Applying 2 Chronicles 20: Learning from Jehoshaphat


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Our story begins over 850 years before the birth of Christ. The nation of Israel has been fractured into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. This fracture happened right after the death of Solomon, about 88 years ago. As the kings of Israel and Judah keep changing, the two kingdoms keep changing their minds about whether they want to be friends or enemies. Right now they’re in friend mode. King Jehoshaphat is ruling in the south and evil King Ahab has just recently died in the north.

Now most of the kings in both Israel and Judah are idolatrous yucks who grossly disrespect Yahweh. Now and then there’s one who puts more effort into caring about what God wants, but it’s a very rare day that anyone cares enough to actually outlaw idol worship in their kingdom. As evil kings erect shrines and temples to icky idols, better kings rise up and inspire the people to care more about Yahweh, yet they still leave all those shrines and temples standing. So that’s like your country saying, “We worship Jesus here,” while they keep maintaining large monuments, museums, and temples that all encourage the worship of Satan. It’s more than a little two-faced.

We don’t know who wrote the books of 1 & 2 Kings. Ezra is usually credited for writing the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles (as well as the book of Ezra). If you compare these two sets of books, you’ll find that they’re talking about the same things. They’re both walking us through a chronological list of Israelite kings. The big difference is that the Kings author talks about the rulers of both kingdoms, while Ezra only talks about the kings of Judah.

Whenever you come across multiple books in the Bible that are talking about the same period of history, you have to check through all of the books to make sure you know all the details of a particular account. For example, in the four Gospel books of the New Testament, we find four accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. We need to read all four accounts if we want to really find out what’s going on.

The reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah is discussed in 1 Kings 22 as well as in 2 Chronicles 17-21. 2 Chronicles has more material than 1 Kings does, and the series of events we’re going to look at in this post is only discussed in 2 Chronicles 20.

Now when you’re a king, one of your biggest headaches is your neighbors. There are other kings who have set up kingdoms all around yours and some of those kings are greedy land grabbers who are always trying to nip at your borders. Other kings decide that they don’t like you for some reason so they keep attacking your people, just trying to make trouble. It’s like living in a neighborhood full of bullies—you’re always worrying about what nasty plans they might be making against you. Kings in Bible times weren’t in the habit of dropping by ahead of time with a friendly note to say, “Hello, there. We’re planning to attack you a month from now, so we suggest you get ready.” No, it was all about surprise attacks. Kings would go behind your back and form alliances with each other and then quietly plot and scheme against you. Then one day they’d all combine forces and assault you when you least expected it. This is what happens to Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20. He’s just tootling along, minding his own business when he suddenly gets word that three neighboring kingdoms have joined forces against him. That’s already upsetting, but the bad news becomes a major emergency when he finds out that the massive invading army has already crossed his kingdom’s large natural barrier: the Dead Sea.

Invasion of Judah

What this means is that Jehoshaphat has hardly any time to prepare. And by the way, it’s three against one. Jehoshaphat’s army has no hope of winning against these armies. There’s no time for him to find back-up. It’s going to be a bloodbath. This is a terrifying situation.

Jehoshaphat was terrified by this news and begged Yahweh for guidance. He also ordered everyone in Judah to begin fasting. So people from all the towns of Judah came to Jerusalem to seek Yahweh’s help. (2 Chron. 20:3-4)

Why do Christians today think it’s such a good idea to fast when some crisis arises? Because that’s what they read about people in the Bible doing. We’re just imitating the ancient Jews without ever stopping to question what the Jews’ motivations were. Seriously: what is the point of fasting? Are you trying to get God’s attention? Yes. Is this ridiculous? Yes, because God isn’t up in Heaven playing video games, He’s intimately involved in our lives. God is well aware that a massive army is invading Jehoshaphat’s kingdom. God is the One who assembled that army in the first place. He’s the One making sure that news of their campaign doesn’t reach Jehoshaphat until it’s too late. What we’re reading about here is an intentional set up. Yahweh wants Judah to be in a major crisis. This isn’t a whoops. This isn’t a case of God dropping the ball or of Satan getting away with something behind His back. So if Jehoshaphat was responding properly, he would immediately turn to God and say, “I know You’re doing this for a reason. Show me how to respond to this situation in a way that honors You.” But is this what he does? No. Instead he freaks out. He flies into a faithless panic. He commands that all of his citizens imitate his lousy example and start fasting. Now that’s smart. Here you have a country in crisis, you need every soldier you have to be in peak condition, so you order everyone to stop eating.

