Come with me in your imagination back to the year 550BC. You’re one of God’s Old Testament (OT) people living in exile. You were only a teenager when the Babylonians invaded, but old enough to have memories you’ll never forget. Memories of people starving in the final siege of Jerusalem. Memories of the killing when the city finally fell. Memories of your last sight of the place before your deportation. You’ve lost almost everything – your land, your home, your freedom – but you haven’t lost your faith. Whereas others have. Just yesterday you asked a friend why he no longer came to the prayer-meetings among the exiles, and he said, ‘I’ve abandoned faith in God because God has clearly abandoned us.’
Well it’s for people in that situation for whom the book of Kings was originally written – people who’d experienced God’s chastening judgement on their unfaithfulness to him. And it looked back at their history to make them accept responsibility for why the exile had come on them. But it also looked forward, to encourage hope that the exile was not the end of God’s dealings with them.
So how is it relevant for us as we look into it again in this series on 2 Kings? Well, at a national and church level, our situation is not so different from that of those exiles. One big difference is that for them, church and state were the same thing: the nation of Israel was God’s people – or at least professed to be. So when they were unfaithful, God brought judgement on them as a nation. Now for us, church and state are separate things, but they are linked and both are experiencing similar judgement right now. For the past few generations, the professing church in this nation has been increasingly unfaithful – so that God has brought on it various chastening judgements – like numerical decline and damagingly ungodly senior leadership. So like the exiles, we’re not in good shape as God’s people. But when those who are supposed to be salt and light lose their saltiness and capacity to shine, the nation becomes more rotten and dark and itself comes under God’s judgement. So we’re not in good shape as a nation, either: we’re caught up in God’s chastening judgements on everything from the sexual revolution of the 60s to the materialism revolution of the 80s – most recently in our economic troubles.
So at a national and church level it’s highly relevant, but also at a personal level. Because you can have a personal exile-experience, can’t you? Eg, many years back I broke off an engagement, and the next two years were a time of chastening and then rebuilding. And you may have been through some similar exile-experience; or you may be going through one right now.
And the vital question is: how should we respond to God’s chastening – whether it’s being caught up in his wider chastening on church and nation; or being chastened for our own sinful or foolish choices? Well, that’s what the book of Kings is out to teach us. So would you turn in the Bible to 2 Kings 6, v24. And imagine, again, that you’re one of the original readers in exile. Well, as you look into this history of your forefathers, you’re really looking in the mirror – seeing your own situation, and your own possible responses, reflected in the past. So look down to 2 Kings 6:24-28, where we’re back in the 800s BC:
24Some time later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram [ie, Syria] mobilised his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria [the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.] 25There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey's head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels. [A shekel was an average month’s wages. So we’re talking no food and hyperinflation.]26As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall [that’s all he could do – just pace around the city’s defences, watching the Syrians starve them out], a woman cried to him, "Help me, my lord the king!" 27The king replied, "If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?" [Ie, ‘I can’t help you, and God doesn’t look like he’s going to, does he?’]28Then he asked her, "What's the matter?"
She answered, "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son.' 29So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son so we may eat him,' but she had hidden him." [It’s like those stories from plane crashes where in desperation, the living have fed on the dead.]
And if you’d been one of the original readers, that would have mirrored exactly what you’d been through – and to some extent were still gong through. So how should you respond? How should we respond to God’s chastening? Well, the passage starts with how not to respond, so that’s my first of two headings:
First, HOW NOT TO RESPOND TO GOD’S CHASTENING
And the way not to respond is with superficial repentance and angry unbelief. But that’s exactly what we see here in the king. Look on to vv30-33:
30When the king heard the woman's words, he tore his robes [as if something had snapped inside him]. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and there, underneath, he had sackcloth on his body [which was supposed to be a sign of repentance – of sorrow for sin and turning from sin, in the hope that God would forgive rather than judge. But read on and it’s pretty superficial:]. 31He said, "May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!" 32Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. The king sent a messenger ahead, but before he arrived, Elisha said to the elders, "Don't you see how this murderer is sending someone to cut off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold it shut against him. Is not the sound of his master's footsteps behind him?" 33While he was still talking to them, the messenger came down to him. And the king said, "This disaster is from the LORD. Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?"
