March 15, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23
History is a mess. Whether we think about the scope of our nation’s history, world history, or even our own personal histories, we often lose the forest for the trees. Lots of things happened, of course, but did it all mean something? This Sunday’s first reading from the end of 2 Chronicles looks back over the scope of Israel’s history and sorts out exactly what it means.
The reading launches with a summary statement of the problem:
In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. (2 Chr 36:14 NAB)
Now this is coming in the very last chapter of a two-volume work. We should have read all of 1 and 2 Chronicles before coming to this point. There we will see exactly what the Chronicler is talking about. From King Saul’s illicit sacrifices to the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam to the setting up of an idol in the Temple to the atrocities of child sacrifice under Manasseh (2 Chr 33:6-7), the examples should be replete enough by this conclusion that we can agree that many infidelities to the Lord were perpetrated by his people, priests, and kings. The Chronicler is summarizing and helping us to see what he sees. The judgment of God has come upon his very own people because of their sins against him.
In spite of their infidelities, the Lord continually sent messengers to warn his people (2 Chr 36:16). Notably, the word for messenger is mal’ak, which can also be translated as “angel,” but our passage identifies the messengers as nebi’im, prophets. Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah warned God’s people, invited them to repent and turn away from idolatry and sin, but they did not listen. Just imagine if your best friend called you every day reminding you to go to confession, but you ignored him, hung up on him, and put him on your blocked numbers list. That’s how Israel and Judah were treating the Lord’s invitation to reconciliation.
Rather than repenting, the people continued to rebel. The rebellion against God took many forms, some explicitly religious (like worshipping idols), some more financial like paying tribute to foreign rulers (2 Chr 28:21). Since the people did not repent, but kept up their sinning, God decides to bring judgment upon them. We are allergic to judgment and punishment, but what fitting response is there to apostasy against the living God, the maker of the universe? Rather than personally bringing about retribution, God selects foreign intermediaries that act on his behalf, but without their explicit knowledge: the Babylonians. In 587 BC, the Babylonians (called “Chaldeans” in 2 Chr 36:17) under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, bringing an end to the Kingdom of Judah.
The Babylonians were not kindly conquerors, but neither were they wholly murderous. Rather than killing everyone in Jerusalem, they imported the best and brightest to their own land. They took the royal court, the priests, and other persons of significance and brought them into exile at Babylonia (in modern-day Iraq). The prophet Daniel and his friends were part of the exile community, for example. It might not sound so bad to us to be deported from our land to another very similar place—say from Chicago to Vancouver, but for the ancient Israelites this meant a total disruption of God’s plan. He had promised a land, an inheritance, a bright and beautiful future, firmly planted in one place. To be sent off to another land was to destroy this vision, to bring an end to the promise, to look into the future without hope. The modern-day equivalent would be a prison-camp or refugee-camp existence with an indefinite sentence.
The Chronicler quotes Jeremiah the prophet saying:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.” (2 Chr 36:21 NAB)
While this exact text does not appear in the Book of Jeremiah, a very similar one at Jer 29:10 forecasts an exile of seventy years. The law of Moses sets up a weekly sabbath, but also a sabbath that takes place every seven years, when the fields are left fallow and slaves released (Lev 25:4; Exod 21:2). Unfortunately, the people have not been faithful in implementing the sabbath year (Jer 34:13-14). So the Chronicler’s Jeremiah quote interprets the length of the exile as a series of years that will all be “sabbaths” to make up for the unobserved sabbath years. The land will have a good long rest before it gets worked again.
Our reading also references the Persians, particularly “until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.” Oddly, the overlord of one’s overlord may be one’s friend. The Persians, under Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC. That meant that now Persian policy ruled the day, and the Persians were more lenient than Babylonians. Rather than keeping up the refugee lifestyle, they decided to send the Jewish captives back to their homeland and even allow them to rebuild their Temple. Though the Persians are the new overlords, the Jews see them initially as liberators. Cyrus is even considered the Lord’s anointed (Isa 45:1)!
The Book of Chronicles ends on a happy note, quoting Cyrus’ edict of liberation. After all of the infidelities, the judgments, the exile, and the overlords, the people of Judah get to return to the promised land. If Babylon was the new Egypt, then Cyrus was the new Moses, letting the people go from the land of captivity to the land of their fathers. This great moment in the history of God’s people is called “The Return.” They come back to the land, rebuild the Temple, rebuild the city of Jerusalem and re-establish the observance of God’s law in the land.
The Chronicler is looking back over the bumpy landscape of Israel’s past trying to discern the hand of God. It seems incomprehensible that his very own chosen people could forsake his law, worship false gods, and end up under the thumb of foreign powers. Yet upon reflection, we can see God’s providence at work through it all—his love, his invitation to repent, even his judgment, and finally the blessing of return. No one could have predicted it would work out this way, but God’s hand was at work the whole time. While history might seem like a mess, a beautiful and hidden purpose lies beneath.