A legal case

Jeremiah’s message to Judah began with the presentation of a legal case against God’s people. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any other God besides YHWH, the name of God translated into English as LORD. God chose this name as the personal name by which he related specifically to his chosen or covenant people (3068). The first three commandments of the Mosaic Law stated:

  1. Thou shalt have not other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself  to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children  unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:3-5)

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to the children of Israel dealt with idolatry because the covenant between God and his chosen people depended on a relationship existing between the two parties of the agreement. In some ways, the Ten Commandments were like a marriage contract that specified the terms for a divorce to take place. It was implied that both God and his people would be faithful to each other and remain in the relationship for ever. The reason why idolatry was off limits for them was because like adultery, it undermined the intimacy that was necessary for a loving relationship to exist. The only way the Israelites would trust God and depend on his provision for them was knowing God and God alone could take care of all their needs.

God’s issue with his people was not so much that they had broken his commandments , but that they had abandoned him for worthless idols. Speaking through Jeremiah, the LORD declared, “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern was a man-made storage tank designed to capture rain and make it available throughout the year. The cistern was representative of an idol because it was cut or carved out of stone and signified man’s ability to live independent of God’s ongoing provision. God’s reference to broken cisterns that could hold no water was meant to highlight the fact that a cistern was useless without rain, which God still had to provide.

The Israelites’ desire for independence was seen by God as being the same as an unfaithful spouse. Particularly in the book of Hosea, God’s people were likened to “a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). Rather than being thankful for what God had provided, the Israelites preferred to fend for themselves (Jeremiah 2;25) and to worship whomever they pleased (Jeremiah 2:31). In spite of their flagrant idolatry, God’s people claimed to be innocent of the charges God brought against them. It was only because they refused to repent that God proceeded with his judgment. Jeremiah declared the truth about the people’s attitude when he said, “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35).

The harvest

The universal law of the harvest, sowing and reaping, applies to all areas of life and experience (2232). Referring to Israel’s idol worship, the prophet Hosea declared, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). In this instance, the wind “may be a suggestion of purposelessness, uselessness, or even vanity (emptiness)” (7307). The wind is regarded in Scripture as an emblem of the mighty penetrating power of the invisible God, therefore, the whirlwind or hurricane, suggests a spiritual storm that would snatch away the peaceful existence of God’s people.

The Israelites’ idolatry centered around two golden calves made by king Jeroboam I after Israel was divided into two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:28). The worship of these calves was most likely connected to the 400 years Israel spent in Egypt in slavery. Shortly after they were miraculously delivered from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites made a golden calf and their leader Aaron declared, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:8). King Jeroboam I spoke similar words about his golden calves (1 Kings 12:28). God’s sentence against the Israelites specifically condemned this practice:

Of their silver and their gold have they made their idols, that they may be cut off. Thy calf , O Samaria, hath cast thee off, mine anger is kindled against them…The workman made it, therefore, it is not God: but the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces. (Hosea 8:5-6)

While the Israelites were dwelling in the Promised Land, they had enjoyed the benefit of God’s blessing and were given something no other nation received, God’s mercy. What this meant was that even though they had sowed wicked deeds like everyone else, the Israelites were not punished for their transgressions. Their sacrifices cancelled the record of their debt and they were blessed by God even though they didn’t deserve it. Because they turned their backs on God, things would to change.

Now will he remember their iniquity, and visit their sins…The days of visitation are come, the days of recompense are come; Israel shall know it. (Hosea 8:13, 9:7)

The northern kingdom of Israel received harsher treatment than Judah because their idolatry was blatant and continuous from the time of king Jeroboam I until the people were taken into captivity by Assyria. In particular, the capital city of Samaria had a reputation for paying tribute to foreign kings and relied on its army rather than God to deliver her from her enemies.

Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity, ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men. Therefore shall a tumult arise among thy people, and all thy fortresses shall be spoiled. (Hosea 10:13-14)

An abomination

King Ahaz’s reign over Judah was characterized by extreme idolatry. The depths to which he sank is summarized in 2 Kings 16:3 where it says that he “made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel.” An abomination is something disgusting. The Hebrew word “to’ebah defines something or someone as essentially unique in the sense of being dangerous, sinister and repulsive to another individual” (8441).

