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Chapter VII. The Wicked Kings. 2 Chron. xxviii., etc.
The type of the wicked king is not worked out with any fulness in Chronicles. There are wicked kings, but no one is raised to the “bad eminence” of an evil counterpart to David; there is no anti-David, so to speak, no prototype of antichrist. The story of Ahaz, for instance, is not given at the same length and with the same wealth of detail as that of David. The subject was not so congenial to the kindly heart of the chronicler. He was not imbued with the unhappy spirit of modern realism, which loves to dwell on all that is foul and ghastly in life and character; he lingered affectionately over his heroes, and contented himself with brief notices of his villains. In so doing he was largely following his main authority: the books of Samuel and Kings. There too the stories of David and Solomon, of Elijah and Elisha, are told much more fully than those of Jeroboam and Ahab.
But the mention of these names reminds us that the chronicler's limitation of his subject to the history of Judah excludes much of the material that might have been drawn from the earlier history for a picture of the wicked king. If it had been part of the chronicler's plan to tell the story of Ahab, he might 199 have been led to develop his material and moralise upon the king's career till the narrative assumed proportions that would have rivalled the history of David. Over against the great scene that closed David's life might have been set another summing up in one dramatic moment the guilt and ruin of Ahab. But these schismatic kings were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”251251 Eph. ii. 12. The disobedient sons of the house of David were still children within the home, who might be rebuked and punished; but the Samaritan kings, as the chronicler might style them, were outcasts, left to the tender mercies of the dogs, and sorcerers, and murderers that were without the Holy City, Cains without any protecting mark upon their forehead.
Hence the wicked kings in Chronicles are of the house of David. Therefore the chronicler has a certain tenderness for them, partly for the sake of their great ancestor, partly because they are kings of Judah, partly because of the sanctity and religious significance of the Messianic dynasty. These kings are not Esaus, for whom there is no place of repentance. The chronicler is happy in being able to discover and record the conversion, as we should term it, of some kings whose reigns began in rebellion and apostacy. By a curious compensation, the kings who begin well end badly, and those who begin badly end well; they all tend to about the same average. We read of Rehoboam252252 2 Chron. xii. 12, peculiar to Chronicles. that “when he humbled himself the wrath of the Lord turned from him, that he would not destroy him altogether; and, moreover, in Judah 200 there were good things found”; the wickedness of Abijah, which is plainly set forth in the book of Kings,253253 1 Kings xv. 3. is ignored in Chronicles; Manasseh “humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers,” and turned altogether from the error of his ways254254 2 Chron. xxxiii. 11-20, peculiar to Chronicles.; the unfavourable judgment on Jehoahaz recorded in the book of Kings, “And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done,”255255 2 Kings xxiii. 32. is omitted in Chronicles.
There remain seven wicked kings of whom nothing but evil is recorded: Jehoram, Ahaziah, Ahaz, Amon, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Of these we may take Ahaz as the most typical instance. As in the cases of David and Solomon, we will first see how the chronicler has dealt with the material derived from the book of Kings; then we will give his account of the career of Ahaz; and finally, by a brief comparison of what is told of Ahaz with the history of the other wicked kings, we will try to construct the chronicler's idea of the wicked king and to deduce its lessons.
The importance of the additions made by the chronicler to the history in the book of Kings will appear later on. In his account of the attack made upon Ahaz by Rezin, king of Damascus, and Pekah, king of Israel, he emphasises the incidents most discreditable to Ahaz. The book of Kings simply states that the two allies “came up to Jerusalem to war; and they besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome him”256256 2 Kings xvi. 5.; Chronicles dwells upon the sufferings and losses inflicted on Judah by this invasion. The book of Kings might have conveyed the impression that the wicked king had been allowed to triumph over his enemies; 201 Chronicles guards against this dangerous error by detailing the disasters that Ahaz brought upon his country.
The book of Kings also contains an interesting account of alterations made by Ahaz in the Temple and its furniture. By his orders the high-priest Urijah made a new brazen altar for the Temple after the pattern of an altar that Ahaz had seen in Damascus. As Chronicles narrates the closing of the Temple by Ahaz, it naturally omits these previous alterations. Moreover, Urijah appears in the book of Isaiah as a friend of the prophet, and is referred to by him as a “faithful witness.”257257 Isa. viii. 2. The chronicler would not wish to perplex his readers with the problem, How could the high-priest, whom Isaiah trusted as a faithful witness, become the agent of a wicked king, and construct an altar for Jehovah after a heathen pattern?
The chronicler's story of Ahaz runs thus. This wicked king had been preceded by three good kings: Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham. Amaziah indeed had turned away from following Jehovah at the end of his reign, but Uzziah had been zealous for Jehovah throughout, not wisely, but too well; and Jotham shares with Solomon the honour of a blameless record. Without counting Amaziah's reign, king and people had been loyal to Jehovah for sixty or seventy years. The court of the good kings would be the centre of piety and devotion. Ahaz, no doubt, had been carefully trained in obedience to the law of Jehovah, and had grown up in the atmosphere of true religion. Possibly he had known his grandfather Uzziah in the days of his power and glory; but at any rate, while Ahaz was 202 a child, Uzziah was living as a leper in his “several house,” and Ahaz must have been familiar with this melancholy warning against presumptuous interference with the Divine ordinances of worship.
Ahaz was twenty years old when he came to the throne, so that he had time to profit by a complete education, and should scarcely have found opportunity to break away from its influence. His mother's name is not mentioned, so that we cannot say whether, as may have been the case with Rehoboam, some Ammonite woman led him astray from the God of his fathers. As far as we can learn from our author, Ahaz sinned against light and knowledge; with every opportunity and incentive to keep in the right path, he yet went astray.
This is a common feature in the careers of the wicked kings. It has often been remarked that the first great specialist on education failed utterly in the application of his theories to his own son. Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah were the most distinguished and the most virtuous of the reforming kings, yet Jehoshaphat was succeeded by Jehoram, who was almost as wicked as Ahaz; Hezekiah's son “Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, so that they did evil more than did the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the children of Israel”;258258 2 Chron. xxxiii. 9. Josiah's son and grandsons “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”259259 2 Chron. xxxvi. 5, 8, 11.
Many reasons may be suggested for this too familiar spectacle: the impious son of a godly father, the bad successor of a good king. Heirs-apparent have always been inclined to head an opposition to their fathers' policy, and sometimes on their accession they have 203 reversed that policy. When the father himself has been a zealous reformer, the interests that have been harassed by reform are eager to encourage his successor in a retrograde policy; and reforming zeal is often tinged with an inconsiderate harshness that provokes the opposition of younger and brighter spirits. But, after all, this atavism in kings is chiefly an illustration of the slow growth of the higher nature in man. Practically each generation starts afresh with an unregenerate nature of its own, and often nature is too strong for education.
Moreover, a young king of Judah was subject to the evil influence of his northern neighbour. Judah was often politically subservient to Samaria, and politics and religion have always been very intimately associated. At the accession of Ahaz the throne of Samaria was filled by Pekah, whose twenty years' tenure of authority indicates ability and strength of character. It is not difficult to understand how Ahaz was led “to walk in the ways of the kings of Israel” and “to make molten images for the Baals.”
Nothing is told us of the actual circumstances of these innovations. The new reign was probably inaugurated by the dismissal of Jotham's ministers and the appointment of the personal favourites of the new king. The restoration of old idolatrous cults would be a natural advertisement of a new departure in the government. So when the establishment of Christianity was a novelty in the empire, and men were not assured of its permanence, Julian's accession was accompanied by an apostacy to paganism; and later aspirants to the purple promised to follow his example. But the worship of Jehovah was not at once suppressed. He was not deposed from His throne as the 204 Divine King of Judah; He was only called upon to share His royal authority with the Baals of the neighbouring peoples.
