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Bible Commentaries
2 Kings 12

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-21


(B.C. 842-836)


(B.C. 836-796)

2 Kings 11:1-21; 2 Kings 12:1-21

"Par cette fin terrible, et due a ses forfaits,

Apprenez, Roi des Juifs, et n’oubliez jamais,

Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge severe,

L’innocence un vengeur, et les orphelins un pere!"

- RACINE, "Athalie."

"Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind’s sway,

That, hushed in grim repose, expects its evening prey."


BEFORE we follow the destinies of the House of Jehu we must revert to Judah, and watch the final consequences of ruin which came in the train of Ahab’s Tyrian marriage, and brought murder and idolatry into Judah, as well as into Israel.

Athaliah, who, as queen-mother, was more powerful than the queen-consort (malekkah), was the true daughter of Jezebel. She exhibits the same undaunted fierceness, the same idolatrous fanaticism, the same swift resolution, the same cruel and unscrupulous wickedness.

It might have been supposed that the miserable disease of her husband Jehoram, followed so speedily by the murder, after one year’s reign, of her son Ahaziah, might have exercised over her character the softening influence of misfortune. On the contrary, she only saw in these events a short path to the consummation of her ambition.

Under Jehoram she had been queen: under Ahaziah she had exercised still more powerful influence as Gebirah, and had asserted her sway alike over her husband and over her son, whose counsellor she was to do wickedly. It was far from her intention tamely to sink from her commanding position into the abject nullity of an aged and despised dowager in a dull provincial seraglio. She even thought that

"To reign is worth ambition though in hell

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."

The royal family of the House of David, numerous and flourishing as it once was, had recently been decimated by cruel catastrophes. Jehoram, instigated probably by his heathen wife, had killed his six younger brothers. {2 Chronicles 21:2-4} Later on, the Arabs and Philistines, in their insulting invasion, had not only plundered his palace, but had carried away his sons; so that, according to the Chronicler, "there was never a son left him, save Jehoahaz [i.e., Ahaziah], the youngest of his sons." {; 2 Chronicles 21:17} He may have had other sons after that invasion; and Ahaziah had left children, who must all, however, have been very young, ‘since he was only twenty-two or twenty-three when Jehu’s servants murdered him. Athaliah might naturally have hoped for the regency; but this did not content her. When she saw that her son Ahaziah was dead, "she arose and destroyed all the seed royal." In those days the life of a child was but little thought of; and it weighed less than nothing with Athaliah that these innocents were her grandchildren. She killed all of whose existence she was aware, and boldly seized the crown. No queen had ever reigned alone either in Israel or in Judah. Judah must have sunk very low, and the talents of Athaliah must have been commanding, or she could never have established a precedent hitherto undreamed of, by imposing on the people of David for six years the yoke of a woman, and that woman a half-Phoenician idolatress. Yet so it was! Athaliah, like her cousin Dido, felt herself strong enough to rule.

But a woman’s ruthlessness was outwitted by a woman’s cunning. Ahaziah had a half-sister on the father’s side, the princess Jehosheba, or Jehoshabeath, who was then or afterwards (we are told) married to Jehoiada, the high priest. The secrets of harems are hidden deep, and Athaliah may have been purposely kept in ignorance of the birth to Ahaziah of a little babe whose mother was Zibiah of Beersheba, and who had received the name of Joash. If she knew of his existence, some ruse must have been palmed off upon her, and she must have been led to believe that he too had been killed. But he had not been killed. Jehosheba "stole him from among the king’s sons that were slain," and, with the connivance of his nurse, hid him from the murderers sent by Athaliah in the palace storeroom in which beds and couches were kept. Thence, at the first favorable moment, she transferred the child and nurse to one of the chambers in the three stories of chambers which ran round the Temple, and were variously used as wardrobes or as dwelling-rooms.

The hiding-place was safe; for under Athaliah the Temple of Jehovah fell into neglect and disrepute, and its resident ministers would not be numerous. It would not have been difficult, in the seclusion of Eastern life, for Jehosheba to pass off the babe as her own child to all but the handful who knew the secret.

