will not do, is very striking. Some men, having determined to have the Assyrian altar in the place of Jehovah’s, would have commanded its destruction as a thing whose use was past, and which it were well to put out of sight. Not so Ahaz. He did not consider its use all gone. There might come a time--very probably there would come a time--when the brasen altar would be of essential service. Jehovah had many a time, through His prophets, come to the help of His people, and had instructed them through His priests, and it were a wise and good thing to keep the altar where, when occasion might demand it, he could go and get the direction and the help that might not be obtained from the Damascus altar’s service. It was a wise forecast, but a very base and wicked one,--so base and wicked that such a man even as Ahaz was ought to have been ashamed of it. (W. Aikman, D. D.)


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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "2 Kings 16". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.