A new altar for Ahaz, the problem with people, and what it is that God wants.
The fall of Samaria (722/21 BC). Chapter 17 of 2 Kings is a pause in the recounting of the history of Israel, and an evaluation, at the occasion of the destruction of the city of Samaria by Shalmaneser IV, king of Assyria. Most of the citizens of the northern kingdom (Israel) are exiled and resettled permanently into other areas of the Assyrian empire. (Other people groups are also brought in and settled in Samaria, and through intermarriage their descendants would become known as Samaritans, but that’s another story.)
Chapter 17 tells us the reason why this disaster has come about. But first we must back up to chapter 16… “When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus.” (16:10-11)
A new altar for Ahaz. The king from Judah is impressed with a pagan altar design and so adopts it for the temple in Jerusalem. The phrase, “…its pattern, exact in all its details [or, workmanship],” recalls Exodus 25:9 and 26:1… of “the pattern” that God gave Moses for the tabernacle and its furnishings, to be constructed faithfully “in all its workmanship”. The big lesson from King Ahaz and his new altar is that the Lord does not want us to get innovative in how we worship him. So often these innovations come at the imitation of the worldly people of influence around us. The Bible is very clear on this, we are not only to worship the true God, but we are also to worship God only in the ways he directs.
The weakness and compromise of King Ahaz in chapter 16 will be contrasted with the strength and faith of King Hezekiah in chapter 18. Chapter 17 is a reflective pause in the history, specifically of the northern kingdom of Israel…
The problem with people. (2 Kings 17) This chapter is a summary assessment of the moral failures of the northern kingdom. This becomes a kind of spiritual MRI that tells us not only about the hearts of Israel, but about our hearts, as well. We see that the people revered other gods (as if the gods of the nations were something to be feared), compromising with culture, copying the customs of pagan peoples, stubbornly following popular, privatized religion (visiting the high places, supposedly to worship God, but not in the way he commanded), abandoning God’s law, despising his commandments, and not listening to the rebukes of the prophets that the Lord sent. In the end, they experienced loss of power from God, for God was now being viewed as only one option, a local deity, among many faith options. (17:24-33)
In a word, the people did not fear the true God and remain faithful to the covenant. To “fear the Lord” is to revere and honor him as the God that he is. We respond to God’s goodness, faithfulness and truthfulness with our trust and love. We respond to God’s majesty, holiness, and authority with fear, that is, a holy reverence which results in humility and obedience. The irony is that when we do not fear God in this way, we are beset by more fears, not less. Oswald Chambers once said, “The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” And this is the final state of the nation in chapter 17 of 2 Kings.
How quickly we too are led astray to bow down to false gods, creating idols (of all various forms), presuming upon our own power and possessions, trusting our money and wealth, ignoring God’s word, and going through vain religious rituals. Martin Luther, expounding on the First Commandment in the Larger Catechism, gives an excellent explanation of what false gods and idols are.
So, what does God want from us? What do we learn from Israel’s failures? What does he want from the human race? Why were we created, and through this great history of salvation — this narrative of the Bible — what kind of human race is God seeking to re-create?
We can see the end-point of our creation by looking at Jesus, God’s Son. The Father said at his baptism in the Jordan, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) Jesus revealed his divine Sonship by loving, revering, and pleasing his Father in heaven and doing all his will on earth.
God created people — and is re-creating people in Christ — to be his sons and daughters in the image of the Lord Jesus. Redeemed people will love, trust, and serve God in faithfulness. They will delight in him and delight to please him by trust and obedience. They will be zealous for the Lord, and be careful to do all that he wills. They will live in a devoted, singular, faithful covenant relationship with him, because he takes them into an eternal relationship with himself through his Son.
So the end of human destiny is that believers will know that God alone is God, that he is our Father, that we are dependent upon him for all things; that we find life in him alone; that we are to obey him in all things and honor him above all things. He is our authority. He is our life. He alone — and what he promises and what he commands — is to be our highest concern. No other so-called gods, no other things which call for fear and reverence and devotion, no other things in which we might find our security, no other custom of culture, no other pleasure, no other social pressure, none of these things matter at all. Only God.
As Asaph says in the psalm,
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73:23-26 ESV)
Of course, this is not what I am in myself as a descendant of Adam! None of us are! But this is what Jesus is toward his Father, and by faith, this is what you and I are becoming now that we are in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And this is the glorious future of all the redeemed of the Lord.