Ie, ‘God is to blame for this situation; we’ve tried repentance; God’s done nothing; so why believe in him any more?’ And what is that if not superficial repentance? He didn’t put on sackcloth because he was truly sorry for all the sin and idolatry of his reign and because he truly wanted from now on to treat God with the seriousness and faithfulness he deserves. From chapter 3 where he first appears, to chapter 9 where he dies, this king, Jehoram (I take it – although he’s not named here), makes no true response to God at all. He doesn’t want to change; he just wants the situation to change. So he tries a bit of sackcloth and when God doesn’t do what he wants when he wants, he snaps. And his anger at God, and abandonment of faith in God, betray the real state of his heart.
So that’s how not to respond to God’s chastening. We’re not to want the Lord to change the situation, while failing to see that he wants the situation to change us. That’s why he allows sometimes lengthy, hard, chastening experiences, to bring about really deep repentance in us – to make us see the seriousness and folly of sin and turn from it like never before; to humble our pride; to demolish our self-sufficiency. And nor are we to get angry with the Lord when it’s ultimately our sinfulness or foolishness that’s brought chastening on us. I got angry with God for allowing me to go through that broken engagement (which, of course, in his sovereignty he did). But that was a subtle way of shifting responsibility onto him, when what was needed was for me to take responsibility for my fault.
So, onto my other heading:
Second, HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND TO GOD’S CHASTENING?
And the answer is: with genuine repentance and hopeful faith.
So what does genuine repentance involve – and first of all, in the case of those personal exile-experiences? Well, it involves accepting responsibility for whatever God has had to chasten us for. Repentance starts when we stop blaming God or other people or the situation, and take responsibility for what we’ve done wrong. And it also involves accepting that God is out to change us. It’s easy, like King Jehoram, just to want the situation to change – to get ‘back to how it was’, ‘back to normal’, as we say. But God doesn’t want that, because it would simply mean being back in the sin or folly he had to chasten us for in the first place. So, eg, with that broken engagement, part of me just wanted my wounded pride restored, so that I could move on, back to normal. Whereas God wanted my pride wounded fatally – the last thing he wanted was for me to move on as before, unhumbled. In the beatitudes we’re starting this week in Home Groups, the Lord Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5.3). And one purpose for any personal exile-experience is that we realise more our spiritual poverty – that is, our sinfulness, and our need for God to forgive us and change us on-goingly.
But then what does genuine repentance involve when it comes to God’s wider chastenings on both church and nation? Well, again it involves accepting a degree of responsibility. We’re not to look at the state of the church in this nation, or of the nation itself, and blame others – any more than faithful Israelites in exile could blame it all on the unfaithful. After all, they’d been part of Israel and were therefore part of why it sunk. ‘No man is an island entire of itself,’ wrote John Donne – and one thing that means is that no man can wash his hands of responsibility for how things are around him. Here’s what the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer said about our role in both church and nation:
The last sixty years have given birth to a moral disaster, and what have we done? Sadly we must say that the evangelical world has been part of the disaster. More than this, the evangelical response has been a disaster. Where is the clear voice speaking to the crucial issues of the day with distinctively biblical answers? With tears we must say it is not there and that a large segment of the evangelical world has become seduced by the spirit of the age. And more than this, we can expect the future to be a further disaster if the evangelical world does not take a stand for biblical truth and morality in the full spectrum of life. For the evangelical accommodation to the world of our age represents the removal of the last barrier against the breakdown of our culture. (The Great Evangelical Disaster, Francis Schaeffer)
And again in the beatitudes, the Lord Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who mourn’ (Matthew 5.4) – which means mourning with some sense of responsibility for how things are around us. And then he says, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matthew 5.6) – which must mean acting for it, not just hoping for it. And that’s why the ‘Changing Britain’ part of our church mission statement is so crucial. And every one of us needs to move up several gears in living it out, if we’re to show genuine repentance in our national context.
