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Chapter III. Asa: Divine Retribution. 2 Chron. xiv.-xvi.
Abijah, dying, as far as we can gather from Chronicles, in the odour of sanctity, was succeeded by his son Asa. The chronicler's history of Asa is much fuller than that which is given in the book of Kings. The older narrative is used as a framework into which material from later sources is freely inserted. The beginning of the new reign was singularly promising. Abijah had been a very David, he had fought the battles of Jehovah, and had assured the security and independence of Judah. Asa, like Solomon, entered into the peaceful enjoyment of his predecessor's exertions in the field. “In his days the land was quiet ten years,” as in the days when the judges had delivered Israel, and he was able to exhort his people to prudent effort by reminding them that Jehovah had given them rest on every side.344 This interval of quiet was used for both religious reform and military precautions.345 The high places and heathen idols and symbols which had somehow survived Abijah's zeal for the Mosaic ritual were swept away, and Judah was commanded to [pg 339] seek Jehovah and observe the Law; and he built fortresses with towers, and gates, and bars, and raised a great army “that bare bucklers and spears,”—no mere hasty levy of half-armed peasants with scythes and axes. The mighty array surpassed even Abijah's great muster of four hundred thousand from Judah and Benjamin: there were five hundred and eighty thousand men, three hundred thousand out of Judah that bare bucklers and spears and two hundred and eighty thousand out of Benjamin that bare shields and drew bows. The great muster of Benjamites under Asa is in striking contrast to the meagre tale of six hundred warriors that formed the whole strength of Benjamin after its disastrous defeat in the days of the judges; and the splendid equipment of this mighty host shows the rapid progress of the nation from the desperate days of Shamgar and Jael or even of Saul's early reign, when “there was neither shield nor spear seen among forty thousand in Israel.”
These references to buildings, especially fortresses, to military stores and the vast numbers of Jewish and Israelite armies, form a distinct class amongst the additions made by the chronicler to the material taken from the book of Kings. They are found in the narratives of the reigns of David, Rehoboam, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Jotham, Manasseh, in fact in the reigns of nearly all the good kings; Manasseh's building was done after he had turned from his evil ways.346 Hezekiah and Josiah were too much occupied with sacred festivals on the one hand and hostile invaders on the other to have much leisure for building, [pg 340] and it would not have been in keeping with Solomon's character as the prince of peace to have laid stress on his arsenals and armies. Otherwise the chronicler, living at a time when the warlike resources of Judah were of the slightest, was naturally interested in these reminiscences of departed glory; and the Jewish provincials would take a pride in relating these pieces of antiquarian information about their native towns, much as the servants of old manor-houses delight to point out the wing which was added by some famous Cavalier or by some Jacobite squire.
Asa's warlike preparations were possibly intended, like those of the Triple Alliance, to enable him to maintain peace; but if so, their sequel did not illustrate the maxim, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” The rumour of his vast armaments reached a powerful monarch: “Zerah the Ethiopian.”347 The vagueness of this description is doubtless due to the remoteness of the chronicler from the times he is describing. Zerah has sometimes been identified with Shishak's successor, Osorkon I., the second king of the twenty-second Egyptian dynasty. Zerah felt that Asa's great army was a standing menace to the surrounding princes, and undertook the task of destroying this new military power: “He came out against them.” Numerous as Asa's forces were, they still left him dependent upon Jehovah, for the enemy were even more numerous and better equipped. Zerah led to a battle an army of a million men, supported by three hundred war chariots. With this enormous host he came to Mareshah, at the foot of the Judæan highlands, in a direction south-west of Jerusalem. In spite of the inferiority of his army, Asa came out to [pg 341] meet him; “and they set the battle in array in the valley of Zephathah at Mareshah.” Like Abijah, Asa felt that, with his Divine Ally, he need not be afraid of the odds against him even when they could be counted by hundreds of thousands. Trusting in Jehovah, he had taken the field against the enemy; and now at the decisive moment he made a confident appeal for help: “Jehovah, there is none beside Thee to help between the mighty and him that hath no strength.” Five hundred and eighty thousand men seemed nothing compared to the host arrayed against them, and outnumbering them in the proportion of nearly two to one. “Help us, Jehovah our God; for we rely on Thee, and in Thy name are we come against this multitude. Jehovah, Thou art our God; let not man prevail against Thee.”
