The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem: but he did not that which was right in the sight of the LORD, like David his father:Jotham Regarded As a Connecting-link
2 Chronicles 27, 2 Chronicles 28
WHO was he? Whence did he spring? He comes so suddenly upon us: let us interrogate him. A few facts may lead to a great philosophy. Jotham was the son of a king, and the probable son of a high priest. Then he must be good! Let us take care how we hasten to conclusions. We may be right, or we may be wrong; but let us take great care of the basis oh which our reasoning is founded. His father's name was Uzziah,—not a name to be altogether proud of, as we have seen. His mother was the daughter of Zadok, and Zadok was probably high priest. Jotham was a good king, almost whole-hearted in genuine piety, and a wise man in that he avoided at least one of his father's mistakes. Anybody can avoid a vulgarity; no genius is required in forbearing to imitate drunkenness, profanity, sheer and desperate recklessness: the thing that is difficult to avoid is a divergence from the path of virtue and wisdom. Heavenly wisdom discriminates between shades. A child might soon learn to distinguish between the right hand and the left; but all things are not diametrically separated; there are radii, and they can come quite closely together, being finely drawn, by specially prepared instruments. The wisdom that is from above hath a microscopic eye which can see the finest shades and the closest lights. Uzziah made a fool of himself in a way that his son could hardly imitate. Moreover his son may have heard of the penalty that fell upon the trespassing king. When a man's father has been blasted with leprosy, surely the son is not likely to go and do the very thing which brought upon his parent that malediction. We read, therefore, that Jotham "entered not into the temple of the Lord." Here is a negative virtue to begin with. The meaning is not that Jotham did not go to the temple service, did not heed the temple ritual, did not care for temple life; probably he was regular and punctual in his attendance at the temple within the assigned limits; but he did not enter the temple sacrilegiously as his father did, for, as we have seen, his father went in and took the censer, and swung it, and burned incense, and the priests followed him with great haste, and arrested him, king though he was, and said—No: even a king must keep within the proper limitations; and whilst they remonstrated the white patch came up in the forehead, and Uzziah went out a leper, as he had come in a trespasser. Jotham took care not to imitate the broad vulgarity of his father's sacrilege. But to avoid a great sin does not involve the fact or the necessity that we must therefore be minutely, critically, and vitally pious. The Scripture comes into closer quarters with us, and asks many questions in a whisper which we could have borne if they had been hurled at us in thunder. It is the searching whisper, the spiritual cross-examination, the still small voice that wants the minutest secret from the heart, that we cannot endure.
The piety of Jotham was the more remarkable that he had nobody to sustain him: "The people did yet corruptly" (2Chronicles 27:2). It is hard to be a flower in a wilderness of weeds. There is a singularity that is painful. It is hard to pray when everybody is cursing. It is easy to join the popular hymn, easy to flow with the stream. The difficulty is to be the one example, to stand by conviction in the time of general moral collapse; to be the one faithful among the many faithless. But there is danger even here. A man may think himself more pious than he really is because other people are so corrupt. A little light may seem to be quite a sun where the darkness is so great. The danger is that we take credit to ourselves for being very heavenly when we are only really good by contrast, when we owe more to the darkness that is around us than to the light that is in us for the display of any supposed virtue or excellence.
We have said that Jotham was almost whole hearted: what flaw was there in the crystal? Read the words, and say if the most critical eye can detect in them any foreign material, any vitiating speck:—
"He built the high gate of the house of the Lord, and on the wall of Ophel he built much. Moreover he built cities in the mountains of Judah, and in the forests he built castles and towers" (2Chronicles 27:3-4).