Six years passed away, and the iron hand of Athaliah still kept the people in subjection. She had boldly set up in Judah her mother’s Baal worship. Baal had his temple not far from that of Jehovah; and though Athaliah did not imitate Jezebel in persecuting the worshippers of Jehovah, she made her own high priest, Mattan, a much more important person than Jehoiada for all who desired to propitiate the favors of the Court.

Joash had now reached his seventh year, and a Jewish prince in his seventh year is regarded as something more than a mere child. Jehoiada thought that it was time to strike a blow in his favor, and to deliver him from the dreadful confinement which made it impossible for him to leave the Temple precincts.

He began secretly to tamper with the guards both of the Temple and of the palace. Upon the Levitic guards, indignant at the intrusion of Baal-worship, he might securely count, and the Carites and queen’s runners were not likely to be very much devoted to the rule of the manlike and idolatrous alien queen. Taking an oath of them in secrecy, he bound them to allegiance to the little boy whom he produced from the Temple chamber as their lawful lord, and the son of their late king.

The plot was well laid. There were five captains of the five hundred royal bodyguards, and the priest secretly enlisted them all in the service. The Chronicler says that he also sent round to all the chief Levites, and collected them in Jerusalem for the emergency. The arrangements of the Sabbath gave special facility to his plans; for on that day only one of the five divisions of guards mounted watch at the palace, and the others were set free for the service of the Temple. It had evidently been announced that some great ceremony would be held in the shrine of Jehovah; for all the people, we are told, were assembled in the courts of the house of the Lord. Jehoiada ordered one of the companies to guard the palace; another to be at the "gate Sur," or the gate "of the Foundation"; another at the gate behind the barracks (?) of the palace-runners, to be a barrier against any incursion from the palace. Two more were to ensure the safety of the little king by watching the precincts of the Temple. The Levitic officers were to protect the king’s person with serried ranks. Jehoiada armed them with spears and shields, which David had placed as trophies in the porch; and if any one tried to force his way within their lines he was to be slain.

The only danger to be apprehended was from any Carite mercenaries, or palace servants of the queen: among all others Jehoiada found a widespread defection. The people, the Levites, even the soldiers, all hated the Baal worshipping usurper.

At the fateful moment the guards were arranged in two dense lines, beginning from either side of the porch, till their ranks met beyond the altar, so as to form a hedge round the royal boy. Into this triangular space the young prince was led by the high priest, and placed beside the matstsebah-some prominent pillar in the Temple court, either one of Solomon’s pillars Jachin and Boaz, or some special erection of later days. Round him stood the princes of Judah, and there, in the midst of them, Jehoiada placed the crown upon his head, and in significant symbol also laid lightly upon it for a moment "The Testimony"-perhaps the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant-the most ancient fragment of the Pentateuch which was treasured up with the pot of manna inside or in front of the Ark. Then he poured on the child’s head the consecrated oil, and said, "Let the king live!"

The completion of the ceremony was marked by the blare of the rams’ horns, the softer blast of the silver trumpets, and the answering shouts of the soldiers and the people. The tumult, or the news of it, reached the ears of Athaliah in the neighboring palace, and, with all the undaunted courage of her mother, she instantly summoned her escort, and went into the Temple to see for herself what was taking place. She probably mounted the ascent which Solomon had made from the palace to the Temple court, though it had long been robbed of its precious metals and scented woods. She led the way, and thought to overawe by her personal ascendency any irregularity which might be going on; for in the deathful hush to which she had reduced her subjects she does not seem to have dreamt of rebellion. No sooner had she entered than the guards closed behind her, excluding and menacing her escort.

A glance was sufficient to reveal to her the significance of the whole scene. There, in royal robes, and crowned with the royal crown, stood her little unknown grandson beside the matstsebah, while round him were the leaders of the people and the trumpeters, and the multitudes were still rolling their tumult of acclamation from the court below. In that sight she read her doom. Rending her clothes, she turned to fly, shrieking, "Treason! treason!" Then the commands of the priest rang out: "Keep her between the ranks, till you have got her outside the area of the Temple; and if any of her guards follow or try to rescue her, kill him with the sword. But let not the sacred courts be polluted with her blood." So they made way for her, and as she could not escape she passed between the rows of Levites and soldiers till she had reached the private chariot-road by which the kings drove to the precincts. There the sword of vengeance fell. Athaliah disappears from history, and with her the dark race of Jezebel. But her story lives in the music of Handel and the verse of Racine.