So the right response to God’s chastening is genuine repentance, but also hopeful faith. Let’s look back to 2 Kings. King Jehoram has abandoned faith, but look down to chapter 7 and vv1-7:
1Elisha said, "Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the LORD says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria." [Ie, ‘God will act so that within 24 hours, this siege will be over and you’ll have food aplenty.’ But that promise is met with cynicism from the king’s right hand man:]2The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, "Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?" [ie, that’s dreamland.]
"You will see it with your own eyes," answered Elisha, "but you will not eat any of it!"
3Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, "Why stay here until we die? 4If we say, 'We'll go into the city' – the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let's go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die."
5At dusk they got up and went to the camp of the Arameans. When they reached the edge of the camp, not a man was there, 6for the Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, "Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!" 7So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.
And then comes what reads like a dream-sequence as these four lepers pick their way through the empty camp, having a wail of a time eating and drinking, until they suddenly remember there’s a whole city that needs to be told the siege is over. So back they go and tell the gatekeeper, who tells the king. The king thinks, ‘Maybe it’s a trap.’ So he sends out some scouts. And once they’ve given the ‘all-clear’, look on to vv16-20:
16Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. So a seah of flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley sold for a shekel, as the LORD had said.
17Now the king had put the officer on whose arm he leaned in charge of the gate, and the people trampled him in the gateway, and he died, just as the man of God had foretold when the king came down to his house. 18It happened as the man of God had said to the king: "About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria."
19The officer had said to the man of God, "Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?" The man of God had replied, "You will see it with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of it!" 20And that is exactly what happened to him, for the people trampled him in the gateway, and he died.
So just think how this incident would have spoken to those original readers in exile. They were thinking God had abandoned them, and had no hope that their situation could change. Well, here are their forefathers in exactly the same situation, and God shows he hasn’t abandoned them, and he changes their situation in a way beyond anything they’d dreamed. And God inspired the record of this incident to encourage those original exiles to have hopeful faith. Because very soon he was going to act in a way beyond anything they’d dreamed: he was going to cause the Babylonian empire to fall to the Persians, and he was going to cause the Persian king to issue an edict saying to the exiles, ‘You can go home.’
Well, in our personal exile-experiences, the Lord is calling us this morning to have hopeful faith. He wants us to believe that he hasn’t abandoned us, that he still loves us, as the cross demonstrates for all time – and that even his chastening is in fact always an expression of his love, just like any good parent’s discipline is. And he wants us to believe that there is life after the personal exile – whatever that’s been for you – to believe, as he said to the exiles through Jeremiah, that,
‘I have plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29.11).
So can I call on you to believe that of God, whatever he’s taken you through, whatever he’s taking you through right now?
And then as we’re caught up in those wider chastening on church and nation, the Lord is also calling us to have hopeful faith – to believe the Lord Jesus when we said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’ (Matthew 16.18) –to believe that God can make happen things beyond anything we dream. Eg, our vision to grow to become a church of 5,000 with 5,000 more in church plants; and to buy another site beside this one to build a major, regional church facility. Or our vision to change Britain – eg, starting near to home, our vision to see a Christian school opened in Newcastle. And I hear the king’s right hand man whispering in my ear, ‘Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?’ But what’s the answer from 2 Kings 6 and 7, and from the story of the exiles’ return, and from the story of the 18th century revival in this nation, and from our own recent experience of Holy Trinity Gateshead coming into being? The answer is, ‘Yes it could.’ And if it’s of God, it will.
And I don’t want to be the king’s right hand man – the man with no faith, who ultimately misses out on being part of the next chapter of what God is doing. I want, and I hope you want, to be someone of hopeful faith, who believes and works and sacrifices towards our vision – and who’ll one day look back at things God has done that are beyond anything we dreamed today. Ephesians 3.20-21:
20Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.