The Southern Kingdom’s March Toward Exile (1 Kings 11:41 - 2 Kings 25:26; 2 Chronicles 16 - 36)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Following in the footsteps of the northern kingdom, the southern kingdom’s rulers soon began to decline into idolatry and evil. Under Rehoboam’s rule the people "built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations" (1 Kings 14:23-24). Rehoboam’s successors oscillated between faithfulness and doing evil in God’s sight. For a while Judah had enough good kings to stave off disaster, but in the final years the kingdom fell to the same state that the northern kingdom had. The nation was conquered, and the kings and elites were captured and deported, by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24, 25). The faithlessness of the kings whom the people had demanded, against God's advice hundreds of years earlier, culminated in a financial meltdown, destruction of the labor force, famine, and the mass murder or deportation of much of the population. The predicted disaster lasts seventy years until King Cyrus of Persia authorizes the return of some of the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem's Temple and walls (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).
One example of the degeneration of the kingdom ironically serves to bring to light a model of good financial practice. Like virtually all of the kingdom’s leaders, the priests had become corrupt. Instead of using worshippers’ donations to maintain the Temple, they pilfered the money and divided it among themselves. Under the direction of Jehoash, one of the few kings “who did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 12:2), the priests devised an effective accounting system. A locked chest with a small hole in the top was installed in the Temple to receive the donations. When it got full, the high priest and the king’s secretary would open the chest together, count the money, and contract with carpenters, builders, masons, and stonecutters to make repairs. This ensured that the money was used for its proper purpose.
The same system is still in use today, for example when the cash deposited in automatic teller machines is counted. The principle that even trusted individuals must be subject to verification and accountability is the foundation of good management. Whenever a person in power—especially the power of handling finances—tries to avoid verification, the organization is in danger. Because Kings includes this episode, we know that God values the work of bank tellers, accountants, auditors, bank regulators, armored car drivers, computer security workers, and others who protect the integrity of finance. It also urges all kinds of leaders to take the lead in setting a personal example of public accountability by inviting others to verify their work.
How could king after king fall so easily into evil? The story of Uzziah may give us some insight. He ascends to the throne at age sixteen and at first “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:4). His young age proves to be an advantage, as he recognizes his need for God’s guidance. “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chron. 26:5).
Interestingly, much of the success the Lord gives Uzziah is related to ordinary work. “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil” (2 Chron. 26:10). “In Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers” (2 Chron. 26:15a).
“He was marvelously helped,” the scripture tells us, “until he became strong” (2 Chron. 26:15b). Then his strength becomes his undoing because he began to serve himself instead of the Lord. "When he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the Lord his God” (2 Chron. 26:16). He attempts to usurp the religious authority of the priests, leading to a palace revolt that costs him the throne and leaves him an outcast the rest of his life.
Uzziah’s tale is sobering for people in leadership positions today. The character that leads to success—especially our reliance on God—is easily eroded by the powers and privileges that success brings. How many business, military, and political leaders have come to believe they are invincible and so lose the humility, discipline, and attitude of service needed to remain successful? How many of us at any level of success have paid more attention to ourselves and less to God as our power increases even modestly? Uzziah even had the benefit of subordinates who would oppose him when he did wrong, although he ignored them (2 Chron. 26:18). What, or who, do you have to keep you from drifting into pride and away from God should your success increase?
King Hezekiah of Judah presents another example of the arrogance of the kings. The passage begins with Hezekiah sick to the point of death. He begs God to recover, and God, by the word of the prophet Isaiah, grants him 15 more years of life. Meanwhile, the neighboring king of Babylon hears word of Hezekiah’s illness and sends envoys to spy out whether the situation makes Israel ripe for conquest. By the time they arrive Hezekiah is fully recovered. Perhaps the miraculous recovery made him feel invincible, because instead of proving his health and rapidly sending the spies on their way, he decides to show off the riches of his treasury to them. This makes Israel a more tempting target than ever.
God responds to this foolish action by sending Isaiah to prophesy further.
Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (2 Kings 20:16–18)
This passage can remind us about our own work. At times of great success, it is easy to become proud and reckless. This can lead to great destruction if we forget that we depend on God’s grace for our successes.
Hezekiah compounds his first mistake with a second. Isaiah has just prophesied that after Hezekiah is gone, his sons will be captured and mutilated and the kingdom destroyed. Instead of repenting and begging God again to save his people, he does nothing.
Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19)
It seems he is thinking only of himself. Since this destruction is not going to come during his lifetime, Hezekiah cares nothing about it.
This episode challenges us to think about how our actions affect the next generation, rather than thinking only of our own lifetime. Marion Wade, the founder of ServiceMaster, focused on building a company that would endure, rather than on ensuring his own success. He said,
I was not asking for personal success as an individual or merely material success as a corporation. I do not equate this kind of success with Christianity. Whatever God wants is what I want. But I did try to build a business that would live longer than I would in the marketplace that would witness to Jesus Christ in the way the business was conducted.
Lewis D. Solomon observed that Wade succeeded in establishing a culture of God-directed leadership that lasted long after his tenure. During this extended period, the company was highly successful. Eventually, however, control passed to a CEO who adopted a less overtly God-centered leadership approach, and the company’s performance diminished.
“ServiceMaster, a successful publicly held Fortune 500 corporation, grew from humble roots, led first by a preacher-steward-leader and then by a succession of CEOs, who combined preacher-steward-servant leadership styles. More recently, this transitional firm, now led by a non-evangelical CEO, follows and inclusive, non-sectarian approach. Coincidentally with this transition, the company’s legal difficulties mounted and its financial results stagnated.
Even as the kingdom’s strength declines, the kings remain convinced they are in control of their situation. Confident in their own abilities and trusting human advisors, they often fail to ask God’s guidance, usually with disastrous results.
In one case, King Ahab of Israel is about to go into battle. King Jehoshaphat of Judah reminds him, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord” (2 Chron. 18:4). Ahab consults his court prophets, but Jehoshaphat asks whether there is a genuine prophet of God available. Ahab replies, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster” (2 Chron. 18:7). Ahab doesn’t want advice from the Lord because it doesn’t align with his intentions. Eventually he does consult Michaiah, who indeed foretells disaster in the battle, for which Ahab has him imprisoned and starved (2 Chron. 18:18-27). Ahab proceeds into battle and is killed (2 Chron. 19:33-34).
Similarly, King Asa decides to form an alliance with the king of Aram instead of relying on God’s protection. Afterwards, he is challenged by a seer who tells him, “Because you relied on the king of Aram, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped you” (2 Chron. 16:7). Likewise, when Asa is stricken with a deadly foot disease, he does not seek the help from the Lord, but only from physicians (2 Chron. 16:12), leading to his early death.
Afterward King Jehoshaphat remembers to depend on God’s guidance. He reminds his judges, “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the LORD’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.” (2 Chron. 19:6-7). Even so, when Jehoshaphat himself is facing a vast enemy army in battle, the prophet Jahaziel has to remind him, “Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.” (2 Chron. 20:15).
The kinds of work in these passages–military strategy, medicine, and the legal system—require human skill. Yet skill is not enough—insight from God is also required. Most kinds of modern work also require skill, and we may feel that our insight and training is greater than it was in ancient times. We may think we don’t think we need—or don’t want—God’s guidance, so we rely on our own strengths instead. God has gifted us with wisdom and insight, but God wants us to seek his face even we think we have all the abilities we need. In fact modern abilities and power make our need to rely on God greater, not less, because our ability to do harm in the absence of God’s guidance is greater now than ever. God gives us talents and abilities for a reason, and we need to use them in consultation with him.