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In our last lesson, we learned about nasty King Ahaz who encouraged idol worship in Judah and personally worshiped every god he could get his hands on. To spank his rebellious little behind, Yahweh brings Israel and Aram down to attack Judah. Ahaz goes running to the mighty Assyrian Empire for help, and his efforts backfire on him for the king of Assyria decides that Judah would make a nice addition to his growing empire. So now both Judah and Israel are having to pay tribute to Assyria. Tribute is essentially blackmail. It’s when one strong bully nation says to a weaker nation, “Start making regular payments to me or I’ll destroy everything you have and murder all of your citizens.” The bully nation is the one who decides how much the tribute will be—and naturally the numbers are quite high. When the weaker nations can’t afford the tribute, they have to start taxing their people. At some point the weaker nations get so fed up with this humiliation that they rebel. They stop making the required payments and then they hope that by some miracle they will be able to defend themselves when the bully comes around to collect. This is what happens in Israel right about this time. Ahaz is worshiping idols in the south when evil King Hoshea in the north decides he’s fed up with paying money to the King of Assyria. So he stops. A man named Shalmaneser [shall-mah-NEE-zer] is the king of Assyria at this time. He’s taken over for Tiglath-Pileser [TIGG-lath-pill-EE-zer], who we talked about in our last lesson. When Shalmaneser finds out that Hoshea has stopped making his required payments, he heads over to Israel with his army to deliver some scare tactics.
ISRAEL’S SECRET ALLIANCE
Now when you’re trying to expand an empire, you are constantly fighting wars along your borders and trying to stomp out rebellion that starts to rise up inside your kingdom. Since you have limited resources, you want to resolve problems as quickly as possible. Shalmaneser will go over to Israel, destroy a few things, murder some people, and hopefully scare Hoshea back into line so that he can then go on to more important things. But then Shalmaneser finds out that Hoshea’s rebellion is far more serious than he thought. It turns out that Hoshea has made a secret alliance with So, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Egypt is a real problem for Assyria because it’s so far south and has a strong military. Naturally Shalmaneser dreams of one day conquering Egypt, but first this Israel problem must be dealt with. Shalmaneser can’t allow any group of nations to successfully break away from his empire, otherwise all the other unhappy people within his borders would no doubt try and follow their lead. A public example needs to be made of Israel—it must be utterly destroyed and its people widely dispersed so that they can’t try something like this again. Bringing in his massive army, Shalmaneser moves through all of Israel, attacking everything in sight. Then he sets up camp all around Israel’s capital city of Samaria, and cuts off all incoming food supplies. Let the sieging begin.
THE FALL OF SAMARIA
After three years of living in horrific conditions, the people trapped inside Samaria—their fortress turned prison—are defeated. Shalmaneser levels the city, massacres the people, and then hauls the survivors off as slaves. And in case we’ve forgotten where our loyalties are supposed to lie, the author of Kings now pauses to remind us of why all this has happened.
All this came about because the people of Israel had sinned against Yahweh their God, who had brought them up from the land of Egypt and rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Yet the Israelites worshiped other gods and lived like the nations whom Yahweh had driven out before them. They followed the examples of their evil kings, secretly sinning against Yahweh their God. Moreover, they built for themselves high places to worship other gods in all of their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up sacred pillars to gods and Asherah idols on every high hill and under every green tree. The Israelites burned incense on all the high places just like the nations whom Yahweh had carried away to exile before them. The Israelites did many wicked things which provoked Yahweh to anger. They served idols even though Yahweh had said to them, “You must not do this.” (2 Ki. 17:7-12)
Lest we think that Yahweh has been unreasonably harsh to treat His own people like this, our author now reminds us of the great lengths God went to in order to try and turn these people back.