This wall looked towards the south: who does not like to work or build or loiter on the sunny side of the hill? Work then becomes a kind of pleasure, the sun blithely assists the labourer, and makes him forget quite half his toil. Many men are willing to assist on sunny days and at sunny places and under sunny circumstances, who are no use among shadows and gathering gloom and threatening thunder. They call themselves your friends, and so they tell wicked lies; they profess themselves to be willing to undertake any work that the sun shines on, and to do it in the spirit of sacrifice: no such action is possible; they do it that they may enjoy themselves, that they may receive the benediction of the sun. Perhaps they do not mean to be wicked: what man ever did, fully and self-consciously, intend to be as bad as he could be? But they are self-deceived, they are charmed and tempted because the work is on the southern slope, and there the sun seems to shine all day. If all this were said to an intelligent Christian congregation the assembly would listen with interest and attention; yet this is not the meaning of the text, and this has no connection whatsoever with the text. This is the difficulty which the Christian teacher must always contend with, namely, that nobody knows the Bible; and further that there is a great danger in neglecting the text that the sermon may be enjoyed. As well neglect to reap, and come for the fruit. What then does "Ophel" mean? It means the mount. Where was the mount? On the southern slope. Why did the king build so much on Ophel? Because it was most accessible to the enemy; he would have built as much on the northern or shady side if that had been the weak point of his life; like a wise commander he remembered that no man is stronger than his weakest point, and that no fortification is stronger than its frailest part; so the king built much where the wall was weakest, or where the access of the enemy was most open; and in doing so he gathered up and represented the wisdom and experience of the ages, and anticipated what we and all the sons of time ought to do. Many men are building unnecessarily; they have not walked round the wall to see what place was weakest. So long as they are building they think they are industrious; it is industry thrown away. So many men are foolishly energetic and industrious. Why put more bolts on the door that is already ironed and strengthened in what appears to be every possible way? Why so diligently protect the front door, and leave the back door standing wide open? This is the folly of life, this is the madness of many business men, this is the secret of failure in a thousand directions,—industry to the point of exhaustion, early rising, late retiring, continual friction, but all at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances, all stultified by want of proceeding from the right centre. What is your weakest point? Build much there. Your weakest point is not want of information; if your wisdom were half your knowledge a greater than Solomon would be here. Why all this acquisition of more languages, more history, more philosophy? Your character is running out of you at another point. Build much where much building is needed. Your want is not want of more money. Suppose your money were multiplied by ten, what of it? It would be multiplied by ten if you thought it were. After a certain point, a man can have just as much as he pleases to have by multiplying it a hundredfold. There is a time when money ceases to be of value as to living effect and blessed influence; therefore you can at any time multiply what you have by any number of units and ciphers, and all will come out in the great polysyllable of love. You do not need more money, but you need more character, patience, thoughtfulness, self-control, settled persistence, unsparing discipline: why not build much at Ophel? What is your weakest point—passion? Have plenty of water at hand, mountains of ice; that will be wisdom; but to be giving great festivals and floating banners and sounding trumpets will be absolutely useless to you: what you want is a plunge into an ice-pit, and to stop there till your friends fetch you out of it,—you will be a long time absent, What is your weakest point—covetousness? Then take inkhorn and pen and cleanest sheet of whitest paper, and write on it in God's sight that every day in the week you will give a sum that will pinch you. You do not give till you begin to feel you have given. All other contribution is luxury, vanity, a perfunctory service; let there be some feeling of real sacrifice; then every day for a time will be a battle. There will stand the oath—a challenge, a claim. Near your shoulder there will plead an invisible devil, who will say, Has not the time come when you might relax your discipline? And you, poor bruised reed, only healed the day before yesterday, will begin to feel that perhaps you might intermit a day. Build much on that Ophel; that is your salvation or your ruin, namely, your relation to that weakest point in your character. What is your most accessible point—indolence? Build much there; insist upon being roused; say to your soul, It is right that I should, if need be, be maddened into action; and plead with your dearest friend not to spare the puncture that will call you to your fate. Sloth steals over a man, lulls him, delights him; and how quickly the unsympathetic clock goes when we are dozing! What man ever woke up and said, It is not so far on as I thought it was? How many thousands awake to say they had no idea that the time had passed so rapidly? Is your weakest point envy? Is it impossible for you to see your neighbour prosper without your sleep being broken in upon? Does the prosperity of your competitor spoil your peace? That is your Ophel; build much there; to build otherwhere is useless; such building may express industry, but industry misspent; to beat the air is a fool's exercise.
