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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sound Advice from a Secular Source

Consider the source, but not too much.
The word of God is full of good advice. So full, in fact, that many of us regularly take biblical advice that was given to other people entirely; advice that has no obvious direct connection to us.

Sometimes that works out all right anyway, provided the instructions are general enough to apply more broadly. For example, God told Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” That piece of wisdom came in a specific context to a specific person and had a specific historical meaning, but that doesn’t mean we’re crazy to say to ourselves, “You know, things will probably go better for me if I approach God the same way as others with whom he says he is pleased.”

Just like Cain ought to have done … and didn’t.

Now of course Cain was getting direct revelation from God, so we can be confident it possessed great value. But how do we assess the value of unexpected advice that comes to us from secular sources?

Not In My Backyard You Don’t!

King Josiah of Judah had that problem when he went out to battle the king of Egypt at Megiddo. Pharaoh Neco was not interested in attacking Judah or even its down-at-heels neighbor Israel. Neco was just passing through on his way to fight the Assyrians at Carchemish up on the Euphrates River. But wars in those days were so common they could become a bit of a habit, so at least initially we should probably forgive Josiah for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, especially since it appears Neco was obliged to cut through Josiah’s back yard in order to get where he was going.

But then Neco made a couple of arguments for peace through envoys that were worth considering:
“What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.”
One of these was the claim to be acting at God’s direction, the other was simply good sense.

Hmm … Whose Side Is God On Anyway?

“God is with me,” Neco said. “God has commanded me.” Those are a pair of pretty powerful statements, though they cannot be easily proven, and of course we’re all aware of circumstances in which people have made similar claims that were either demonstrably untrue or at least highly questionable. Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, once claimed “God sent me to earth to show people how to play football.” Hey, he’s good, but nobody’s THAT good. Musician Bob Marley made a similar assertion. More recently, a former nurse named Elizabeth Wettlaufer insisted she gave fatal overdoses to eight seniors at God’s direction. She felt a “surge”, she says.

Such claims were made regularly in Josiah’s day too, so we can hardly blame the king if he remained a tad skeptical. These days we are wise to look for more than a “surge” to confirm God is speaking.

Gathered to Your Fathers

But Josiah also had a previous word from God via the prophetess Huldah: “I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.”

Josiah was only 39 at the time. Like many of us in the prime of life, especially those God has blessed materially and with good health, he may have imagined this “gathering” would happen rather less abruptly — maybe even painlessly. So again, we can probably forgive him for missing what in hindsight is obvious to the reader: God didn’t say, “I will gather you to your fathers at a ripe old age.”

An Even More Compelling Argument

Neco’s other line of reasoning, though, should have been a little more compelling. “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day.” It strikes me that Josiah had even less business interfering in a scrap between great powers like Egypt and Assyria than the U.S. has in mucking around interminably in the Middle East. There was little to gain and everything to lose.

“What have we to do with each other?” That’s a strong argument, don’t you think? Go home, Josiah.

Josiah didn’t listen, sadly. Though disguised on the battlefield, like Ahab he was struck apparently at random by an enemy arrow, carried from the combat in his chariot, and died shortly thereafter.

The Battle That Didn’t Have to be Fought

Have you ever fought an unnecessary battle against an enemy that was willing to be perfectly reasonable? It’s easy to pick fights when you think your reasons are sound. My experience is that women, especially unhappy women, do this a bit more than men, but we men can be just as inclined to get involved where we have no business and where there is absolutely no need of conflict. We have a fellow at work like that: he simply can’t keep himself from stirring the pot.

Sometimes the reason is even quasi-spiritual. The Talmud records that Josiah did not let the Egyptians pass because of a verse in Leviticus that reads, “A sword shall not pass through your land”. If true, Josiah was a dodgy interpreter. That’s a promise from God that his obedient servants need not fear unexpected attacks at home, not an instruction to make sure no foreign army ever uses your territory to pass from Point A to Point B. It’s sad to see Christians misuse God’s word to rationalize a petty squabble on the flimsiest of pretexts. Nobody’s fooled.

Bravado and Fallout

The real reason may be pride, or overconfidence, or a surly disposition, or a lack of gratitude, or a bad day at the office: it doesn’t really matter. There are enough legitimate, non-optional battles in the Christian life that we don’t need to start inventing conflicts that aren’t. The consequences, as Josiah found out, may well be devastating to us and to others.

This particular Battle of Megiddo is attested not just in Kings and Chronicles but apocryphally in 1 Esdras and secularly in the writings of Josephus and perhaps Herodotus. Josephus even describes Josiah’s movements on the battlefield. After Josiah’s death, his kingdom fell under the political control of Egypt and the death-spiral of the Judean state began in earnest.

The fallout from Josiah’s curious and pointless bravado was not insignificant.

Casualties and Collateral Damage

Unnecessary conflicts are rarely settled without casualties and collateral damage. It may be for this reason that the writer of Proverbs says, “It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” Or why Paul takes a moment to urge two women at the church in Philippi to “agree in the Lord” (which one can always do without changing one’s mind about the original bone of contention). Or why he tells Timothy not to have anything to do with “foolish and stupid arguments”. He’s not saying the Christians must never disagree, but we must not fight pointlessly and unnecessarily.

Such words from God should make us cautious about inciting conflict. But the regenerate heart and mind shouldn’t really need direct commands to obey. Pharaoh Neco’s “What have we to do with each other?” is plenty persuasive enough. For Josiah and his troops, fighting at Megiddo made no sense.

After all, when it’s good advice you’re getting, is the source really all that important?

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