Jehovah justified the trust reposed in Him. He smote the Ethiopians, and they fled towards the south-west in the direction of Egypt; and Asa and his army pursued them as far as Gerar, with fearful slaughter, so that of Zerah's million followers not one remained alive.348 Of course this statement is hyperbolical. The carnage was enormous, and no living enemies remained in sight. Apparently Gerar and the neighbouring cities had aided Zerah in his advance and attempted to shelter the fugitives from Mareshah. Paralysed with fear of Jehovah, whose avenging wrath had been so terribly manifested, these cities fell an easy prey to the victorious Jews. They smote and spoiled all the cities about Gerar, and reaped a rich harvest, [pg 342] “for there was much spoil in them.” It seems that the nomad tribes of the southern wilderness had also in some way identified themselves with the invaders; Asa attacked them in their turn. “They smote also the tents of cattle”; and as the wealth of these tribes lay in their flocks and herds; “they carried away sheep in abundance and camels, and returned to Jerusalem.”
This victory is closely parallel to that of Abijah over Jeroboam. In both the numbers of the armies are reckoned by hundreds of thousands; and the hostile host outnumbers the army of Judah in the one case by exactly two to one, in the other by nearly that proportion: in both the king of Judah trusts with calm assurance to the assistance of Jehovah, and Jehovah smites the enemy; the Jews then massacre the defeated army and spoil or capture the neighbouring cities.
These victories over superior numbers may easily be paralleled or surpassed by numerous striking examples from secular history. The odds were greater at Agincourt, where at least sixty thousand French were defeated by not more than twenty thousand Englishmen; at Marathon the Greeks routed a Persian army ten times as numerous as their own; in India English generals have defeated innumerable hordes of native warriors, as when Wellesley—
“Against the myriads of Assaye Clashed with his fiery few and won.”
For the most part victorious generals have been ready to acknowledge the succouring arm of the God of battles. Shakespeare's Henry V. after Agincourt speaks altogether in the spirit of Asa's prayer:—
“... O God, Thy arm was here; And not to us, but to Thy arm alone, Ascribe we all.... ... Take it, God, For it is only Thine.”
When the small craft that made up Elizabeth's fleet defeated the huge Spanish galleons and galleasses, and the storms of the northern seas finished the work of destruction, the grateful piety of Protestant England felt that its foes had been destroyed by the breath of the Lord; “Afflavit Deus et dissipantur.”
The principle that underlies such feelings is quite independent of the exact proportions of opposing armies. The victories of inferior numbers in a righteous cause are the most striking, but not the most significant, illustrations of the superiority of moral to material force. In the wider movements of international politics we may find even more characteristic instances. It is true of nations as well as of individuals that—
“The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up: The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich; He bringeth low, He also lifteth up: He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, He lifteth up the needy from the dunghill, To make them sit with princes And inherit the throne of glory.”
Italy in the eighteenth century seemed as hopelessly divided as Israel under the judges, and Greece as completely enslaved to the “unspeakable Turk” as the Jews to Nebuchadnezzar; and yet, destitute as they were of any material resources, these nations had at their disposal great moral forces: the memory of ancient greatness and the sentiment of nationality; and to-day Italy can count hundreds of thousands like the [pg 344] chronicler's Jewish kings, and Greece builds her fortresses by land and her ironclads to command the sea. The Lord has fought for Israel.
But the principle has a wider application. A little examination of the more obscure and complicated movements of social life will show moral forces everywhere overcoming and controlling the apparently irresistible material forces opposed to them. The English and American pioneers of the movements for the abolition of slavery had to face what seemed an impenetrable phalanx of powerful interests and influences; but probably any impartial student of history would have foreseen the ultimate triumph of a handful of earnest men over all the wealth and political power of the slave-owners. The moral forces at the disposal of the abolitionists were obviously irresistible. But the soldier in the midst of smoke and tumult may still be anxious and despondent at the very moment when the spectator sees clearly that the battle is won; and the most earnest Christian workers sometimes falter when they realise the vast and terrible forces that fight against them. At such times we are both rebuked and encouraged by the simple faith of the chronicler in the overruling power of God.
It may be objected that if victory were to be secured by Divine intervention, there was no need to muster five hundred and eighty thousand men or indeed any army at all. If in any and every case God disposes, what need is there for the devotion to His service of our best strength, and energy, and culture, or of any human effort at all? A wholesome spiritual instinct leads the chronicler to emphasise the great preparations of Abijah and Asa. We have no right to look for Divine co-operation till we have done our best; we are not to [pg 345] sit with folded hands and expect a complete salvation to be wrought for us, and then to continue as idle spectators of God's redemption of mankind: we are to tax our resources to the utmost to gather our hundreds of thousands of soldiers; we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
This principle may be put in another way. Even to the hundreds of thousands the Divine help is still necessary. The leaders of great hosts are as dependent upon Divine help as Jonathan and his armour-bearer fighting single-handed against a Philistine garrison, or David arming himself with a sling and stone against Goliath of Gath. The most competent Christian worker in the prime of his spiritual strength needs grace as much as the untried youth making his first venture in the Lord's service.
