CHAPTER 22. —JOSIAH AND BABYLON
There remains but little more for us to notice in the history of the kingdom of Judah in illustration of the ways of providence. The reign of Josiah presents an interesting feature or two before we consider the work of God by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar in breaking up the kingdom and planting a remnant of the Two Tribes in captivity by the rivers of Babylon. He was a child when he began to reign. The two reigns before him had been marked by departure from the law. Josiah’s bent was in the right direction, but naturally did not manifest itself with public effect until he was of age. At twenty-six, he ordered the repair and renovation of the temple, which had fallen into disuse through the corruption of the times. While engaged in this work, the priests found a copy of the law, which they took to Josiah and read to him, with the effect of causing him great distress at the discovery he thereby made of how far Israel had gone astray, and to what terrible judgments they had exposed themselves by their disobedience. The written law had evidently become a rare and little known thing in high places in Israel, through the neglect and apostasies of former kings. To this probably Isaiah refers a little over two generations before Josiah’s day:
“Their root shall be as rottenness and their blossom shall go up as dust, because they have cast away the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against His people and He hath stretched forth His hand against them and smitten them”
(Isaiah 5: 24-25).
But though buried away as a piece of lumber in the temple and unknown in the palaces of the kings, it does not follow that it was unknown to everyone in Judah. even among the Ten Tribes, in the days of Ahab’s deepest revolt, God informed Elijah that He had reserved to Himself seven thousand men who had not compromised themselves in the prevailing idolatry. How much more probable that in Judah there was a remnant who were faithful and who mourned in secret the corruptions of the times. Indeed, their existence is plainly recognised in the following message by Isaiah:
“Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word: your brethren that hated you and that cast you out for My Name’s sake, said, Let the Lord be glorified; but He shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed” (Isaiah 66: 5).
And still more plainly in the word by Ezekiel, a generation after Josiah:
“Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof” (Ezekiel 9: 4).
Consequently, though among those surrounding the court of Jerusalem, the written law was a forgotten thing, copies of it were doubtless multiplied among the private servants of Jehovah scattered among the hills and valleys of Judea, among whom faithfulness was thus preserved. But it was necessary to preserve the sacred writings among the leaders of the nation for the sake of its transmission to succeeding times. Copies in private possession were not in the channel of public preservation. The vicissitudes of the times made their destruction or disappearance a matter of certainty in a short time. In the copy stowed away in the recesses of the temple, and discovered after a long slumber among the dust and cobwebs, the hand of God is visible, as it has been in all generations since, in the preservation of His marvellous word from destruction, often attempted with formidable method and power. By one providential agency and another, the most ancient book and the most ancient people are extant in the earth at the present day, when their enemies, great in ancient power and name, have passed out of recollection in the land of the living. The Greeks and Egyptians under Antiochus tried to extirpate the Hebrew scriptures some generations before Christ. The Hebrew scriptures fill the land of modern culture: and where is Antiochus? Pagan Rome, 300 years after Christ, made the same attempt, including in her imperial edict, issued by Diocletian, the writings of the apostles. These writings are the most venerated throughout the civilised world: and where is Diocletian? Where Roman Paganism? Rome of the hated popes has been guilty of the same insane endeavour. The curling flames have devoured thousands of copies by her command, and consumed the bones of readers and believers: but the hated book lives still, and is sold in thousands under the very walls of the Vatican. The providence of God has operated to the protection of His greatest gift to man, from man’s own satanic malice and hostility.
When Josiah became aware, through the recovered book of the law, of the terrible position of things in Israel, he charged a deputation of priests thus:
“Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book to do according to all that which is written concerning us.”
The message received in answer to this, by the hand of Huldah, the prophetess, was as follows:
“Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me. Thus saith the Lord, Behold I will bring evil upon this place and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read, because they have forsaken Me. . . . My wrath shall be kindled against this place and shall not be quenched. But to the king of Judah which sent you to enquire of the Lord, thus shall ye say to him. . . . Because thine heart was tender, thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, . . . and hast rent thy clothes and hast wept before Me, I also have heard thee, . . . thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place”
(2 Kings 22: 15).
The bearing of this on the ways of providence will be obvious: first, the evil that was coming upon Judah because of their insubjection to the law of Moses, was to be of divine bringing though the instruments of its infliction would not be aware of the fact; and secondly, Josiah’s individual conformity to righteousness secured for him a personal immunity from the evils that were coming, —an immunity that was naturally brought about, but a divine arrangement, notwithstanding. Josiah fell in battle, which in a moment removed him from the scene years before the captivity of Judah began.