This is the only recorded revolution in the history of Judah. In two later cases a king of Judah was murdered, but in both instances "the people of the land" restored the Davidic heir. Life in Judah was less dramatic and exciting than in Israel, but far more stable; and this, together with comparative immunity from foreign invasions, constituted an immense advantage.

Jehoiada, of course, became regent for the young king, and continued to be his guide for many years, so that even the king’s two wives were selected by his advice. As the nation had been distracted with idolatries, he made the covenant between the king and the people that they should be loyal to each other, and between Jehoiada and the king and the people that they should be Jehovah’s people. Such covenants were not infrequent in Jewish history. Such a covenant had been made by Asa {2 Chronicles 15:9-15} after Abijam’s apostasy, as it was afterwards made by Hezekiah {; 2 Chronicles 29:10} and by Josiah. {2 Chronicles 29:31} The new covenant, and the sense of awakenment from the dream of guilty apostasy, evoked an outburst of spontaneous enthusiasm in the hearts of the populace. Of their own impulse they rushed to the temple of Baal which Athaliah had reared, dismantled it, and smashed to pieces his altars and images. The riot was only stained by a single murder. They slew Mattan, Athaliah’s Baal priest, before the altars of his god.

With Jehoiada begins the title of "high priest." Hitherto no higher name than "the priest" had been given even to Aaron, or Eli, or Zadok; but thenceforth the title of "chief priest" is given to his successors, among whom he inaugurated a new epoch.

It was now Jehoiada’s object to restore such splendor and solemnity as he could to the neglected worship of the Temple, which had suffered in every way from Baal’s encroachments. He did this before the king’s second solemn inauguration. Even the porters had been done away with, so that the Temple could at any time be polluted by the presence of the unclean, and the whole service of priests and Levites had fallen into desuetude.

Then he took the captains, and the Carians, and the princes, and conducted the boy-king, amid throngs of his shouting and rejoicing people, from the Temple to his own palace. There he seated him on the lion-throne of Solomon his father, in the great hall of justice, and the city was quiet and the land had rest. According to the historian, "Joash did right all his days, because Jehoiada the priest instructed him." The stock addition that "howbeit the bamoth were not removed, and the people still sacrificed and offered incense there," is no derogation from the merits of Joash, and perhaps not even of Jehoiada, since if the law against the bamoth then existed, it had become absolutely unknown, and these local sanctuaries were held to be conducive to true religion.

It was natural that the child of the Temple should have at heart the interests of the Temple in which he had spent his early days, and to the shelter of which he owed his life and throne. The sacred house had been insulted and plundered by persons whom the Chronicler calls "the sons of Athaliah, that wicked woman," {2 Chronicles 24:7} meaning, probably, her adherents. Not only had its treasures been robbed to enrich the house of Baal, but it had been suffered to fall into complete disrepair. Breaches gaped in the outer walls, and the very foundations were insecure. The necessity for restoring it occurred, not, as we should have expected, to the priests who lived at its altar, but to the boy-king. He issued an order to the priests that they should take charge of all the money presented to the Temple for the hallowed things, all the money paid in current coin, and all the assessments for various fines and vows, together with every freewill contribution. They were to have this revenue entirely at their disposal, and to make themselves responsible for the necessary repairs. According to the Chronicler, they were further to raise a subscription throughout the country from all their personal friends.