At this point we meet with another of the chronicler's obvious self-contradictions. At the beginning of the narrative of Asa's reign we are told that the king did away with the high places and the symbols of idolatrous worship, and that, because Judah had thus sought Jehovah, He gave them rest. The deliverance from Zerah is another mark of Divine favour. And yet in the fifteenth chapter Asa, in obedience to prophetic admonition, takes away the abominations from his dominions, as if there had been no previous reformation, but we are told that the high places were not taken out of Israel. The context would naturally suggest that Israel here means Asa's kingdom, as the true Israel of God; but as the verse is borrowed from the book of Kings, and “out of Israel” is an editorial addition made by the chronicler, it is probably intended to [pg 346] harmonise the borrowed verse with the chronicler's previous statement that Asa did away with the high places. If so, we must understand that Israel means the northern kingdom, from which the high places had not been removed, though Judah had been purged from these abominations. But here, as often elsewhere, Chronicles taken alone affords no explanation of its inconsistencies.
Again, in Asa's first reformation he commanded Judah to seek Jehovah and to do the Law and the commandments; and accordingly Judah sought the Lord. Moreover, Abijah, about seventeen years349 before Asa's second reformation, made it his special boast that Judah had not forsaken Jehovah, but had priests ministering unto Jehovah, “the sons of Aaron and the Levites in their work.” During Rehoboam's reign of seventeen years Jehovah was duly honoured for the first three years, and again after Shishak's invasion in the fifth year of Rehoboam. So that for the previous thirty or forty years the due worship of Jehovah had only been interrupted by occasional lapses into disobedience. But now the prophet Oded holds before this faithful people the warning example of the “long seasons” when Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law. And yet previously Chronicles supplies an unbroken list of high-priests from Aaron downwards. In response to Oded's appeal, the king and people set about the work of reformation as if they had tolerated some such neglect of God, the priests, and the Law as the prophet had described.
Another minor discrepancy is found in the statement [pg 347] that “the heart of Asa was perfect all his days”; this is reproduced verbatim from the book of Kings. Immediately afterwards the chronicler relates the evil doings of Asa in the closing years of his reign.
Such contradictions render it impossible to give a complete and continuous exposition of Chronicles that shall be at the same time consistent. Nevertheless they are not without their value for the Christian student. They afford evidence of the good faith of the chronicler. His contradictions are clearly due to his use of independent and discrepant sources, and not to any tampering with the statements of his authorities. They are also an indication that the chronicler attaches much more importance to spiritual edification than to historical accuracy. When he seeks to set before his contemporaries the higher nature and better life of the great national heroes, and thus to provide them with an ideal of kingship, he is scrupulously and painfully careful to remove everything that would weaken the force of the lesson which he is trying to teach; but he is comparatively indifferent to accuracy of historical detail. When his authorities contradict each other as to the number or the date of Asa's reformations, or even the character of his later years, he does not hesitate to place the two narratives side by side and practically to draw lessons from both. The work of the chronicler and its presence with the Pentateuch and the Synoptic Gospels in the sacred canon imply an emphatic declaration of the judgment of the Spirit and the Church that detailed historical accuracy is not a necessary consequence of inspiration. In expounding this second narrative of a reformation by Asa, we shall make no attempt at complete harmony with the rest of Chronicles; any inconsistency between the exposition here and [pg 348] elsewhere will simply arise from a faithful adherence to our text.
The occasion then of Asa's second reformation350 was as follows: Asa was returning in triumph from his great defeat of Zerah, bringing with him substantial fruits of victory in the shape of abundant spoil. Wealth and power had proved a snare to David and Rehoboam, and had involved them in grievous sin. Asa might also have succumbed to the temptations of prosperity; but, by a special Divine grace not vouchsafed to his predecessors, he was guarded against danger by a prophetic warning. At the very moment when Asa might have expected to be greeted by the acclamations of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, when the king would be elate with the sense of Divine favour, military success, and popular applause, the prophet's admonition checked the undue exaltation which might have hurried Asa into presumptuous sin. Asa and his people were not to presume upon their privilege; its continuance was altogether dependent upon their continued obedience: if they fell into sin, the rewards of their former loyalty would vanish like fairy gold. “Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: Jehovah is with you while ye be with Him; and if ye seek Him, He will be found of you; but if ye forsake Him, He will forsake you.” This lesson was enforced from the earlier history of Israel. The following verses are virtually a summary of the history of the judges:—
“Now for long seasons Israel was without the true God, and without teaching priest, and without law.”
