The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah began Hoshea the son of Elah to reign in Samaria over Israel nine years.2 Kings 17
1. In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah began Hoshea the son of Elah to reign in Samaria over Israel nine years.
2. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, but not as the kings of Israel that were before him.
3. ¶ Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria; and Hoshea became his servant, and gave [rendered] him presents [or, tribute].
4. And the king of Assyria found conspiracy in Hoshea: for he had sent messengers to So king of Egypt, and brought [offered] no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year [omit "year by year"]: therefore the king of Assyria shut him up [comp. Jeremiah 32:2-3; Jeremiah 33:1, Jeremiah 36:3] and bound him in prison.
5. ¶ Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years.
6. ¶ In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them [literally, made them dwell] in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan [on Habor the river of Gozan] and in the cities of the Medes.
7. For so it was [literally, And it came to pass], that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, which had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods [such as the Baals and Asherahs of Canaan, which symbolised the productive powers of Nature, and, further, the heavenly bodies (comp. Amos 5:25-26; Ezekiel 8:14, Ezekiel 8:16],
8. And walked in the statutes [religious rules or ordinances. (Comp. Exodus 12:14, "statutes;" Leviticus 20:23, "manners;" 1Kings 3:3, "ordinances")] of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel, and the kings of Israel, which they had made.
9. And the children of Israel did secretly those things that were not right against the Lord their God, and they built them high places in all their cities, from the tower of the watchmen to the fenced city. [The towers are such as are mentioned in 2Chronicles 26:10.]
10. And they set them up images [statues], and groves [pillars and Asherahs—sacred trunks], in every high hill, and under every green tree:
11. And there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the heathen whom the Lord carried away before them; and wrought wicked things [not merely idolatrous rites, but also the hideous immoralities which constituted a recognised part of the nature-worships of Canaan] to provoke the Lord to anger:
12. For they served idols [And they served the dunglings; a term of contempt], whereof the Lord had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing.
13. Yet the Lord testified [gave solemn warning or charge] against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.
14. Notwithstanding they would not hear [and they hearkened not], but hardened their necks [neck. (Comp. Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 17:23; 2Chronicles 36:13)], like to the neck [more than the neck] of their fathers, that did not believe in the Lord their God.
15. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them, that they should not do like them.
16. And they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images [1Kings 12:28 : literally, a casting], even two calves, and made a grove [an Asherah (1Kings 14:23, 1Kings 16:33)], and worshipped all the host of heaven [chap. 2Kings 21:3; comp. 2Kings 23:4], and served Baal.
17. And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire [the cultus of Molech (chap. 2Kings 16:3)] and used divination and enchantments [Deuteronomy 18:10; Numbers 23:23], and sold themselves [idolatry is regarded as a servitude (comp. 1Kings 21:20, 1Kings 21:25)] to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger.
18. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight [by banishing them from his land (2Kings 17:23)]: there was none left but the tribe [i.e., the kingdom (comp. 1Kings 11:36)] of Judah only.
19. Also Judah kept not [Judah was no exception to the sins and punishments of Israel; she imitated the apostasy of her sister-kingdom, and was visited with a similar penalty] the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made.
20. And the Lord rejected all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers, until he had cast them out of his sight.
21. For he rent Israel from the house of David; and they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king: and Jeroboam drave [put far away] Israel from following the Lord, and made them sin a great sin.
22. For the children of Israel walked [obstinately persisted, in spite of all warning] in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them;
23. Until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had said by all his servants the prophets. [Comp. Hosea 1:6, Hosea 9:16; Amos 3:11-12; Amos 5:27; Isaiah 28:1-4.] So was Israel carried away [that the land was not entirely depopulated appears from such passages as 2Chronicles 30:1, 2Chronicles 34:9] out of their own land to Assyria unto this day.
24. ¶ And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them [made them dwell] in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.
