We have already considered Rehoboam and his folly that caused the split of the nation into two kingdoms. As pointed out by Provan (1995: 121), “each king is evaluated in terms of his commitment to the LORD as evidenced by his religious policies,” but in the case of Rehoboam, it says “And Judah [instead of Rehoboam] did evil in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kings 14:22). We know that Rehoboam himself did evil in the sight of God because Abijam, his son and successor, “walked in all the sins of his father” and was not like David (1 Kings 15:3). In the period of the judges the people repeatedly did what was right in their own eyes because there was no king (Judges 21:25). It implies that it was the king’s responsibility to ensure that the people kept God’s commandments. It also implies that when the king himself did evil in God’s eyes, the people would be doing the same, if not more so. Hence it makes sense that, as a rule, the focus was on the king.
An exception was made in the case of Rehoboam to highlight the crucial development after the death of Solomon. For we are told that the people sinned against God “more than all that their ancestors had done,” because “they also built for themselves high places” to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 14:23). This implies that blatant worship of foreign gods did not exist among the people during Solomon’s reign; it was confined mainly to Solomon and his foreign wives toward the end of his life (1 Kings 11:4-8). Since it happened so soon after Solomon’s death, Solomon was responsible for it. For even if Rehoboam, whose idolatrous mother was an Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21), did not influence the people to worship foreign gods, they were simply following Solomon’s example.
And in describing the idolatry of Judah, the narrator adds that, “they did according to all the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel” (1 King 14:24). If the nations deserved to be driven out for those abominations, it implies that Judah more than deserved to be exiled even then. This is because God held His people to a higher standard than the nations (Amos 3:2). As already pointed out, Judah survived much longer than it deserved only because of the Davidic Covenant.
Surprisingly King Asa, the great-grandson of Solomon, did well. He was even rated as “like David” (1 Kings 15:11); for “the heart of Asa was wholly devoted to the LORD all his days” (1 Kings 15:14b). He reformed Judah to quite an extent (1 Kings 15:12-15). For he not only “removed all the idols his ancestors had made,” he even removed his own idolatrous mother as queen mother. He also removed the high places used to worship foreign gods (2 Chronicles 14:3-5). However he did not remove the high places used to worship God (1 Kings 15:14; 2 Chronicles 15:17), which we saw contributed to Solomon’s eventual idolatry. No Davidic king, not even the pious Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:43b), who succeeded Asa, did anything to these places until Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:22; cf. Petter 2005: 416-17). Nevertheless the significant reforms of Asa warranted God’s mercy, especially in view of the Davidic Covenant.
Jehoshaphat was also “like David” in that “he walked in all the way of Asa his father” (1 Kings 22:43a). Also like David, Jehoshaphat was not perfect. He made a serious mistake with deadly consequences—his alliance with Ahab and his house. Since the split of the nation into two kingdoms, the two states had been hostile to each other and were frequently at war. But Jehoshaphat “made peace with the king of Israel” (1 Kings 22:44). In itself this is good, for both states were actually still one nation. But the end did not justify the means, especially since it involved Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram, who succeeded Jehoshaphat as king, marrying Ahab’s daughter Athaliah.
Jehoshaphat’s alliance with Ahab almost him cost him his own life (1 Kings 22:29-33; cf. 2 Chronicles 19:1-2). For in his staunch support for Ahab he almost died in the battle in which Ahab was killed. And it also almost resulted in the death of the Davidic dynasty. Though in theory Jehoram’s wife Athaliah was not a “foreign woman,” as she was the daughter of Ahab, in practice she was (she may even be Jezebel’s daughter). For in spite of the orthodox faith of both Asa and Jehoshaphat, Jehoram “walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab became his wife” (2 Kings 8:18). This implies worshipping Baal (cf. 2 Kings 11:18). And Jehoram’s successor Ahaziah, who was Athaliah’s son, followed after him (2 Kings 8:27).
When Jehu assassinated the other Jehoram, king of Israel, Ahaziah was visiting this royal uncle of his (2 Kings 8:29). Jehu killed Ahaziah as well (2 Kings 9:27-28). Seeing that her son Ahaziah had died Athaliah assassinated all (but one) of the princes and thus usurped the throne (2 Kings 11:1-3). By the providence of God baby Joash, son of Ahaziah, was saved by his aunt and then hidden in the Temple.
After six years, Jehoiada the chief priest, with the help of the military, managed to stage a coup and reclaimed the throne for Joash; Athaliah was executed and Baal worship was removed (2 Kings 11:4-21). On the one hand, this tragic episode shows that no political development, no matter how unfavorable, can thwart God’s purpose; in this case, His will that David would have a lasting dynasty (divine sovereignty). On the other hand it shows that piety and good intentions, as in the case of Jehoshaphat, cannot replace political prudence in personal as well as national affairs (human responsibility).
Joash “did right in the sight of the LORD all his days in which Jehoiada the priest instructed him” (2 Kings 12:2). He even ordered the Temple repaired (2 Kings 12:4-5). However, after the death of Jehoiada, Joash was influenced by the officials of Judah and they forsook God and worshipped idols, thus returning to the way of Ahab (2 Chronicles 24:17-18). God sent prophets to bring them back but they would not listen. Joash even had the prophet Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, executed (2 Chronicles 24:19-22).
