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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Kings 14

 

 


Verses 1-22

AMAZIAH OF JUDAH

B.C. 796-783 (?)

2 Kings 14:1-22

"All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Matthew 26:52

THE fate of Amaziah ("Jehovah is strong"), son of Joash of Judah, resembles in some respects that of his father. Both began to reign prosperously: the happiness of both ended in disaster. Amaziah at his accession was twenty-five years old. He was the son of a lady of Jerusalem named Jehoaddin. He reigned twenty-nine years, of which the later ones were passed in misery, peril, and degradation, and, like the unhappy Joash, and at about the same age, he fell the victim of domestic conspiracy.

The hereditary principle was too strongly established to enable the murderers of Joash to set it aside, but Amaziah was not at first strong enough to make any head against them. In time he became established in his kingdom, and then his earliest act was to bring the head conspirators, Jozacar and Jehozabad, to justice. It was noted as a most remarkable circumstance that he did not put to death their children, and extirpate their houses. In acting thus, if he were influenced by a spirit of mercy, he showed himself before his time; but such mercy was completely contrary to the universal custom, and was also regarded as most impolitic. Even the comparatively merciful Greeks had the proverb, "Fool, who has murdered the sire, and left his sons to avenge him!"

In epochs of the wild justice of revenge, when blood-feuds are an established and approved institution, the policy of letting vengeance only fall on the actual offender was regarded as fatal. Perhaps Amaziah felt it beyond his power to do more than bring the actual murderers to justice, and it is possible that their children may have been among the conspirators who, in his hour of shame, ultimately destroyed him.

The historian, it is true, attributes his conduct to magnanimity, or rather to his obedience to the law, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children for the fathers; but every man shall die for his own sin." This is a reference to Deuteronomy 24:16, and is probably the independent comment of the writer who recorded the event two centuries later. In the gradual growth of a milder civilization, and the more common dominance of legal justice, such a law may have come into force, as expressive of that voice of conscience which is to sincere nations the voice of God. That the Book of Deuteronomy, as a book, was not in existence in its present form till four reigns later we shall hereafter see strong reasons to believe. But even if any part of that book was in existence, it is not easy to understand how Amaziah would have been able to decide that the law which forbade the punishment of the children with the offending parents was the law which he was bound to follow, when Moses and Joshua and other heroes of his race had acted on the olden principle. The innocent families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were represented as having been swallowed up with the ambitious heads of their houses. Joshua and all Israel had not only stoned Achan, but with him all his unoffending house. What, too, was the meaning of the law which established the five Cities of Refuge as the best way to protect the accidental homicide from the recognized and unrebuked actions of the God- the avenger of blood? The vengeance of a Goel was regarded, as it is in the East and South to this day, not as an implacable fierceness, but as a sacred duty, the neglect of which would cover him with infamy. Judging of our documents by the impartial light of honest criticism, it seems impossible to deny that the law of Deuteronomy was the law of an advancing civilization, which became more mild as justice became firmer and more available. If Deuteronomy represents the legislation of Moses, we can only say that in this respect Amaziah was the first person who paid the slightest attention to it. Such exceptional obedience may well excite the notice of the historian, in whose pages we see that prophets like Ahijah, Elijah, and Elisha had, again and again, in accordance with the spirit of their times, contemplated the total excision, not only of erring kings, but even of their little children and their most distant kinsfolk.

Further:-We are told that Amaziah "did that which was right in the sight of Jehovah: he did according to all things as Joash his father did." The Chronicler also bestows his eulogy on Amaziah; but having told such dark stories of the apostasy of Joash to Asherah-worship and his murder of the prophets, he could hardly add "as Joash his father did"; so he omits those words. The reservation that Amaziah did right, "yet not like David his father," {2 Kings 14:3} "but not with a perfect heart," {2 Chronicles 25:2} is followed by the stock abatement about the bamoth, and the sacrifices and incense burnt in them. This was a crime in the eyes of writers in B.C. 540, but certainly not in the eyes of any king before the discovery of the "Book of the Law" in the reign of Josiah, B.C. 621. We are compelled, therefore, by simple truth, to ask, How came it that Amaziah should be so scrupulous as to observe the Deuteronomic law by not slaying the sons of his father’s murderers, while he does not seem to be aware, any more than the best of his predecessors, that while he obeyed one precept he was violating the essence and spirit of the entire code in which the precept occurs? The one main object, the constantly repeated law of, Deuteronomy, is the centralization of all worship, and the rigid prohibition of every local place of sacrifice. Strange that Amaziah should have selected for attention a single precept, while he is profoundly unconscious of, or indifferent to, the fact that he is setting aside the regulation with which the law, as Deuteronomy represents it, begins and ends, and on which it incessantly insists!