25. And so it was at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the Lord: therefore the Lord sent [the] lions [in the interval between the Assyrian depopulation and the repeopling of the land, the lions indigenous to the country had multiplied naturally enough] among them, which slew some of them.
26. Wherefore they [men; the prefects of the province] spake to the king of Assyria, saying, The nations which thou hast removed, and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner [appointed worship] of the God of the land: therefore he hath sent lions among them, and, behold, they slay them, because they know not the manner of the God of the land.
27. Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, Carry [cause to go] thither one of the priests whom ye brought [carried away] from thence; and let them [him] go and dwell there, and let him teach them the manner of the God of the land.
28. Then one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Beth-el [because he was a priest of the calf-worship], and taught [and was teaching; implying a permanent work] them how they should fear the Lord.
29. Howbeit [And] every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans [the people of northern Israel (comp. 2Kings 17:24)] had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.
30. And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima,
31. And the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burnt their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.
32. So they feared [were fearing] the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them [of all orders, or promiscuously (comp. 1Kings 12:31). Another indication that it was Jeroboam's mode of worship which was now restored] priests of the [omit "the"] high places, which sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places.
33. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods [literally, Jehovah they were fearing, and their own gods they were serving], after the manner of the nations whom they carried [who carried them] away from thence.
34. Unto this day they do after the former manners [they still keep up the religious customs of the first colonists]: they fear not the Lord, neither do they after their statutes, or after their ordinances, or after the law and commandment which the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel:
35. With whom the Lord had made a covenant, and charged them, saying, Ye shall not fear other gods, nor bow yourselves to them, nor serve them, nor sacrifice to them:
36. But the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great power and a stretched-out arm, him shall ye fear, and him shall ye worship, and to him shall ye do sacrifice.
37. And the statutes, and the ordinances, and the law, and the commandment, which he wrote for you, ye shall observe to do for evermore: and ye shall not fear other gods.
38. And the covenant that I have made with you ye shall not forget; neither shall ye fear other gods. [This formula is repeated thrice (2Kings 17:35, 2Kings 17:37-38) as the main point of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel.]
39. But the Lord your God ye shall fear; and he [the pronoun is emphatic: and he, on his part, will deliver you] shall deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.
40. Howbeit they did not hearken, but they did [continued doing] after their former manner.
41. So these nations feared the Lord, and served their graven images [a variation of 2Kings 17:33], both their children, and their children's children: as did their fathers, so do they unto this day.
A very significant expression occurs in the twenty-ninth verse of the fifteenth chapter.
"In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abel-beth-maachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria." (2Kings 15:29).
A very humbling expression! But this is an aspect of providence we cannot afford, if we be wise men, to ignore. Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, came and carried away all these people captive to Assyria—simply "carried" them. When men have lost their soul, their spirit, their fire, they are simply carted away like so many hundredweights and tons of dead matter. We are not men if we have lost manliness—in other words, if we have lost the indwelling Spirit of God, the force eternal, the seal divine; we are not then conquered, because to be "conquered" would imply some measure of calculated and rational resistance,—we are simply carried away, borne off, as men might carry dead matter. This is the lot of all nations that forget God: this is the lot of every man whose heart ceases to be the sanctuary of the living Spirit: he is but so much bulk; name him in pounds avoirdupois, report him in so many inches and feet of stature and girth;—he has grieved the Spirit; he has quenched the Spirit; henceforth he is to be driven as one of a herd of dumb cattle; he is to be carried as if he were but so much flesh. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The Almighty can humble us in many ways—unexpected, wholly unforeseen, and absolutely inevitable, so that he who was the crown of his people is trodden under foot, and as for the fine gold, men are struck by nothing so much as by its dimness.
