My email messages, conversations over coffee, encounters with old friends, and Sunday School discussions mostly involve fear, anger and uncertainty about our government and world. This is stirred by the inflammatory words of some politicians, news commentators and religious leaders. Our today is too much like Judah's yesterday when “God's Spirit came upon Azariah, Obed's son, (and) he confronted Asa (king of Judah)” and said “listen to me” (vv. 1-2). Like ancient Israel we often have trouble recognizing what is from God and what is religious-political doublespeak. We long to hear God's voice.
Our text is set in a time of upheaval and political uncertainty as the prophet Azariah confronts King Asa. After King Solomon's death in 922 BC, Israel broke into two kingdoms; the southern kingdom became Judah and the northern became Israel. The kings of Judah were descended from David and 1 and 2 Chronicles focus on that region where Jerusalem is located. “The Chronicler” (author) refers to Judah as “Israel,” which alludes to the often bitter rivalry between the two regions.
King Asa was celebrated as the great reformer who led the southern kingdom back to exclusive worship of Yahweh in a world dominated by pagan gods (1 Kings 15:19-24 and 2 Chron. 14-16). Asa dethroned his grandmother, Queen Mother Maacah, because she had erected an Asherah pole, a symbol of pagan idol worship common in that time (2 Chron. 14:2-5). This is one of four accounts in the books of Chronicles that describe the Spirit as “coming on” someone and directing them to prophesy to a king (1 Chron. 12:18; 2 Chron. 20:14; 2 Chron. 24:20; today's text).
The message Azariah brings is a brief summation of what scholars call Deuteronomic theology: those who seek God and serve him will be blessed, but those who live outside the laws of God and do not serve him will be punished. Asa's reign reinforces this formula: when he obeys God he is blessed, but when he drifts away from God he and his people are punished. Asa is a positive example of faith, leading his people back to God in chapter 16. When King Basha of Israel (northern kingdom) declared war on Judah, King Asa sought to bribe the Syrian king, Ben-hadad, to break his alliance with the northern kingdom. Not only did Asa seek the aid of a pagan enemy instead of God, the bribe he offered included some of the Jerusalem Temple treasures (2 Chron. 16:2-3).
Azariah becomes the voice of God, calling Asa back to God with very clear language: “If you seek (God), he will be found by you; but if you abandon him, he will abandon you” (2 Chron. 15:2). This message was common in those years of enmity and fighting between Judah and Israel. The prophet Isaiah delivered the same message to Asa's descendant, King Ahaz: “Doom to those going down to Egypt for help! They rely on horses, trust in chariots because they are many, and on riders because they are very strong. But they don't look to the holy one of Israel; they don't seek the Lord” (Isaiah 31:1).
The obvious tragedy here is the belief that God's people can defend themselves against and destructive force by military alliance while leaving God in his sacred spiritual realm. Claiming to be God's people leads to thinking you are automatically guaranteed success because of religious language and tradition, trusting God as though he were some kind of divine rabbit's foot! Verses 3-6 concisely reveal the critical problem: “For a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach them, and without the instruction ... it wasn't safe to travel because great turmoil affected all the inhabitants of the area ... nation was crushed by nation, and city by city, as God troubled them with every kind of problem.” God warned them. They chose. The predictable happened.
There is a clear word of hope in the middle of that predictable disaster as verse 4 states: “They sought (God) and found him!” Azariah moves beyond the dark words of judgment to remind them (us): “But as for you, be brave and don't lose heart, because your work will be rewarded!” King Asa listened to the Spirit-inspired message of Azariah and instituted major reforms: idolatrous forms of worship and pagan high places of worship were eradicated, the high altar of the Temple in Jerusalem was restored, and King Asa led a covenant renewal ceremony in which the people “sought the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and soul ... they made an oath to the Lord with a loud voice.” (II Chron.15:7-15)
The Holy Spirit may not appear frequently in the Old Testament, but when he works the result is life-changing and reminds us that God's grace is the only real hope for any generation. God's Spirit chose to speak through Azariah at a time when religion was part of the national culture but faith in God was replaced by empty words and traditions. Does God speak to individuals today like he spoke to Azariah and Asa in the days of Israel's division? Are we even listening for the voice of God? We use his name with an indifferent or self-serving attitude, and, like those ancient people, do we wonder why our world is in shambles?
Some have described the U.S. as a “new Israel.” We want the motto “In God We Trust” on our government buildings, on our currency and in our political speeches. But we ignore the teachings of the Old Testament and our Savior to live morally, to care for the poor and suffering, to love our neighbors, to love God more than ourselves.
The Bible is not centered on the idea that God's people should be immune from life's circumstances or that we should be blessed and wealthy above others. We are to seek to live by the example of Jesus who ignored racial and national differences. He went to the cross knowing our imperfections and short-term spiritual attention span – yet he loves us. And we know that in the grace of God there is always hope, that the Holy Spirit is with us every moment, and God can work in any circumstances to bring healing and a new beginning as we are faithful.
Retired after 46 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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