Joash had been something of a weakling, as though the gloom of his early concealment in the Temple and the shadow of priestly dominance had paralyzed his independence. Amaziah, on the other hand, born in the purple, was vigorous and restless. When he was secure upon the throne, and had done his duty to his father’s memory, he bent his efforts to recover Edom. The Edomites had revolted in the days of his great-grandfather Jehoram, {2 Kings 8:20-22} and since then "did tear perpetually," {Amos 1:11} harassing with incessant raids the miserable fellahin of Southern Judah. They reaped the crops of the settled inhabitants, cut down their fruit-trees, burnt their farmsteads, and carried their children into cruel and hopeless slavery. One verse tells us all that the historian knew, or cared to relate, of Amaziah’s campaign. He only says that it was eminently successful: Amaziah confronted the Edomites in the Valley of Salt, on the border of Edom, to the south of the Dead Sea, and inflicted upon them a signal defeat. He not only slaughtered ten thousand of them, but, advancing southwards, he stormed and captured Selah or Petra, their rocky capital, two days’ journey north of Ezion-Geber, on the gulf of Akabah. Considering the natural strength of Petra, amid its mountain-fastnesses, this was a victory of which he might well be proud, and be marked his prowess by changing the name of the city to Joktheel, "subdued by God." The historian, copying the ancient record before him, says that Selah continued to be so-called "to this day." This is a curious instance of close transcription, for it is certain that Selah can only have retained the name of Joktheel for a very short period, and had lost it long before ‘the days of the Exile. Even in the reign of Ahaz (B.C. 735-715) the Edomites had so completely recovered lost ground that they were able to make predatory excursions into Judah, and to threaten Hebron, which would have been obviciously impossible if they were not masters of their own chief capital. The district which Amaziah seems to have conquered was mainly west of the Arabah. He wished to restore Elath, and perhaps to carry out the old commerce with the Red Sea which Solomon began, and which had fired the ambition of Jehoshaphat. The conquest of Selah secured the road for his commercial caravans.

So far the older and better authorities. The Chronicler expands the story in his usual fashion, in which historical and critical verity is so often compelled, if not to suspect the disease of exaggeration and the bias of Levitism, at least to feel uncertainty as to the details. He says that Amaziah collected an army of three hundred thousand men of Judah, trained them to a high state of discipline, and armed them with spear and shield. He hired in addition one hundred thousand Israelitish mercenaries, mighty men of valor, at the heavy cost of one hundred talents of silver. He was rebuked by a prophet for employing Israelites, "because the Lord was not with them," so that if he used their aid he would certainly be defeated. Amaziah asked what he was to do for the hundred talents, and the prophet told him that Jehovah could give him much more than this. {2 Chronicles 25:5-10; 2 Chronicles 25:13} So he dismissed his Ephraimites, who, returning home in great fury, "fell upon the cities of Judah," from Samaria even unto Beth-horon, killed three thousand of their inhabitants, and took much spoil. Amaziah, however, defeated the Edomites without their aid, and not only slew ten thousand, but took captive ten thousand more, all of whom he dashed to pieces by hurling them from the top of the rock of Petra.

Then, by an apostasy much more astounding than even that of his father Joash, he took home with him the idols of Mount Seir, worshipped them, and burnt incense before them. Jehovah sends a prophet to rebuke him for his senseless infatuation in worshipping the gods of the Edomites whom he had just so utterly defeated; but Amaziah returns him the insolent answer, "Who made thee of the king’s council? Be silent, or I will put thee to death." The prophet met his ironical sneer with words of deeper meaning: "If I am not on your council, I am on God’s. Because thou hast not hearkened to my counsel, I know that God has counseled to destroy thee."

The later writer thus accounts for the folly and overthrow of this valorous and hitherto eminently pious king. Certain it is, as we shall narrate in the next chapter, that, in spite of warning, he had the temerity to challenge to battle the warlike Joash ben-Jehoahaz of Israel, grandson of Jehu. The kings met at Beth-Shemesh, and Amaziah was utterly routed, with consequences so shameful to himself and to Jerusalem that he was never able to hold up his head again. He could but eat away his own heart in despair, a ruined man. After this he "lived" rather than reigned fifteen years longer. The wall of Jerusalem, broken down near the Damascus Gate, on the side towards Israel, for a space of four hundred cubits, was a standing witness of the king’s infatuated folly. His people were ashamed of him, and weary of him; and at last, seeing that nothing more could be expected of one whose spirit had evidently been broken from impetuosity into abjectness, they formed a conspiracy against him. To save his life he fled to the strong fort of Lachish, a royal Canaanite city, in the hills to the southwest of Judah. {Joshua 10:6; Joshua 10:31; Joshua 15:39 2 Kings 18:17 2 Chronicles 11:9} But they pursued him thither, and even Lachish would not protect him; He was murdered. They threw the corpse upon a chariot, conveyed it to Jerusalem, and buried it in the sepulchers of his fathers. The people quietly elevated to the throne his son Azariah, then sixteen years old, who had been born the year before his father’s crowning disgrace. What became of the conspirators we do not know. They were probably too strong to be brought to justice, and we are not told that Azariah even attempted to visit their crime upon their heads.


Verses 8-16

THE DYNASTY OF JEHU

Jehoahaz

814-797

{2 Kings 13:1-9}

Joash

797-781

{2 Kings 13:10-21; 2 Kings 14:8-16}

Jeroboam II

781-740

{2 Kings 14:23-29}

Zechariah

740

{2 Kings 15:8-12}

"Them that honor Me I will honor, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed."

- 1 Samuel 2:30

ISRAEL had scarcely ever sunk to so low a nadir of degradation as she did in the reign of the son of Jehu. We have already mentioned that some assign to his reign the ghastly story which we have narrated in our sketch of the work of Elisha. It is told in the sixth chapter of the Second Book of Kings, and seems to belong to the reign of Jehoram ben-Ahab; but it may have got displaced from this epoch of yet deeper wretchedness. The accounts of Jehoahaz in 2 Kings 13:1-25 are evidently fragmentary and abrupt.