An abomination is detestable to God because it is contrary to his nature (8441). King Ahaz’s behavior deserved to be punished and yet there is no record of anything happening to him as a result of his offenses against God. In fact, God sent Isaiah to deliver a message to Ahaz that indicated God wanted to help Ahaz and would deliver him from Syria and Israel if Ahaz would only believe in the LORD (Isaiah 7:9). But instead, Ahaz put his trust in Tiglath-pilneser king of Assyria.

When Rezin king of Syria recovered an important port city on the gulf of Aqabar, it says in 2 Kings 16:7 that “Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pilneser king of Assyria, saying, I am thy servant and thy son, come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Syria.” Basically, what Ahaz was saying was that Tiglath-pilneser was his god. Ahaz was going to rely on him for deliverance rather than the LORD.

King Ahaz’s devotion to Tiglath-pilneser enabled Judah to escape his vigorous campaigns, but the kings of Assyria that followed Tiglath-pilneser did not spare Judah from being attacked. Because king Ahaz refused to believe in the LORD, God used the Assyrians later on to draw his people back to him (Isaiah 7:20). Ultimately, the ravages of war caused Judah to look for their true deliverer, their Messiah (Isaiah 9:2).

Ahaz’s behavior was so outrageous that is served a dual purpose in bringing the people of Judah back to God. First, it showed the people that God really did love them because he allowed Ahaz to go his own way and did not punish him for his idolatry. Second, Ahaz’s determination to cut God out of the lives of his people was the impetus for God to go to greater lengths to prove himself faithful and to remind his children that their Messiah was coming.

Good out of bad

King Ahaz, the grandson of king Uzziah, reigned in Judah during the time when Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria. Ahaz did not have a relationship with the LORD and there is no record of God ever speaking to him directly or through a prophet. Ahaz worshipped Baalim and because he lived as the gentiles did, it says in 2 Chronicles 28:5 that God “delivered him into the hand of the king of Syria” and “the hand of the king of Israel.”

It could have been that king Ahaz’s apparent turning away from God was what kept the Assyrians from taking Judah into captivity along with the rest of Israel. After Israel killed 120,000 of king Ahaz’s warriors and took 200,ooo women and children captive, Ahaz asked the kings of Assyria for help in fighting his enemies. Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria didn’t help Ahaz, but instead took a bribe from Ahaz to go after a common enemy, Syria (2 Chronicles 28:21).

Because Ahaz was left on his own to fight with a significantly diminished army, he became distressed and was desperate to find a way out of his situation. In an attempt to gain spiritual strength, Ahaz turned to demon worship (2 Chronicles 28;23). His final, and perhaps greatest offense against God, was to “shut up the doors of the house of the LORD, and he made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 28:24).

King Ahaz is a perfect example of how God uses wicked behavior to bring about his desired result. In spite of all that Ahaz did to offend God, Judah was not destroyed by Assyria as the rest of Israel was. It says in 2 Chronicles 28:19 that “the LORD brought Judah low because of Ahaz.” This could mean that the LORD caused Ahaz’s army to be diminished so that Assyria would not see them as a threat.

The northern kingdom of Israel was at a peak in its strength when it was taken into captivity by Assyria. This is evident by its ability to slaughter 120,ooo of Judah’s valiant warriors in one day and to take another 200,00o people captive. Perhaps the greatest difference between the kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel at the time when Shalmaneser V initiated a three-day siege against Israel was a lack of confidence on the part of king Ahaz. Had Ahaz thought he could stand up to Tiglath-pilneser or Shalmaneser, Judah might have been attacked as well.

Idolatry

God’s judgment of the Israelites was not motivated by a desire to end his relationship with his chosen people, but a desire to rid the nation of Israel of idolatry. In response to a vision of two plagues that would devastate the land and starve the people to death, Amos prayed that the Lord God would forgive his people and cease from judging them. It says in Amos 7:3 and 7:6 the LORD repented, meaning he decided on a new course of action (5162).

The new course was described in a vision recorded in Amos 7:7-9:

Thus he shewed me: and behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the LORD said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline, Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them any more: and the high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste; and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.

A plumbline is a tool used in the construction of walls and buildings. It consists of a weight suspended from a string used as a vertical reference line to ensure the structure is centered. It finds the vertical axis pointing to the center of gravity. A plumbline is used to make sure the structure will remain upright over long periods of time and can withstand the pressure of outside forces. Typicallly, a master craftsman will rely on a plumbline to guarantee his work will pass inspection.

The reference to a plumbline in Amos’ vision was linked to the rebuilding of the temple and wall surrounding Jerusalem. Amos was the first prophet to warn the people of their impending destruction and yet, in the midst of his message was a sign from the Lord that there would be restoration in the future. The key to understanding God’s judgment can be found in 1 Kings 12:32 where it says, Jeroboam sacrificed unto the calves he had made upon an altar in Beth-el.

Beth-el was the location where Jacob saw a ladder that reached to heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12). After he awoke from his dream, Jacob said, “How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven…And he called the name of that place Beth-el” (Genesis 28:17, 19). From the time of Jeroboam I to Jeroboam II, almost 200 years, the kings of Israel had been making sacrifices to two golden calves in the same location that Jacob identified as the house of God.

 

A double life

After Jeroboam and then Baasha reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel, there was a steady decline in the moral character of the nation’s kings. Beginning with Omri and then later his son Ahab, established Samaria as an alternate royal city or capital of Israel. Ahab had a foreign wife named Jezebel who influenced him to worship and serve the god Baal. It says in 1 Kings 16:32-33 that Ahab “reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.”

The primary offense of Ahab was that he established a house of worship for Baal, aka Satan. Even though the gods of the Canaanites were never linked to Satan, the Israelites knew that rebellion against God meant cooperation with his enemy, the devil. I think it is safe to assume that Ahab was under the influence of Satan and his marriage to Jezebel opened the door for him to become an instrument of destruction against God’s kingdom both in the physical and spiritual realms. Ahab’s evil actions were intentional. He knew what he was doing was wrong and he did it anyway.

In light of Ahab’s wicked behavior, it seems surprising that his son’s names reflected a relationship with God. Ahab’s oldest son’s name, Ahaziah meant “The LORD grasps” and the younger son’s name, Jehoram meant “The LORD is exalted.” The reason Ahab gave his sons these names is unknown, but it could be an indication that Ahab was leading a double life. Although he openly worshipped Baal, Ahab’s heart may have belonged to God. That could explain why he remained in power for 20 years in spite of his evil practices.

Ahab did not choose to marry Jezebel. The marriage was arranged by his father Omri in order to seal an alliance with Ethbaal, the ruler of Tyre and Sidon. It is likely Ahab agreed to the marriage to please his father and he probably built the house of worship for Baal to honor his father’s intentions in the alliance with Ethbaal. As much as Ahab was responsible for his evil actions, he was also following in the footsteps of his father as Solomon had done with his father David. Ahab was surrounded by wicked men that had been rebelling against God for decades. Ahab’s greatest crime may have been that he wanted to have it both ways, to worship God and Satan, so that all his bases would be covered.

The queen mother

The institution of a queen in the rule of Israel appears to have taken place when Solomon “caused a seat to be set for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right hand” (1 Kings 2:19). When Rehoboam began to reign in Jerusalem, his mother’s name is mentioned indicating she probably took the position at her son’s right side as Solomon’s mother had (1 Kings 14:21). After Rehoboam died, his son Abijam reigned in his stead and it says in 1 Kings 15:2 that “his mother’s name was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom.”

Maachah was the wife of Rehoboam who died at the age of 58 (1 Kings 14:21). Abijam’s age is not stated, but he reigned only three years and then his son Asa “reigned in his stead” (1 Kings 15:8). It says in 1 Kings 15:10 that Asa’s “mother’s name was Maachah, the daughter of Abishalom.” Apparently, Maachah was not only Asa’s mother, but also his grandmother.

It is likely that Maachah was much younger than Rehoboam and after he died, she began an incestuous relationship with her son Abijam in order to secure her position as queen mother for a longer period of time. Fortunately, Maachah’s plan didn’t work. It says in 1 Kings 15:11 that “Asa did that which was right in the eye’s of the LORD, as did David his father.” Asa began a reform effort to get rid of idol worship and to cleanse Judah of the pagans that had taken up residence as a result of Solomon’s and Rehoboam’s compromises.

It says in 1 Kings 15:12-13 that Asa “took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from being queen.” This was a bold move by Asa showing that he was sincere about following God’s commandments. Even though he didn’t live a perfect life, it says in 1 Kings 15:14 that “Asa’s heart was perfect with the LORD all his days.