1 KINGS xv.8-24; 2 CHRON. xiv-xvi.
Asa was the third king who reigned over the separated kingdoms of Judah. His father was Ahijah, of whom it is sternly said, "He walked in all the sins of his father, Rehoboam, which he had done before him." A worse bringing-up than Asa's could scarcely be imagined. As a child, and as a lad, he was grievously tempted by his father's example, and by the influence of an idolatrous court, which was crowded by flatterers and panderers. The leading spirit of the court-circle was Maachah, "the King's mother," as she is called -- the Sultana Valide. She was a woman of strong character, and held a high official position. She was the grand-daughter of Absalom, and was notorious for her fanatical idolatry. In short, she was the evil genius of the kingdom, like the Chinese Queen-mother of our own times, although, happily, Asa possessed a force of character which the young Emperor of China seems to lack. It is certainly noteworthy, that, with so much against the cultivation of a religious life, "Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did David his father." Sometimes on a heap of corruption, which we are glad to hurry past with abhorrence, God plants a beautiful and fragrant flower, as if in defiance of man's neglect; and thus Asa appeared in the family, and in the court of Ahijah, his father -- a God-fearing, single-minded lad, with a will of his own.
As there was hope for him, there is hope for all. Whatever a man's parentage and circumstances may be, he is not forced into sin, and has no right to say, "We are delivered to do all these abominations." Amid all his difficulties and discouragements, if he is earnestly seeking to serve God, and looking to Him for help and hope, he may triumph over the most adverse circumstances, and prove himself to be a true citizen of heaven. If he waits in prayer on God, as Joseph did in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Asa in Ahijah's court, he will not only be endued with piety, but with an independent spirit, and a resolute will, which will make him a power for good in the very sphere where he seemed likely to be crushed by the powers of evil. It is not in vain that the apostle gave the exhortation, "Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good." Asa was a noble example of obedience to that command.
It is clear from the narrative, in the First Book of Kings, that Asa was rich in noble qualities, such as manly resoluteness, political sagacity, and administrative vigour. But special prominence is given in the Bible (as one might expect) to his religious sincerity, for it is emphatically said -- "Asa's heart was perfect with the Lord all his days." This does not mean that he was sinless, that he had reached moral perfection, but that he had completely, with whole-heartedness, given himself over to the will of God, to be and to do what He ordained.
The proof of this was seen in the reformation Asa daringly attempted. This is the record of it -- "He took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his father had made. And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from being queen, because she had made an idol in a grove; and Asa destroyed her idol, and burnt it by the brook Kidron."
Things must have gone badly in the kingdom before he ascended the throne. Although it was only about twenty years since the death of Solomon, irreligion and vice had corrupted the nation. The truth is that evil spreads faster than good in this world, which is evidence that it has fallen. We have embodied this truth in a familiar proverb -- "Ill weeds grow apace." If we neglect a garden, we are soon confronted with weeds, not with flowers. Valuable fruit-trees grow slowly, but a poisonous fungus will spring up in a night.
Evidence of this often appears in national affairs. A few months of war will suffice to desolate many homes, to destroy fertile fields, and to burn down prosperous villages, but it is long before that waste can be repaired, confidence restored, and prosperity and goodwill re-established. The devil will carry fire and sword through the world with the swiftness of a whirlwind, but Jesus Christ patiently waits and weeps over an irresponsive people, as he says, "Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life."
The same contrast in the progress of good and evil appears in our own experience. If we yield to evil, and indulge sinful passions, we move so swiftly downward that it is hard to stop, -- like an Alpine climber on a snow-slope, who, having once slipped, in a few minutes' rush loses all that he has gained by toilsome climbing, and becomes less able to make new effort because of his wounds and bruises. Among our Lord's disciples, we see Judas swiftly rushing on self-destruction, whereas Peter and John received years of discipline, before they were fully prepared to fulfil their mission. No doubt, in such cases evil may have been, making slow and stealthy advance under the surface, though the result appears with startling suddenness, just as gas will escape without noise, and creep into every corner of the room; but when a light comes in, death and destruction come in a flash. Evil is an explosion, good is a growth.
This perhaps accounts for the facts that evil had quickly grown strong in the kingdom; while, on the other hand, Asa's attempt at reformation was incomplete and transient. He seems, however, to have done what he could, and that is more than can be said of many. If he had been a timid, half-hearted man he might have been content to worship Jehovah in his private room, and thus rebuke, by his example, any idolaters who happened to hear of it But his was no policy of laissez-faire. He felt that the evils encouraged by the father ought to be put down by the son, and this he did with a strong hand, wherever he could reach it.
Unhappily, there is a sad dearth of such reforming zeal in the Church, and in the world. Even among those who in private lament prevailing evils there is a singular contentment and tolerance even of those which might be at once removed. This is grievously common in large centres of population, where each individual feels insignificant among such vast multitudes, and loses the sense of individual responsibility in the vastness of the crowd which surrounds him. How many professing Christians, for example, deplore drunkenness and impurity, while they shrink from any kind of open protest, and will not even trouble themselves to vote for representatives who will fight these evils; and if a preacher boldly denounces such iniquities they will even beg him to leave questions of that kind alone, and to confine himself to doctrinal exposition. We are all too apt to forget that truth and righteousness, sobriety and holiness, are of God; and that the mission of Jesus Christ was to establish these, and to put away sin, even by the sacrifice of Himself. The religion He exemplified was not to be ranged on the shelves of a library, but to prove itself a living force in politics, in business, and at home. What was His own doctrine? "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Evils outside the Church, then, are to be combated, and not tolerated, by all true Christians -- even though in the result they are maligned as renegades to their party, or jeered at as Pharisees or Puritans. The late Tom Hughes was quite right half a century ago, when he thus described to the lads before him the lot of a would-be reformer.