Jehoahaz reigned seventeen years. Naturally, he did not disturb the calf-worship, which, like all his predecessors and successors, he regarded as a perfectly innocent symbolic adoration of Jehovah, whose name he bore and whose service he professed. Why should he do so? It had been established now for more than two centuries. His father, in spite of his passionate and ruthless zeal for Jehovah, had never attempted to disturb it. No prophet-not even Elijah nor Elisha, the practical establishers of his dynasty-had said one word to condemn it. It in no way rested on his conscience as an offence; and the formal condemnation of it by the historian only reflects the more enlightened judgment of the Southern Kingdom and of a later age. But according to the parenthesis which breaks the thread of this king’s story, {2 Kings 13:5-6} he was guilty of a far more culpable defection from orthodox worship; for in his reign, the Asherah-the tree or pillar of the Tyrian nature-goddess-still remained in Samaria, and therefore must have had its worshippers. How it came there we cannot tell. Jezebel had set it up, {1 Kings 16:33} with the connivance of Ahab. Jehu apparently had "put it away" with the great stele of Baal, {2 Kings 3:2} but, for some reason or other, he had not destroyed it. It now apparently occupied some public place, a symbol of decadence, and provocative of the wrath of Heaven.

Jehoahaz sank very low. Hazael’s savage sword, not content with the devastation of Bashan and Gilead, wasted the west of Israel also in all its borders. The king became a mere vassal of his brutal neighbor at Damascus. So little of the barest semblance of power was left him, that whereas, in the reign of David, Israel could muster an army of eight hundred thousand, and in the reign of Joash, the son and successor of Jehoahaz, Amaziah could hire from Israel one hundred thousand mighty men of valor as mercenaries, Jehoahaz was only allowed to maintain an army of ten chariots, fifty horsemen, and ten thousand infantry! In the picturesque phrase of the historian, "the King of Syria had threshed down Israel to the dust," in spite of all that Jehoahaz did, or tried to do, and "all his might." How completely helpless the Israelites were is shown by the fact that their armies could offer no opposition to the free passage of the Syrian troops through their land. Hazael did not regard them as threatening his rear; for, in the reign of Jehoahaz, he marched southwards, took the Philistine city of Gath, and threatened Jerusalem. Joash of Judah could only buy them off with the bribe of all his treasures, and according to the Chronicler they "destroyed all the princes of the people," and took great spoil to Damascus. {2 Chronicles 24:23}

Where was Elisha? After the anointing of Jehu he vanishes from the scene. Unless the narrative of the siege of Samaria has been displaced, we do not so much as once hear of him for nearly half a century.

The fearful depth of humiliation to which the king was reduced drove him to repentance. Wearied to death of the Syrian oppression of which he was the daily witness, and of the utter misery caused by prowling bands of Ammonites and Moabites-jackals who waited on the Syrian lion-Jehoahaz "besought the Lord, and the Lord hearkened unto him, and gave Israel a savior, so that they went out from under the hand of the Syrians: and the children of Israel dwelt in their tents, as beforetime." If this indeed refers to events which come out of place in the memoirs of Elisha; and if Jehoahaz ben-Jehu, not Jehoram ben-Ahab, was the king in whose reign the siege of Samaria was so marvellously raised, then Elisha may possibly be the temporary deliverer who is here alluded to. On this supposition we may see a sign of the repentance of Jehoahaz in the shirt of sackcloth which he wore under his robes, as it became visible to his starving people when he rent his clothes on hearing the cannibal instincts which had driven mothers to devour their own children. But the respite must have been brief, since Hazael (2 Kings 13:22) oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. If this rearrangement of events be untenable, we must suppose that the repentance of Jehoahaz was only so far accepted, and his prayer so far heard, that the deliverance, which did not come in his own days, came in those of his son and of his grandson.

Of him and of his wretched reign we hear no more; but a very different epoch dawned with the accession of his son Joash, named after the contemporary King of Judah, Joash ben-Ahaziah.

In the Books of Kings and Chronicles Joash of Israel is condemned with the usual refrains about the sins of Jeroboam. No other sin is laid to his charge; and breaking the monotony of reprobation which tells us of every king of Israel without exception that "he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord," Josephus boldly ventures to call him "a good man; and the antithesis to his father."

He reigned sixteen years. At the beginning of his reign he found his country the despised prey, not only of Syria, but of the paltry neighboring bandit-sheykhs who infested the east of the Jordan; he left it comparatively strong, prosperous, and independent.

In his reign we hear again of Elisha, now a very old man of past eighty years. Nearly half a century had elapsed since the grandfather of Joash had destroyed the house of Ahab at the prophet’s command. News came to the king that Elisha was sick of a mortal sickness, and he naturally went to visit the death-bed of one who had called his dynasty to the throne, and had in earlier years played so memorable a part in the history of his country. He found the old man dying, and he wept over him, crying, "My father; my father! the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof." {Comp. 2 Kings 2:12} The address strikes us with some surprise. Elisha had indeed delivered Samaria more than once when the city had been reduced to direst extremity; but in spite of his prayers and of his presence, the sins of Israel and her kings had rendered this chariot of Israel of very small avail. The names of Ahab, Jehu, Jehoahaz, call up memories of a series of miseries and humiliations which had reduced Israel to the very verge of extinction. For sixty-three years Elisha had been the prophet of Israel; and though his public interpositions had been signal on several occasions, they had not been availing to prevent Ahab from becoming the vassal of Assyria, nor Israel from becoming the appendage of the dominion of that Hazael whom Elisha himself had anointed King of Syria, and who had become of all the enemies of his country the most persistent and the most implacable.

