This morning we're back in 2 Kings for a short series. We've been working our way slowly through this book for a few years now, coming back to it each summer, and in fact the latest forecast is that next year we'll finish 2 Kings completely. So we're coming towards the end of the double-volume, 1 and 2 Kings, and we're certainly at the business end of this period of the history of God's dealings with his people.
By way of context, it's many, many years now since the exodus from Egypt and the long journey to the promised land. We've had the period of the judges, when the people rebelled against God again and again, and we've had the prosperous times under King David and King Solomon, under whose rule the people obeyed God. That was a great time, with God blessing the kingdom and expanding its borders and its influence and its prosperity.
But Solomon began to intermingle worship of false gods with the worship of the one true God. The kingdom of Israel split into two, ten tribes of the north forming a kingdom confusingly called Israel, and the two remaining tribes in the south forming a kingdom called Judah. The double-volume of Kings charts the departure of the kings and the kingdoms from serving and honouring God, and today, after many warnings and chances to repent, disaster finally comes to the northern kingdom, Israel.
The first half of chapter 17 splits into two parts: 'the event' in v1-6 and 'the explanation' in v7-23. It's the explanation that we really want to get to, so we'll look at v1-6 now as part of setting the context.
Hoshea became king of Israel in a desperate move to prevent the nation being completely overrun by the neighbouring superpower, Assyria. The previous king was rebelling against the Assyrians, who had already attacked and exiled surrounding states and some parts of Israel.
In chapter 15 Hoshea was involved in the Assyrian-sponsored assassination of the previous king of Israel, and he immediately started paying tribute taxes to get them back on peaceful terms. But he didn't want to be some weak puppet king. He hoped to get the Assyrians out of Israel altogether. In verse 4 he leaned on Egypt, a former superpower gaining strength again, for help. Hoshea stopped paying the please-don't-invade-my-country tax, and predictably, the Assyrians invaded.
The Egyptians were no help, and the Assyrians put Hoshea in prison and laid siege to the capital, Samaria, for three horrific years. Eventually they overcame Israelite resistance, dissolved the kingdom into a mere Assyrian province under the name of Samaria, and permanently deported over 27,000 of the most influential Israelites. The Assyrians weren't strong enough for shock and awe, but they were pretty good at divide and conquer. The kingdom of Israel was never restored.
But how could this happen? How could this happen to God's people? How could God let this happen? The answer that we find in v7-23 is stark. God didn't let this happen; God made this happen. So the Big Idea from v7-23 is this: Persistently rejecting God leads to removal from God's presence.
I want to split this into two headings to look at the rest of the passage and then a postscript to try to look at all this through our New Testament glasses.
Israel rejected God (7-17)
This block splits into a couple of sections, each starting with something God did, and each ending with God being provoked to anger, God being exasperated and infuriated by the people's actions. The two sections line up like two charges against Israel, two categories for their guilt before God. Let's look at the two charges in turn.
Firstly, Israel showed no gratitude for God's gracious rescue (7-11)
Back in Egypt, the Israelites were used as slave labour. They were worked ruthlessly. They were beaten and forced to work harder and harder. And to control their populations, Pharaoh had commanded that every baby boy born to the Israelites was to be thrown into the Nile. The people cried out to God for help. They were in despair and misery, with no strength, no hope and no future.
But God rescued them. He proved his ultimate power by sending horrific plagues on Egypt, essentially breaking the Israelites out the hard way. He even parted the sea so that his people could cross to safety. As they stood on the eastern shore of the Red Sea and looked at the drowning Egyptian army, God's people sang and danced with joy and relief, wonder and amazement at their great God. They even played tambourines. When was the last time you were so happy you thought, "Wow, I need to get hold of a tambourine!"
This astounding rescue was to be the defining event in the history of God's people. It was to be the motivating factor for unending generations of thankful, obedient people living under his blessing. But God's grace in rescuing the people from horrific slavery in Egypt was met with shocking ingratitude.
Imagine a group of hikers who have been lost in the mountains for days. It's cold: there's a blizzard coming. They have no guide, they don't know where they are, there's no shelter for miles, they've lost their matches, they're almost out of food, they've passed that tree stump twice already today: they're going round in circles, it's getting dark and they're pretty sure those tracks in the mud belong to wolves. Then they hear the unmistakable whir of rotor blades. A huge rescue helicopter passes overhead and lands in front of them to take them home. They flop inside filled with relief. Then after they take off, they start to complain. This flask of tea isn't very hot. This seat's a bit uncomfortable. It's really noisy in here. I don't think this going to work out. Can you put us down? Just drop us off here. We'll be better off on our own. We'll find our own way.
It's hard to imagine because it's so stupid. It's unrealistic. But it's the nature of the human heart. God rescued his people, told them how to live under his blessing, gave them a first class land to live in, and they turned away from him. Look just before v8 and let's see what the Israelites did:
They worshipped other gods 8and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. 9The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city [that is from the smallest place people lived to the largest] they built themselves high places in all their towns. 10They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. [They took the land God had given them and littered it with false gods.] 11At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the Lord had driven out before them had done. [In other words they made up their own ways of worshipping God, ways that he specifically prohibited.] They did wicked things that provoked the Lord to anger.
If there was any way of throwing God's goodness back in his face, they found it and did it. That's the first charge: Israel showed no gratitude for God's gracious rescue.
Secondly, Israel showed no submission to God's gracious warnings (12-17)
It's bad enough to turn against God after all he had done for them, but the people went further than that. God sent messengers to warn them to change course. We're talking big hitters here like Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Amos. These guys were like lighthouses warning a ship of the rocks ahead, and the people wouldn't listen. Verse 13 summarises their message:
'Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.'
In v14-17 we see how the people responded:
14But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the Lord their God. 15They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, "Do not do as they do," and they did the things the Lord had forbidden them to do.