We now come to the incident of Ahaz sending messages to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, complaining to him that the hand of the king of Syria and the hand of the king of Israel had been raised against the king of Judah. Ahaz afterwards paid a visit to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, going to Damascus to meet him; and when he was at Damascus, Ahaz saw an object which attracted his attention. Ahaz reigned wickedly in Judah, but like the rest of mankind he was a strange mixture. Ahaz, while at Damascus, saw a new kind of altar: he took a plan of it; he reported in terms of a literal specification all its curious workmanship; and he told Urijah the priest to have one exactly of that description ready for him by the time he came from Damascus. Here is an interest in religious things. Ahaz takes an interest in an altar. It was an architectural interest. Ahaz was pleased with shapes, forms, colours; he had an eye for artistic beauty; he looked upon the altar as a child might have looked upon a toy: as an artist might have looked upon a picture, as a musician might have regarded a new piece of music. It was, however, a costly interest. Let us do Ahaz full justice. Ahaz could not have this altar without paying for it; and pay for it he did. Are there not men who are exactly like Ahaz today? They see new forms of worship, new programmes of a devotional kind, new clothing for the priests who minister at the altar, new ways of lighting the sacred edifice, new plans of opening and closing doors, new systems of ventilation, administration; and seizing all these things, and being willing to pay for the execution of their own fancies and ideas, it might easily be supposed that they were religious men. There is no artistic religion; that is to say, there is no religion that begins and ends in mere art, method, mechanism, arrangement. Yet how many there are who can only worship in certain places! They do not know the gospel unless they hear it uttered by certain men. They live by the voice, not by the truth. How many there are who can only be comfortable in religious worship in proportion as they are surrounded by familiar persons! Any derangement of the usual environment would mean impoverishment of the prayer, the upset of religious calmness, the utter depletion of Christian virtue: the whole service would simply go for nothing, because the surroundings had been altered or modified. Is ours a merely artistic interest in the service of God? Are we struck by new forms only—or do we hold every one as with a light hand, saying, They are nothing but as they express an inward and spiritual grace and force? To these questions every man must make his own answer. But the lesson is general, namely, that we may take an interest in religious things without being under the influence of a truly religious spirit. It is possible to spend a lifetime in collecting rare editions of the Bible. A man may have a thousand Bibles, and yet not have one revelation. But surely the man is religious who collects editions of the Bible, in all manner of type, and paper, and binding; who would spend much money in getting a rare edition that contained some particular phrase or word not known to other editions? To regard such a man as not religious would surely be a violation of charity? Not of necessity. All depends upon other circumstances. The man may be most pious, devoted, simple-minded, holy, but he is not all these simply because he spends so much time and money in collecting rare editions of the Bible. Any edition of the Bible will do when a man wants with his whole soul to know which is the greatest commandment of the law. He will be sure to secure an edition containing the gospel, then let all that is curious, rare, valuable from an artistic point, come in as it may, or not come in at all, he has the Bible, he knows the commandments, and keeps them. Are there not those who take a great interest in embellishing the house of God? They wish to have everything beautiful round about them. All this is right. We cannot but sympathise with this spirit. God does not want any of our disorder, slovenliness, or neglect of things that are true and beautiful; God himself condescends to accept all our efforts to make the place of his feet glorious: but we may have only an artistic interest in the house of God. He builds God's house who builds a man's true life. He loves the sanctuary who accepts its stones as but symbols: altars that do nothing themselves, but help men to pray steadfastly and hopefully in the name of the eternal Son of God. Let us be quite clear about this teaching. It is delightful when men are interested in any department of the sanctuary; it is encouraging to find that persons do take a deep enthusiastic interest in all that pertains to Christian ministry, Christian worship, and Christian evangelisation; the only thing that the most zealous devotee has to take care of is this: lest he expend his enthusiasm in that which is external. We are right when we combine the inward with the outward, when we give a beautiful soul expression in beautiful form,—but the form is nothing if the power be not.
Turning now from Judah to Israel, we find a noticeable point in the seventeenth chapter:
"And the children of Israel did secretly those things that were not right against the Lord their God, and they built them high places in all their cities, from the tower of the watchmen to the fenced city" (2Kings 17:9).