The narrative which follows is very singular. We must give it-as it occurs, with but little apprehension of its exact significance.

Elisha, though Joash "did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord," seems to have regarded him with affection. He bade the youth take his bow, and laid his feeble, trembling hands on the strong hands of the king.

Then he ordered an attendant to fling open the lattice, and told the king to shoot eastward towards Gilead, the region whence the bands of Syria made their way over the Jordan. The king shot, and the fire came back into the old prophet’s eye as he heard the arrow whistle eastward. He cried, "The arrow of Jehovah’s deliverance, even the arrow of victory over Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians in Aphek, till thou have consumed them." Then he bade the young king to take the sheaf of arrows, and smite towards the ground, as if he was striking down an enemy. Not understanding the significance of the act, the king made the sign of thrice striking the arrows downwards, and then naturally stopped. But Elisha was angry-or at any rate grieved. "You should have smitten five or six times," he said, "and then you would have smitten Syria to destruction. Now you shall only smite Syria thrice." The king’s fault seems to have been lack of energy and faith.

There are in this story some peculiar elements which it is impossible to explain, but it has one beautiful and striking feature. It tells us of the death - bed of a prophet. Most of God’s greatest prophets have perished amid the hatred of priests and worldlings. The progress of the truth they taught has been "from scaffold to scaffold, and from stake to stake."

"Careless seems the Great Avenger. History’s pages but record

One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word-

Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne;

Yet that scaffold sways the Future, and behind the dim unknown

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own!"

Now and then, however, as an exception, a great prophetic teacher or reformer escapes the hatred of the priests and of the world, and dies in peace. Savonarola is burnt, Huss is burnt, but Wicliff dies in his bed at Lutterworth, and Luther died in peace at Eisleben. Elijah passed away in storm, and was seen no more. A king comes to weep by the death-bed of the aged Elisha. "For us," it has been said, "the scene at his bedside contains a lesson of comfort and even encouragement. Let us try to realize it. A man with no material power is dying in the capital of Israel. He is not rich: he holds no office which gives him any immediate control over the actions of men; he has but one weapon-the power of his word. Yet Israel’s king stands weeping at his bedside-weeping because this inspired messenger of Jehovah is to be taken from him. In him both king and people will lose a mighty support, for this man is a greater strength to Israel than chariots and horsemen are. Joash does well to mourn for him, for he has had courage to wake the nation’s conscience; the might of his personality has sufficed to turn them in the true direction, and rouse their moral and religious life. Such men as Elisha everywhere and always give a strength to their people above the strength of armies, for the true blessings of a nation are reared on the foundations of its moral force."

The annals are here interrupted to introduce a posthumous miracle-unlike any other in the whole Bible-wrought by the bones of Elisha. He died, and they buried him, "giving him," as Josephus says, "a magnificent burial." As usual, the spring brought with it the marauding bands of Moabites. Some Israelites who were burying a man caught sight of them, and, anxious to escape, thrust the man into the sepulcher of Elisha, which happened to be nearest at hand. But when he was placed in the rocky tomb, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. Doubtless the story rests on some real circumstance. There is, however, something singular in the turn of the original, which says (literally) that the man went and touched the bones of Elisha; and there is proof that the story was told in varying forms, for Josephus says that it was the Moabite plunderers who had killed the man, and that he was thrown by them into Elisha’s tomb. It is easy to invent moral and spiritual lessons out of this incident, but not so easy to see what lesson is intended by it. Certainly there is not throughout Scripture any other passage which even seems to sanction any suspicions of magic potency in the relics of the dead.

But Elisha’s symbolic prophecy of deliverance from Syria was amply fulfilled. About this time Hazael had died, and had left his power in the feebler hands of his son Benhadad III. Jehoahaz had not been able to make any way against him, {2 Kings 13:3} but Joash his son thrice met and thrice defeated him at Aphek. As a consequence of these victories, he won back all the cities which Hazael had taken from his father on the west of Jordan. The east of Jordan was never recovered. It fell under the shadow of Assyria, and was practically lost forever to the tribes of Israel.

Whether Assyria lent her help to Joash under certain conditions we do not know. Certain it is that from this time the terror of Syria vanishes. The Assyrian king Rammanirari III about this time subjugated all Syria and its king, whom the tablets call Mari, perhaps the same as Benhadad III. In the next reign Damascus itself fell into the power of Jeroboam II, the son of Joash.

One more event, to which we have already alluded, is narrated in the reign of this prosperous and valiant king.

Amity had reigned for a century between Judah and Israel, the result of the politic-impolitic alliance which Jehoshaphat had sanctioned between his son Jehoram and the daughter of Jezebel. It was obviously most desirable that the two small kingdoms should be united as closely as possible by an offensive and defensive alliance. But the bond between them was broken by the overweening vanity of Amaziah ben-Joash of Judah. His victory over the Edomites, and his conquest of Petra, had puffed him up with the mistaken notion that he was a very great man and an invincible warrior. He had the wicked infatuation to kindle an unprovoked war against the Northern Tribes. It was the most wanton of the many instances in which, if Ephraim did not envy Judah, at least Judah vexed Ephraim. Amaziah challenged Joash to come out to battle, that they might look one another in the face. He had not recognized the difference between fighting with and without the sanction of the God of battles.