Judges tells how again and again Israel fell away from Jehovah. “But when in their distress they turned unto Jehovah, the God of Israel, and sought Him, He was found of them.”
Oded's address is very similar to another and somewhat fuller summary of the history of the judges, contained in Samuel's farewell to the people, in which he reminded them how when they forgot Jehovah, their God, He sold them into the hand of their enemies, and when they cried unto Jehovah, He sent Zerubbabel, and Barak, and Jephthah, and Samuel, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies on every side, and they dwelt in safety.351 Oded proceeds to other characteristics of the period of the judges: “There was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in; but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the lands. And they were broken in pieces, nation against nation and city against city, for God did vex them with all adversity.”
Deborah's song records great vexations: the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through by-ways; the rulers ceased in Israel; Gideon “threshed wheat by the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.” The breaking of nation against nation and city against city will refer to the destruction of Succoth and Penuel by Gideon, the sieges of Shechem and Thebez by Abimelech, the massacre of the Ephraimites by Jephthah, and the civil war between Benjamin and the rest of Israel and the consequent destruction of Jabesh-gilead.352
“But,” said Oded, “be ye strong, and let not your hands be slack, for your work shall be rewarded.” Oded implies that abuses were prevalent in Judah which might spread and corrupt the whole people, so as to draw down upon them the wrath of God and plunge them into all the miseries of the times of the judges. These abuses were wide-spread, supported by powerful interests and numerous adherents. The queen-mother, one of the most important personages in an Eastern state, was herself devoted to heathen observances. Their suppression needed courage, energy, and pertinacity; but if they were resolutely grappled with, Jehovah would reward the efforts of His servants with success, and Judah would enjoy prosperity. Accordingly Asa took courage and put away the abominations out of Judah and Benjamin and the cities he held in Ephraim. The abominations were the idols and all the cruel and obscene accompaniments of heathen worship.353 In the prophet's exhortation to be strong, and not be slack, and in the corresponding statement that Asa took courage, we have a hint for all reformers. Neither Oded nor Asa underrated the serious nature of the task before them. They counted the cost, and with open eyes and full knowledge confronted the evil they meant to eradicate. The full significance of the chronicler's language is only seen when we remember what preceded the prophet's appeal to Asa. The captain of half a million soldiers, the conqueror of a million Ethiopians with three hundred chariots, has to take courage before he can bring himself to put away the abominations out of his own dominions. Military machinery is more readily created [pg 351] than national righteousness; it is easier to slaughter one's neighbours than to let light into the dark places that are full of the habitations of cruelty; and vigorous foreign policy is a poor substitute for good administration. The principle has its application to the individual. The beam in our own eye seems more difficult to extract than the mote in our brother's, and a man often needs more moral courage to reform himself than to denounce other people's sins or urge them to accept salvation. Most ministers could confirm from their own experience Portia's saying, “I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”
Asa's reformation was constructive as well as destructive; the toleration of “abominations” had diminished the zeal of the people for Jehovah, and even the altar of Jehovah before the porch of the Temple had suffered from neglect: it was now renewed, and Asa assembled the people for a great festival. Under Rehoboam many pious Israelites had left the northern kingdom to dwell where they could freely worship at the Temple; under Asa there was a new migration, “for they fell to him out of Israel in abundance when they saw that Jehovah his God was with him.” And so it came about that in the great assembly which Asa gathered together at Jerusalem not only Judah and Benjamin, but also Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon, were represented. The chronicler has already told us that after the return from the Captivity some of the children of Ephraim and Manasseh dwelt at Jerusalem with the children of Judah and Benjamin,354 and he is always careful to note any settlement of members of [pg 352] the ten tribes in Judah or any acquisition of northern territory by the kings of Judah. Such facts illustrated his doctrine that Judah was the true spiritual Israel, the real δωδεκάφυλον, or twelve-tribed whole, of the chosen people.