Again we come upon this report which we have had as it were a thousand times in identical terms. What is the wonderful charm of evil? Surely the philosophers have not answered that enquiry completely. There must be some peculiar inexpressible charm in evil, or men would not do it, and do it with both hands earnestly, and live in the doing of it, and reap in its execution some kind of harvest of contentment and gladness. What is this charm? Men repeat the evil even whilst denominating it iniquity and marking it as vile. In this matter we are curiously and wondrously made. We go back to the evil. The devil seems to be more attractive than God. One would have thought that one vision of truth, beauty, heaven's own light, would have for ever fascinated us, and made us incapable of meanness, wrongdoing, untruthfulness, or any form or colour of iniquity. But it is not so. The devil is most charmful! We know he tells lies, but he tells them eloquently. We are aware that he cannot keep any promise that he ever made, yet when he puts out his black hand to us we grope for it in the dark, and think the fellowship not without advantage! Who can explain this? Is the explanation in the heart? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." But what of this infinite infatuation of evil-doers? It is not in theory. The world has not gone so far wrong in theory as some pessimists may have imagined; if even the bad man were set down to write a book which lie would like his own children to peruse, and follow out in daily practice, he would not begin his book by saying, "Serve the devil." No. Surely the very worst man having taken upon himself the task of directing his own children, would write good theories, and would come quite near to quoting and repeating God's own commandments. Yet ere he laid the pen down he would be purposing in his heart to keep an appointment with the devil! Who can sound the heart? Who can find out human nature to perfection? Often we say, "Who can find out God unto perfection?" But let us alter the enquiry and say, "Who can find out human nature fully, to its last line, thought, motive, and flash of will and desire?" Man is mysterious: because God is mysterious. It would seem impossible for men to make a correct distinction between crime and sin. Many men commit sin who would be shocked if they were charged with crime. This would seem to be a lesson hardly ever learned, even by the most spiritual men. There is probably hardly a man in a thousand who attends regularly the services of the sanctuary who could be charged with crime. This is regarded as "respectability." It has come to this, within the shadow of Christ's own cross, that if a man be not chargeable with crime he accounts himself respectable! The inquest should be spiritual. What of motive, thought, unexpressed inclination, unuttered desire? What of the life of the soul? What of those things we would do if we dare? The word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Oh that thrust of heaven's steel, that look of heaven's righteousness! Who can bear that judgment?
Here we join hands with the children of Israel and of Judah, and with human nature all over the world, owning the charm of evil. But the infatuation is more remarkable than the charm. The children of Israel did "secretly" those things that were not right. Ask them this question: Does God see all things? and the answer would be, Yes. Are the darkness and the light both alike unto him? And the reply would be, Certainly. Are his eyes as a flame of fire? The reply would be, Truly: no fire burns like those eyes of judgment. Then why do you blind yourselves with the mortal infatuation that you can do anything "secretly" against the Lord? Theoretically the reply would be—It is impossible to do anything secretly, for heaven sees every deed and the motive out of which it comes. Still, there remains the fact—the very mystery of psychology, the very despair of spiritual teaching—that even the wisest men imagine that they at least take off part of the iniquity by the secrecy of its perpetration.
Was all this done in Israel, or in Judah, in times of ignorance? The answer is in the seventeenth chapter:
"Yet the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets" (2Kings 17:13).
The people did not perish for lack of knowledge. The ministry was not short in that day. Prophets came in great numbers, or in great force, and seers were ready to interpret the invisible and the distant; the land was full of a teaching ministry. Yet the people sinned against all this light! How much can be resisted by the desperately wicked!
"Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the Lord their God. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them, that they should not do like them. And they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger" (2Kings 17:14-17).