Seriously: what is with the fasting? Well, all humans want to feel understood and empathized with, but this is hard to get when we can’t see into each other’s hearts. I have no way of knowing how you feel unless you tell me. If you’re really upset but you lie and say, “I’m fine,” then I’ll come away with a wrong impression of how you feel and you’ll miss out on any sympathy I might have been willing to give you. Well, the Jews would have none of that. They were big into group, and they loved to bask in the empathy of others. When they were happy, they wanted everyone to know it, so they made a huge public scene by singing and dancing. When they were sad, they wanted everyone to know it, so they tore their clothes, dumped ashes and dirt on themselves, and went around wailing at the top of their lungs. The Jews had no use for subtlety. They were an extremely theatrical people. When it came to sharing their feelings with others, they found words to be sadly lacking, so they turned to dramatic actions. Fasting, walking around in uncomfortably scratchy material (known as sackcloth)—these were all ways of saying “World, look at me. Notice me. I’m upset and I want everyone to pay attention and care.”

Now when we don’t know God very well, we end up treating Him like He’s just another human being. Since people can’t tell how upset we are unless we put on a huge dramatic show, we figure the same is true for God. This was the logic behind Jewish fasting: give God a clue because otherwise He might miss the message. It’s ridiculous. It’s irreverent, insulting behavior. We shouldn’t be treating our all-knowing God like some kind of nimbus who can’t figure out His people are in crisis until He sees them all down on earth passing out from hunger and wailing at the tops of their lungs. So when Jehoshaphat orders his people to fast, he’s telling us volumes about how underdeveloped his faith is. And when all the people agree to fast, they’re showing that they’re no better than their foolish king. What we have is a country full of people in which no one is doing their spiritual homework. No one is taking the time to contemplate the things of God and actually listen to the lessons the Holy Spirit is trying to teach them. So when trouble comes, they all go into a major meltdown and start the ridiculous displays of “Please notice us, God.” There’s nothing to admire about this. It’s pathetic. These are God’s own chosen people and they obviously don’t have any faith in Him, nor do they believe He is intimately involved in their lives. So they’re all down on earth putting on grand displays of how upset they are while they hope He notices. Such behavior hardly makes God feel like He’s being treated with honor. But the insults aren’t going to stop here.

After ordering all of his citizens to work together to try and make Yahweh notice that they’re alive, Jehoshaphat calls them all to assemble in front of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. Yahweh taught His people to view His Presence as being with the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in an inner room of the Temple called the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies). So to gather around the Temple was like gathering outside of God’s throne room. This is a way that the Jews could feel like they were physically drawing near to Yahweh on earth.

When David talks about how much he loves to be in Yahweh’s House in the Psalms, it’s an honoring statement. David sincerely loved Yahweh and he treated God with honor in his heart in his daily life. He didn’t just live like an unbeliever most of the time and then put on some Sunday School act when he went to God’s special House. But when we see Jehoshaphat going into some faithless meltdown and then running to God’s Temple, it just doesn’t come across as honoring behavior. It seems more like another attempt to get the attention of a God who he clearly believes is prone to ignoring him. Maybe if everyone gathers around the Temple, Yahweh will notice the mob scene and wonder what’s going on. Maybe that way the Jews can really hold His attention while Jehoshaphat rattles off some manipulative prayer. Hm.