16They forsook all the commands of the Lord their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshipped Baal. 17They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practised divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
They didn't trust God, despite everything he had done for them. They abandoned his covenant and law and worshipped idols instead. Now idols don't have any real being or substance to them. That's why they're called 'worthless'. But idol worship is real, so idol worshippers become worthless. If you like mathematics, idols are worth zero, idol worshippers multiply themselves with those idols, and anything multiplied by zero is zero. If you eat nothing but junk food indefinitely, your health deteriorates. If you drink enough Sunny Delight you turn a little orange, allegedly. Pinocchio stays on Pleasure Island and eventually turns into a donkey. These people, made in the image of God, redeemed from slavery by God, set up in the land by God, blessed by God, become worthless to God.
Verse 17 says they sold themselves to do evil. That's a phrase already used of the worst king of Israel, King Ahab. 1 Kings 21 says: There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord… Now the same phrase is used of the whole nation. All Israel was Ahabbing, selling out to evil, goading God towards judgment. They even sacrificed their own children. They burned their own children. One of the very things that caused them to cry out to God in Egypt, the murder of their children, they're now doing to themselves, spiralling out of control in a Godless cycle of national self-harming.
Israel rejected God. The people showed no gratitude for God's gracious rescue and no submission to God's gracious warnings. So God rejected Israel.
God rejected Israel (18-23)
18So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. [Then we get this tragic little aside that hints at why there are eight more chapters in the book:] Only the tribe of Judah was left, 19and even Judah did not keep the commands of the Lord their God. They followed the practices Israel had introduced. 20Therefore the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.
21When he tore Israel away from the house of David, they made Jeroboam son of Nebat their king. [This is going back a bit now: Jeroboam was the first king of Israel after the kingdom split up at the end of Solomon's reign.] Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the Lord and caused them to commit a great sin. 22The Israelites persisted in all the sins of Jeroboam and did not turn away from them 23until the Lord removed them from his presence, as he had warned through all his servants the prophets. So the people of Israel were taken from their homeland into exile in Assyria, and they are still there. [In other words, they never came back, they were never restored.]
God was rightly and justly angry and he removed Israel from his presence. He took ten of the twelve tribes he had started with Joseph and his brothers, ten of the twelve that he had lifted from Egypt, ten of the twelve he had nurtured through the desert and settled in the promised land and restored under King David, and he shut them out.
Three times we get that phrase: he removed or thrust Israel from his presence. The Israelites were cut off from the fellowship, protection and blessing of their God. It was illustrated by their removal from the land. One commentator calls the promised land the "primary arena in which God's purposes for his people were fulfilled". It's not that God is physically stuck in that land, but that everything his people were set apart to be and do was tied up with being in God's land, under God's rule, knowing God's blessing. Everything that was so painstakingly set-up after the exodus was now in ruins. This was a tragic parting of God and his adulterous people. God rejected Israel.
And that is the long and short of this part of 2 Kings. But I did say we'd have a postscript.
Be warned but be glad
The permanent exile of Israel because of the sin of the people stands in history as a warning to everyone. Their rebellion against God is a picture of how every human being, made in God's image, living in God's world, has turned away from him. And it's not just Israel that God has a claim on. God has a claim on everyone he has made, and he will hold everyone to account. Listen to these verses from Revelation 20:
… I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. … Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Everyone faces judgement for the way they've treated God and those who persistently reject him will be removed from his presence and therefore from the source of every good thing. Just a few weeks ago Rod preached on the question: Can a loving God send people to hell? You can listen again on the HTG website. So if you are denying God, rejecting his authority over you as a creature he has made in his own image, you are in terrible danger. This day is coming. The permanent exile of Israel because of the sin of the people stands in history as a warning to everyone.
But, secondly, it also stands as a warning to God's people today. Listen to these verses from Hebrews 12:
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth [referring to God's presence on Mount Sinai during the Exodus], how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? [and a little later…] let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire.'
So we need to be warned. The Israelites weren't grateful to God for rescuing them so our gratitude to God for rescuing us through Jesus is key. The Israelites didn't submit to God's will, in the law and the prophets, so our submission to God's will as we find it in the bible is key. The Israelites had no future with God, but our hope can rest securely in our future with him.
That sounds discouragingly like our task is exactly the same as the task the Israelites failed so miserably. What's to be glad about? Well it's not quite the same deal for us. That Hebrews reading earlier spoke of a new covenant, a new arrangement between God and his people. God said, "I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people … [and later] they will all know me. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
There are two things wrapped up in there that give us every confidence. The first is that God forgives our wickedness and remembers our sins no more, because of Jesus. Every part of our rebellion against God, every action that would be listed in 2 Kings 17 if it was about us instead of Israel, was counted against Jesus at the cross. He took our sin on himself and was exiled instead of us. He was removed or thrust from the presence of God so that we can enjoy God's presence forever. The second thing is that God works in us, by his own Spirit, to produce obedience. We know him in a way the Israelites didn't and we are enabled to respond to him in a way that they couldn't. So that's how we can be warned, but also be glad.
So to summarise, persistently rejecting God leads to removal from God's presence. The exile of Israel is a massive warning sign in history to everyone that God will judge, and rightly so. So if you're not right with him, you're in danger. Turn back to God through Jesus. Do what it takes to find out enough about Jesus to be able to trust him to deal with your sin.
The exile is a warning to Christians, too, to make sure that we do not take God's grace lightly. We should learn from Israel… being thankful to God for his rescue in Jesus, submitting to God's will, and putting our hope in our future with him. How can we do those things? We have a better covenant. We have the Spirit of God living in us as our guarantee, God's down-payment of his presence, and we have the Son of God, who took our sin away, being exiled instead of us on the cross.