The king’s command had been urgent. Money had at first come in, but nothing was done. Joash had reached the twenty-third year of his reign, and was thirty years old; but the Temple remained in its old sordid condition. The matter is passed over by the king as lightly, courteously, and considerately as he could; but if he does not charge the priests with downright embezzlement, he does reproach them for most reprehensible neglect. They were the appointed guardians of the house: why did they suffer its dilapidations to remain untouched year after year, while they continued to receive the golden stream which poured-but now, owing to the disgust of the people, in diminished volume-into their coffers? "Take no more money, therefore," he said, "from your acquaintances, but deliver it for the breaches of the house." For what they had already received he does not call them to account, but henceforth takes the whole matter into his own hands. The neglectful priests were to receive no more contributions, and not to be responsible for the repairs. Joash, however, ordered Jehoiada to take a chest and put it beside the altar on the right. All contributions were to be dropped into this chest. When it was full, it was carried by the Levites unopened into the palace, {2 Chronicles 24:11} and there the king’s chancellor and the high priest had the ingots weighed and the money counted; its value was added up, and it was handed over immediately to the architects, who paid it to the carpenters and masons. The priests were left in possession of the money for the guilt-offerings, and for the sin-offerings, but with the rest of the funds they had nothing to do. In this way was restored the confidence which the management of the hierarchy had evidently forfeited, and with renewed confidence in the administration fresh gifts poured in. Even in the cautious narrative of the Chronicler it is clear that the priests hardly came out of these transactions with flying colors. If their honesty is not formally impugned, at least their torpor is obvious, as is the fact that they had wholly failed to inspire the zeal of the people till the young king took the affair into his own hands.

The long reign of Joash ended in eclipse and murder. If the later tradition be correct, it was also darkened with atrocious ingratitude and crime.

For, according to the Chronicler, Jehoiada died at the advanced age of one hundred and thirty, and was buried, as an unwonted honor, in the sepulchers of the kings. When he was dead, the princes of Judah came to Joash, who had now been king for many years, and with a strange suddenness tempted the zealous repairer of the Temple of Jehovah into idolatrous apostasy. With soft speech they seduced him into the worship of Asherim. It was marvelous indeed if the child of the Temple became its foe, and he who had made a covenant with Jehovah fell away to Baalim. But worse followed. Prophets reproved him, and he paid them no heed, in spite of "the greatness of the burdens"-i.e., the multitude of the menaces-laid upon him. {2 Chronicles 24:27} The stern, denunciative harangues were despised. At last Zechariah, the son of his benefactor Jehoiada, rebuked king and people. He cried aloud from some eminence in the court of the Temple, that "since they had transgressed the commandments of Jehovah they could not prosper: they had forsaken Him, and He would forsake them." Infuriated by this prophecy of woe, the guilty people, at the command of their guiltier king, stoned him to death. As he lay dying, he exclaimed, "The Lord look upon it, and require it!"

The entire silence of the elder and better authority might lead us to hope that there may be room for doubt as to the accuracy of the much later tradition. Yet there certainly was a persistent belief that Zechariah had been thus martyred. A wild legend, related, in the Talmud, tells us that when Nebuzaradan conquered Jerusalem and entered the Temple he saw blood bubbling up from the floor of the court, and slaughtered ninety-four myriads, so that the blood flowed till it touched the blood of Zechariah, that it might be fulfilled which is said, {Hosea 4:2} "Blood toucheth blood." When he saw the blood of Zechariah, and noticed that it was boiling and agitated, he asked, "What is this?" and was told that it was the spilled blood of the sacrifices. Finding this to be false, he threatened to comb the flesh of the priests with iron currycombs if they did not tell the truth. Then they confessed that it was the blood of the murdered Zechariah. "Well," he said, "I will pacify him." First he slaughtered the greater and lesser Sanhedrin: but the blood did not rest. Then he sacrificed young men and maidens: but the blood still bubbled: At last he cried, "Zechariah, Zechariah, must I then slay them all?" Then the blood was still, and Nebuzaradan, thinking how much blood he had shed, fled, repented, and became a Jewish proselyte!

