In this follow-up to I Chronicles, the author continues with the story of the Israelite kings, after the death of David. The books of Chronicles are very Jerusalem-centred, so are more the work of a courtier of the Judaite kings of the southern kingdom (two or three tribes – Juda, Simeon, Benjamin – and with exiles from the other tribes) than the books of the Kings, which have many more narratives about the northern kingdom of Israel (all the other tribes, especially the highly prosperous tribes of Ephraim and Manasses). In the books of Chronicles, then, we here principally about the heirs of King David and even the fall of the northern kingdom in 721 BC is referred to only in passing. Another centre point of this second book of Chronicles is the Temple, for the book begins with the glory of its first building and the necessity for its maintenance over the centuries. The fortunes of the Judaite kings are measured according to the respect and honour that they gave to the ancient Law of Moses and therefore to the cult of the Temple. The good Judaite kings, like Ezechias (Hezekiah) and Josias, sought to centre the national religion in Jerusalem, providing one altar only for the entire people. They had to fight against the tendency of the people to build more convenient local altars all around the Holy Land, usually on high places; such places tended to become syncretist shrines, honouring both almighty God and a variety of Chanaanite deities. We cannot forget that several Chanaanite tribes had persisted in the Holy Land, for the Israelites could never entirely expel the natives of the land; occasionally, therefore, temples were erected to the baalim of the countryside, which temples became abhorrent to religious Israelites, and in particularly the levites and the priests, who were custodians of the Hebrew religious rites. And that is a long intro to the rather sad narrative of the destruction of the Israelite nation that now follows.
Much of the book of Chronicles repeats material from the third and fourth books of the Kings, so I shall simply fast-forward to some interesting moments in this latter history of the Davidic dynasty. So, we can fly over the first few chapters, that speak of the retrieval of the Ark of the Covenant from Cariathiarim (Kiriath-Iearim) by King David and its relocation to the hill-sanctuary of Gabaon, its temporary location while Solomon son of David built the Temple. We hear again of Solomon’s request of God for wisdom and the prosperity that he gained as a result, all of it being crowned by the building of the Temple and the royal palace. Solomon’s building projects extended beyond Jerusalem, and he erected civil buildings everywhere and fortified all his major towns and cities, while continuing the organisation of the liturgy and the cult of the Jerusalem Temple, as arranged by his father:
“Solomon used the altar he had built to the Lord in front of the temple porch for offering burnt-sacrifice day by day, as the law of Moses enjoined, on sabbaths, too, and at the new moon, and for the three feasts that came round yearly, the feasts of Unleavened Bread, of Weeks, and of Tabernacles. And he assigned to the priests the duties they were to perform, as his father David had prescribed them; and to the Levites their duties of singing praise, and of helping the priests with their task, as the needs of each day required; and to the door-keepers their various posts. All that God’s servant David had enjoined must be done; neither priest nor Levite might go beyond the king’s orders, in this or in the keeping of the sacred treasures.”II Paralipomena, 8: 12-15
In its glorification of Solomon, this book fails to mention his descent into idolatry in his old age, through the favours he had granted to his many foreign wives and concubines, that enabled them to continue with their own religious rites in the region of Jerusalem. This was probably the origin of the various religious cults that surrounded the shrines built on high places. Certainly, almighty God was honoured in these places also, but alongside several ‘gods of the countryside.’ Solomon’s own son Roboam continued to allow this multicultural situation to persist. When the northern tribes seceded from the Davidic rule, Roboam fortified his cities along the border with Ephraim to the north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, and this the books of the Kings don’t mention: when the northern tribes fell into idolatry after King Jeroboam I of Israel introduced an Egyptian religion at Bethel and Dan, Roboam invited large numbers of refugees, who were faithful to the Hebrew religion, into the southern kingdom. More about the new religion of King Jeroboam can be heard of in condemnation in the thirteenth chapter.