Jehoshaphat stood before the community of Judah and Jerusalem in front of the new courtyard at the Temple of Yahweh. He prayed, “O Yahweh, God of our ancestors, You alone are the God who is in heaven. You are Ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth. You are powerful and mighty; no one can stand against You!” (2 Chron. 20:5-6)

Now that there’s a crisis happening, suddenly God is all that and a bag of chips. Suddenly He’s the ultimate Ruler. Suddenly He’s the only God in existence. Fascinating. And if this is what Jehoshaphat really believes then what’s with all the idol shrines that he’s leaving up in his kingdom? If he can order everyone to fast, why can’t he order the idol shrines to be torn down? He can, he just doesn’t want to. He’d rather form alliances with Baal worshiping King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel. He’d rather be a half-hearted Yahweh follower—whipping out the reverence only when there’s a crisis at hand. Is this honoring behavior? Not hardly! Does God know when He’s being buttered up by a king who isn’t really willing to commit to Him? Of course He does.

“O our God, did You not drive out those who lived in this land when Your people Israel arrived?” (2 Chron. 20:7)

After laying down a thick layer of compliments, Jehoshaphat changes tactic and starts trying to lay on the guilt. He reminds Yahweh that He drove out the original inhabitants of the Promised Land back in the day. Nice try, but that’s not quite how it went. Yahweh certainly offered to drive out all of the inhabitants IF Israel would obey His command to exterminate everyone who lived in the Promised Land. But Israel couldn’t be bothered with obedience. Joshua made a big dent in the extermination project, but once he was dead, the people lost interest in what Yahweh wanted so they put their swords away and started hobnobbing with their demonic neighbors. Soon they were marrying idol worshipers and bringing home new gods to worship in Yahweh’s place. It really isn’t a smart strategy for Jehoshaphat to bring up the subject of clearing out the Promised Land. But notice how he now reaches back to Abraham—one of the few Jews we find in the Bible who actually stayed faithful to Yahweh.

“And did You not give this land forever to the descendants of Your friend Abraham?” (2 Chron. 20:7)

Israel is still singing this tiresome song today: “You told Abraham that his descendants could live in this land so that means You have to help us keep it no matter how much we spit in Your face.” Nice try, but no, this isn’t how God works. Yahweh made a very specific Covenant with the Israelites in which He promised to drive them off of their land if they didn’t obey Him (see Lev. 26). Are the people of Judah obeying Yahweh as they worship other gods? Not hardly.

“Your people settled here and built this Temple to honor Your Name. They said, ‘Whenever we are faced with any calamity such as war, plague, or famine, we will stand in Your Presence before this Temple that bears Your Name and will cry out to You in our distress, and You will hear us and save us.’” (2 Chron. 20:8-9)

It was David’s idea to build Yahweh a Temple, and he wanted to do it to honor God. He was bothered by the fact that human kings were living in luxurious palaces while Yahweh’s Tabernacle was a mere tent. Wanting to honor God is a good thing. But here Jehoshaphat turns the Temple into some magic charm. If the people gather here, Yahweh will have to do what they want. Well, yuck, there’s nothing reverent about this attitude. Notice the focus here: “Whenever WE are faced with any calamity…YOU will hear us and save us.” So this is all God is to these people? Their Problem Solver? Their Last Resort? And His Temple is supposed to be the place where He takes orders from them? What a nasty little prayer!

“And now see what the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir are doing. You would not let our ancestors invade those nations when Israel left Egypt, so they went around them and did not destroy them. Now see how they reward us! For they have come to throw us out of Your land, which You gave to us as an inheritance.” (2 Chron. 20:10-11)

Don’t miss how Jehoshaphat tries to subtly shift the blame onto Yahweh for this situation. “If You had let us kill these nations a long time ago, we wouldn’t be in this crisis now.” Really?? Has it ever occurred to Jehoshaphat that maybe Yahweh has created this crisis as a way of disciplining the rebellious Jews to turn their focus back to Him? It sure worked. The minute trouble appeared on the horizon, suddenly Yahweh is Mr. Popular again. Talking about who didn’t kill who way back in Moses’ day is beside the point. This crisis has to do with Israel’s current rebellion issues.

God wants His people to be talking to Him every day, not just when there’s some flaming emergency. When we’ve been ignoring Him for a long time, He often creates a crisis as a way of turning our focus back onto Him. The problem is that the positive effects are usually very short lived. Once God resolves the crisis, we go back to forgetting His Name.