But although the Temple services might still be performed, the king was mainly interested in introducing and observing a variety of heathen rites. The priesthood of the Temple saw their exclusive privileges disregarded and the rival sanctuaries of the high places and the sacred trees taken under royal patronage. But the king's apostacy was not confined to the milder forms of idolatry. His weak mind was irresistibly attracted by the morbid fascination of the cruel rites of Moloch: “He burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, according to the abomination of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel.”
The king's devotions to his new gods were rudely interrupted. The insulted majesty of Jehovah was vindicated by two disastrous invasions. First, Ahaz was defeated by Rezin, king of Syria, who carried away a great multitude of captives to Damascus; the next enemy was one of those kings of Israel in whose idolatrous ways Ahaz had chosen to walk. The delicate flattery implied by Ahaz becoming Pekah's proselyte failed to conciliate that monarch. He too defeated the Jews with great slaughter. Amongst his warriors was a certain Zichri, whose achievements recalled the prowess of David's mighty men: he slew Maaseiah the king's son and Azrikam, the ruler of the house, the Lord High Chamberlain, and Elkanah, that was next unto the king, the Prime Minister. With these notables, there perished in a single day a hundred and twenty thousand Jews, all of them valiant men. Their wives and children, to the number of two hundred 205 thousand, were carried captive to Samaria. All these misfortunes happened to Judah “because they had forsaken Jehovah, the God of their fathers.”
And yet Jehovah in wrath remembered mercy. The Israelite army approached Samaria with their endless train of miserable captives, women and children, ragged and barefoot, some even naked, filthy and footsore with forced marches, left hungry and thirsty after prisoners' scanty rations. Multiply a thousandfold the scenes depicted on Egyptian and Assyrian monuments, and you have the picture of this great slave caravan. The captives probably had no reason to fear the barbarities which the Assyrians loved to inflict upon their prisoners, but yet their prospects were sufficiently gloomy. Before them lay a life of drudgery and degradation in Samaria. The more wealthy might hope to be ransomed by their friends; others, again, might be sold to the Phœnician traders, to be carried by them to the great slave marts of Nineveh and Babylon or even oversea to Greece. But in a moment all was changed. “There was a prophet of Jehovah, whose name was Oded, and he went out to meet the army and said unto them, Behold, because Jehovah, the God of your fathers, was wroth with Judah, He hath delivered them into your hand; and ye have slain them in a rage which hath reached up unto heaven. And now ye purpose to keep the children of Judah and of Jerusalem for male and female slaves; but are there not even with you trespasses of your own against Jehovah your God? Now hear me therefore, and send back the captives, for the fierce wrath of Jehovah is upon you.”
Meanwhile “the princes and all the congregation of Samaria” were waiting to welcome their victorious 206 army, possibly in “the void place at the entering in of the gate of Samaria.” Oded's words, at any rate, had been uttered in their presence. The army did not at once respond to the appeal; the two hundred thousand slaves were the most valuable part of their spoil, and they were not eager to make so great a sacrifice. But the princes made Oded's message their own. Four heads of the children of Ephraim are mentioned by name as the spokesmen of the “congregation,” the king being apparently absent on some other warlike expedition. These four were Azariah the son of Johanan, Berechiah the son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah the son of Shallum, and Amasa the son of Hadlai. Possibly among the children of Ephraim who dwelt in Jerusalem after the Return there were descendants of these men, from whom the chronicler obtained the particulars of this incident. The princes “stood up against them that came from the war,” and forbade their bringing the captives into the city. They repeated and expanded the words of the prophet: “Ye purpose that which will bring upon us a trespass against Jehovah, to add unto our sins and to our trespass, for our trespass is great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.” The army were either convinced by the eloquence or overawed by the authority of the prophet and the princes: “They left the captives and the spoil before all the princes and the congregation.” And the four princes “rose up, and took the captives, and with the spoil clothed all that were naked among them, and arrayed them, and shod them, and gave them to eat and to drink, and anointed them, and carried all the feeble of them upon asses, and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto their brethren; then they returned to Samaria.”207
Apart from incidental allusions, this is the last reference in Chronicles to the northern kingdom. The long history of division and hostility closes with this humane recognition of the brotherhood of Israel and Judah. The sun, so to speak, did not go down upon their wrath. But the king of Israel had no personal share in this gracious act. At the first it was Jeroboam that made Israel to sin; throughout the history the responsibility for the continued division would specially rest upon the kings, and at the last there is no sign of Pekah's repentance and no prospect of his pardon.
The various incidents of the invasions of Rezin and Pekah were alike a solemn warning and an impressive appeal to the apostate king of Judah. He had multiplied to himself gods of the nations round about, and yet had been left without an ally, at the mercy of a hostile confederation, against whom his new gods either could not or would not defend him. The wrath of Jehovah had brought upon Ahaz one crushing defeat after another, and yet the only mitigation of the sufferings of Judah had also been the work of Jehovah. The returning captives would tell Ahaz and his princes how in schismatic and idolatrous Samaria a prophet of Jehovah had stood forth to secure their release and obtain for them permission to return home. The princes and people of Samaria had hearkened to his message, and the two hundred thousand captives stood there as the monument of Jehovah's compassion and of the obedient piety of Israel. Sin was bound to bring punishment; and yet Jehovah waited to be gracious. Wherever there was room for mercy, He would show mercy. His wrath and His compassion had alike been displayed before Ahaz. Other gods could not protect their worshippers against Him; He only could deliver and restore His 208 people. He had not even waited for Ahaz to repent before He had given him proof of His willingness to forgive.260260 2 Chron. xxviii. 5-15, peculiar to Chronicles; cf. 2 Kings xvi. 5, 6.
Such Divine goodness was thrown away upon Ahaz; there was no token of repentance, no promise of amendment; and so Jehovah sent further judgments upon the king and his unhappy people. The Edomites came and smote Judah, and carried away captives; the Philistines also invaded the cities of the lowland and of the south of Judah, and took Beth-shemesh, Aijalon, Gederoth, Soco, Timnah, Gimzo, and their dependent villages, and dwelt in them; and Jehovah brought Judah low because of Ahaz. And the king hardened his heart yet more against Jehovah, and cast away all restraint, and trespassed sore against Jehovah. Instead of submitting himself, he sought the aid of the kings of Assyria, only to receive another proof of the vanity of all earthly help so long as he remained unreconciled to Heaven. Tilgath-pilneser, king of Assyria, welcomed this opportunity of interfering in the affairs of Western Asia, and saw attractive prospects of levying blackmail impartially on his ally and his enemies. He came unto Ahaz, “and distressed him, but strengthened him not.” These new troubles were the occasion of fresh wickedness on the part of the king: to pay the price of this worse than useless intervention, he took away a portion not only from his own treasury and from the princes, but also from the treasury of the Temple, and gave it to the king of Assyria.
Thus betrayed and plundered by his new ally, he trespassed “yet more against Jehovah, this same king Ahaz.” It is almost incredible that one man could be 209 guilty of so much sin; the chronicler is anxious that his readers should appreciate the extraordinary wickedness of this man, this same king Ahaz. In him the chastening of the Lord yielded no peaceable fruit of righteousness; he would not see that his misfortunes were sent from the offended God of Israel. With perverse ingenuity, he found in them an incentive to yet further wickedness. His pantheon was not large enough. He had omitted to worship the gods of Damascus. These must be powerful deities, whom it would be worth while to conciliate, because they had enabled the kings of Syria to overrun and pillage Judah. Therefore Ahaz sacrificed to the gods of Syria, that they might help him. “But,” says the chronicler, “they were the ruin of him and of all Israel.” Still Ahaz went on consistently with his policy of comprehensive eclecticism. He made Jerusalem a very Athens for altars, which were set up at every street corner; he discovered yet other gods whom it might be advisable to adore: “And in every several city of Judah he made high places to burn incense unto other gods.”
Hitherto Jehovah had still received some share of the worship of this most religious king, but apparently Ahaz came to regard Him as the least powerful of his many supernatural allies. He attributed his misfortunes, not to the anger, but to the helplessness, of Jehovah. Jehovah was specially the God of Israel; if disaster after disaster fell upon His people, He was evidently less potent than Baal, or Moloch, or Rimmon. It was a useless expense to maintain the worship of so impotent a deity. Perhaps the apostate king was acting in the blasphemous spirit of the savage who flogs his idol when his prayers are not answered. Jehovah, he thought, should be punished for His neglect of the interests 210 of Judah. “Ahaz gathered together the vessels of the house of God, and cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and shut up the doors of the house of Jehovah”;261261 2 Chron. xxviii. 16-25, peculiar to Chronicles; cf. 2 Kings xvi. 7-18. he had filled up the measure of his iniquities.
And thus it came to pass that in the Holy City, “which Jehovah had chosen to cause His name to dwell there,” almost the only deity who was not worshipped was Jehovah. Ahaz did homage to the gods of all the nations before whom he had been humiliated; the royal sacrifices smoked upon a hundred altars, but no sweet savour of burnt offering ascended to Jehovah. The fragrance of the perpetual incense no longer filled the holy place morning and evening; the seven lamps of the golden candlestick were put out, and the Temple was given up to darkness and desolation. Ahaz had contented himself with stripping the sanctuary of its treasures; but the building itself, though closed, suffered no serious injury. A stranger visiting the city, and finding it full of idols, could not fail to notice the great pile of the Temple and to inquire what image, splendid above all others, occupied that magnificent shrine. Like Pompey, he would learn with surprise that it was not the dwelling-place of any image, but the symbol of an almighty and invisible presence. Even if the stranger were some Moabite worshipper of Chemosh, he would feel dismay at the wanton profanity with which Ahaz had abjured the God of his fathers and desecrated the temple built by his great ancestors. The annals of Egypt and Babylon told of the misfortunes which had befallen those monarchs who were unfaithful to their national gods. The pious heathen 211 would anticipate disaster as the punishment of Ahaz's apostacy.
Meanwhile the ministers of the Temple shared its ruin and degradation; but they could feel the assurance that Jehovah would yet recall His people to their allegiance and manifest Himself once more in the Temple. The house of Aaron and the tribe of Levi possessed their souls in patience till the final judgment of Jehovah should fall upon the apostate. They had not long to wait: after a reign of only sixteen years, Ahaz died at the early age of thirty-six. We are not told that he died in battle or by the visitation of God. His health may have been broken by his many misfortunes, or by vicious practices that would naturally accompany his manifold idolatries; but in any case his early death would be regarded as a Divine judgment. The breath was scarcely out of his body before his religious innovations were swept away by a violent reaction. The people at once passed sentence of condemnation on his memory: “They brought him not into the sepulchres of the kings of Israel.”262262 xxviii. 27, peculiar to Chronicles. His successor inaugurated his reign by reopening the Temple, and brought back Judah to the obedience of Jehovah. The monuments of the impious worship of the wicked king, his multitudinous idols, and their ritual passed away like an evil dream, like “the track of a ship in the sea or a bird in the air.”