Perhaps the worst feature of the story against Joash might have been susceptible of a less shocking coloring. He had naturally all his life been under the influence of priestly domination. The ascendency which Jehoiada had acquired as priest-regent had been maintained till long after the young king had arrived at full manhood. At last, however, he had come into collision with the priestly body. He was in the right; they were transparently in the wrong. The Chronicler, and even the older historians, soften the story against the priests as much as they can; but in both their narratives it is plain that Jehoiada and the whole hierarchy had been more careful of their own interests than of those of the Temple, of which they were the appointed guardians. Even if they can be acquitted of potential malfeasance, they had been guilty of reprehensible carelessness. It is clear that in this matter they did not command the confidence of the people; for so long as they had the management of affairs the sources of munificence were either dried up or only flowed in scanty streams, whereas they were poured forth with glad abundance when the administration of the funds was placed mainly in the hands of laymen under the king’s chancellor. It is probable that when Jehoiada was dead Joash thought it right to assert his royal authority in greater independence of the priestly party; and that party was headed by Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada. The Chronicler says that he prophesied: that, however, would not necessarily constitute him a prophet, any more than it constituted Caiaphas. If he was a prophet, and was yet at the head of the priests, he furnishes an all but solitary instance of such a position. The position of a prophet, occupied in the great work of moral reformation, was so essentially antithetic to that of priests, absorbed in ritual ceremonies, that there is no body of men in Scripture of whom, as a whole, we have a more pitiful record than of the Jewish priests. From Aaron, who made the golden calf, to Urijah, who sanctioned the idolatrous altar of Ahaz, and so down to Annas and Caiaphas, who crucified the Lord of glory, they rendered few signal services to true religion. They opposed Uzziah when he invaded their functions, but they acquiesced in all the idolatries and abominations of Rehoboam, Abijah, Ahaziah, Ahaz, and many other kings, without a syllable of recorded protest. When a prophet did spring from their ranks, they set their faces with one consent, and were confederate against him. They mocked and ridiculed Isaiah. When Jeremiah rose among them, the priest Pashur smote him on the cheek, and the whole body persecuted him to death, leaving him to be protected only by the pity of eunuchs and courtiers. Ezekiel was the priestliest of the prophets, and yet he was forced to denounce the apostasies which they permitted in the very temple. The pages of the prophets ring with denunciations of their priestly contemporaries. {Isaiah 24:2; Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 23:11; Ezekiel 7:26; Ezekiel 22:26; Hosea 4:9; Micah 3:11, etc.}

We do not know enough of Zechariah to say much about his character; but priests in every age have shown themselves the most unscrupulous and the most implacable of enemies. Joash probably stood to him in the same relation that Henry II stood to Thomas a Becket. The priest’s murder may have been due to an outburst of passion on the part of the king’s friends, or of the king himself-gentle as his character seems to have been-without being the act of black ingratitude which late traditions represented it to be. The legend about Zechariah’s blood represents the priest’s spirit as so ruthlessly unforgiving as to awaken the astonishment and even the rebukes of the Babylonian idolater. Such a legend could hardly have arisen in the case of a man who was other than a most formidable opponent. The murder of Joash may have been, in its turn, a final outcome of the revenge of the priestly party. The details of the story must be left to inference and conjecture, especially as they are not even mentioned in the earlier and more impartial annalists.

