Tuesday, April 07, 2020

A Tale of Two Rebukes

One generation and three chapters of holy scripture apart, two powerful men experienced God’s correction. One handled it right. One didn’t.

Both were good men with a notable character flaw. One accepted instruction, while the other became offended and died obdurate.

Perhaps in comparing their stories we may see ourselves in one or the other.

Fathers and Sons

Asa and Jehoshaphat were father and son, successive kings of Judah. Both had comparatively long and successful reigns: Asa’s the third-longest of all nineteen legitimate Judean kings at 41 years, and Jehoshaphat’s at a very reasonable 25 years, ranking him eighth. Both did what was good and right in the eyes of God. Both were men of peace and builders of cities in their nation. Both instituted significant religious reforms: Asa “took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars.” Jehoshaphat “walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah.”

An aside: false gods are remarkably persistent critters. Cut down the Asherim in one generation, and they’re right back up to be demolished again in the next. Perhaps they remind us not to grow complacent in our devotion to Christ alone and above all. Short of our Savior’s return, the notion that we will ever “arrive” in the Christian life is to be rejected out of hand.

In any case, there’s a lot about Asa and Jehoshaphat to like, and any number of similarities to be observed. Not all sons imitate their fathers, and not all sons learn from their examples. Jehoshaphat did both.

Asa’s Fatal Flaw

However, both men were flawed. Asa’s flaw was his pride, and it did not become evident until God had to correct him. His mistake was a natural one, and one that you and I probably make every day in some small way: five years before the end of his lengthy reign, he slipped up. The king of Israel enforced a blockade at Ramah, so that no one could go in or out to Asa in Judah. Asa did a pragmatic and politically astute thing: he took silver, gold and treasures from the house of the Lord and sent them to the king of Syria in order to persuade him to break his treaty with Israel and become an ally of Judah instead. The ploy worked, and Israel’s king gave up the blockade.

All good, right? Not so much. Asa’s previous years had been characterized by dependence on God, not his ability to maneuver politically. God’s response when Asa took matters into his own hands was this:
“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.”
God’s rebuke was thoroughly justified. Asa’s act wasn’t exactly wicked, but it was very foolish. It sent the message to the world that Asa’s God needed Syrian assistance to defend his people. That’s a pretty feeble deity. Still, if that had been the end of it, Asa could easily have gone to his grave with a near-unblemished record. Instead, his pride got the better of him. He became angry and cruel. He put the prophet who brought him God’s word in the stocks in prison. When he developed foot disease, he refused to seek the Lord, “but sought help from the physicians”. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with going to a doctor, but choosing even the best earthly help over appealing to heaven is definitely a loser’s bet.

It’s hard to imagine Jehoshaphat did not learn from his father’s obduracy.

Jehoshaphat and the Wrath of God

But Jehoshaphat was also a flawed man, though in a different way. Where his father was pragmatic, foolish and proud, Jehoshaphat was appallingly undiscerning: he valued the mere appearance of unity over truth and holy separation. He entered into an alliance with King Ahab of Israel, one of the wickedest monarchs either nation ever produced. He even agreed to fight Ahab’s battles with him. “I am as you are, my people as your people. We will be with you in the war,” he promised. Like his father, he never thought to seek the Lord’s mind before putting the lives of his men at risk in a losing battle against Syria. When he did, he ignored the ominous word of the prophet Micaiah, who foretold Ahab’s death: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd.” Jehoshaphat himself was preserved by crying out to the Lord mid-battle, but once again, God’s rebuke was richly deserved:
“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord.”
Now, it’s easy to make excuses for Jehoshaphat. I’ve known many like him. They believe that contriving the appearance of unity may somehow lead God’s people to the real deal somewhere down the road, as if papering over deep moral differences with others can make those differences go away. God said it was not so. Ahab and his people were not just mistaken; the man was a wicked God-hater. Moreover, during the reign of Asa, great numbers of Israelites had deserted to live in Judah when they saw that the Lord was with him. Most of the people who remained in service to Ahab were there because they chose to be, not because they had to be. Light has no fellowship with darkness, and Jehoshaphat and Judah had no business being Ahab’s ally.

A Teachable Moment

But Jehoshaphat was a teachable man. Unlike Micaiah, who had carried God’s message to his father, the seer who rebuked Jehoshaphat did not go straight into the stocks. Instead, the king set about creating historic reforms in Judah. He appointed judges throughout the land and challenged them to do justice in the fear of the Lord, telling them the Lord was with them in giving judgment. He appointed a court of appeals in Jerusalem made up of Levites, priests and heads of families. Note what he said to them:
“Thus you shall do in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart: whenever a case comes to you from your brothers who live in their cities, concerning bloodshed, law or commandment, statutes or rules, then you shall warn them, that they may not incur guilt before the Lord and wrath may not come upon you and your brothers. Thus you shall do, and you will not incur guilt.”
Having incurred the Lord’s wrath himself, Jehoshaphat understood what it meant, and was determined his people not go through the same hard learning process he had to. Unlike Asa, he humbled himself before the Lord and accepted his correction. In doing so, he proved that discernment can be learned if you take a rebuke in the right spirit.

Taking Correction Correctly

Every believer makes mistakes. Repeatedly. Sometimes those mistakes have massive costs down the road. By marrying his son to Ahab’s daughter, Jehoshaphat unwittingly undid most of the good he had done in Judah during his reign. Moreover, Jehoshaphat made another undiscerning alliance with Israel toward the end of his life and again, negative consequences ensued. Unlike Asa, however, Jehoshaphat never resisted God’s correction or stopped seeking to please him.

Likewise, there are Christians with good reputations, but there are no Christians with perfect track records. God’s standards are lofty, and we all fall short of them regularly, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes because of a more serious character defect. At one point or another we all need God’s correction.

The question is, do we respond to it like Asa or like Jehoshaphat?

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