Asa's festival was held in the third month of his fifteenth year, the month Sivan, corresponding roughly to our June. The Feast of Weeks, at which first-fruits were offered, fell in this month; and his festival was probably a special celebration of this feast. The sacrifice of seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep out of the spoil taken from the Ethiopians and their allies might be considered a kind of first-fruits. The people pledged themselves most solemnly to permanent obedience to Jehovah; this festival and its offerings were to be first-fruits or earnest of future loyalty. “They entered into a covenant to seek Jehovah, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul; ... they sware unto Jehovah with a loud voice, and with shouting, and with trumpets, and with cornets.” The observance of this covenant was not to be left to the uncertainties of individual loyalty; the community were to be on their guard against offenders, Achans who might trouble Israel. According to the stern law of the Pentateuch,355 “whosoever would not seek Jehovah, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” The seeking of Jehovah, so far as it could be enforced by penalties, must have consisted in external observances; and the usual proof that a man did not seek Jehovah would be found in his seeking other gods and taking part in heathen rites. Such [pg 353] apostacy was not merely an ecclesiastical offence: it involved immorality and a falling away from patriotism. The pious Jew could no more tolerate heathenism than we could tolerate in England religions that sanctioned polygamy or suttee.
Having thus entered into covenant with Jehovah, “all Judah rejoiced at their oath because they had sworn with all their heart, and sought Him with their whole desire.” At the beginning, no doubt, they, like their king, “took courage”; they addressed themselves with reluctance and apprehension to an unwelcome and hazardous enterprise. They now rejoiced over the Divine grace that had inspired their efforts and been manifested in their courage and devotion, over the happy issue of their enterprise, and over the universal enthusiasm for Jehovah; and He set the seal of His approval upon their gladness, He was found of them, and Jehovah gave them rest round about, so that there was no more war for twenty years: unto the thirty-fifth year of Asa's reign. It is an unsavoury task to put away abominations: many foul nests of unclean birds are disturbed in the process; men would not choose to have this particular cross laid upon them, but only those who take up their cross and follow Christ can hope to enter into the joy of the Lord.
The narrative of this second reformation is completed by the addition of details borrowed from the book of Kings. The chronicler next recounts how in the thirty-sixth year of Asa's reign Baasha began to fortify Ramah as an outpost against Judah, but was forced to abandon his undertaking by the intervention of the Syrian king, Benhadad, whom Asa hired with his own treasures and those of the Temple; whereupon Asa carried off Baasha's stones and timber and built Geba [pg 354] and Mizpah as Jewish outposts against Israel. With the exception of the date and a few minor changes, the narrative so far is taken verbatim from the book of Kings. The chronicler, like the author of the priestly document of the Pentateuch, was anxious to provide his readers with an exact and complete system of chronology; he was the Ussher or Clinton of his generation. His date of the war against Baasha is probably based upon an interpretation of the source used for chap. xv.; the first reformation secured a rest of ten years, the second and more thorough reformation a rest exactly twice as long as the first. In the interest of these chronological references, the chronicler has sacrificed a statement twice repeated in the book of Kings: that there was war between Asa and Baasha all their days. As Baasha came to the throne in Asa's third year, the statement of the book of Kings would have seemed to contradict the chronicler's assertion that there was no war from the fifteenth to the thirty-fifth year of Asa's reign.356
After his victory over Zerah, Asa received a Divine message357 which somewhat checked the exuberance of his triumph; a similar message awaited him after his successful expedition to Ramah. By Oded Jehovah had warned Asa, but now He commissioned Hanani the seer to pronounce a sentence of condemnation. The ground of the sentence was that Asa had not relied on Jehovah, but on the king of Syria.
Here the chronicler echoes one of the key-notes of the great prophets. Isaiah had protested against the alliance which Ahaz concluded with Assyria in order to obtain assistance against the united onset of Rezin, [pg 355] king of Syria, and Pekah, king of Israel, and had predicted that Jehovah would bring upon Ahaz, his people, and his dynasty days that had not come since the disruption, even the king of Assyria.358 When this prediction was fulfilled, and the thundercloud of Assyrian invasion darkened all the land of Judah, the Jews, in their lack of faith, looked to Egypt for deliverance; and again Isaiah denounced the foreign alliance: “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help, ... but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek Jehovah; ... the strength of Pharaoh shall be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion.”359 So Jeremiah in his turn protested against a revival of the Egyptian alliance: “Thou shall be ashamed of Egypt also, as thou wast ashamed of Assyria.”360
In their successive calamities the Jews could derive no comfort from a study of previous history; the pretext upon which each of their oppressors had intervened in the affairs of Palestine had been an invitation from Judah. In their trouble they had sought a remedy worse than the disease; the consequences of this political quackery had always demanded still more desperate and fatal medicines. Freedom from the border raids of the Ephraimites was secured at the price of the ruthless devastations of Hazael; deliverance from Rezin only led to the wholesale massacres and spoliation of Sennacherib. Foreign alliance was an opiate that had to be taken in continually increasing doses, till at last it caused the death of the patient.