"If the angel Gabriel were to come down from heaven, and head a successful rise against the most abominable and unrighteous vested interests which this poor old world groans under, he would most certainly lose his character for many years, probably for centuries, not only with upholders of the said vested interest, but with the respectable mass of the people he has delivered. They wouldn't ask him to dinner, or let their names appear with his in the papers; they would be careful how they spoke of him in the palaver, or at their clubs. What can we expect, then, when we have only poor gallant, blundering men like Garibaldi and Mazzini, and righteous causes which do not triumph in their hands; men who have holes enough in their armour, God knows, easy to be hit by respectabilities sitting in their lounge-chairs, and having large balances at their bankers. But you are brave, gallant boys, who have no balances or bankers, and hate easy-chairs. You only want to have your heads set straight to take the right side; so bear in mind that majorities, especially respectable ones, are nine times out of ten in the wrong, and that if you see a man or boy striving earnestly on the weaker side, however wrong-headed or blundering he may be, you are not to go and join the cry against him. If you cannot join him, and help him, and make him wiser, at any rate remember that he has found something in the world which he will fight and suffer for -- which is just what you have got to do for yourselves -- and so think and speak of him tenderly."
Those manly words are worth quoting in full, and they will fitly set forth the service young Asa rendered to his kingdom, and to the world at large.
It may be well to analyse a little more closely the reformation this right-hearted king attempted. He diminished opportunities for sin. The traffic in vice, by which many were making profit, he put down with a strong hand. And there are hotbeds of vice to be found in our own land, where strong appeal is made to the lusts of the flesh, and where intoxicating drink incites men to yield to passions which need restraint. Indeed, even in our streets moral perils assail the young and innocent, which no Christian nation ought to tolerate. We often meet the assertion that we cannot make people moral by Acts of Parliament; but if dens of infamy, which it is perilous to enter, are swept away, if gin-palaces and public-houses which flood the land with ruin are diminished in number, and in their hours of trade, it would certainly lessen the evils we deplore. Vested interests fight against such a change, and many on the side of sobriety and righteousness shrink from the contest, so that we need the inspiration which God gave to Asa, if we are to win the victory.
This kingly reformer not only lessened opportunities for vice, but certain evil influences in his kingdom he brushed aside with a strong hand. Maachah, the king's mother, was a potent influence on the side of idolatry. It seemed at first impossible to touch her. The king was indebted to her. She was aged, and age merits respect, and, therefore, some would argue that she might be tolerated for the few years she yet had to live. But these pleas did not avail her, for the issues involved were too serious for the nation, and for the kingdom of God. And because "Asa's heart was perfect," completely devoted to Jehovah's cause, he "removed her from being queen," and publicly burnt the idol she had put up.
Leaders in evil are sometimes found among the leaders of the world. Clever, unscrupulous men succeed in winning power through their want of principle, and even of scruple. Distinguished writers, gifted with brilliant style, or poetic power, exercise widespread influence for evil. Young people of singularly attractive personality win to themselves a large following, and use it for the worst ends. Many a golden image, or beautiful object of adoration, still stands on the high places of the world; and even if we cannot pull them down, as Asa did, at least we can say to the evil one, who set them up, "Be it known unto thee that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."
The history of Asa should inspire us to a renewal of war against the evils which Jesus Christ died to put away. Victory will not come without conflict. In respect to anxiety we are to be quiescent as the lilies, which neither toil nor spin, but in respect of moral evil, within or without, we must be vigilant and strenuous.
"Lilies have no sin
"But good and ill, I know,
The courage of Asa had as its root confidence in God, and this is shown more fully in the narrative which appears in the Second Book of Chronicles than in the First Book of Kings.
His reforming work -- carried out with ruthless vigour -- naturally raised up adversaries on every side. In the court itself Maachah and her party were implacable. Outside it the idolatrous priests, and all their hangers-on, whose vested interests were abolished, were plotting and scheming against the king. But Asa was imperturbable, because he had found God to be his refuge and strength. The man who really fears God finds the fear of his fellows thereby cast out.
To Jehovah, therefore, the brave king brought all his difficulties. This was beautifully exemplified when he found himself confronted with an overwhelming force of Ethiopians, for then "Asa cried unto the Lord his God, and said, Lord, it is nothing with Thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O Lord our God; for we rest on Thee, and in Thy name we go against this multitude. O Lord, Thou art our God; let not man prevail against Thee." Prayer was the secret of his strength, and in it we also may find all the help we need in meeting our discouragements -- the ignorance which tries our patience, the indifference to God which nothing seems to stir, the vice which holds its victim as an octopus, the sin which is as subtle as it is strong. Against them all we have no power, and may well pray as Asa did. "Lord, help us." Then He will fulfil the promise, "When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him."
After his great deliverance Asa renewed his consecration. The need for its renewal shows that in character and conduct he was far from being all that he ought to have been. He was not "perfect" in that sense. His earnestness cooled down. Through his carelessness the "high places" were re-erected. He seems to have been content that the "groves," with their grosser forms of idolatry, were gone, and that other forms might be tolerated, just as some, who have conquered their vices, are morally ruined by what the world calls little sins. But, in spite of these failings, the judgment of God, who is ever slow to anger and of great mercy, was that Asa's heart was "perfect" -- sound, whole, and sincere, though not sinless.
How happy it is that God judges not as man judges, that He can unerringly read the heart, and graciously accepts even the imperfect and blundering service which we sincerely offer to Him. Jehu accurately executed Jehovah's fiat, whereas Asa's obedience seemed imperfect; yet the latter was commended, and the former condemned, because Asa, unlike Jehu, was right in heart. Therefore we may be encouraged still to do our little part in God's service, in spite of the failures and imperfections of the past, if only we can say, "Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee."