Monday, October 04, 2010

Amaziah, king of Judah: You're biggest failure can come through your response to your greatest success

Over the last few years I have been going through the narrative books of the Old Testament and reflecting upon the divided monarchy. A while back I wrote at some length about the Judean king Joash (Jehoash). More recently I have moved on from Kings to Chronicles and have been impressed recently by Jehoshephat. Where Jehoshephat was a king who whole-heartedly loved the Lord his genuine love was not example enough to reform the people and the king was beset by a foolish tendency to ally himself with godless leaders in both military and financial matters. His final decisions were an ill-advised commercial venture that ended in disaster and to appoint a terrible son as king who slaughtered his family. We as Christians often persuade ourselves that if our heart is in the right place and we genuinely seek the Lord that the Lord will protect us from our own foolishness. This is not so. In fact Jehoshephat's legacy is, in the end, not a positive one. He himself was saved, if you will, but as though through fire.

Amaziah is the Judean king whose life I have been reflecting upon a lot lately. Amaziah, like his father Joash who renovated the Temple, is a grimly sober warning that those who appear to start off well and obedient to the Lord can reveal themselves in the end to be idolators at heart.
Amaziah presents a particularly disturbing case because it seems that the beginning of his spiritual wandering came precisely through his reaction to immense blessing from the Lord.

Now Amaziah killed the men who murdered his father Joash (yeah, that Joash who had Zechariah murdered that I wrote about long ago). He did not punish the children of the men who killed the king, which at that time was unusual. He marshalled a mercenary army from Israel to go into battle against Edom but the Lord ordered him not to through a prophet. Amaziah obeyed and was given a great victory.

Sadly, that victory turns out to ultimately be a form of defeat. Amaziah appropriated the gods of the men of Seir and takes them home and installs them as objects of veneration. Puffed up from the victory God gave him against Edom Amaziah takes a disastrously ill-advised move to battle the northern king. It ends very badly. Amaziah is taken captive and is eventually killed in a conspiracy against him for the disaster he brought on Judah like the conspiracy that led to the assasination of his own father before him. Two generations in a row Judah was ruled by men who did not love the Lord whole-heartedly.

Now the gods of Edom were predominantly fertility gods. Now while this is not necessarily the case of the Edomites' dominant gods it may be useful to tangentially note that in the ancient world fertility gods and goddesses might play limited roles covering just the domain of fertility and reproduction but in other settings fertility gods were also, paradoxically, associated as also being gods or goddesses of war. Why this is is certainly not something I really understand I just find it interesting that in some polytheistic settings the same god you would appeal to for fertility would be the same god who presides over warfare. A fertility cult could simultaneously be a war cult. Perhaps these cultures found it useful to circumscribe both life-giving and death-dealing within the same deity for some philosophical reason.

Yahweh was furious with Amaziah for worshipping the gods of those over whom He had given Amaziah victory. It was generally accepted in the ancient world that if you destroyed an enemy army in battle you had also established you were given a victory over their gods. Amaziah's decision to venerate some of the gods of the army he had defeated was probably not unprecedented but it was certainly unusually offensive to the Lord and thus merited mention in the scriptures.

It may here be useful to point out that Edom was never to be the subject of aggressive campaigns by Israel. Deutoronomy explains that Edom was not to be a target for aggression like the other nations because of kinship (i.e. through Esau) and because God had given them Mount Seir as their possession (Deuteronomy 2:4-5). Since the Lord does not remind Amaziah of this prohibition it may be that the Edomites, who were prone to oppress their neighbors, were under God's disciplinary action. They were obviously formidable enough as adversaries that Amaziah thought it was wise to hire 100,000 men from Ephraim.

Now when the Israelite king Jehoash saw that Amaziah had arrayed himself against him he said, in essence, "Hey, why are you doing this? You are a thistle and I am a cedar. You will die and Judah will fall with you now that you are undertaking this venture in arrogance. Why punish yourself and your people?" Amaziah would not listen because God had resolved to crush him for seeking the gods of the Edomites. And so it happened.

Amaziah's greatest victory became the seed of a pride that led to his ultimate defeat. The scriptures attest throughout that we are most in danger when we believe we have been given success by the Lord's hand than when we are failures. When we are failures we may not be failures because of our own sin (though it is popular to suppose that) but when we are successes we are not necessarily successes because God is always on our side or, more importantly, because we are ultimately on the side of the Lord. The Lord has given great victories to all sorts of men and women who finally had no regard for Him but a great deal of self-regard.

We must be cautious and realize that what seems like a victory in material terms can often reveal a spiritual defeat. This is not because God's blessings are bad! Our disposition toward the blessings God gives us is the problem.

If God gives you a victory that may not be because God's intent is to give you a greater victory so as to attain greater glory (for Jesus' fame, I suppose we'll tell ourselves). God may have given you a victory so as to protect you from a disaster and to be in a position to bless others rather than deliver you the things you hope to attain for yourself and your legacy. Amaziah didn't grasp this at all. When the Lord gave him a great victory Amaziah was not satisfied with that victory. Instead he took gods from the Edomite people (very probably fertility gods) and began to worship them. God's people were called to be a blessing to the nations rather than a blessing to themselves. But it is obvious throughout the generations that God's people have often seen fit to suppose that if "I" as God's elect am blessed then that means that there will be a trickle-down blessing that will see to it that the others who aren't Christians will eventually be blessed by God's blessing of me. The possibility that someone who isn't a believer will be blessed so as to be a blessing to me doesn't usually figure in the moral ontology of Christians as much as it could.

There is a risk for the Christian to be like Amaziah, that when the Lord blesses with victory we take upon ourselves to worship the literal or figurative fertility God has given us as though that were to be the means of victory. In this respect church growth can, obviously, become an idol that is disguised as seeking the continued blessing of the Lord by seeking more and more victories on behalf of Judah. Certainly the Lord wanted Judah to prosper and be a blessing to the nations but there were more ways for Judah to be a blessing to the nations than to conquer territory in the northern kingdom.

We must be cautious in perceived victories as well as defeats. Saul was blessed for years before God revealed that He was departing from Saul. You may win something, or think you have won something, and perceive that in this God has shown you to be justified. It may not really be the case. You may reveal in the moment you perceive God has given you a victory that you have found the idols in the spoils of that victory that you intend to take home and venerate. Certainly in the spiritual tradition I have been part of one of the great temptations is to win arguments at the expense of people. I have been very bad at this and continue to be very bad at it. I find it easier to recognize in others than I do in myself. I think there have been many of us who were drawn to that spiritual tradition precisely because of that idol of victory in fiery rhetoric at the expense of godly restraint.

In fact I have come to believe that those who have been most outraged by that aspect of the tradition have been those who were the most strident exemplars of that character fault! I ended up telling one of these that it seemed as though he had spent years attempting to turn people against another man only to ultimately have those men turn against him instead while the man he wanted corralled as an outsider of the orthodoxy of the time and place was left mostly untouched. I find these qualities aggravating in others because I am so very, ver bad about being prone to this stuff myself.

I find Amaziah troubling because I fear that I myself may simply be an Amaziah. All the work I thought I was doing for the Lord's kingdom may have just been a ruse I played on myself. The Lord has been kind to me and kind to a degree I could not possibly earn. I am able to read and write because of the Lord's mercies. The things that I could consider victories for me may be lures in which I am revealed to have a straying heart rather than a heart focused on the Lord. I am more aware of the ways in which my heart strays than I feel like discussing at any further length in a blog. Gratitude is a vital part of the Christian's life. Not only does gratitude constitute a healthy response to the kindness of the Lord gratitude to the Lord for His kindness is our surest defense against the idols we would erect in our hearts after God has given us a victory over the armies of those idols.

I must remind myself, as we all must who consider the warnings of the scriptures, that no one is so victorious that he or she can't fall. In fact the worst that can happen is that the victory we see from the Lord's hand will reveal our LACK of loyalty to Him and harden our ways before him and others. If we do that then, like Amaziah, the Lord may just permit us to be destroyed by an adversary we thought we could easily handle in our pride when we could have rested in the Lord's provision and not attempted to conquer more for ourselves and our glory than what the Lord had providentially provided that already met our needs. It is too easy for me to be an Amaziah. I hope, Lord willing, it is not too easy for you.