Nevertheless these are not the lessons which the seer seeks to impress upon Asa. Hanani takes a [pg 356] loftier tone. He does not tell him that his unholy alliance with Benhadad was the first of a chain of circumstances that would end in the ruin of Judah. Few generations are greatly disturbed by the prospect of the ruin of their country in the distant future: “After us the Deluge.” Even the pious king Hezekiah, when told of the coming captivity of Judah, found much comfort in the thought that there should be peace and truth in his days. After the manner of the prophets, Hanani's message is concerned with his own times. To his large faith the alliance with Syria presented itself chiefly as the loss of a great opportunity. Asa had deprived himself of the privilege of fighting with Syria, whereby Jehovah would have found fresh occasion to manifest His infinite power and His gracious favour towards Judah. Had there been no alliance with Judah, the restless and warlike king of Syria might have joined Baasha to attack Asa; another million of the heathen and other hundreds of their chariots would have been destroyed by the resistless might of the Lord of Hosts. And yet, in spite of the great object-lesson he had received in the defeat of Zerah, Asa had not thought of Jehovah as his Ally. He had forgotten the all-observing, all-controlling providence of Jehovah, and had thought it necessary to supplement the Divine protection by hiring a heathen king with the treasures of the Temple; and yet “the eyes of Jehovah run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him.” With this thought, that the eyes of Jehovah run to and fro throughout the earth, Zechariah361 comforted the Jews in the dark days [pg 357] between the Return and the rebuilding of the Temple. Possibly during Asa's twenty years of tranquillity his faith had become enfeebled for want of any severe discipline. It is only with a certain reserve that we can venture to pray that the Lord will “take from our lives the strain and stress.” The discipline of helplessness and dependence preserves the consciousness of God's loving providence. The resources of Divine grace are not altogether intended for our personal comfort; we are to tax them to the utmost, in the assurance that God will honour all our drafts upon His treasury. The great opportunities of twenty years of peace and prosperity were not given to Asa to lay up funds with which to bribe a heathen king, and then, with this reinforcement of his accumulated resources to accomplish the mighty enterprise of stealing Baasha's stones and timber and building the walls of a couple of frontier fortresses. With such a history and such opportunities behind him, Asa should have felt himself competent, with Jehovah's help, to deal with both Baasha and Benhadad, and should have had courage to confront them both.
Sin like Asa's has been the supreme apostacy of the Church in all her branches and through all her generations: Christ has been denied, not by lack of devotion, but by want of faith. Champions of the truth, reformers and guardians of the Temple, like Asa, have been eager to attach to their holy cause the cruel prejudices of ignorance and folly, the greed and vindictiveness of selfish men. They have feared lest these potent forces should be arrayed amongst the enemies of the Church and her Master. Sects and parties have eagerly contested the privilege of counselling a profligate prince how he should satisfy his [pg 358] thirst for blood and exercise his wanton and brutal insolence; the Church has countenanced almost every iniquity and striven to quench by persecution every new revelation of the Spirit, in order to conciliate vested interests and established authorities. It has even been suggested that national Churches and great national vices were so intimately allied that their supporters were content that they should stand or fall together. On the other hand, the advocates of reform have not been slow to appeal to popular jealousy and to aggravate the bitterness of social feuds. To Hanani the seer had come the vision of a larger and purer faith, that would rejoice to see the cause of Satan supported by all the evil passions and selfish interests that are his natural allies. He was assured that the greater the host of Satan, the more signal and complete would be Jehovah's triumph. If we had his faith, we should not be anxious to bribe Satan to cast out Satan, but should come to understand that the full muster of hell assailing us in front is less dangerous than a few companies of diabolic mercenaries in our own array. In the former case the overthrow of the powers of darkness is more certain and more complete.
The evil consequences of Asa's policy were not confined to the loss of a great opportunity, nor were his treasures the only price he was to pay for fortifying Geba and Mizpah with Baasha's building materials. Hanani declared to him that from henceforth he should have wars. This purchased alliance was only the beginning, and not the end, of troubles. Instead of the complete and decisive victory which had disposed of the Ethiopians once for all, Asa and his people were harassed and exhausted by continual warfare. The Christian life would have more decisive victories, and [pg 359] would be less of a perpetual and wearing struggle, if we had faith to refrain from the use of doubtful means for high ends.