“Juda and Benjamin were his subjects, and from their homes in every part of Israel the priests and Levites rallied to him. Precincts and lands must be left behind, to Juda and Jerusalem they must betake themselves, now that Jeroboam and his heirs would have none of their divinely appointed ministrations; Jeroboam must have his own priests, to serve the hill-shrines, and the devil-gods, and the calves he had made. Nay, in all the tribes of Israel there were dedicated hearts that had recourse still to the Lord God of Israel; these, when they had victims to offer, would present themselves at Jerusalem, before the Lord God of their fathers. These added strength to the kingdom of Juda, and lent courage to Roboam, the son of Solomon, but only for three years. Only for three years did they follow loyally in the steps of David and Solomon.”II Paralipomena, 11: 12-17
In this second book of Chronicles, we hear more about the threats to the Holy Land not only from the Assyrians in the north and north-west, and the neo-Babylonian empire in the east, but from Egypt in the south-west. All these had become the instruments of God to chasten the pride of the Judaite kings. The next faithful king after Solomon was to be Asa, the grandson of Roboam, who took counsel from prophets such as Oded and conducted a cleansing of the popular religion of the people, destroying those hill-top shrines that had been built in Solomon’s old age, as well as all local shrines and altars throughout the kingdom, thereby centralising the religious cult at Jerusalem.
“His was a life well lived, in obedience to the Lord’s will; altar and hill-shrine of alien worship he overthrew, broke the images, cut down the forest sanctuaries, and bade Juda have recourse to the Lord, the God of their fathers, carrying out all His Law enjoined. No city in Juda but he rid it of altar and of shrine, and so he reigned in peace. And now, the Lord so blessing him with peace, his reign free from every alarm of battle, he set about fortifying the cities in his realm.”II Paralipomena, 14: 2-6
Thus was idolatry removed from the consciousness of the people, for the prophets were united in connecting idolatry with every misfortune suffered by the kings and the people. But Asa made the mistake of allying with Syria for assistance when he was threatened with invasion by the northern kingdom. Thus began an indebtedness to Syria that must have made the Syrians more curious about the wealth of Juda. Asa’s son Josaphat was also faithful to almighty God and so experienced much prosperity. But he had created a friendship with the idolatrous King Achab of the northern kingdom of Israel, which almost led to his death. But King Josaphat of Juda is one of the heroes of this book, which in chapter twenty narrates a miraculous delivery of his kingdom from a military horde from east of the Jordan river. Unfortunately, his son Joram retained the friendship with King Achab’s Amriite dynasty in the northern kingdom and even slipped into their idolatry, corrupting the religion of the Judaites, to the point of receiving a letter from the prophet Elias/Elijah, who was ever a foe of King Achab:
“A letter, too, was brought to him, written by the prophet Elias, with a message from the Lord, the God of his father David: ‘Not for thee the example of thy father Josaphat, and of king Asa, that reigned in Juda before thee; thou wouldst play the wanton, like the house of Achab, teach the men of Juda and Jerusalem to betray their troth, after Israel’s fashion, and wouldst slay thy brethren, princes of thy own father’s line, better men than thyself. A heavy punishment the Lord will send upon thee, taking toll of thy people, of thy sons, of thy wives, and of all thou hast; and for thyself, a foul disease shall attack thy inward parts, that grows worse from day to day until thy very bowels drop out.'”II Paralipomena, 21: 12-15
And indeed, his family was mostly carried away into slavery by Arab raiders from the desert and his son Ochozias (Joachaz), not very different from him, reigned only for a year. Ochozias’ mother Athalia was an Amriite princess of the northern kingdom and after Ochozias was killed by the reforming King Jehu of Israel, she killed every one of her grandsons and proceeded to usurp the throne of Juda and Jerusalem. When the people were finally delivered from her, it was through the intervention of the Temple priests (fed up with the reigning idolatry of the Amriites), led by the high-priest Joiada. His plot to depose the queen-mother and enthrone the last son of Ochozias, Joas, is described in chapter twenty-three and his guiding of this child king in chapter twenty-four. With the death of Joiada, strife returned and the high-priests son and successor was himself martyred, under this same King Joas.
