The God we wouldn’t expect (part 6)

The previous books I have discussed fall under the title of “wisdom” books.  They are explorations of the general ways of God and humanity which point to a fullness of life and being.  In their collected state they offer counsel to how we should indeed view life and view our relationship with God and others.  They are practical and philosophical, gleaning their insights from life lived.

The next set of documents I wish to discuss, however, is a very different style.  Rather than being a collection of insights gleaned from life, we are shown the lives themselves, and must glean for ourselves the wisdom which these writings contain.   We once again find a pattern of God acting in generally expected ways, but at times completely throwing us off track in our thinking about him.  These writings claim that we believe not only in a God who is, but in a God who acts.  From how he acts and interacts, or does not, we can learn a great deal about who he is, and who he is, we find, is often unexpected.

In the various books of Chronicles and Kings we read of the continued story of the kingdom of Israel (though for the most part this was a divided kingdom).  Begun in the books of Samuel, this is the story of the “golden age” of Israel, when it was a military and cultural powerhouse in the world.  One can call this collection of books the Rise and Fall of the Jewish Empire.  At the end of these books we find the country in ruin, the people scattered, only briefly to once again ever be in a position of self-rule (until this very century of course).

This is the story of God’s interaction with his chosen people, an interaction which reflects a maturity of relationship and expectation from his people.  For the most part kings we are told are evil meet with ruin, and kings we are told are good meet with success.[1] Although the kings are given power, this power is not without regard for the giver of this power, rather these kings serve only with the blessing of God, whose justice will not be blind to the unrighteous activities that the kings and people may indulge themselves.

The lesson goes beyond simply analyzing the careers of certain kings, irrelevant to our own time and place.  In our churches, history is very rarely used as illustrative.  Although these books and others remind us that at our essence we are a community dependent on history for our foundations, we have forgotten how to use our history for our own exhortation and instruction.  We have been given these stories of how God acted not only for additional information, but so that we can also understand how God has acted before, how he tends to respond to certain activities, and how we can expect God to continue to act.

If we do not read the record of how God has acted he will surprise us, but by reading the accounts of his dealings with humanity we can better understand what will happen in certain situations.  These books are passed on to us for our use, for our analysis, so that we can learn about God not through what others say about him, but through what he has actually done.

Kings and Chronicles are telling essentially the same story, but with different emphases, as if it takes different perspectives on the same situation in order to get the fullness of what the story is saying.  In this way they are similar to the four-fold Gospels we find in the New Testament.  By offering different details, expanding and choosing among the various stories, different emphases are given which best speak to the given audience and emphasize a different aspect of the Divine.  The destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile was a crisis moment for the Jewish people of enormous significance.  If indeed their relationship with God was based on their establishment in the land and the worship at the Temple, the loss of these would mean catastrophic trouble for their entire religion.

Yet in fact this was not the case.  The people survived because the emphasis was changed from the formal structures of the religion to a focus on the relationship they had with God.  God’s reaction to them was not based on their performance of mechanical duties, but was built truly on faith and trust.  The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us of God’s desire to save the people, to convince them to turn back to him, but we find this patience running out, and God destroying the confidence that the people had built for themselves.[2]

From this point onward their confidence would be rebuilt, but only after learning the lesson of absolute dependence on God once again.  At the end of Chronicles and Kings we find the people at a loss to do anything at all, forced to depend on a foreign pagan nation for their continued life, and suffering the indignity of being exiled.

Throughout these writings, however, we find an interesting, unexpected feature of how God works.  In times of evil kings, God would incite neighboring countries against the people of Israel, using the foreign nations as tools for his own purposes, relying on those who do not believe in him to do his work against those who did believe in him.  Even more unexpected, however, is the end of 2 Chronicles where we find the people at the complete mercy of the king of Persia.

They have no ability to even think about restoring the formal worship of God, yet in the last verse of the book we read, “Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever is among you of all his people, may Yahweh his God be with him! Let him go up.”[3] The speaker is Cyrus, king of the Persians.

The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians was incited by the anger of God, the process of restoring the Temple by a forgiving God was first begun by a foreigner, who God used both to punish and to restore Israel.  Now that is unexpected indeed.

[1] the apparent exception to this being the stories of Manasseh and Josiah;  see 2 Kings 21; 23:29; 24:3-4.

[2] See 2 Chronicles 36:11-23.

[3] 2 Chronicles 36:23.

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