How much men can resist when their hearts are set within them to do despite to the Spirit of God and the offers of his grace! Talk about God's almightiness, is there not a certain omnipotence in evil-doing entrusted to the human heart? The almightiness of God is without doubt in relation to all physical control and domination, but is not God as weak as any creature he has made when he comes to deal with the obdurate human heart, the rebellious human will? Then he is like a crying mother reasoning with her children, baptising them with her hot tears, expostulating with them in pungent tones, able only to say, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" The book of God does not conceal the weakness of God, if we may so name it, in regard to this contest as between himself and the human heart. He says, "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." "It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." Is there no resistance now? The man who dies out of Christ now dies a thousand deaths. He is surrounded by Christian atmosphere, and by Christian influences; he is followed by Christian prayer; he is pursued by Christian importunity and remonstrance. He must force his way past God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost; he must tread down the cross, trampling under foot the blood of the everlasting covenant, counting it an unholy or unworthy thing; he must be a very miracle of wickedness—the devil's supreme achievement in the dehumanisation of the race! Grieve not the Spirit. Quench not the Spirit. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."
Notice one vital point. Just as the education and discipline of man became spiritual did man turn away from the living God. What was it that God had introduced into the education of the race? The names are given in chapter 2Kings 17:13—"commandments, statutes, law." Had it come to this? Yes. It had to this certainly come. No fire, no sword, no thunder, no miracle of judgment; the spiritual education of the race had been brought up to this point—"commandments, statutes, law"—a spiritual education and a spiritual appeal. It seems sometimes that if God would only teach by miracles we might be converted, and upon this we should be inclined to insist if Jesus Christ had not given the suggestion the flattest contradiction, saying, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.... If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Sometimes in heart-ache, and spiritual despair of an intolerable kind, we say, oh that God would teach by signs written upon the blue heavens, by great and visible judgments, by smiting the wicked man when his deed was half done, by crowning the righteous man in the very midst of his prayer,—then surely the world would believe! But against this Jesus Christ has set his great and irrevocable judgment. Miracles have been tried: they have had their place, they have done their work, they have passed; and now we have come to spiritual training. It was just so in Christ's own ministry. When he approached the spiritual point, the people rose as it were from their seats and left his church. So long as he was performing miracles, distributing loaves and fishes, showing mighty signs, then the people came around him in great multitudes; but when he said, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you," they said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?"—how can it be done? The moment he came to a spiritual appeal, and to an insistance upon spiritual religion, they turned round; and he said to his disciples who lingered at his side, "Will ye also go away?"—The people had mistaken his purpose; they thought him a mighty conjurer, the prince of miracle performers, a marvellous magician without an equal in known history; but when he came to truth, purity, mercy, justice, submission, resignation, worship of the invisible God, they became weary of his teaching, and left him. This is the distress of every ministry. Who can lay hold upon spiritual affection, spiritual loyalty, and be surrounded and supported by people who say—We love the word of God as you proclaim it, because it affects us spiritually, ennobles our very soul, lifts our thought from the dust and time, and takes us into the upper city and the very eternity of God? Here is a test of judgment, here is a standard of measurement: let there be no mistake about this: we are to grow in grace—not in miracle-doing—and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ—not in the criticism of his miracles or the admiration of his wonders: ours is to be a soul growth, a spiritual liberation, a mental development, a whole-hearted consecration. Spirit of the living God, crown thy miracles by this, the greatest of all!
"The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof" (2Kings 17:24).