You are not going to found an accusation on the process and action of building. He was not building evil temples, unholy houses, places destitute of every sign of spiritual excellence and religious significance. Yet it was in all that building that he got wrong. We must go to the religious critic to find what men are doing. We must go to the pulpit, if the pulpit is true, to know whether kings are acting wisely or unwisely; and the pulpit must bear the foolish accusation of being political in its criticism and censure. All the building is proceeding, and people are saying what an admirable building it is; but Hosea was the prophet of the time, a burning fire in the northern kingdom, a man who would be written down by the journalists of the day for being political; he thundered in his age, and made kings know that prophecy was the true royalty. Said he, in the name of God: "Israel hath forgotten his Maker, and buildeth temples; and Judah hath multiplied fenced cities: but I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour the palaces thereof." Whilst Jotham was building Hosea was thundering. Hosea might have been more popular if he had said nothing about it. People love an inoffensive ministry; a sweet, quiet, vapid platitudinarianism. But the prophets were great critics; they let nothing escape them, they condemned with a strong voice. Said Isaiah, that great statesman-prophet—who would not be shut up within some limited place called a pulpit, but who made creation the theatre of his action, "The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim,"—the northern tribes being politically designated by that name, and being thus significantly described. Jotham would have fortresses and castles and towers and much masonry. The Lord has always been training the race to spiritual dependence. If he has allowed man to build anything with mortar and stone, it has been to teach him the inutility of any such erections. "I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour the palaces thereof." The word "castles" in this verse literally means palaces, the very word which Hosea uttered at the bidding of God. The Lord is to be our refuge and strength, not our high walls and great towers and invincible bastions. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. A man may be building atheistically. A man may lay up so much for a rainy day that in his very economy and penuriousness and forethought he may be denying God. Innocent indeed Jotham appeared to be when building and completing the line of fortifications; but he ought to have trusted more in the living God. There be those who say that heaven helps those who help themselves, and they help themselves so much as to leave heaven nothing to do. Are we not displacing faith by prudence? Are we not ousting religion by calculation? Except the Lord keep the city, every gate of it will fall down, and the burglars may enter in full force. Except the Lord watch, the watchman's lamp and rattle are but child's toys. What is the fortification of our life? What is the line of defence? Wherein have we put our trust? What appears to be innocent may in reality be full of atheism and folly. Self-preservation may be really an aspect of atheism. To put another line of defence around one's life may be to restrain prayer before God. Thus all through the ages God has been training men to spiritual trust, to simple faith, to casting one's self upon the Almighty, and saying—Father, as thou wilt; I am not my own, I am thine: lead me, guide me, make use of me, make my whole life a blessing; I want to have no will but thine: there cannot be two almighties: the Lord reigneth; he shall be the defence of my soul.
Was Jotham, then, condemned and utterly cast away? No. We will retain our first form of words and say he was almost whole-hearted in his healthy piety. And it is recorded of him, "Jotham became mighty, because he prepared his ways before the Lord his God" (2Chronicles 27:6). Literally, He directed his steps by the meridian of God's righteousness. "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." How difficult it is to be a whole-hearted man in piety! How strong the temptatation just to do a little building and a little praying! How likely the Sunday of life is to be voted out by the six competing days! It must be hard to be the one day in the week which peculiarly bears the image and superscription of God. It is difficult to tell the whole truth. Who does? Society would be rent in pieces if the whole truth were spoken one single day. Jotham established his ways before God; he lived a religious life; he had an uppermost thought that fixed itself upon the living God. Who is a Christian? No man. It is impossible to be a Christian. What is possible is the desire—"I count not myself to have attained, but I press toward the mark." If that was all the great apostle accounted himself to have done, in some feeble echo only can we claim to be of the glorious company of the apostles. The Lord looks upon the uppermost thought, the supreme desire, and when we can say, "Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee: I know what happened four days ago—I know it—yet I love thee," then shall come a mission to feed the lambs and sheep.
