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Monday, June 05, 2017

The Best Possible Spot

There is a time-honored tradition in Old Testament oratory of addressing one’s enemies from the safety of a nearby hilltop.

Jotham called out his family’s murderers from Mount Gerazim. The Philistines hurled their insults at the Israelite army on one side of the Valley of Elah from the mountain on the other. Even David appealed to Saul from atop the hill of Hachilah.

Not too bad a strategy, really, before the invention of megaphones and loudspeakers: just stand far enough up and back to avoid the enemy’s arrows and occasional javelin toss while staying close enough to remain audible.

It was the best possible spot, especially if things went south and you had to beat a hasty retreat down the far side of the hill.

Ninety Seconds to Change Their Minds  

Thus we have no doubt King Abijah of Judah looked carefully for the best possible vantage point atop Mount Zemaraim from which he could verbally harass the enemy army of Israel’s King Jeroboam.

It had to be a good choice, because Abijah’s attempt to demoralize Israel and dissuade them from fighting his troops takes a full ninety seconds to deliver with the appropriate regal gravitas. Last thing you’d want is to be reaching the climax of your argument just as your enemy’s front line closed in.

It’s a good speech though, worth looking at in full. What makes it so remarkable is its stunning lack of self-awareness. From the words alone, you might think Abijah delivered his message confidently, despite the fact that his army was outnumbered approximately 2-1 by “chosen mighty warriors”. But since he ends his appeal to the enemy troops with “O sons of Israel, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your fathers, for you cannot succeed,” I think it is reasonable to conclude that despite his bluster, Abijah was really hoping to encourage significant numbers of enemy soldiers to desert out of fear.

Maybe this was his last shot at getting the job done himself.

A Heart Not Wholly True

Bear in mind that the man giving this speech was NOT a devout follower of Jehovah or a faithful observer of the Law of Moses. The book of Kings says of Abijah that:
“… he walked in all the sins that his father [Rehoboam] did before him, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father.”
The “sins of his father” involved idolatry, and “walk[ing] in all” of them included allowing the detestable practice of male cult prostitution in Judah. He, like his father, had “abandoned the law”.

Does that put things in perspective?

The Covenant of Salt

Now, the reality that Abijah himself did not walk with God is not apparent when he starts talking. He appeals to what he calls God’s “covenant of salt” with his great-grandfather David; a strong, legally-binding promise to David and his children forever:
“Hear me, O Jeroboam and all Israel! Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt? Yet Jeroboam the son of Nebat, a servant of Solomon the son of David, rose up and rebelled against his lord, and certain worthless scoundrels gathered about him and defied Rehoboam the son of Solomon, when Rehoboam was young and irresolute and could not withstand them.”
So far so good. Maybe.

The Golden Calves

He’s managed to call the other side names and declare that he is the rightful heir to the Davidic covenant. I’m not sure he’s helping his cause, but he’s established his own bona fides:
“And now you think to withstand the kingdom of the Lord in the hand of the sons of David, because you are a great multitude and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made you for gods.”
Those golden calves were probably a sore spot with any in Israel who remained genuinely faithful. They were idols, and they called to collective memory Israel’s sin in the wilderness along, perhaps, with its rather devastating consequences. On the other hand, the calves had been around for almost twenty years at this point, and were likely accepted by many more Israelites than still harbored doubts about them.

Any Old Priesthood

Having bashed Israel’s “gods”, Abijah moves on to demeaning its priesthood:
“Have you not driven out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and made priests for yourselves like the peoples of other lands? Whoever comes for ordination with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are not gods.”
Perhaps by undermining the legitimacy of Israel’s priests, Abijah hopes to create further doubts in the minds of the enemy.

But now he’s about to step into the thick of it.

The Right Holy Hardware

This might be just more self-righteous huffing and puffing, but it seems to me Abijah is lying through his teeth:
“But as for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not forsaken him.”
The only way Abijah could possibly utter this line with a straight face is if he imagined God’s standards to be immeasurably lower than they are. And, in fact, this seems to be exactly what he thinks. Look what he’s relying on:
“We have priests ministering to the Lord who are sons of Aaron, and Levites for their service. They offer to the Lord every morning and every evening burnt offerings and incense of sweet spices, set out the showbread on the table of pure gold, and care for the golden lampstand that its lamps may burn every evening. For we keep the charge of the Lord our God, but you have forsaken him.”
Notice that Abijah is fixated on religious externals. It’s all a ritualistic game to him. His claim to God’s favor rests entirely on the regular performance of these sacred routines rather than on anything personal or real. Burnt offerings. Spices. Showbread. The gold table and gold lampstand. “Look at US, Israelites,” he’s saying. “We’ve got all the right holy hardware.”

As long as the formalities are in place, he thinks, we’re good with God.

A Glance Over the Shoulder

Abijah finishes by telling Israel they cannot succeed, just in time to discover that they are about to do precisely that. A glance over his shoulder shows Jeroboam has his troops surrounded, and they are about to be wiped out.

This is when religion gets real, right? Right.

Now the writer of Chronicles tells us, “And they cried to the Lord.” Good thing they did. I suspect if the battle had been joined without a heartfelt prayer for salvation from the troops, things may have ended very differently indeed. As it was, a great victory was won for Judah.

But the victory had nothing to do with Abijah’s speech. God gave it in spite of Judah’s baseless sense of spiritual superiority, not because of it.

Externals and Internals

I wonder how many Christians today are as fixated on externals and as unaware of the degree of their own departure from the will of God as Abijah seems to have been?

I sat with a Baptist pastor and his wife from one of the southern U.S. states at a conference a few years ago, and to pass the time between main course and dessert, I asked him to tell me how the Lord was working in his church. Boy, did I get an earful, and it was a real eye-opener. Five straight minutes on the splendor of their church building, the glories of the new gym, the increasing numbers in the pews and the weekly routines that were wearing him out. He even mentioned the size of the offerings, I kid you not.

In other words, all the religious externals.

Spiritual growth? Personal faith? Sound doctrine? Increasing use of gift in the congregation? Enthusiastic sharing of the gospel? Open homes and hospitable saints? These were not metrics he expected would interest me, assuming they interested him. Perhaps he misunderstood my question. Let’s hope so. But it’s awfully easy to start thinking that way, because that’s the way the world measures greatness.

The best possible spot to go into spiritual warfare is not at the top of the mountain shooting our mouths off. It’s that moment of panic and utter dependence that casts itself on the Lord and asks him to do his will with us.

That’s when God blesses, not before.

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