The king of Assyria intended here is not Shalmaneser or Esar-haddon, as is generally supposed, but Sargon. It is not doubted that Esar-haddon sent colonists into the country, from whom the new Samaritans were, at least in part, descended. It is believed that there was a previous colonisation by the conqueror of the country. We must regard these men as strangers; and so regarding them, their judgment upon the religious condition of the people is the more remarkable. They noticed, for example, that at the beginning of their dwelling in the country, the people "feared not the Lord." It should be a rule with us in life to know that even those who do not share our own religious sentiments may yet be observing how those sentiments affect our personal conduct. Probably there is hardly a deeper humiliation than that the people of God, at least nominally so regarded, should have been judged as impious by men who came from a far off land and who professed only a heathenish religion. It is noticeable that one of the very first things observed by the Assyrians was that the people were not faithful to their religion. There is evidently something deeper than a mere form of religious faith; otherwise the Assyrians could not have noticed a discrepancy between doctrine and practice; the nominal people of God had so far descended into corruption and licentiousness as to care absolutely nothing for the opinion of heathen critics. Their piety had been displaced not only by impiety, as representing a negative condition of mind, but by absolute contempt and defiance. It is not to be supposed, because our life-work lies amongst men who do not profess religion, that therefore we can afford to dispense with our own religion and not incur the disapprobation of observers. There is an honesty even apart from spiritual religion; that is to say, there is a spirit in man which instinctively revolts at inconsistency, treachery, and all forms of practical lying in reference to high religious obligations. This should be noticed by men who enjoy spiritual emoluments and advantages which they have not earned by merit or by honest labour. All kinds of religious promotion should be jealously regarded as being under the criticism of men of the world. We might so far become victims of infatuation as to suppose that men of the world would rather applaud us for so using ecclesiastical position and privilege as to consolidate our financial and social position. Men of the world, however, do nothing of the kind; although they do not profess to be pious, they yet have clear ideas as to honesty and integrity. To be condemned by men of the world for want of faithfulness to our religious convictions is one of the severest judgments which can befall our religious life.
The report which the colonists gave to the king of Assyria is here recorded—"The nations which thou hast removed, and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner of the God of the land" (2Kings 17:26). They supposed that every locality had its own deity. At this notion it has become customary to smile in a complacent way: but is there not another aspect of this ignorance which ought rather to secure our best interest, and no small degree of our confidence? Better that men should have a local deity than that they should have no deity at all. The Samaritans may have supposed that because they themselves did not know the spirit and law of the local deity that therefore the offended deity had sent lions amongst them. The word "therefore" occurs in the Authorised Version in the twenty-sixth verse, but it is not in the original: instead of the word "therefore" substitute the word "and," because there is no argument intended: nothing is designed but a narrative of events.
The king of Assyria was ready to attend to the report of his people, and his method of meeting the difficulty was that one of the priests should be carried back to the land that he and his assistants might dwell there and teach them the manner of the God of the land. One of the priests was probably one of Jeroboam's priests, not remarkable for dignity or holiness of character. This arrangement is to be put to the credit of the king of Assyria, for it does not appear that he attempted to proselytise the people to his own religion. There was a kind of rude regard paid to what we now term the right of private judgment. Nor is the arrangement adopted by Sargon destitute of a principle of philosophy. He might well suppose that the people would take more kindly to his domination if some concession were made to them on the ground of religion: Sargon said in effect—Let the people practise their own religious rites, put themselves into a proper relation to their own God, amend their character as well as they can: because the more faithful they are to their own God the less likely are they to rebel against myself. Even wicked kings are not destitute of practical wisdom in all matters which affect their supremacy: that is to say, they make sentimental concessions, they are willing that any number of abstract resolutions should be passed, and that men should be quieted by that species of indulgence which does not interfere with political subservience and obedience. Benevolence of this kind should always be narrowly scrutinised. Sometimes men appear to be giving large liberties, when in reality they are not adding to substantial freedom.
It appears from the history that even the priest and his assistants did not succeed in their mission—
"Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt" (2Kings 17:29).
The Babylonians were polytheists, and did not fear to multiply their gods in all the nations which they took in war. Instead of adopting the local religion they set up their own altars. The history reads very strangely at this point:—
"And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burnt their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim" (2Kings 17:30-31).