Oded's message of warning had been accepted and obeyed, but Asa was now no longer docile to Divine discipline. David and Hezekiah submitted themselves to the censure of Gad and Isaiah; but Asa was wroth with Hanani and put him in prison, because the prophet had ventured to rebuke him. His sin against God corrupted even his civil administration; and the ally of a heathen king, the persecutor of God's prophet, also oppressed the people. Three years362 after the repulse of Baasha a new punishment fell upon Asa: his feet became grievously diseased. Still he did not humble himself, but was guilty of further sin363: he sought not Jehovah, but the physicians. It is probable that to seek Jehovah concerning disease was not merely a matter of worship. Reuss has suggested that the legitimate practice of medicine belonged to the schools of the prophets; but it seems quite as likely that in Judah, as in Egypt, any existing knowledge of the art of healing was to be found among the priests. Conversely physicians who were neither priests nor prophets of Jehovah were almost certain to be ministers of idolatrous worship and magicians. They failed apparently to relieve their patient: Asa lingered in pain and weakness for two years, and then died. Possibly the sufferings of his latter days had protected his people from further oppression, and had at once appealed to their sympathy and removed any cause for resentment. When he died, they only remembered [pg 360] his virtues and achievements; and buried him with royal magnificence, with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices; and made a very great burning for him, probably of aromatic woods.
In discussing the chronicler's picture of the good kings, we have noticed that, while Chronicles and the book of Kings agree in mentioning the misfortunes which as a rule darkened their closing years, Chronicles in each case records some lapse into sin as preceding these misfortunes. From the theological standpoint of the chronicler's school, these invidious records of the sins of good kings were necessary in order to account for their misfortunes. The devout student of the book of Kings read with surprise that of the pious kings who had been devoted to Jehovah and His temple, whose acceptance by Him had been shown by the victories vouchsafed to them, one had died of a painful disease in his feet, another in a lazar-house, two had been assassinated, and one slain in battle. Why had faith and devotion been so ill rewarded? Was it not vain to serve God? What profit was there in keeping His ordinances? The chronicler felt himself fortunate in discovering amongst his later authorities additional information which explained these mysteries and justified the ways of God to man. Even the good kings had not been without reproach, and their misfortunes had been the righteous judgment on their sins.
The principle which guided the chronicler in this selection of material was that sin was always punished by complete, immediate, and manifest retribution in this life, and that conversely all misfortune was the punishment of sin. There is a simplicity and apparent justice about this theory that has always made it the [pg 361] leading doctrine of a certain stage of moral development. It was probably the popular religious teaching in Israel from early days till the time when our Lord found it necessary to protest against the idea that the Galilæans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices were sinners above all Galilæans because they had suffered these things, or that the eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, were offenders above all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. This doctrine of retribution was current among the Greeks. When terrible calamities fell upon men, their neighbours supposed these to be the punishment of specially heinous crimes. When the Spartan king Cleomenes committed suicide, the public mind in Greece at once inquired of what particular sin he had thus paid the penalty. The horrible circumstances of his death were attributed to the wrath of some offended deity, and the cause of the offence was sought for in one of his many acts of sacrilege. Possibly he was thus punished because he had bribed the priestess of the Delphic oracle. The Athenians, however, believed that his sacrilege had consisted in cutting down trees in their sacred grove at Eleusis; but the Argives preferred to hold that he came to an untimely end because he had set fire to a grove sacred to their eponymous hero Argos. Similarly, when in the course of the Peloponnesian war the Æginetans were expelled from their island, this calamity was regarded as a punishment inflicted upon them because fifty years before they had dragged away and put to death a suppliant who had caught hold of the handle of the door of the temple of Demeter Theomophorus. On the other hand, the wonderful way in which on four or five occasions the ravages of pestilence delivered Dionysius of Syracuse [pg 362] from his Carthaginian enemies was attributed by his admiring friends to the favour of the gods.