Joash had on his hands enough of necessary and internecine war to make him more than indifferent to that bloody game. Moreover, as the superior of Amaziah in every way, he saw through his inflated emptiness. He knew that it was the worst possible policy for Judah and Israel to weaken each other in fratricidal war, while Syria threatened their northern and. eastern frontiers, and while the tread of the mighty march of Assyria was echoing ominously in the ears of the nations from afar. Better and kinder feelings may have mingled with these wise convictions. He had no wish to destroy the poor fool who so vaingloriously provoked his superior might. His answer was one of the most crushingly contemptuous pieces of irony which history records, and yet it was eminently kindly and good-humoured: It was meant to save the King of Judah from advancing any further on the path of certain ruin.

"The thistle that was in Lebanon" (such was the apologue which he addressed to his would-be rival) "sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying: Give thy daughter to my son to wife. The cedar took no sort of notice of the thistle’s ludicrous presumption, but a wild beast that was in Lebanon passed by, and trod down the thistle."

It was the answer of a giant to a dwarf; and to make it quite clear to the humblest comprehension, Joash good-naturedly added:

"You are puffed up with your victory over Edom: glory in this, and stay at home. Why by your vain meddling should you ruin yourself and Judah with you? Keep quiet: I have something else to do than to attend to you."

Happy had it been for Amaziah if he had taken warning! But vanity is a bad counselor, and folly and self-deception-ill-matched pair-were whirling him to his doom. Seeing that he was bent on his own perdition, Joash took the initiative and marched to Beth-Shemesh, in the territory of Judah. There the kings met, and there Amaziah was hopelessly defeated. His troops fled to their scattered homes, and he fell into the hands of his conqueror. Joash did not care to take any sanguinary revenge; but much as he despised his enemy, he thought it necessary to teach him and Judah the permanent lesson of not again meddling to their own hurt.

He took the captive king with him to Jerusalem, which opened its gates without a blow. We do not know whether, like a Roman conqueror, he entered it through the breach of four hundred cubits which he ordered them to make in the walls, but otherwise he contented himself with spoil which would swell his treasure, and amply compensate for the expenses of the expedition which had been forced upon him. He ransacked Jerusalem for silver and gold; he made Obed-Edom, the treasurer, give up to him all the sacred vessels of the Temple, and all that was worth taking from the palace. He also took hostages-probably from among the number of the king’s sons-to secure immunity from further intrusions. It is the first time in Scripture that hostages are mentioned. It is to his credit that he shed no blood, and was even content to leave his defeated challenger with the disgraced phantom of his kingly power, till, fifteen years later, he followed his father to the grave through the red path of murder at the hand of his own subjects.

After this we hear no further records of this vigorous and able king, in whom the characteristics of his grandfather Jehu are reflected in softer outline. He left his son Jeroboam II to continue his career of prosperity, and to advance Israel to a pitch of greatness which she had never yet attained, in which she rivaled the grandeur of the united kingdom in the earlier days of Solomon’s dominion.


Verses 23-29

AMOS, HOSEA, AND THE KINGDOM OF ISRAEL

2 Kings 14:23-29;, 2 Kings 15:8-12

"In them is plainest taught and easiest learnt

What makes a nation happy and keeps it so.

What ruins kingdoms and lays cities flat."

- MILTON, "Paradise Regained"

"We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,

Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of Fate:

But the soul is still oracular: amid the market’s din

List the ominous Stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,

‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.’"

- LOWELL

AMOS and Hosea are the two earliest prophets whose "burdens" have come down to us. From them we gain a near insight into the internal condition of Israel in this day of her prosperity.

We see, first, that the prosperity was not unbroken. Though peace reigned, the people were not left to lapse unwarned into sloth and godlessness. The land had suffered from the horrible scourge of locusts, until every carmel-every garden of God on hill and plain-withered before them. There had been widespread conflagrations; {Amos 7:4} there had been a visitation of pestilence; and, finally, there had been an earthquake so violent that it constituted an epoch from which dates were reckoned. There were also two eclipses of the sun, which darkened with fear the minds of the superstitious.

Nor was this the worst. Civilization and commerce had brought luxury in their train, and all the bonds of morality had been relaxed. The country began to be comparatively depleted, and the innocent regularity of agricultural pursuits palled upon the young, who were seduced by the glittering excitement of the growing towns. All zeal for religion was looked on as archaic, and the splendor of formal services was regarded as a sufficient recognition of such gods as there were. As a natural consequence, the nobles and the wealthy classes were more and more infected with a gross materialism, which displayed itself in ostentatious furniture, and sumptuous palaces of precious marbles inlaid with ivory. The desire for such vanities increased the thirst for gold, and avarice replenished its exhausted coffers by grinding the faces of the poor, by defrauding the hireling of his wages, by selling the righteous for silver, the needy for handfuls of barley, and the poor for a pair of shoes. The degrading vice of intoxication acquired fresh vogue, and the gorgeous gluttonies of the rich were further disgraced by the shameful spectacle of drunkards, who lolled for hours over the revelries which were inflamed by voluptuous music. Worst of all, the purity of family life was invaded and broken down. Throwing aside the old veiled seclusion of women in Oriental life, the ladies of Israel showed themselves in the streets in all "the bravery of their tinkling ornaments of gold," and sank into the adulterous courses stimulated by their pampered effrontery.

