OT: 2 Kings 23:31-25:30
On a day where we Americans celebrate the birth of our nation, we read about the apparent death of Judah's nation.
First, they were conquered by Egypt, and the same Pharoah who killed Josiah took his son into captivity. That Pharoah also chose another of his sons to be a puppet king. (Babylon would later continue that practice of dethroning one king and replacing him with another. I've gotta say, I don't entirely get it. Either leave the king and make him pay tribute, or kill him and put your own guy in charge....but why trade one man for his brother?) Unfortunately for the new king, his vassal state was then taken over by yet another country. Babylon came knocking, and Judah was forced to become its vassal instead. Turns out, Babylon had taken over lots of Egypt's territory; Judah was just one of many new acquisitions (24:7). This all happened three months into the next king, Jehoiachin's reign. Of course, he was promptly carried off into exile, along with most of the able-bodied men, and only "the poorest of the poor" were left (14). One of the teachers at the church camp I was last week mentioned this verse in a lesson on "remnant." One of his lines he used to convey the desperation (and probable identity crisis) faced by these left-behind people was, "If you are not good enough to be carried away as a slave, how good are you?" He went on to emphasize how God seems to particularly love the "left behind," the "poor in spirit."
Anyhow, Nebuchadnezzar replaces Jehoiachin with his uncle, Zedekiah (who is three years older than his nephew). Zedekiah seems to be a real genius and figures that he will rebel from Babylon with his little kingdom of the destitute. Predictably, it doesn't go over well, and Zed suffers a pretty horrible fate (25:7). Apparently, Zedekiah's rebellion brought out the "mean" side of Babylon, and they put a torch to the city. They destroyed and looted everything they had spared the first time, and they took care to empty the temple of any valuables. Picturing this wanton destruction, it occurred to me how easy it is to tear down. The temple took years to build; the objects inside were carefully crafted; all that construction took much effort and dedication. Furthermore, those objects were sacred to the people. They represented a way of life, a way of seeing the world. They brought hope and meaning to a people. And yet, how easy was it to tear it all down? It took no reflection, no real effort, comparatively speaking. All you had to do was scrape a bunch of valuables into a sack, and you have essentially wiped away the centerpiece of a religion.
Except that it wasn't the centerpiece of the religion. What some of the exiles would come to understand, and what the early Christians would definitely come to understand, is that it is not so easy to take God away from His people. God is more than a building, more than a set of rituals and practices. As such, He is impervious to attacks from Babylonian marauders, Roman emperors, or communist nations (just to list a few examples) who seek to eradicate His presence. But I'm getting off track with my train of thought. What really hit me while I read that part was that it is child's play to tear down. It's simple to take the negative position, to attack ways of life and beliefs that we don't understand. It is a lot harder to build something positive in this world. And I want to be a builder, not a destroyer.
Anyhow, after Zedekiah's rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar further emptied the city. He then appointed a new king over Judah, who seemed ready to play ball with the empire. However, his people weren't so ready, and they assassinated him. Not wanting to repeat the whole Zedekiah scenario, all of the inhabitants fled to Egypt.
And Judah lay empty.
You know, I often get tired of how hard-headed people are, and I tend to lament the lack of civil discourse present in society today. However, whenever I read any history, I immediately start to feel better. I realize that, no, society is not getting more polarized and cantankerous and stubborn. It has always been that way. Because, you see, people are hard-headed and cantankerous and stubborn. They just are. Case in point: The Jews in Jerusalem patiently listen to Paul's narrative while he talks about his zeal for the Law, his persecution of Christians, and the murder of Stephen. That is all A-OK. However, the moment he mentions reaching out to the Gentiles, they completely lose it and try to kill him. Good grief!
And apparently, the Roman response to this cacophonous scenario is to flog first and ask questions later. Though Paul had been flogged multiple times, he was just not having it today, and so he uses his citizenship once again. After learning that Paul is a born citizen of Rome, the Roman captain starts to approach the situation in the right order. First step: figure out what the problem is. So the captain brings Paul and the Sanhedrin together, in order that they could talk it out. Once more, Paul learns the hard way that diplomacy has its limits. All he says is that his conscience is clear, and he gets a slap in the face. Apparently, Paul dislikes hits to the head as much as I do, and so he spits out a knee-jerk condemnation of the man who ordered him to be hit. Unfortunately, that man is the high priest, so Paul apologizes. By this time, I think Paul realizes that civil discourse is not going to win the day, and so he gives up. He shouts:
"My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead" (6).
That declaration stirs up such a hornet's nest between the Pharisees and the Sadducees that Paul is temporarily let off the hook.
In light of our two stories for today, verses 1 and 2 particularly resonate:
"Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together against the Lord
and against his anointed one."
Babylon, the Sanhedrin, and Rome could all fit that description, based on today's reading.
A proverb on the folly of speaking before listening.