Yahweh used every prophet and seer to warn Israel and Judah. He said, “Turn from your evil ways and obey My commands. Follow all the laws that I gave to your ancestors, and the teachings which I gave you through My servants the prophets.” But the people refused to listen. They stiffened their necks and behaved just like their fathers who did not believe in Yahweh their God. They rejected His laws and the Covenant which He had made with their fathers. They refused to listen to His warnings. They worshiped worthless idols, so they became worthless themselves. They followed the example of the nations around them, disobeying Yahweh’s command not to imitate them. They rejected all the commandments of Yahweh their God and made idols for themselves—even two calves. They worshiped Asherah, Baal, and all the hosts of heaven. Then they sacrificed their children to idols by passing them through fire, they practiced divination and sorcery, and they committed themselves to doing evil in the sight of Yahweh, provoking Him to anger. So Yahweh was furious with Israel and removed them from His sight. (2 Ki. 17:13-18)
Are you picking up on the not-so-subtle hints here? Yahweh is the One we should be siding with in this situation, not the rebels. Well, this seems easy enough, since the sufferers in this story lived thousands of years ago and we have no reason to feel any personal connection to them. But the principle that God is teaching us here doesn’t just apply to ancient historical accounts—we must apply them in our own lives today as well. The next time some shocking event happens in the world in which many people suffer and/or die, our natural response as humans will be to cry out to God in protest and say in so many words, “What are You doing?! This is terrible! Stop it! Fix it! Clean up the mess You have made!” And yet, God teaches us in His Word that everything that happens down here happens according to His good plan. God loves us dearly and He brings tragedy into our lives in order to try and save us, not to destroy us. We must learn to stop rushing to the conclusion that His actions are in some way flawed or that they are stemming from some black heart. Yes, He does horrific things. If we were standing in Samaria at the time the Assyrians broke through the city walls, we would have been deeply traumatized by the brutality we would witness. It’s hard to keep a mental grip on truth in such emotionally intense moments—this is why God tells us to remain sober-minded and not go about hyping ourselves up into an emotional lather every chance we get. And yet sometimes we are forced to witness shocking things that deeply upset us. When we are, then our best chance of treating God with honor will be all the spiritual homework we’ve done beforehand.
We need to spend time prayerfully reflecting on all the things we’ve learned about so far in this dramatic story we call the Bible. We need to really think about how gracious God has been, and how He has reached out to these rebels time and time again. We need to consider just how intentional and fierce their rebellion was. We must remember the way Jeroboam created those two idiotic golden calf gods and then brazenly gave them the glory for rescuing Israel from Egypt (see Lesson 12). When we consider all of the facts God has preserved for us, we cannot help but conclude that He is unfathomably gracious, kind, patient, merciful and loving. Is it right for us to demand that He have no boundaries whatsoever? Certainly not. If there’s one thing we learn in the Bible, it’s that whenever God lets one drop of His wrath touch this earth, it is justified. It is fair. And it is long overdue. As maturing Christians, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to increase our understanding of God’s goodness and ask Him to help us continually improve our treatment of Him. For example, when’s the last time we took a close scrutiny of our prayer language? Are we in a habit of complaining and criticizing God with the things that we say? Unfortunately, many of the popular styles of praying are quite insulting to God. Without meaning to, we are constantly implying that He is inept, inefficient, and ignorant as we pray the typical Christian prayer requests. With a little education and a willingness to change, we can make massive improvements in this area. As God’s servants, we want to treat Him with the highest respect.
Now that the Israelites have proven themselves to be a serious threat, the king of Assyria doesn’t want to risk leaving the survivors of his attack in their homeland where they might recover and renew their strength. So he drags them off and intentionally scatters them throughout his kingdom. That takes care of the Israelites, but now there’s a problem of empty land. You don’t want to let good territory go to waste. It will be profitable to the empire to move some people into Israel so they can work the land and maintain the cities. Grabbing natives from many different people groups that he’s conquered, the king of Assyria forces them to relocate to Israel and then leaves them there to make the best of it.
Well, fine. The foreigners look around their new home and see all of the worship shrines that the Israelites left behind–how convenient. Setting up the gods of their various cultures, the newcomers engage in many of the same disturbing rituals that the Israelites were up to, including child sacrifice. But then something starts to go terribly wrong for wild, savage lions keep rushing into the inhabited areas and ripping people apart. Yikes! Why aren’t their gods doing a better job of protecting them? The solution suddenly comes to them: the native God of the land must be in some kind of huff because no one is paying attention to Him. Well, how can they when they don’t know who He is? Some investigation reveals His Name is Yahweh. Fine, but what does Yahweh want? What kind of sacrifices and rituals does He like? How can these newcomers schmooze this native God so that He’ll stop sending lions to attack them?
A report of this dilemma is sent to the king of Assyria, who in turn commands that an Israelite priest be located and sent back to Israel to explain to the foreigners how they can appease the God of the land.
So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught the foreigners how to revere Yahweh. (2 Ki. 17:28)
As soon as the people start going through some religious motions for Yahweh, the lions stop attacking. There might have been a few souls in the group who began to seriously pursue Yahweh in their hearts—we don’t know, but we can hope. What we do know is that most, if not all, of the people were just giving Yahweh lip service. While they worshiped Him, they also continued to worship their own gods.