The leading features of this career are common to most of the wicked kings and to the evil days of the good kings “Walking in the ways of the kings of Israel” was the great crime of Jehoshaphat and his successors Jehoram and Ahaziah. Other kings, like 212 Manasseh, built high places and followed after the abominations of the heathen whom Jehovah cast out before the children of Israel. Asa's lapse into wickedness began by plundering the Temple treasury to purchase an alliance with a heathen king, the king of Syria, against whose successor Ahaz in his turn hired the king of Assyria. Amaziah adopted the gods of Edom, as Ahaz the gods of Syria, but with less excuse, for Amaziah had conquered Edom. Other crimes are recorded among the evil doings of the kings: Asa had recourse to physicians, that is, probably to magic; Jehoram slew his brethren; Joash murdered the son of his benefactor Jehoiada; but the supreme sin was disloyalty to Jehovah and the Temple, and of this sin the chronicler's brief history of Ahaz is the most striking illustration. Ahaz is the typical apostate: he hardens his heart alike against the mercy of Jehovah and against His repeated judgment. He is a very Pharaoh among the kings of Judah. The discipline that should have led to repentance is continually perverted to be the occasion of new sin, and at last the apostate dies in his iniquity. The effect of the picture is heightened by its insistence on this one sin of apostacy; other sins are illustrated and condemned elsewhere, but here the chronicler would have us concentrate our attention on the rise, progress, and ruin of the apostate. Indeed, this one sin implied and involved all others; the man who suppressed the worship of Jehovah, and revelled in the obscene superstitions of heathen cults, was obviously capable of any enormity. The chronicler is not indifferent to morality as compared with ritual, and he sees in the neglect of Divinely appointed ritual an indication of a character rotten through and through. In his time 213 neglect of ritual on the part of the average man or the average king implied neglect of religion, or rather adherence to an alien and immoral faith.
Thus the supreme sin of the wicked kings naturally contrasts with the highest virtue of the good kings. The standing of both is determined by their attitude towards Jehovah. The character of the good kings is developed in greater detail than that of their wicked brethren; but we should not misrepresent the chronicler's views, if we ascribed to the wicked kings all the vices antithetic to the virtues of his royal ideal. Nevertheless the picture actually drawn fixes our attention upon their impious denial of the God of Israel. Much Church history has been written on the same principle: Constantine is a saint because he established Christianity; Julian is an incarnation of wickedness because he became an apostate; we praise the orthodox Theodosius, and blame the Arian Valens. Protestant historians have canonised Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, and have prefixed an unholy epithet to the name of their kinswoman, while Romanist writers interchange these verdicts. But underlying even such opposite judgments there is the same valid principle, the principle that was in the mind of the chronicler: that the king's relation to the highest and purest truth accessible to him, whatever that truth may be, is a just criterion of his whole character. The historian may err in applying the criterion, but its general principle is none the less sound.
For the character of the wicked nation we are not left to the general suggestions that may be derived from the wicked king. The prophets show us that it was by no vicarious condemnation that priests and people shared the ruin of their sovereign. In their 214 pages the subject is treated from many points of view: Israel and Judah, Edom and Tyre, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, serve in their turn as models for the picture of the wicked nation. In the Apocalypse the ancient picture is adapted to new circumstances, and the City of the Seven Hills takes the place of Babylon. Modern prophets have further adapted the treatment of the subject to their own times, and for the most part to their own people. With stern and uncompromising patriotism, Carlyle and Ruskin have sought righteousness for England even at the expense of its reputation; they have emphasised its sin and selfishness in order to produce repentance and reform. For other teachers the history of foreign peoples has furnished the picture of the wicked nation, and the France of the Revolution or the “unspeakable” Turk has been held up as an example of all that is abominable in national life.