During his reign, an incident occurred which formed a pointed illustration of the ways of providence. Encouraged by the comforting assurance he had received he set to work to purge the land from all the defilements of idolatry. He first convened the people and read to them the book which had moved himself so greatly, and imposed upon them a covenant that they would do all that it required of them, “with all their heart and all their soul.” He then ordered the removal of all idolatrous utensils from the precincts of the temple; deposed the idolatrous priests; demolished the buildings used in connection with the idolatrous service, burnt the idolatrous chariots; razed the idolatrous altars in the environs of Jerusalem; and desecrated in as complete a manner as he could devise, all the graves and places consecrated to the idols of the surrounding nations. Having purged Jerusalem and its neighbourhood, he extended his attention to districts beyond. Bethel, the headquarters of the idol-worship established by Jeroboam, the first king of the Ten Tribes (now included in the jurisdiction of Judah), received an indignant visit. There was at Bethel “the altar and the high place which Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, had made.” The hour had arrived for the fulfilment of a prophecy uttered at Bethel concerning the altar over three hundred years before the time of Josiah. The prophecy is recorded in the account of the reign of Jeroboam (1 Kings 13: 2).
“Behold a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name: and upon thee, O altar (erected by Jeroboam) shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.”
The notable feature of the case lies here, that the fulfilment of this prophecy appeared to come about by accident. Josiah visited Bethel at the time under our notice, for the purpose of breaking down the altar and the high place erected by Jeroboam. Arrived at Bethel for the purpose, he surveys the altar, and we read that—
“As Josiah turned himself, he spied the sepulchres that were there in the mount.”
These sepulchres contained the bones of the priests who for several generations had ministered at this altar of idolatry. But Josiah had evidently not thought of them in any way: a casual change of posture brought them under his notice, and it occurred to him to make a desecration of this idolatrous structure complete by first burning the bones of its priestly attendants on the altar before breaking it down. Accordingly—
“He sent and took the bones out of the sepulchres and burnt them upon the altar and polluted it.”
Now to what are we to attribute the thought that led Josiah in this apparently fortuitous manner to fulfil a prophecy? It was without doubt a divine impulse. Josiah’s attention was divinely directed to those sepulchres “as he turned himself.” But he would not be aware of the fact. He would only be conscious of a sudden thought such as we all feel occasionally—a thought, however, in harmony with his mood—a thought natural to the feelings of the moment—a thought which he would be unable to distinguish from the general zeal which inspired him against the idolatrous institutions of the land.
After Josiah’s death, the days drew near for the bringing of that evil spoken of in answer to his enquiry of Huldah the prophetess. That evil took the shape so constantly illustrated in the course of these chapters—an evil apparently due only to human causes—an evil with which on the face of things, God had nothing to do, an evil which we have God’s own authority for regarding as due to His direct organization and infliction.
“Surely at the commandment of the Lord came this upon Judah” (2 Kings 24: 3):
So reads the divinely supervised record. And if possible more explicit is the following divine commentary on the events after they were accomplished: —
“Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, ye have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah, and behold, this day they are a desolation and no man dwelleth therein. Because of their wickedness, which they have committed to provoke Me to anger, in that they went to burn incense and to serve other gods, whom they knew not, neither they, ye, nor your fathers. Howbeit, I sent unto you all My servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing which I hate. But they hearkened not nor inclined their ear to turn from their wickedness, to burn no incense unto other gods. Wherefore My fury and Mine anger was poured forth and was kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they are wasted and desolate as at this day” (Jeremiah 44: 2-6).
Here, the evil plight to which Judah and Jerusalem were brought, is expressly alleged to be “the evil that God brought upon them.” Now in what form did it come? Did it come by miracle or in any evidently divine manner? Those can answer who are acquainted with Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion and subjugation of the land. That invasion was not the result of any divine command addressed to Nebuchadnezzar. The occasion for it was created in a perfectly natural manner by the events of former reigns. In the wars between Egypt and Babylon, Judah had come under the power of Babylon. The heir to the throne—a boy of eight—was taken to the court of Nebuchadnezzar, and Zedekiah, his uncle, had accepted the throne at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar as a vassal. Having reigned on this footing for nine years, he endeavoured to throw off the yoke, which brought Nebuchadnezzar and his army into Judah.
“It came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and pitched against it and built forts against it round about. So the city was besieged unto the eleventh year of king Zedekiah. And in the fourth month, in the ninth day of the month, the famine was sore in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land. Then the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled and went forth out of the city by night, . . . and they went by the way of the plain. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued after the king and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him.”
Then follows the account of the killing of the king’s sons, the putting out of Zedekiah’s eyes, the pillage and burning of the city, and the conveyance of a drove of captives to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar had no more idea he was doing a divine work than Titus had 600 years later. He was doing a divine work, notwithstanding, as we have seen. The fact, however, has to be taken with certain qualifications. Though he was doing a divine work, it was no merit in him, but the reverse. He was a mere tool so far as he was concerned—that is, so far as his aims and objects were concerned, he acted the part of a robber and a murderer, and his real objects are recognised when the time came for dealing with Babylon according to her deserts. When this time arrived, Jehovah addresses the Babylonian magnates as “Ye destroyers of Mine heritage” (Jeremiah 50: 11), and deprecates the fact that “this Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, hath broken Israel’s bones” (verse 17); adding,
“Therefore, thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, Behold I will punish the king of Babylon and his land. . . . As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighbouring cities thereof, saith the Lord: so shall no man abide there, neither shall any son of man dwell therein.”