And this is still going on today. They continue to follow their former practices instead of truly worshiping Yahweh and obeying the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands which He gave the descendants of Jacob, whose name He changed to Israel. (2 Ki. 17:34)
“And this is still going on today”—this statement reminds us that our author is reflecting back on these events from some point in the distant future. Clearly history has to have already happened before you can write a book about it, and the fact that our author lives so long after the events he is describing means we can benefit by his hindsight. Finishing this chapter about the fall of Samaria, he once again reminds us of Israel’s willful rebellion against God.
For Yahweh had made a Covenant with the descendants of Jacob and commanded them: “Do not worship or bow down to any other gods. Do not serve them or offer sacrifices to them. But worship only Yahweh, who brought you out of Egypt with great strength and a powerful arm. Bow down to Him alone, and offer sacrifices only to Him. Take care to always obey the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands that He wrote for you. You must not worship other gods. Do not forget the Covenant I made with you, and do not worship other gods. You must worship only Yahweh your God. He is the One who will rescue you from all your enemies.”
But the people would not listen and continued to follow their former practices. So while these new residents worshiped Yahweh, they also worshiped their idols. And to this day their descendants do the same. (2 Ki. 17:35-41)
Well, now there are a bunch of icky foreigners living in the northern part of the Promised Land—people who have no history with Yahweh whatsoever. These people are dirty invaders—idol worshiping foreigners who are soiling the sacred ground of Israel’s inheritance. Yuck, these are certainly not the kinds of people real Jews want to associate themselves with. Let’s not let these invaders forget that they have no right to be here in Israel’s land, mucking up the place. One day surely God will drive them out again so the Jews can reclaim what is rightfully theirs. By the time we get to Period 7 (the Gospel books), this is the snooty attitude we find existing between Jews and those of foreign blood who live in the northern region of the Promised Land. By the time we get to Period 7, the Roman Empire is the new world power, the tribal allotments that were set up in Joshua’s time have been completely lost and what used to be called Israel is now called Samaria. The people who live in the region of Samaria are called Samaritans. The Jews in Judea hate the Samaritans of Samaria. They hate them so much that they refuse to acknowledge them in public or touch anything that they’ve touched. The Jews label the Samaritans as icky, unclean people. So when a Samaritan woman walks over to a well one day to get some water and she sees a Jewish Man sitting beside it, she naturally expects to get iced. But instead, He asks her to fetch Him some water. Hm. This is quite unusual.
JESUS & FOREIGNERS
Now today we like to paint Jesus out to be all sweetness and light, which is why we love to tell the story of the woman at the well. “Look how Jesus was so sweet to ignore social stereotypes and reach out to a foreign woman,” we say. This is how we like to view the story today, but it’s not at all how Jesus’ disciples viewed it at the time. When you are taught from the cradle that certain people are icky and then you find your Mentor hanging out with one of those people, your first thought is not, “What a sweetheart.” Instead, it’s “What the heck is He doing?” And when it comes to Jesus, simple questions rarely get a clear answer.
While we’re on the subject of foreigners, it’s useful to note that Samaritans weren’t the only people that the Jews looked down on. Back in Period 2, Yahweh emphasized that foreigners who sincerely seek Him are equal to the Jews in His sight and that they are not to be treated as inferior in any way by the Israelites. But by the time we get to Period 7, this command is being completely ignored. Instead of considering themselves to be brothers with all those who sincerely cared about pleasing Yahweh, devout Jews felt quite justified in snubbing everyone who had non-Jewish blood.
HEZEKIAH, King of Judah
Now by the time Assyria is done thrashing Israel, there’s only one very small kingdom left in the south: Judah. It’s rather disturbing to be king at a time when some massive empire comes and devours all of your brothers in the north. And when you know that Yahweh is really the One who has sacked Israel and scattered her people to distant lands, you’d be pretty stupid not to revere Him. Our last king of Judah (Ahaz) was a real numskull. But his son Hezekiah turns out to be shockingly different. Hezekiah sincerely cares about pleasing Yahweh. During his reign he aggressively stomps out idolatry in the land: trashing public shrines, taking down those blasted Asherah poles and even destroying one troublesome trinket that the people have been hanging onto ever since the days of Moses (see The Fate of the Bronze Snake).