Such was Jotham, in rude outline. Such a father must, we should say, have an excellent son. On so fair a tree fair fruit must be found. Yet we must beware of our own reasoning, for such halting logic would not have given us Jotham himself. We are on the wrong line of reasoning if we suppose that a good father must have a good son. There is a kind of natural logic in it, a sequence that comes as if it were of necessity; but it is not so. Jotham's father was a leper, and was smitten with leprosy on moral grounds. Helped until he became strong, he was not satisfied with strength; he exaggerated his strength into presumption; he inspired his strength by a baleful ambition, and he was ruined in his very endeavour to become more than God intended him to be. Blessed is he who knows the measure of his election, and who makes his calling and election sure; blessed is he who knows he cannot preach, cannot utter music, cannot grasp and handle with mastery the tragedy of life; blessed is he who knows just what he can do, and who faithfully, simply, lovingly does it; he shall be honoured with many honours when his Lord cometh. Uzziah was not after that model. Having done much he thought he could do more, and in the perversion and misapplication of his strength he found his leprosy. It would seem as if Providence persistently broke in upon natural logic and asserted a sovereignty immeasurable, incalculable, so that no man could tell what will happen tomorrow. The growth of humanity is not after a horticultural manner. We cannot say that a good tree shall have good off-shoots, if we are speaking of humanity. The holiest father may have a murderer for his son. The sweetest mother may die of a broken heart. Only a foolish criticism is reckless in fixing definite responsibilities in this matter of the nurture and culture of children. The Lord rebukes us when we say that because the father was good the son must be good; or because the father was evil the son must be evil. The Lord permits men to come in between who are bad, or who are good, that all our little speculation about heredity, and all our arrangements for moral progress, may be thrown back and lost in confusion. Herein is the working of that mysterious law which is often misunderstood when denominated the law of election. We cannot tell what God is doing. Your son ought to have been good: for where is there a braver soul than yourself? The boy ought to have been chivalrous, for he never knew you do a mean deed or give lodgment to an ungenerous thought. In a way too he was proud of his father; yet there was no devil's work he would not stoop to do. He did not get the bad blood from his mother, for gentler, sweeter soul never sang God's psalms in God's house. Yet there is the mystery, and it is not for a reckless criticism to define the origin and the issue of this mysterious phenomenon in human development.
Jotham had a son called Ahaz: "But he did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord, like David his father" (2Chronicles 28:1). What a point of departure! The prodigal son has been in every history; it required but the fingers of Christ to take him out and set him forth in a parable that fills the eyes like the sun at midday. Why did Ahaz go astray when his father was a good man? Perhaps he went only a little astray; perhaps the deflection was hardly calculable. No, that is not so:—"For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made also molten images for Baalim,"—not for Baal; he served all the gods; his idols were in the plural number: for every aspect of Baal; literally, for the Baals. There was not an avatar that had not its recognition from wicked Ahaz. He walked round the Baalim to see how many there were of them, and the more there were the better he was pleased. "Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel" (2Chronicles 28:3). He revelled in wickedness; he was a glutton at the devil's table. He would have come well immediately after his grandfather, the leper. But Jotham was between. That is the mystery. How is it that man goes on for a while, and then suddenly reverts, or turns aside, or makes room for a monster? It is a curious history! There was no end to the wickedness of Ahaz. "He made Judah naked, and transgressed sore against the Lord": literally, He made Judah licentious; still more literally, He loosed Judah, took away the restraints of decency, custom, publicity; cut the tether, loosed Judah, made Judah naked, destroyed the last light of decency. Yet Jotham was his father. That is the difficulty. The old leprosy was to come up again in another form. This is the son of the leper, only the leprosy is on the heart, not on the face. A melancholy record, truly! Yet Jotham was his father. His father prayed, he worshipped idols; his father acknowledged God, he denied him. All the home influence was lost; he was a sevenfold offender. Hear his record:—he worshipped the gods of Syria, "For he sacrificed unto the gods of Damascus, which smote him: and he said, Because the gods of the kings of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me. But"—now comes a sentence that ought to be written in letters of fire, that ought to be kept steadily before the eyes of every young man—
"But they were the ruin of him" (2Chronicles 28:23).
Now let us read the verse in its entirety:
"For he [Ahaz] sacrificed unto the gods of Damascus, which smote him: and he said, Because the gods of the kings of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me. But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel [lit. and they (i.e. those very gods) were to him to make him stumble, and all Israel. The mode of expression, as well as the thought expressed, is highly characteristic] (2Chronicles 28:23).