Such is the picture which we draw from the burning denunciations of the peasant-prophet of Tekoa. He was no prophet nor prophet’s son, but a humble gatherer of sycamore-fruit, a toil which only fell to the humblest of the people. Who is not afraid, he asks, when a lion roars? and how can a prophet be silent when the Lord God has spoken? Indignation had transformed and dilated him from a laborer into a seer, anti had summoned him from the pastoral shades of his native village-whether in Judah or in Israel is uncertain-to denounce the more flagrant iniquities of the Northern capital. First he proclaims the vengeance of Jehovah upon the transgressions of the Philistines, of Tyre, of Edom, of Ammon, of Moab, and even of Judah; and then he turns with a crash upon apostatizing Israel. {Amos 1:1 - Amos 2:5} He speaks with unsparing plainness of their pitiless greed, their shameless debauchery, their exacting usury, their attempts to pervert even the abstinent Nazarites into intemperance, and to silence the prophets by opposition and obloquy. Jehovah was crushed under their violence. {Amos 2:6-13} And did they think to go unscathed after such black ingratitude? Nay! their mightiest should flee away naked in the day of defeat. Robbery was in their houses of ivory, and the few of them who should escape the spoiler should only be as when a shepherd tears out of the mouth of a lion two legs and a piece of an ear. {Amos 3:9-15} As for Bethel, their shrine-which he calls Bethaven, "House of Vanity," not Bethel, "House of God"-the horns of its altars should be cut off. Should oppression and licentiousness flourish? Jehovah would take them with hooks, and their children with fishhooks, and their sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal should be utterly unavailing. Drought, and blasting, and mildew, and wasting plague, and earth-convulsions like those which had swallowed Sodom and Gomorrah, from which they should only be plucked as a "firebrand out of the burning," should warn them that they must prepare to meet their God. {Amos 4:1-13} It was lamentable; but lamentation was vain, unless they would return to Jehovah, Lord of hosts, and abandon the false worship of Bethel, Beersheba, and Gilgal, and listen to the voice of the righteous, whom they now abhorred for his rebukes. They talked hypocritically about "the day of the Lord," but to them it should be blackness. They relied on feast days, and services, and sacrifices; but since they would not give the sacrifice of judgment and righteousness, for which alone God cared, they should be carried into captivity beyond Damascus: yes! even to that terrible Assyria with whose king they now were on friendly terms. They lay at ease on their carved couches at their delicate feasts, draining the wine-bowls, and glistering with fragrant oils, heedless of the impending doom which would smite the great house with breaches and the little house with clefts, and which should bring upon them an avenger who should afflict them from their conquered Hamath southwards even to the wady of the wilderness. {Amos 6:1-14} The threatened judgments of locusts and fire had been mitigated at the prophet’s prayer, but nothing could avert the plumb-line of destruction which Jehovah held over them, and He would rise against the House of Jeroboam with His sword. {Amos 7:1-9} We infer from all that Amos and Hosea say that the calf-worship at Bethel (for Dan is not mentioned in this connection) had degenerated into an idolatry far more abject than it originally was. The familiarity of such multitudes of the people with Baal-worship and Asherah-worship had tended to obliterate the sense that the "calves" were cherubic emblems of Jehovah; and were it not for some confusions of this kind, it is inconceivable that Jehoram ben-Jehu should have restored the Asherah which his father had removed. Be that as it may, Bethel and Gilgal seem to have become centers of corruption. Dan is scarcely once alluded to as a scene of the calf-worship.

Others, then, might be deceived by the surface-glitter of extended empire in the days of Jeroboam II. Not so the true prophets. It has often happened - as to Persia, when, in B.C. 388, she dictated the Peace of Antalcidas, and to Papal Rome in the days of the Jubilee of 1300, and to Philip II of Spain in the year of the Armada, and to Louis XIV in 1667-that a nation has seemed to be at its zenith of pomp and power on the very eve of some tremendous catastrophe. Amos and Hosea saw that such a catastrophe was at hand for Israel, because they knew that Divine punishment inevitably dogs the heels of insolence and crime. The loftiness of Israel’s privilege involved the utterness of her ruin. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities." {Amos 3:2} Such prophecies, so eloquent, so uncompromising, so varied, and so constantly disseminated among the people, first by public harangues, then in writing, could no longer be neglected. Amos, with his natural culture, his rhythmic utterances, and his "inextinguishable fire, was far different from the wild fanatics, with their hairy garments, and sudden movements, and long locks, and cries, and self-inflicted wounds, with whom Israel had been familiar since the days of Elijah, whom they all imitated. So long as this inspired peasant confined himself to moral denunciations the aristocracy and priesthood of Samaria could afford comfortably to despise him. What were moral denunciations to them? What harm was there in ivory palaces and refined feasts? This man was a mere red socialist who tried to undermine the customs of society. The hold of the upper classes on the people, whom their exactions had burdened with hopeless debt, and whom they could with impunity crush into slavery, was too strong to be shaken by the "hysteric gush" of a philanthropic faddist and temperance fanatic like this. But when he had the enormous presumption to mention publicly the name of their victorious king, and to say that Jehovah would rise against him with the sword, it was time for the clergy to interfere, and to send the intruder back to his native obscurity.

So Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, invoked the king’s authority. "Amos," he said to the king, "hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel." The charge was grossly false, but it did well enough to serve the priest’s purpose. "The land is not able to bear all his words."

That was true; for when nations have chosen to abide by their own vicious courses, and refuse to listen to the voice of warning, they are impatient of rebuke. They refuse to hear when God calls to them.

"For when we in our viciousness grow hard,

Oh misery on it! the wise gods seal our eyes;

In our own filth drop our clear judgments; make us

Adore our errors; laugh at us while we strut

To our confusion."

The priest tried further to inflame the king’s anger by telling him two more of Amos’s supposed predictions. He had prophesied (which was a false inference) that Israel should be led away captive out of their own land, and had also prophesied (which was a perversion of the fact) "that Jeroboam should die by the sword."

At the first prophecy Jeroboam probably smiled. It might indeed come true in the long-run. If he was a man of prescience as well as of prowess, he probably foresaw that the elements of ruin lurked in his transient success, and that though, for the present, Assyria was occupied in other directions, it was unlikely that the weaker Israel would escape the fate of the far more powerful Syria. As for the personal prophecy, he was, strong, and was honored, and had his army and his guards. He would take his chance. Nor does it seem to have troubled any one that Amos looked for the ultimate union of Israel with Judah. Since the time of Joash the inheritance of David had been but as "a ruined booth"; {Amos 9:11} but Amos prophesied its restoration. This touch may have been added later, when he wrote and published his "burdens"; but he did not hesitate to speak as if the two kingdoms were really and properly one. {Amos 9:11-15 Comp. Hosea 3:5}

We are not told that Jeroboam II interfered with the prophet in any way. Had he done so, he would have been rebuked and denounced for it. He probably went no further than to allow the priest and the prophet to settle the matter between themselves. Perhaps he gave a contemptuous permission that, if Amaziah thought it worthwhile to send the prophet back into Judah, he might do so.

Armed with this nonchalant mandate, Amaziah, with more mildness and good-humor than might have been expected from one of his class, said to Amos, "O Seer, go home, and eat thy bread, and prophesy to thy heart’s content at home; but do not prophesy any more at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and the king’s court." Amos obeyed perforce, but stopped to say that he had not prophesied out of his own mouth, but by Jehovah’s bidding. He then hurled at the priest a message of doom as frightful as that which Jeremiah pronounced upon Pashur, when that priest smote him on the face. His wife should be a harlot in the city; his sons and daughters should be slain; his inheritance should be divided; he should die in a polluted land; and Israel should go into captivity. And as for his mission, he justified it by the fact that he was not one of a hereditary or a professional community; he was no prophet or prophet’s son. Such men might-like Zedekiah, the son of Chenaanah, and his four hundred abettors-be led into mere function and professionalism, into manufactured enthusiasm and simulated inspiration. From such communities freshness, unconventionality, courage, were hardly to be expected. They would philippize at times; they would get to love their order and their privileges better than their message, and-themselves best of all. It is the tendency of organized bodies to be tempted into conventionality, and to sink into banded unions chiefly concerned in the protection of their own prestige. Not such was Amos. He was a peasant herdsman in whose heart had burned the inspiration of Jehovah and the wrath against moral misdoing till they had burst into flame. It was indignation against iniquity which had called Amos from the flocks and the sycamores to launch against an apostatizing people the menace of doom. In that grief and indignation he heard the voice and received the mandate of the Lord of hosts. He heads the long line of literary prophets whose priceless utterances are preserved in the Old Testament. The inestimable value of their teaching lies most of all in the fact that they were-like Moses-preachers of the moral law; and that, like the Book of the Covenant, which is the most ancient and the most valuable part of the Laws of the Pentateuch, they count external service as no better than the small dust of the balance in comparison with righteousness and true holiness.

The rest of the predictions of Amos were added at a later date. They dwelt on the certainty and the awful details of the coming over throw; the doom of the idolaters of Gilgal and Beersheba; the inevitable swiftness of the catastrophe in which Samaria should be sifted like corn in a sieve in spite of her incorrigible security. {Amos 8:1-14; Amos 9:1-9; Amos 9:10} Yet the ruin should not be absolute. "Thus saith Jehovah: As the shepherd teareth out of the mouth of the lion two legs and the piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be rescued, that sit in Samaria on the corner of a couch, and on the damask of a bed."

The Hebrew Prophets almost invariably weave together the triple strands of warning, exhortation, and hope. Hitherto Amos has not had a word of hope to utter. At last, however, he lets a glimpse of the rainbow irradiate the gloom. The overthrow of Israel should be accompanied by the restoration of the fallen booth of David, and, under the rule of a scion of that house, Israel should return from captivity to enjoy days of peaceful happiness, and to be rooted up no more. {Amos 9:11-15}