“At last the divine spirit fell on the high priest Zacharias, that was son to Joiada; full in the presence of the people he stood up and gave them a message from the Lord God: ‘What means it that you so transgress the Lord’s command, to your peril, forsaking him, and by him forsaken?’ But they, at the king’s orders, gathered about him and stoned him, there in the court of the Lord’s house. Such was the gratitude of Joas; for the great services the father had done him, the son must die. And as he died, he said, May the Lord look on this, and exact the penalty.”II Paralipomena, 24: 20-22
And I don’t believe God was very happy, for the Syrians arrived at last to have at the wealth of the Judaites, in Temple and royal palace, and the king was then treacherously murdered. His son Amasias continued in his fickleness towards the national religion, honouring almighty God among other Chanaanite deities. He was arrested in his pride by King Joas of the northern kingdom, who again looted Jerusalem and destroyed her defences (chapter twenty-five). Amasias’ son Ozias was much like his father, fickle in religion and overbearing in his pride, therefore finding alternative prosperity and ruin. He even dared to attempt priestly duties in the Temple and suffered leprosy as a result (chapter twenty-six). Ozias’ son Joatham was more faithful than his father and grandfather, and his brief reign seems to have been blessed and a short relief before the calamity of his son Achaz’ time, in which time Syrians came aplundering again and the Edomites from the south, followed by the Israelites of the northern kingdom, who even took captive women and children; these were only returned safely to Jericho after the intervention of the prophet Oded of Samaria (chapter twenty-eight). And in threat from every direction, Achaz made the mistake of inviting the assistance of the Assyrians in the north, who descended upon the northern kingdom of Israel to utterly destroy it; and they now themselves took note of the wealth of the Judaite kingdom. It was to this King Achaz that the great prophet Isaias had made an attempt to assist, but who prefered diplomatic links with Assyria to placing his trust in almighty God. Instead of help, he received the famous prophecy about Christ:
“Then it was that the Lord said to Isaias, ‘Take with thee thy son, Jashub the Survivor, and go out to the end of the aqueduct that feeds the upper pool in the Fuller’s Ground. There thou wilt meet Achaz, and this shall be thy message to him, Shew a calm front, do not be afraid. Must thy heart fail thee because Rasin king of Syria and the son of Romelia are thy sworn enemies? What is either of them but the smouldering stump of a fire-brand? What if Syria, what if Ephraim and the son of Romelia are plotting to do thee an injury?… Ask the Lord thy God to give thee a sign, in the depths beneath thee, or in the height above thee.’ But Achaz said, ‘Nay, I will not ask for a sign; I will not put the Lord to the test.’ ‘Why then,’ said Isaias, ‘listen to me, you that are of David’s race. Cannot you be content with trying the patience of men? Must you try my God’s patience too? Sign you ask none, but sign the Lord will give you. Maid shall be with child, and shall bear a son, that shall be called Emmanuel.’“Isaias, 7: 3-7, 11-14
But now, with the northern kingdom vanished and with refugees pouring into Juda from the north, Jerusalem received one of her greatest kings, Ezechias (Hezekiah), who restored the Temple finally and enforced the Law of Moses, calling Hebrews from all over, even the remains of the northern kingdom, to keep the paschal festival in Jerusalem. Many responded, and for the first time since the reign of Solomon there was a greater unity once more (chapter thirty). The liturgical systems of kings David and Solomon were restored and idolatry once more eliminated. This couldn’t stop the arrival of the Assyrians, led by the king Sennacherib, and the successful siege of the Judaite fortress-city of Lachis, but, with both Ezechias and the prophet Isaias leading the people, it did prevent the capture of Jerusalem (chapter thirty-two) and made a brief recovery possible. However, Ezechias’ son Manasses and his grandson Amon were wretched kings and undid his work, for long decades drawing the people further and further into idolatry. Finally, the last yahoo was provided by the last faithful king before Christ, Josias son of Amon. This good king restored the Temple, enthroned the Torah and worked heard to eliminate the idolatry that had accumulated from the time of King Manasses his grandfather. Chapter thirty-five tells of the last great Passover festival celebrated before the destruction of the first Temple (Solomon’s Temple). King Josias was killed when he imprudently decided to war with an Egyptian army going past him to menace the Assyrians. His heir Joachaz was exiled in Egypt by Pharaoh Nechao, who imposed a tax on Juda. Joachaz brother Joachim promptly descended into idolatry, as did his son Joachin, and then the neo-Babylonians arrived, under King Nabuchodonosor, who carried Joachin away into exile in Babylon, placing his uncle Sedecias on the throne as a puppet king. By this time, nothing could prevent the idolatry that had returned in force after the death of Josias; and here we end with the certain destruction that followed. The story resumes forty years later, at the top of the book of Ezra (aka. I Esdras), with the restoration of the Judaite people, who would now be called Jews.
“And they? They mocked the Lord’s own messengers, made light of His warnings, derided His prophets, until at last the Lord’s anger was roused against His people, past all assuaging. Then it was that He embroiled them with the king of Babylon, who came and put their young men to the sword in the sanctuary itself, pitying neither young man nor maid, old man nor cripple; none might escape his attack. All the furniture of the Lord’s house, great and small, all the treasures of temple and king and princes, must be carried off to Babylon. Enemy hands set fire to the Lord’s house, pulled down Jerusalem’s walls, burnt its towers to the ground, destroyed all that was of price.”II Paralipomena, 36: 16-19