Local gods are full of prejudice; sectarian gods will not bless the men that go to the next church. The gods of the Syrians are supposed to favour the Syrians only—little gods, mean, poor-hearted gods, little shrivelled tearless gods, petting their own idolaters after a superstitious fashion, but having nothing to do with the great human heart in all the tragedy of its meaning. That is the history of sectarianism everywhere. Only that God is true, though he be but a painted deity, that loves the world. The artist that painted such a god created him. This is the glory of the Bible, that it reveals a God who loves all men, who redeemed all men, who is no respecter of persons. A God that respects persons pays his Godhead for his elevation. How many men have been mistaken in seeking false inspiration or in coveting false benedictions! The young man says he has a difficult task tomorrow, he is to meet persons with whom he has no sympathy and from whom he expects no quarter; constitutionally, he is nervous, self-distrustful, somewhat afraid of a certain aspect of controversy: he therefore says, I will fortify myself, I will take wine, the wine will quicken the flow of my blood, will pleasantly and usefully excite the nervous centres, and I shall go forward boldly and confidently and make the best of myself;—but it was the ruin of him! Wine never made a man really bold; whilst the wine was working its little temporary miracle upon him, it was sucking out his will, it was twisting the chain round his life; whilst the wine satisfied one thirst it was creating another, and he who was so bold under the inspiration of one glass of wine will need two the next time; and so he seeks a fool's helper, that will be the ruin of him. Impudence is not boldness; self-forgetfulness wrought by this demon of the pit is not power, dignity, or noblest manhood. For a time you were pert, self-sufficient, heedless, careless of every man, and could answer in retort and repartee with some sharpness: it was not you, but the evil spirit, and that evil spirit will be the ruin of you; though you start business with a heavy capital, and with many friends, and with the fullest sunshine of social favour, take heed; you may be buried with the burial of an ass. Are there not those who seek false inspiration? They will consult their false pride, they will sacrifice at the altar of appearances; over their poverty they will put some borrowed rag in the hope that observers will look at the rag and not at the poverty, and treat them as occupying a certain social position. False pride will be the ruin of them. Why do you not acknowledge poverty? There is a poverty that is honourable, there is an industry of which no man need be ashamed. If you cannot surround yourself with liveried servants, who cares? The people who simulate amazement at your grandeur will laugh at you as fools when they go home. False appearances are the ruin of many people. They are ashamed to work, they would die if they had to clean their own doorstep. All this we must get rid of, or we shall have no real health. All tall talk, all high assumptions, all genteel lying must be swept out of the way, and men must go for what they are worth, and create an aristocracy of merit. Let capacity lead the nation: let merit be the chief partner in business: let genius wear the purple and sway the sceptre. They were the ruin of Ahaz, and they will be the ruin of every man that consults false sources of inspiration or excitement; it is not inspiration, it is insanity; it is not healthy excitement, the glow of an intelligent enthusiasm, but the madness and the lawlessness of superstition or self-idolatry.
The subject gives a word to many,—let the word be confined to one only, and that to the soul who wonders why his child should not be better. It is a wonder. There is no frivolous explanation of that mystery. Do not be content with any man who would try to daub that wall with untempered mortar. We did not expect this; we all said, The son of such a father must have on him the stamp of spiritual royalty; his very speech must be attuned to the music of heaven. God is working, and he may at last show what he has been meaning all the time; but you may rest in this solemn doctrine that judgment is in the hand of God. It is not for man to condemn or to praise beyond a very easily defined limit of criticism. God knoweth all things. He knoweth more things than you, even the boy's father, can tell, because he knows all the fathers that have gone before you. You do not know them beyond a very recent date; but every line is open, even to nakedness, to the eyes of him with whom we have to do; and he will be kind, he will be gracious. Aaron says, "His mercy endureth for ever." Israel says, "His mercy endureth for ever." All men who have had experience of him say, "His mercy endureth for ever." And all his attributes, purposes, have been gathered up into one sublime utterance, which a child can remember as to words, but which no archangel can fathom as to meaning,—"God is Love."
Speak thy word to our hearts, thou God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may we know that the word is thine because of our glowing love. There is no voice like thine, there is no touch like thine. Draw near to us, whisper to us, lay thy fingers upon us, and we shall be cheered and healed and made strong with thine own strength. We have wandered, but thou knowest that we love thee; we have stopped our prayers that we might do some sin, yet all the while the prayer has been uppermost and has prevailed; we have gone away from thy sanctuary, but our hearts have ached that we might return. Behold, thou hast not left us to ourselves, thou hast followed us, thy Holy Spirit has been with us, entreating, rebuking, reproaching, yet comforting: assuring us when our hunger was keenest that in our Father's house there was bread enough and to spare. Give us understanding of the times, that we may know what thy Church ought to do; bless us with the spirit of fearlessness, that we may speak the necessary word with all clearness and with the power of self-restraint and the charm of anxious modesty; may there be no sparing of wrong, may there be no compromise with evil or darkness, may no bribe be accepted at Christ's altar, but may all men be alive with the spirit of righteousness, burning with the spirit of love; then shall there come upon all thy Church a revival full of intelligence, earnest, intense, enduring, and he who is our Saviour shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied. Amen.