Hosea, the son of Beeri, was of a somewhat later date than Amos. He, too, "became electric," to flash into meaner and corrupted minds the conviction that formalism is nothing, and that moral sincerity is all in all. That which God requires is not ritual service, but truth in the inward parts. He is one of the saddest of the prophets; but though he mingles prophecies of mercy with his menaces of wrath, the general tenor of his oracles is the same. He pictures the crimes of Ephraim by the image of domestic unfaithfulness, and bids Judah to take warning from the curse involved in her apostasy. {Hosea 4:15-19} Many of his allusions touch upon the days of that deluge of anarchy which followed the death of Jeroboam II (Hosea 4:1-19 - Hosea 6:3). That he was a Northerner appears from the fact that he speaks of the King of Israel as "our king" (Hosea 7:5). Yet he seems to blame the revolt of Jeroboam I (Hosea 1:2, Hosea 8:4), although a prophet had originated it, and he openly aspires after the reunion of the Twelve Tribes under a king of the House of David (Hosea 3:5). He points more distinctly to Assyria, which he frequently names as the scourge of the Divine vengeance, and indicates how vain is the hope of the party which relied on the alliance of Egypt. He speaks with far more distinct contempt of the cherub at Bethel and the shrine at Gilgal, and says scornfully, "Thy calf, O Samaria, has cast thee off." {Hosea 8:5; Hosea 9:15} Shalmaneser had taken Beth-Arbel, and dashed to pieces mother and children. Such would be the fate of the cities of Israel. {Hosea 10:13-14} Yet Hosea, like Amos, cannot conclude with words of wrath and woe, and he ends with a lovely song of the days when Ephraim should be restored, after her true repentance, by the loving tenderness of God.

Jeroboam II must have been aware of some at least of these prophecies. Those of Hosea must have impressed him all the more because Hosea was a prophet of his own kingdom, and all of his allusions were to such ancient and famous shrines of Ephraim as Mizpeh, Tabor, Bethel, Gilgal, Shechem, Jezreel, and Lebanon. He was the Jeremiah of the North, and a passionate patriotism breathes through his melancholy strains. Yet in the powerful rule of Jeroboam II he can only see a godless militarism founded upon massacre (Hosea 1:4), and he felt himself to be the prophet of decadence. Page after page rings with wailing, and with denunciations of drunkenness, robbery, and whoredom-"swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and adultery" (Hosea 4:2).

If Jeroboam was as wise and great as he seemed to have been, he must have seen with his own eyes the ominous clouds on the far horizon, and the deep-seated corruption which was eating like a cancer into the heart of his people. Probably, like many another great sovereign-like Marcus Aurelius when he noted the worthlessness of his son Commodus, like Charlemagne when he burst into tears at the sight of the ships of the Vikings-his thoughts were like those of the ancient and modern proverbs-"When I am dead, let earth be mixed with fire." We have no trace that Jeroboam treated Hosea as did those guilty priests to whom he was a rebuke, and who called him "a fool" and "mad" (Hosea 9:7-8, Hosea 4:6-8, Hosea 5:2). Yet the aged king-he must have reached the unusual age of seventy-three at least, before he ended the longest and most successful reign in the annals of Israel-could hardly have anticipated that within half a year of his death his secure throne would be shaken to its foundation, his dynasty be hurled into oblivion, and that Israel, to whom, as long as he lived, mighty kingdoms had curtsied, should,

"Like a forlorn and desperate castaway,

Do shameful execution on herself."

Yet so it was. Jeroboam II was succeeded by no less than six other kings, but he was the last who died a natural death. Every one of his successors fell a victim to the assassin or the conqueror. His son Zachariah ("Remembered by Jehovah") succeeded him (B.C. 740), the fourth in descent from Jehu. Considering the long reign of his father, he must have ascended the throne at a mature age. But he was the child of evil times. That he should not interrupt the "calf"-worship was a matter of course; but if he be the king of whom we catch a glimpse in Hosea 7:2-7, we see that he partook deeply of the depravity of his day. We are there presented with a deplorable picture. There was thievishness at home, and bands of marauding bandits began to appear from abroad. The king was surrounded by a desperate knot of wicked counselors, who fooled him to the top of his bent, and corrupted him to the utmost of his capacity. They were all scorners and adulterers, whose furious passions the prophet compares to the glowing heat of an oven heated by the baker. They made the king glad with their wickedness, and the princes with lying flatteries. On the royal birthday, apparently at some public feast, this band of infamous revelers, who were the boon companions of Zachariah, first made him sick with bottles of wine, and then having set an ambush in waiting, murdered the effeminate and self-indulgent debauchee before all the people. The scene reads like the assassination of a Commodus or an Elagabalus. No one was likely to raise a hand in his favor. Like our Edward II, he was a weakling who followed a great and warlike father. It was evident that troublous times were near at hand, and nothing but the worst disasters could ensue if there was no one better than such a drunkard as Zachariah to stand at the helm of state.

So did the dynasty of the mighty Jehu expire like a torch blown out in stench and smoke.

Its close is memorable most of all because it evoked the magnificent moral and spiritual teaching of Hebrew prophecy. The ideal prophet and the ordinary priest are as necessarily opposed to each other as the saint and the formalist. The glory of prophecy lies in its recognition that right is always right, and wrong always wrong, apart from all expediency and all casuistry, apart from "all prejudices, private interests, and partial affections." "What Jehovah demands," they taught, "is righteousness-neither more nor less; what He hates is injustice. Sin or offence to the Deity is a thing of purely moral character. Morality is that for the sake of which all other things exist; it is the most essential element of all sincere religion. It is no postulate, no idea, but a necessity and a fact; the most intensely living of human powers - Jehovah, the God of hosts. In wrath, in ruin, this holy reality makes its existence known: it annihilates all that is hollow and false."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 14:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-kings-14.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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