It is at least singular that while Joash, the king, is blamed for continuing the worship at the bamoth, Jehoiada, the high priest, is not blamed, though they continued throughout his long and powerful regency. Further, we have an instance of the priest-regent’s autocracy which can hardly be regarded as redounding to his credit. It is preserved in an accidental allusion on the page of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 29:26 we read his reproof and doom of the lying prophecy of the priest Shemaiah the Nehelamite, because as a priest he had sent a letter to the chief priest Zephaniah and all the priests, urging them as the successors of Jehoiada to follow the ruling of Jehoiada, which was to put Jeremiah in a collar. For Jehoiada, he said, "had ordered the priests, as officers [pakidim] in the house of Jehovah, to put in the stocks every one that is mad and maketh himself a prophet. {; Jeremiah 29:24-32} If, then, the Jehoiada referred to is the priest-regent, as seems undoubtedly to be the case, we see that he hated all interference of Jehovah’s prophets with his rule. That the prophets were usually regarded by the world and by priests as "mad," we see from the fact that the title is given by Jehu’s captains to Elisha’s emissary; {2 Kings 9:11} and that this continued to be the case we see from the fact that the priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem said of John the Baptist that he had a devil, and of Christ that He was a Samaritan, and that He, too, had a devil. If Joash was in opposition to the priestly party, he was in the same position as all God’s greatest saints and reformers have ever been from the days of Moses to the days of John Wesley. The dominance of priestcraft is the invariable and inevitable death of true, as apart from functional, religion. Priests are always apt to concentrate their attention upon their temples, altars, religious practices and rites-in a word, upon the externals of religion. If they gain a complete ascendency over their fellow-believers, the faithful become their absolute slaves, religion degenerates into formalism, "and the life of the soul is choked by the observance of the ceremonial law." It was a misfortune for the Chosen People that, except among the prophets and the wise men, the external worship was thought much more of than the moral law. "To the ordinary man," says Wellhausen, "it was not moral but liturgical acts which seemed to be religious." This accounts for the monotonous iteration of judgments on the character of kings, based primarily, not upon their essential character, but on their relation to the bamoth and the calves. Although the historian of the Kings gives no hint of this dark story of Zechariah’s murder, or of the apostasy of Joash, and indeed narrates no other event of the long reign of forty years, he tells us of the deplorable close. Hazael’s ambition had been fatal to Israel; and now, in the cessation of Assyrian inroads upon Aram, he extended his arms towards Judah. He went up against Gath and took it, and cherished designs against Jerusalem. Apparently he did not head the expedition in person, and the historian implies that Joash bought off the attack of his "general." But the Chronicler makes things far worse. He says that the Syrian host marched to Jerusalem, destroyed all the princes of the people, plundered the city, and sent the spoil to Hazael, who was at Damascus. Judah, he says, had assembled a vast army to resist the small force of the Syrian raid; but Joash was ignominiously defeated, and was driven to pay blackmail to the invader. As to this defeat in battle the historian is silent; but he mentions what the Chronicler omits-namely, that the only way in which Joash could raise the requisite bribe was by once more stripping the Temple and the palace, and sending to Damascus all the treasures which his three predecessors had consecrated, -though we are surprised to learn that after so many strippings and plunderings any of them could still be left. The anguish and mortification of mind caused by these disasters, and perhaps the wounds he had received in the defeat of his army, threw Joash into "great diseases." But he was not suffered to die of these. His servants-perhaps, if that story be authentic, to avenge the slain son of Jehoiada, but doubtless also in disgust at the national humiliation-rose in conspiracy against him, and smote him at Beth-Millo, where he was lying sick. The Septuagint, in 2 Chronicles 24:27, adds the dark fact that all his sons joined in the conspiracy. This cannot be true of Amaziah, who put the murderer to death. Such, however, was the deplorable end of the king who had stood by the Temple pillar in his fair childhood, amid the shouts and trumpet-blasts of a rejoicing people. At that time all things seemed full of promise and of hope. Who could have anticipated that the boy whose head had been touched with the sacred oil and over-shadowed with the Testimony-the young king who had made a covenant with Jehovah, and had initiated the task of restoring the ruined Temple to its pristine beauty-would end his reign in earthquake and eclipse? If indeed he had been guilty of the black ingratitude and murderous apostasy which tradition laid to his charge, we see in his end the nemesis of his ill-doing; yet we cannot but pity one who, after so long a reign, perished amid the spoliation of his people, and was not even allowed to end his days by the sore sickness into which he had fallen, but was hurried into the next world by the assassin’s knife.

It is impossible not to hope that his deeds were less black than the Chronicler painted. He had made the priests feel his power and resentment, and their Levitic recorder was not likely to take a lenient view of his offences. He says that though Joash was buried in the City of David, he was not buried in the sepulchers of his fathers. The historian of the Kings, however, expressly says that "they buried him with his fathers in the City of David," and he was peaceably succeeded by Amaziah his son.

There is a curious, though it may be an accidental, circumstance about the name of the two conspirators who slew him. They are called "Jozacar, the son of Shimeath, and Jehozabad, the son of Shomer, his servants." The names mean "Jehovah remembers," the son of "Hearer," and "Jehovah awards," the son of "Watcher"; and this strangely recalls the last words attributed in the Book of Chronicles to the martyred Zechariah. "Jehovah look upon it, and require it!" The Chronicler turns the names into "Zabad, the son of Shimeath, an Ammonitess, and Jehozabad, the son of Shimrith, a Moabitess." Does he record this to account for their murderous deed by the blood of hated nations which ran in their veins?

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 12". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-kings-12.html.
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