“O our God, won’t You stop them? We are powerless against this mighty army that is about to attack us. We do not know what to do, but we are looking to You for help.” (2 Chron. 20:12)

Jehoshaphat’s prayer leaves much to be desired, but this as good as it’s going to get with these fair-weather followers. This is when Yahweh wows us with His amazing grace. Instead of mowing the little rebels down, He decides to perform a miraculous rescue. They certainly don’t deserve it, but that’s just how generous God is.

As all the men of Judah stood before Yahweh with their little ones, wives, and children,  the Spirit of Yahweh came upon one of the men standing there. His name was Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite who was a descendant of Asaph.

He said, “Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what Yahweh says: Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged by this mighty army, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.  Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel.  You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance Yahweh will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and Yahweh will be with you!’”

Then King Jehoshaphat bowed low with his face to the ground. And all the people of Judah and Jerusalem did the same, worshiping Yahweh. Then the Levites from the clans of Kohath and Korah stood to praise Yahweh, the God of Israel, with a very loud shout. (2 Chron. 20:13-19)

Ah yes, the hollow sound of people praising God because He’s giving them what they want. Certainly God is being magnificent here, and certainly He is deserving of praise. But we’d like to see Him get something more than lip service and after Jehoshaphat’s insulting prayer, we’re just not feeling like this crowd really means all their flowery words of gratitude and praise.

Early the next morning the army of Judah went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. On the way Jehoshaphat stopped and said, “Listen to me, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Believe in Yahweh your God, and you will be able to stand firm. Believe in His prophets, and you will succeed.” (2 Chron. 20:20)

Be careful with this “believe in His prophets” line. God doesn’t want us putting our faith in human beings, only in the words that He says through them. You can’t ever know that God has actually spoken through someone until He confirms this to you directly. Today the title of “prophet” has become so abused in the Church that’s it’s practically meaningless. Don’t be impressed with titles. You need to get your direction from God Himself.

After consulting the people, the king appointed singers to walk ahead of the army, singing to Yahweh and praising Him for His holy splendor. This is what they sang: “Give thanks to Yahweh, for His love endures forever!” (2 Chron. 20:21)

As reverent as this sounds, it’s really about boosting morale. The Israelite army is marching into the jaws of death and everyone’s trying hard to believe that Yahweh really is going to come across with His promised miracle.

At the very moment they began to sing and give praise, Yahweh caused the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir to start fighting among themselves. The armies of Moab and Ammon turned against their allies from Mount Seir and killed every one of them. After they had destroyed the army of Seir, they began attacking each other. So when the army of Judah arrived at the lookout point in the wilderness, all they saw were dead bodies lying on the ground as far as they could see. Not a single one of the enemy had escaped. (2 Chron. 20:22-24)

This is a hilarious passage and a marvelous example of God’s sovereignty over all things. Not only does He control the world around us, He also controls our internal worlds: our moods, our thoughts, and our patience with the fellow standing next to us. The three armies who are marching through Jehoshaphat’s turf know that they have the upper hand. Yet suddenly they decide that they just can’t stand each other and a bunch of fighting breaks out. When men who are carrying swords, spears, and arrows lose their cool, things get bloody fast. Soon everyone’s tearing each other apart without even knowing why. First two of the armies gang up against the third one and totally annihilate one of their allies. Yeah, that was a really stupid military tactic: murder the guys who are helping you win. Then the two armies that ganged up together turn on each other until the ground’s covered in bloody corpses. We’re told not a single soldier escaped, which means Yahweh had to time a lot of simultaneous injuries. We can just picture an archer getting speared in the stomach and then firing off that deadly arrow and nailing the guy who speared him just before he collapses onto the ground. When Yahweh wants people dead, they die. Imagine how shocked the Israelite soldiers are when they come upon this gory scene. But hey, since everyone’s dead, they might as well steal their stuff. Let the greed fest begin.

King Jehoshaphat and his men went out to gather the plunder. They found vast amounts of equipment, clothing, and other valuables—more than they could carry. There was so much plunder that it took them three days just to collect it all! On the fourth day they gathered in the Valley of Berakah [Blessing], which got its name that day because the people praised and thanked Yahweh there. It is still called the Valley of Berakah today.