All these names are without significance to us, but being translated we seem to see to what depths of degradation heathenism brings its votaries. Succoth-benoth was made in the form of a hen taking care of her chickens; Nergal is supposed to signify a wood-cock, or a roost-cock; whilst Ashima is a goat or wolf, Nibhaz a dog, and Tartak an ass. Adrammelech and Anammelech were made in the shape of a horse and a mule. These descriptions may indeed be caricatures of the Babylonian religion, and are not to be too closely criticised. We should be restrained in all our endeavours to travesty even the religion of heathenism by a remembrance that the Christian religion itself has been caricatured and covered with contempt. On the other hand, it is to be remembered that idolaters have not been ashamed of their gods, and it is possible that though the symbol may have been rude, grotesque, and even offensive, yet the mind might even in spiritual bewilderment be looking beyond to the spiritual thought and the higher reality. Our laughter must be sometimes restrained in" the presence of some forms of idolatry. Men are not to be ridiculed out of their false religions. There will come a time in their education when they will understand the most mocking laugh, but until that time has come better treat even superstition with some measure of religious respect.
A curious instance is here seen of what we cannot better describe than as a double life:—
"So they feared the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them priests of the high places, which sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence" (2Kings 17:32-33).
Men made unto themselves of the lowest of the people priests of the high places. By the expression "the lowest of the people" we are not to understand the lowest classes or the most vulgar section of the community; we are rather to understand all ranks, so that the priesthood was really representative and not taken from one particular line or family. Notwithstanding all this priest-making, the people "served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence." All this sounds grotesque, but, rightly comprehended, it represents our own experience in a very awful and tragical light. We do not carry the God of the sabbath throughout all the days of the week with reverent and faithful consistency. Every man must decide for himself whether he does not really leave his God in the church at the close of the sabbath day's exercises. It would seem as if in many instances our religion, or religions, corresponded with the clothes we wear; we have one suit for Sunday, another for holidays, another for festive occasions, and another for the ordinary work of life; how far it may be so in the matter of religious conviction and consistency must be left to every man to determine in his own particular case. When we read that the nations feared the Lord and served their graven images, we are really reading part of our own history. We have magnificent theories, but the epithet cannot be carried over to our practices. We have orthodoxy of the sublimest quality, nor will we permit any violent hand to be laid upon it at any point, for we regard it as altogether sacred; yet it is perfectly possible for us to have a theoretical orthodoxy and a practical heterodoxy,—to be absolutely sound and unimpeachable in all our theological phrases, and yet to be rotten at the core when it comes to disposition, temper, and social conduct.
Almighty God, if thou wilt look upon us our hearts will take hope again and be strong and fearless, and our whole nature shall go out in sacrifice and labour. But without thy look we cannot live. Thou hast called upon us to look unto thee and be saved, but the power to look must come from thee. We are undone, we are lost men; we know not of ourselves in what direction to look: for, behold, when we have looked we have seen nothing but a great cloud. It belongeth unto the Lord to point us to the saving One, the uplifted cross, the dying, atoning Son of God. We bless thee that we have heard of him, and that having sat at his feet, and heard his words, and having become accustomed to his method of teaching, we feel that he knows us altogether, every word is inspired by love as well as wisdom, and that his whole purpose is to save our souls. We see now what sometimes we have not seen. Thy Son could have had but one purpose. He was despised and rejected of men. We gave him small hospitality. He came unto his own, but his own received him not. He has been kept waiting outside, knocking upon the barred door, and seldom heard or cared for. Himself bore our sins, and carried our iniquities. He died for us, the just for the unjust All these were mysteries to us; we understood them not: we said, Beauty will attract attention, and goodness will win confidence, and benevolence will disarm criticism, and if this man be the Son of God, who could shut him out of the human heart? So foolish were we before thee, and utterly ignorant of ourselves, and of the inmost truth, and the larger reality of things: for we saw but appearances, and were misled by accidents, and so did we utter the fool's speech. Now light has come; we see what sin is, we see what hardness of heart really means; we know now that it is possible—and we burn with shame whilst we say it—for the human heart to forget the eternal God. We have done the things we ought not to have done; all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. We have done the things which we now confess to be wrong. Unless we do them again, Holy Spirit, dwell with us. We are not sure of ourselves even now. From the sanctuary we could throw ourselves down into great depths; from the very pinnacle of the temple we could leap into hell. Lord, protect us; Christ, defend us: Eternal Spirit, hear our cry! Amen.