It is 413 years from the death of Solomon to the fall of Jerusalem and our text for today is just around 120 years after Solomon’s death. While many of the kings are direct descendants of previous kings, the history of Judah is filled with assassinations, coups, attempted coups, insurrections and illegitimate rulers. It’s a mess. From Solomon to the fall of Jerusalem there are only a handful of kings about which Scripture says they followed the ways of David instead of the ways of Jeroboam. The story we are in this morning is no exception. It is complicated and tragic. There are two accounts. One is in 2 Kings 12 and the other is 2 Chronicles 22-24. Because the account in 2 Chronicles has more detail I am going to use that account this morning.
While the focus is on Joash and his restoring the Temple, it’s worth looking at his family background. His father, Ahaziah, was the king before him. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord because he picked bad advisers who encouraged him to do wrong and he was killed in a foolish war with the king of Aram. When his mother, Athaliah, saw that her son was dead she decides to kill the whole royal family – including her grandson. Joash. Fortunately, his aunt took him and hid him for six years while his evil grandmother ruled the kingdom. The focus was not on national goals but the acquisition and keeping of power above all else.
But six years later the priest Jehoida “showed his strength” and made a covenant with the political, military and religious leaders to declare the young boy Joash the rightful king. When his wicked grandmother heard the news she started yelling “Treason” and “RINO’s (Royalty in Name Only) at him and his supporters. But Jehoida and his followers took her by force and killed her at the entrance to the Temple. Then Jehoida declared that he and all the people would once again be the Lord’s people so they smashed the altars and idols and killed the priest of Baal. Not exactly a peaceful transition for either side!
So, the the military commanders, nobles, rulers of the people and religious leaders brought the young king to the palace and put him on the throne. He began his reign at the age of seven.
This is where our story begins this morning. The young boy Joash is king and the faithful Jehoida is his priest and counselor. Jehoida even picks out two wives for the king and for the whole time Jehoida is living the king does what is right in the eyes of the Lord. In fact, when he is older as king he decides to restore the Temple that had fallen into disrepair because it had been neglected. How had it been neglected? I think much of the neglect was due to the people continuing to worship at the high places instead of being faithful to worship at the Temple. Even the priests and the Levites were slack in their responsibilities to keep the temple repaired. The plan of Joash was to take all the regular offerings and contributions and put them into a building fund. But whenever the fund built up the priests would take the money and store it away – instead of using it for restoring the temple as planned. They just treated the money like an untouchable endowment and did nothing with it. They did not misspend it. They just hoarded it. Like the unproductive servant in the parable of the pounds, they buried it. After 23 years of this, Joash discovered what they had done. He called them in and said there would be no more collecting of money but everything accumulated so far would immediately be used to hire craftsmen and building supervisors. The priests would no longer be in charge of the money and not involved at all in the work. You might say they had been meticulously unfaithful. Other people were chosen to do the work. But look at this verse in 2 Kings 12:15. “They did not require an accounting from those to whom they gave the money to pay the workers, because they acted with complete honesty.” That was a mark of Jehoida’s influence in both kings and craftsmen.
But what about the high places? While there was a time in the history of Israel when worship had been legitimate at various high places around the country these were to be abandoned once the Temple in Jerusalem was built. The Temple was the one central place of worship and the people were instructed to tear down the high places. But there is something in people that makes them want independence from centralized religion and government. Besides, the high places were convenient and did not require the long trip to Jerusalem. Think of them as spiritual ATM’s. They probably thought they could keep their worship of God pure even if they kept the high places but they could not. Other local influences crept into their worship and soon they were worshiping idols on the high places but still making the required periodic trips to the temple in Jerusalem. It worked for them but, in time, they lost the ability to see the disconnect between their worship at the high places and the Temple. In fact, the idolatry of the high places soon came to displace the worship of God at the Temple. But the kings never were able or perhaps even unwilling to fight the local practices and beliefs held so strongly by the people caught up in them. Some kings actively led people into sin while others simply acquiesced and saw it as too widespread to fight.
High places are around even today. They are beliefs and practices that not only do not conform to orthodoxy but are held with such fierce loyalty that they often are directly opposed to orthodoxy. It is what we call syncretism when we combine two very different religions or beliefs into one. We take two things that may be opposite of each other and forcefully harmonize them. We have a long history of syncretism, heresy, sectarian movements and attempts to combine things that should be kept separate from one another. Some of them are ludicrous and bizarre while others appear to make perfect sense and are held to be true by millions. It’s especially obvious today with the syncretism of Christian Nationalism. It is a perversion of both patriotism and Christianity but many people are caught up in it and have come to see it as normal – but it is still worshiping idols on the high places.