Hezekiah trusted in Yahweh, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after his time. He remained faithful to Yahweh in everything, and he carefully obeyed all the commands Yahweh had given Moses. So Yahweh was with him, and Hezekiah was successful in everything he did. (2 Ki. 18:5-7)
In our last lesson, we learned that evil Ahaz had shut down God’s Temple: locking up the doors and preventing any of the Levites from doing their work. But after Ahaz dies, Hezekiah quickly sets things right again.
Hezekiah summoned the priests and Levites to meet him at the courtyard east of the Temple. And he said to them, “Listen to me, Levites. Consecrate yourselves, and purify the House of Yahweh, the God of your fathers. Take anything that is defiled out of the sanctuary. Our fathers have been unfaithful and have done evil in the sight of Yahweh our God. They abandoned Yahweh and His dwelling place; they turned their backs on Him. They shut the doors of the porch, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the Holy Place to the God of Israel. This is why the wrath of Yahweh has come against Judah and Jerusalem. Look around and see how He has made them objects of terror, horror, and ridicule. Because of this, our fathers have been killed in battle, and our sons and daughters and wives have been taken away as captives. I have resolved to make a covenant with Yahweh the God of Israel, so that His burning anger will turn away from us. My sons, do not neglect your duties any longer! Yahweh has chosen you to stand in His Presence, to minister to Him, and to lead the people in worship and present offerings to Him.” (2 Chron. 29:4-11)
The Levites immediately set to work purifying themselves and the Temple according to the instructions God had given Moses back in Period 2. The sacrificial system is started up again, the Passover is celebrated for the first time in many years, and the people once again start bringing their tithes to the Levites. As we learned back in Lesson 6, the tithes were an essential part of keeping the sacrificial system operating, for the Levites had no way of making an income when they were working full time for Yahweh. The tithes from the people—which consisted of money, food, and animals—took care of the needs of the Levites and their families so that they could spend the bulk of their time and energy on God. Hezekiah is aggressive in his attempts to start a spiritual revival in Judah. He sends messengers all throughout the land and even up into Israel, urging the people to return to Yahweh in their hearts. Many scoff and scorn, but some do repent and travel down to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover. They also start stockpiling their tithes, and suddenly there is abundant wealth being given to the Levites. Imagine what a blessing it would be today for a truly devoted pastor or prophet to have all of his worldly needs taken care of so that he could fully focus on God. This was what it was like for the Levites when the tithes came rolling in and they felt very grateful and inspired in their work. At the same time, the people giving the tithes felt very joyful to worship the Lord through their offerings and to know they were providing for families in need.
With so much bad preaching about tithing and the Old Covenant today, it’s easy to think that both of these things were negative burdens. Yet as we learned in Lesson 6, God’s original system of Laws was designed to increase people’s joy in life, not make them feel oppressed and miserable. His sacrifices weren’t burdensome because everyone presented ritual sacrifices to gods in these times. Over and over again, we’re told about all the worship shrines and altars that the people voluntarily build all over Judah and Israel during times of spiritual rebellion so they could sacrifice to every god they could lay their hands on (except Yahweh, of course). So it’s not like the people refused to worship Yahweh because He was too much work—He was actually less work and far kinder than the hideous demon gods who demanded child sacrifice and self-mutilation from their followers.
If they had obeyed God’s Covenant, the Jews would have actually had much pleasanter lives. They would have had far less crime, disease, and poverty. Yahweh’s Laws were written to protect their physical bodies, uplift their hearts, and nourish their souls. But instead they chose to cut themselves, sleep with animals, wallow in filth, and toss their children into fire. So let’s not fall for any more guff about how the Old Covenant was some kind of burdensome chore. The Old Covenant was wonderful news in these times—to think that a God would bless so much in return for so little. Soul devotion—how hard is that? It’s much better than abusing your body. Yahweh has always been such a kind and generous God. And yet, there are moments when He does something very unexpected…
After Hezekiah had faithfully carried out this work, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified towns, giving orders for his army to break through their walls. (2 Chron. 32:1)
Um, what is this? What happened to all of those blessings for obedience? Didn’t Yahweh promise to protect His people from harm when they sincerely sought after Him in their hearts? Yes, He did. So why is He suddenly bringing this terrifying army in to attack Judah? Have you ever put a lot of effort into obeying God only to have your life suddenly take a turn for the worse? Have you ever felt like you were being punished for obeying? How will Hezekiah react to this sudden crisis? We’ll find out in our next lesson.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 24: Assyria Attacks Judah
Click here for all of the lessons in this series.