Any detailed treatment of this theme in Scripture would need an exposition, not merely of Chronicles, but of the whole Bible. We may, however, make one general application of the chronicler's principle that the wicked nation is the nation that forgets God. We do not now measure a people's religion by the number and magnificence of its priests and churches, or by the amount of money devoted to the maintenance of public worship. The most fatal symptoms of national depravity are the absence of a healthy public opinion, indifference to character in politics, neglect of education as a means of developing character, and the stifling of the spirit of brotherhood in a desperate struggle for existence. When God is thus forgotten, and the gracious influences of His Spirit are no longer recognised in public and private life, a country may well be degraded into the ranks of the wicked nations.215
The perfectly general terms in which the doings and experiences of Ahaz are described facilitate the application of their warnings to the ordinary individual. His royal station only appears in the form and scale of his wickedness, which in its essence is common to him with the humblest sinner. Every young man enters, like Ahaz, upon a royal inheritance; character and career are as all-important to a peasant or a shopgirl as they are to an emperor or a queen. When a girl of seventeen or a youth of twenty succeeds to some historic throne, we are moved to think of the heavy burden of responsibility laid upon inexperienced shoulders and of the grave issues that must be determined during the swiftly passing years of their early manhood and womanhood. Alas, this heavy burden and these grave issues are but the common lot. The young sovereign is happy in the fierce light that beats upon his throne, for he is not allowed to forget the dignity and importance of life. History, with its stories of good and wicked kings, has obviously been written for his instruction; if the time be out of joint, as it mostly is, he has been born to set it right. It is all true, yet it is equally true for every one of his subjects. His lot is only the common lot set upon a hill, in the full sunlight, to illustrate, interpret, and influence lower and obscurer lives. People take such eager interest in the doings of royal families, their christenings, weddings, and funerals, because therein the common experience is, as it were, glorified into adequate dignity and importance.
“Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem”; but most men and women begin to reign before they are twenty. The history of Judah for those sixteen years was really determined long before Ahaz was invested with crown 216 and sceptre. Men should all be educated to reign, to respect themselves and appreciate their opportunities. We do in some measure adopt this principle with promising lads. Their energies are stimulated by the prospect of making a fortune or a name, or the more soaring imagination dreams of a seat on the woolsack or on one of the Front Benches. Gifted girls are also encouraged, as becomes their gifts, to achieve a brilliant marriage or a popular novel. We need to apply the principle more consistently and to recognise the royal dignity of the average life and of those whom the superior person is pleased to call commonplace people. It may then be possible to induce the ordinary young man to take a serious interest in his own future. The stress laid on the sanctity and supreme value of the individual soul has always been a vital element of evangelical teaching; like most other evangelical truths, it is capable of deeper meaning and wider application than are commonly recognised in systematic theology.
We have kept our sovereign waiting too long on the threshold of his kingdom; his courtiers and his people are impatient to know the character and intentions of their new master. So with every heir who succeeds to his royal inheritance. The fortunes of millions may depend upon the will of some young Czar or Kaiser; the happiness of a hundred tenants or of a thousand workmen may rest on the disposition of the youthful inheritor of a wide estate or a huge factory; but none the less in the poorest cottage mother and father and friends wait with trembling anxiety to see how the boy or girl will “turn out” when they take their destinies into their own hands and begin to reign. Already perhaps some tender maiden watches in hope and fear, in mingled pride and misgiving, the rapidly unfolding 217 character of the youth to whom she has promised to commit all the happiness of a life-time.
And to each one in turn there comes the choice of Hercules; according to the chronicler's phrase, the young king may either “do right in the eyes of Jehovah, like David his father,” or he may walk “in the ways of the kings of Israel, and make molten images for the Baals.”
The “right doings of David his father” may point to family traditions, which set a high standard of noble conduct for each succeeding generation. The teaching and influence of the pious Jotham are represented by the example of godliness set in many a Christian home, by the wise and loving counsel of parents and friends. And Ahaz has many modern parallels, sons and daughters upon whom every good influence seems spent in vain. They are led astray into the ways of the kings of Israel, and make molten images for the Baals. There were several dynasties of the kings of Israel, and the Baals were many and various; there are many tempters who deliberately or unconsciously lay snares for souls, and they serve different powers of evil. Israel was for the most part more powerful, wealthy, and cultured than Judah. When Ahaz came to the throne as a mere youth, Pekah was apparently in the prime of life and the zenith of power. He is no inapt symbol of what the modern tempter at any rate desires to appear: the showy, pretentious man of the world, who parades his knowledge of life, and impresses the inexperienced youth with his shrewdness and success, and makes his victim eager to imitate him, to walk in the ways of the kings of Israel.