In this, we have the clearest illustration of the fact which has been manifest at every point in our enquiry, that though God overrules the movements of men for the accomplishment of His own purposes, there is no interference with the moral freedom of men, and no interference with their moral relation to the acts they perform. God may use the wicked as His sword, yet are they none the less wicked, and accountable for the deeds they perform. These deeds are divine in their bearing upon those against whom they operate, but so far as those who perform them are concerned, the character of the deed is determinable by the motive which prompts them. Thr only deeds acceptable with God as a matter of individual well-pleasing, are those that are performed in the fear of His own name, and in the spirit of enlightenment and loving obedience to His commandments. All deeds so rendered are acceptable, even if they miss their mark as regards men. If a man for Christ’s sake give to the undeserving, his service is accepted none the less because of unworthiness of the object. On the other hand, if we minister to Christ’s servants or do Christ’s work, in the spirit of pleasing men, the act will not be reckoned, though in the providence of God it may be part of His means of accomplishing real work of ministration. In these facts lies the cogency of the exhortation,
“Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men”
(Colossians 3: 23).
This is the practical application of the fact that though God brought Nebuchadnezzar upon Jerusalem and Judah, Nebuchadnezzar was none the less a thief and a robber—a beast of prey let loose for a purpose, the accomplishment of which was no credit to him.
We follow the weary captives to Babylon and remain with them seventy years, and note further illustration of the ways of providence in the events that at the end of that time led to their return. This return had been promised. While they were at Babylon, a letter arrived to them from Jeremiah, dictated by the Creator of heaven and earth—(a wonderful letter to receive):
“Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon, Build ye houses and dwell in them and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them . . . . . After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you in causing you to return to this place”
(Jeremiah 29: 1, 4, 10).
When the end of seventy years arrived, the way for return was opened, but by perfectly natural means. Babylon was overthrown by the Medes and Persians as had been predicted (Jeremiah 51:11). Cyrus came to the throne, whose part as the deliverer of Israel from Babylonish oppression, had also been foretold nearly three hundred years before by Isaiah (Isaiah 44: 28; 45: 1-4). When Cyrus arrived at that position, he found Daniel prime minister of Babylon, and (acting with Darius) retained him in that high position. This Daniel was acquainted with the prophets and given to the study of them (Daniel 9: 2). What more natural than that in his position of confidential adviser of the ruler, he should call his attention to what was written in the prophets concerning himself:
“That saith of Cyrus, He is My shepherd and shall perform all My pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built, and to the temple, thy foundations shall be laid. . . . For Jacob My servant’s sake and Israel Mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known Me” (Isaiah 45: 4).
It must be to this that Cyrus alludes in the proclamation he immediately issued:
“The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth: and He hath charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? His God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is the God) which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1: 2-3).
Here is an imperial edict due to a providential combination of circumstances designed to bring about the promised return of favour to Jerusalem after the seventy years’ captivity in Babylon. The edict had its effect.
“Them rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin and the priests of the Levites with all them whose spirit God had raised to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem “ (Ezra 1: 5).
A large company went up to Judah armed with imperial authority, to levy assistance to the enterprise on the officers of state. They proceeded in a perfectly natural way. It was not accomplished all at once though it started so favourably. The reading of Ezra and Nehemiah will show that the Samaritan neighbours of the returned exiles became jealous of their proceedings and resorted to plots and intrigues to stop them—intrigues which, owing to the death of Cyrus, were successful for a while and apparently frustrated the execution of a divine purpose. The foundation laid by the decree of Cyrus could not, however, be finally overturned, and the work, after various hindrances and delays, went on and came to a prosperous finish years afterwards in the days of Nehemiah. The account of the work as contained in the two books mentioned, as an account of natural work to all outward appearance, yet a work confessedly divine in purpose and execution, and therefore not the least of the many scriptural illustrations of the ways of providence.
This particular illustration is of special interest at the present time when the day has once more arrived for the divine favour to Zion. It helps us to read aright the various movements we see in progress with this tendency. What if these movements are all apparently natural? The lesson of the past will enable us to recognise the hand of God in events of proximately human conception. The Turkish firman in 1856, allowing Jews to acquire possession of the soil in Palestine, removed one barrier of man ages’ duration. The exhaustion of the Ottoman Empire has loosened the Turkish hold on Syria, which is now ready to drop into British hands, as appointed. The Anglo-Turkish convention had laid the foundation of the British right of protectorate and reform in these regions. A vigorous anti-Turkish government has come to power in England, whose first act has been to invite the European powers to insist on the Turkish performance of the obligations undertaken under that instrument and the Treaty of Berlin, at the peril of the continuance of the already nearly dead empire. Concurrently with these tendencies it is impossible that the attentive observer can fail to note the activity of various schemes for the regeneration of the holy Land, by agricultural colonisation and railway building, etc. All things combine to tell us that the hour is hastening when the great latter-day rebuilding of the tabernacle of David will commence. The rebuilder is Jesus, who has promised to return for the work (Matthew 19: 28; Acts 3: 19-22). This is outside what is understood as the ways of providence. Nevertheless it is the glorious consummation to which many ways of providence are leading up, with no uncertain significance.
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