Then all the men returned to Jerusalem, with Jehoshaphat leading them, overjoyed that Yahweh had given them victory over their enemies. They marched into Jerusalem to the music of harps, lyres, and trumpets, and they proceeded to the Temple of Yahweh. (2 Chron. 20:25-28)

This is a classic pattern that we find over and over again in the Bible. The Jews ignore Yahweh. He creates a crisis to get their attention. They all come running back to Him. He saves them. They remember Him for a little while afterwards.

When all the surrounding kingdoms heard that Yahweh Himself had fought against the enemies of Israel, the fear of God came over them. So Jehoshaphat’s kingdom was at peace, for his God had given him rest on every side. (2 Chron. 20:29)

This last part is very important because it reminds us that Israel is not the only nation God cares about. He is working to draw the other nations to Himself as well, and here we learn that this miraculous save of the Israelites makes quite an impression on Israel’s pagan neighbors. Suddenly there is an increase in reverence for Yahweh and Jehoshaphat’s neighbors keep a respectful distance during the rest of his reign. That’s sweet for Judah, but hopefully some of the people in those other nations did more than just marvel at Yahweh from a distance. God wants all people to come to Him. Perhaps this amazing display of His sovereignty resulted in some new converts.

2 Chronicles 20 now concludes with some final highlights of Jehoshaphat’s reign.

So Jehoshaphat ruled over the land of Judah. He was thirty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-five years. His mother was Azubah, the daughter of Shilhi.

Jehoshaphat was a good king, following the ways of his father, Asa. He did what was pleasing in Yahweh’s sight. During his reign, however, he failed to remove all the pagan shrines, and the people never fully committed themselves to follow the God of their ancestors. (2 Chron. 20:31-33)

There’s a big difference between a human author like Ezra saying Jehoshaphat was a “good king” and Yahweh saying it. Jehoshaphat does indeed look good compared to most of the other men who ruled in Judah. But Yahweh HATES idolatry, and He doesn’t just shrug off these pagan shrines as a minor issue. When we get too casual about our application of words like good, obedient, and righteous, we end up with some serious delusions. God doesn’t constantly change His view of sin like we do. He doesn’t play this game of “You go to church on Sunday—that’s good enough.” Pleasing God is a matter of the heart, not a matter of going through a bunch of religious routines. As king, Jehoshaphat was the spiritual leader of Judah and as long as we read about idol shrines in the land, we know that he’s really falling down in his God appointed role.

The rest of the events of Jehoshaphat’s reign, from beginning to end, are recorded in The Record of Jehu Son of Hanani, which is included in The Book of the Kings of Israel. (2 Chron. 20:34)

This comment reminds us that our Bible doesn’t come close to preserving all of the records of ancient Israel. Christians have selected only a few documents to include in their sacred textbooks. Did we make wise choices in the documents we chose to keep versus ignore? What does God think of the compilation of records we call His “Word” today? Are we really experiencing His ideal plan for us or are we missing out on something because we aren’t listening well enough?

Some time later King Jehoshaphat of Judah made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, who was very wicked. Together they built a fleet of trading ships at the port of Ezion-geber. Then Eliezer son of Dodavahu from Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat. He said, “Because you have allied yourself with King Ahaziah, Yahweh will destroy your work.” So the ships met with disaster and never put out to sea. (2 Chron. 20:35-37)

Ahaziah is the son of the Baal worshiping King Ahab. Ahaziah was a real lemon who Yahweh kills off after only two years. If Jehoshaphat is such a good king, what is he doing making an alliance with such an evil man? Should Christians make pacts with Satan worshipers? Should believers suck up to God’s enemies? No. This is yet more evidence of the shallowness of Jehoshaphat’s personal devotion to Yahweh. When these two kings build a fleet of trading ships to help themselves get rich, Yahweh intentionally trashes the project. Why should He bless Jehoshaphat for his rebellion?

To learn more about the history and kings of Israel, see the Know Your Bible Series. The discussion of King Jehoshaphat’s reign begins in Lesson 15.