Moreover, the prospect of making molten images for the Baals is an insidious temptation. Ahaz perhaps 218 found the decorous worship of the one God dull and monotonous. Baals meant new gods and new rites, with all the excitement of novelty and variety. Jotham may not have realised that this youth of twenty was a man: the heir-apparent may have been treated as a child and left too much to the women of the harem. Responsible activity might have saved Ahaz. The Church needs to recognise that healthy, vigorous youth craves interesting occupation and even excitement. If a father wishes to send his son to the devil, he cannot do better than make that son's life, both secular and religious, a routine of monotonous drudgery. Then any pinchbeck king of Israel will seem a marvel of wit and good fellowship, and the making of molten images a most pleasing diversion. A molten image is something solid, permanent, and conspicuous, a standing advertisement of the enterprise and artistic taste of the maker; he engraves his name on the pedestal, and is proud of the honourable distinction. Many of our modern molten images are duly set forth in popular works, for instance the reputation for impure life, or hard drinking, or reckless gambling, to achieve which some men have spent their time, and money, and toil. Other molten images are dedicated to another class of Baals: Mammon the respectable and Belial the polite.
The next step in the history of Ahaz is also typical of many a rake's progress. The king of Israel, in whose ways he has walked, turns upon him and plunders him; the experienced man of the world gives his pupil painful proof of his superiority, and calls in his confederates to share the spoil. Now surely the victim's eyes will be opened to the life he is leading and the character of his associates. By no means. Ahaz has been conquered by Syria, and therefore 219 he will worship the gods of Syria, and he will have a confederate of his own in the Assyrian king. The victim tries to master the arts by which he has been robbed and ill-treated; he will become as unscrupulous as his masters in wickedness. He seeks the profit and distinction of being the accomplice of bold and daring sinners, men as pre-eminent in evil as Tilgath-pilneser in Western Asia; and they, like the Assyrian king, take his money and accept his flattery: they use him and then cast him off more humiliated and desperate than ever. He sinks into a prey of meaner scoundrels: the Edomites and Philistines of fast life; and then, in his extremity, he builds new high places and sacrifices to more new gods; he has recourse to all the shifty expedients and sordid superstitions of the devotees of luck and chance.
All this while he has still paid some external homage to religion; he has observed the conventions of honour and good breeding. There have been services, as it were, in the temple of Jehovah. Now he begins to feel that this deference has not met with an adequate reward; he has been no better treated than the flagrantly disreputable: indeed, these men have often got the better of him. “It is vain to serve God; what profit is there in keeping His charge and in walking mournfully before the Lord of hosts? The proud are called happy; they that work wickedness are built up: they tempt God, and are delivered.” His moods vary; and, with reckless inconsistency, he sometimes derides religion as worthless and unmeaning, and sometimes seeks to make God responsible for his sins and misfortunes. At one time he says he knows all about religion and has seen through it; he was brought up to pious ways, and his mature judgment has shown 220 him that piety is a delusion; he will no longer countenance its hypocrisy and cant: at another time he complains that he has been exposed to special temptations and has not been provided with special safeguards; the road that leads to life has been made too steep and narrow, and he has been allowed without warning and remonstrance to tread “the primrose path that leads to the everlasting bonfire”; he will cast off altogether the dull formalities and irksome restraints of religion; he will work wickedness with a proud heart and a high hand. His happiness and success have been hindered by pedantic scruples; now he will be built up and delivered from his troubles. He gets rid of the few surviving relics of the old honourable life. The service of prayer and praise ceases; the lamp of truth is put out; the incense of holy thought no longer perfumes the soul; and the temple of the Spirit is left empty, and dark, and desolate.
At last, in what should be the prime of manhood, the sinner, broken-hearted, worn out in mind and body, sinks into a dishonoured grave.
The career and fate of Ahaz may have other parallels besides this, but it is sufficiently clear that the chronicler's picture of the wicked king is no mere antiquarian study of a vanished past. It lends itself with startling facility to illustrate the fatal downward course of any man who, entering on the royal inheritance of human life, allies himself with the powers of darkness and finally becomes their slave.221
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