Like many other simple and logical doctrines, this Jewish theory of retribution came into collision with obvious facts, and seemed to set the law of God at variance with the enlightened conscience. “Beneath the simplest forms of truth the subtlest error lurks.” The prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the righteous were a standing religious difficulty to the devout Israelite. The popular doctrine held its ground tenaciously, supported not only by ancient prescription, but also by the most influential classes in society. All who were young, robust, wealthy, powerful, or successful were interested in maintaining a doctrine that made health, riches, rank, and success the outward and visible signs of righteousness. Accordingly the simplicity of the original doctrine was hedged about with an ingenious and elaborate apologetic. The prosperity of the wicked was held to be only for a season; before he died the judgment of God would overtake him. It was a mistake to speak of the sufferings of the righteous: these very sufferings showed that his righteousness was only apparent, and that in secret he had been guilty of grievous sin.
Of all the cruelty inflicted in the name of orthodoxy there is little that can surpass the refined torture due to this Jewish apologetic. Its cynical teaching met the sufferer in the anguish of bereavement, in the pain and depression of disease, when he was crushed by sudden and ruinous losses or publicly disgraced by the unjust sentence of a venal law-court. Instead of receiving sympathy and help, he found himself looked upon as a moral outcast and pariah on account of his misfortunes; when he most needed Divine grace, he was bidden to [pg 363] regard himself as a special object of the wrath of Jehovah. If his orthodoxy survived his calamities, he would review his past life with morbid retrospection, and persuade himself that he had indeed been guilty above all other sinners.
The book of Job is an inspired protest against the current theory of retribution, and the full discussion of the question belongs to the exposition of that book. But the narrative of Chronicles, like much Church history in all ages, is largely controlled by the controversial interests of the school from which it emanated. In the hands of the chronicler the story of the kings of Judah is told in such a way that it becomes a polemic against the book of Job. The tragic and disgraceful death of good kings presented a crucial difficulty to the chronicler's theology. A good man's other misfortunes might be compensated for by prosperity in his latter days; but in a theory of retribution which required a complete satisfaction of justice in this life there could be no compensation for a dishonourable death. Hence the chronicler's anxiety to record any lapses of good kings in their latter days.
The criticism and correction of this doctrine belongs, as we have said, to the exposition of the book of Job. Here we are rather concerned to discover the permanent truth of which the theory is at once an imperfect and exaggerated expression. To begin with, there are sins which bring upon the transgressor a swift, obvious, and dramatic punishment. Human law deals thus with some sins; the laws of health visit others with a similar severity; at times the Divine judgment strikes down men and nations before an awe-stricken world. Amongst such judgments we might reckon the punishments of royal sins so frequent in the pages of Chronicles. [pg 364] God's judgments are not usually so immediate and manifest, but these striking instances illustrate and enforce the certain consequences of sin. We are dealing now with cases in which God was set at nought; and, apart from Divine grace, the votaries of sin are bound to become its slaves and victims. Ruskin has said, “Medicine often fails of its effect, but poison never; and while, in summing the observation of past life not unwatchfully spent, I can truly say that I have a thousand times seen Patience disappointed of her hope and Wisdom of her aim, I have never yet seen folly fruitless of mischief, nor vice conclude but in calamity.”364 Now that we have been brought into a fuller light and delivered from the practical dangers of the ancient Israelite doctrine, we can afford to forget the less satisfactory aspects of the chronicler's teaching, and we must feel grateful to him for enforcing the salutary and necessary lesson that sin brings inevitable punishment, and that therefore, whatever present appearances may suggest, “the world was certainly not framed for the lasting convenience of hypocrites, libertines, and oppressors.”365
Indeed, the consequences of sin are regular and exact; and the judgments upon the kings of Judah in Chronicles accurately symbolise the operations of Divine discipline. But pain, and ruin, and disgrace are only secondary elements in God's judgments; and most often they are not judgments at all. They have their uses as chastisements; but if we dwell upon them with too emphatic an insistence, men suppose that pain is a worse evil than sin, and that sin is only to be avoided because it causes suffering to the sinner. The really serious [pg 365] consequence of evil acts is the formation and confirmation of evil character. Herbert Spencer says in his First Principles366 “that motion once set up along any line becomes itself a cause of subsequent motion along that line.” This is absolutely true in moral and spiritual dynamics: every wrong thought, feeling, word, or act, every failure to think, feel, speak, or act rightly, at once alters a man's character for the worse. Henceforth he will find it easier to sin and more difficult to do right; he has twisted another strand into the cord of habit: and though each may be as fine as the threads of a spider's web, in time there will be cords strong enough to have bound Samson before Delilah shaved off his seven locks. This is the true punishment of sin: to lose the fine instincts, the generous impulses, and the nobler ambitions of manhood, and become every day more of a beast and a devil.
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