There is a dark side to religious freedom. When people are absolutely free to make up their own religious beliefs without any outside authority then we experience what we see today with the false prophets, pastors, celebrities, religious and political leaders declaring their own authority and no longer needing any accountability from other authorities. They are independent and free to do as they please. There is no central defining doctrine – no Baptist Faith and Message or Apostles Creed or Lausanne Covenant. Instead, there are just leaders attracting foolish and easily swayed followers who have no idea about what is true or false. Do you remember what Jeroboam did when he set up his own high places of worship? “He built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites.” In other words, anyone could be appointed a priest or declare themselves a priest or a religious leader and serve at one of the high places. In the worship of the high places there is freedom from central authority or doctrine. You are free to follow the priest of your choice. People are free but deluded. That is the irony of those who worship at the high places. While they often begin as expressions of freedom they end in tragedy. What was the eventual horror of the high places in the Old Testament? They prostitute themselves and even sacrifice their own children in the fire. What was once inconceivable becomes acceptable. What was once abhorrent and perverted became normal. Their insistence of freedom proved to be fatal. But it is not a sudden death. It takes hundred of years of idolatry, delusion and stubborn neglect of true worship until God turns them over to captivity.
It is impossible to overestimate the value of wise counsel and the disaster of leaders surrounding themselves with officials who are corrupt, arrogant, and anxious for power. Look at the example of Rehoboam the son of Solomon. The elders who advised Solomon counseled Rehoboam to be a servant to the people and lighten the load that Solomon put on them. “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” Instead, he follows his cronies and responds, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”
How does Rehoboam end?
“Judah did evil in the eyes of the Lord. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than those who were before them had done. They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.
In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. He carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything..”
The same is true for Ahab when he calls together 400 prophets to ask them if he should go to war against Aram. “Go, they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” And then we read that the Lord put a lying spirit into the mouths of the prophets and they all continue to prophesy that the Lord has anointed Ahab and will give him victory. We know the end. “But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the portions of his armor..The blood from his wound ran onto the floor of the chariot, and that evening he died.” A random act of an unknown soldier brings down the king. It’s proof of what Carl von Clausewitz said about war: “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which actions in war are based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” A wicked man is brought down by a random act.
For as long as Jehoida was alive Joash received wise counsel and did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He made good decisions. He picked good people he could trust to do the work of restoring the Temple. He neutralized those who did not have the best interests of the nation in mind. He restored respect and trust to the finances of the country. They even had a surplus after the work of restoration had been finished. As long as Jehoida lived there was order and integrity.
But after the death of Jehoida, “the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king and he listened to them. They abandoned the Temple of the Lord, the God of their fathers, and worshiped… idols. God’s anger came upon Judah and Jerusalem. Although the Lord sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not return.”
Even when Zechariah, the son of Jehoida the faithful priest, spoke out they plotted against him and at the king’s orders they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the restored Temple. “King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah’s father Jehoida had shown him but killed his son who said as he lay dying, “May the Lord see this and call you to account.”
And the end of Joash is fitting in one sense and tragic as well. The young man who had overseen the restoring of the Temple and of stability in the kingdom is forced by an invading foreign ruler to turn over the treasure of the Temple as tribute after the violent deaths of all the leaders of the people. All the silver and gold utensils are carried away. The Temple remains but the treasure is lost. In the battle, Joash is wounded and his fawning officials that had surrounded and supported him after the death of Jehoida conspired against him and killed him in his bed. There are worse things than being thrown under the bus. Being killed in your bed by your own supporters would be poetic justice. In the end, they turn on him when he is wounded and holed up in his bedroom. Even more disgracefully, he is buried in Jerusalem but not in the tombs of the kings. No one wants to admit they followed him. Everyone denies being part of his reign. In his death the people want to forget he was ever the king.
And his epitaph? The same as so many. He did good things but in the end he walked in the ways of Jeroboam. He was a traitor to himself, to his people and to his God. You might say he got what he deserved having betrayed his own and those who had been kind to him. God finally called him to account – as he does in the end for others.