The positive king-priest relationship between Joash and Jehoiada expresses well the kind of state-religion relations God has in mind for a nation. Though Jehoiada instructed Joash and thus influenced his kingship, the king was not subservient to the high priest. For Joash not only ordered the priests to repair the Temple, when they failed to do so, he also summoned Jehoiada and the priests and held them accountable (2 Kings 12:6-7; cf. 2 Chronicles 24:5-6). However this did not mean the king had sovereignty over the high priest concerning religious matters. For as already noted before, the attempt of Uzziah (also known as Azariah), Joash’s grandson, to usurp priestly prerogatives was punished by God (2 Chronicles 26:16-19; cf. 2 Kings 15:5). Even in the repairing of the Temple, Joash intervened only after the priests had voluntarily said they would not undertake the work by themselves (2 Kings 12:8-16; 2 Chronicles 24:8).
All this is relevant to the controversial issue of state-religion relations today. In the case of Joash-Jehoiada both the king (state) and the priest (religion) were to observe the Mosaic Covenant by each independently submitting to the Ten Commandments (constitution) and the laws based on it. Jehoiada’s instruction of Joash was thus limited to guiding him in observing the Mosaic Covenant. And Joash’s authority over Jehoiada was limited to holding the priest accountable not to Joash himself but to Jehoiada’s calling as priest as outlined in the Mosaic Covenant.
The Mosaic Covenant was applicable only to ancient Israel as a holy nation occupying the Holy Land. All other nations, including secular nations today, are accountable to God in terms of the Noahic Covenant. We have already seen how a secular nation today can observe the Noahic Covenant in practical terms by drawing relevant principles from the Ten Commandments (see especially our exposition under Covenant and Constitution as well as Covenant and Nationhood).
As for understanding state-religion relations under the Noahic Covenant in today’s context we need to first differentiate a secular state from a secularist state. The word “secular” refers to the temporal or the here-and-now as opposed to the eternal or the hereafter. And it is neutral with respect to any particular religion or to religion in general. It other words it is non-religious, but not anti-religious. The term “secularism,” from which we derive “secularist,” however, is the idea that the secular is all that exists or matters. It is thus anti-religious. Hence a secular state is neutral in terms of religion, but not a secularist state. A communist state is the perfect example of a secularist state.
We have also seen that, under the Noahic Covenant, the power of the state is to be circumscribed by a constitution that adequately embodies the Golden Rule. And since the Golden Rule is taught by virtually every religion and is recognized by even atheists, such a constitution and the laws based on it could be non-religious and acceptable to all. In other words the state could be a secular state. And just as Joash was instructed by Jehoiada to uphold the Ten Commandments, the politicians in even a secular state are to be instructed by their respective religions to uphold the (secular) constitution. Thus religion has a necessary role even in a secular state. A religion that does not or cannot play this role has violated God’s purpose for religion. Atheists and agnostics would have to live by a non-religious ethical system that can help them uphold the constitution.
And since even under the Mosaic Covenant the priests (religion) were independent of the king (state), under the Noahic Covenant religion must be independent of the state. Hence all citizens must have the freedom to practice a religion of their choice, or no religion, as long as they do not violate the Golden Rule embodied in the constitution. In other words, the constitution and the laws based on it must be neutral in terms of any particular religion (secular). For how else can there be religious freedom otherwise? This means, under the Noahic Covenant, the state not only could, but in fact should, be a secular state. But since the constitution and hence the state are secular, and not secularist, a particular religion can even be officially given a ceremonial role in the state, as in the case of Malaysia.
Both religious as well as non-religious people often confuse the concept of a secularist state with that of a secular state, thereby unnecessarily perpetuating the controversy over state-religion relations.
How then can the Bible, an explicitly religious book, be teaching that the secular state is to be the norm for the world today? We shall answer this question directly when we consider how the Creation Mandate is to be reapplied under the New Covenant. We will then see better why the Bible is relevant not only to people who accept it as God’s inspired Word but also to those who do not.
Coming back to the kings of Judah, the three kings after Joash (Amaziah, Uzziah and Jotham) “did right in the sight of the LORD, yet not like David” (2 Kings 14:3; 15:3, 34). They did well but became unfaithful to God in some significant ways (2 Chronicles 25:14-16; 26:16-19; 27:2). When we come to Ahaz, son of Jotham, we encounter the worst king of Judah until that time.
To say that Ahaz was not “like David” is an understatement. For he not only “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” he “even made his sons pass through the fire (child sacrifice), according to the abominations of the nations that the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel” (2 Kings 16:2-4). The indictment that God’s people practiced the abominations of the nations whom God had driven out, which means they more than deserved to be exiled, was first given at the very beginning of the account of Judah. Its repetition here—when Judah had its worst king so far—is ominous.
However God did not decide to exile Judah on account of Ahaz’s sins. This is not surprising when we consider Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son and successor, the best king Judah had until that time. In response to the prophet Micah’s warning that “Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins” Hezekiah and the people repented (Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 26:18-19). Such a positive response to the preaching of a prophet was rare. And Hezekiah “did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done” (2 Kings 18:3). In his religious reforms Hezekiah went beyond all previous efforts. He not only removed the high places used to worship foreign gods as well as those used to worship God, but also destroyed the bronze serpent Moses made because the people were worshipping it (2 Kings 18:4, 22). And in terms of faith in God no king of Judah, whether before or after Hezekiah, was like him (2 Kings 18:5-6).
Unfortunately, Hezekiah’s successor Manasseh was even worse than his grandfather Ahaz, making him the worst king of Judah. He went further even than Ahaz in that he introduced idolatry into the Temple itself (2 Kings 21:3-7). We are also reminded that idolatry and injustice go hand in hand. For “Manasseh shed very much innocent blood until he filled Jerusalem from one end to the other" (2 Kings 21:16). And the people were even influenced by Manasseh “to do evil more than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel" (2 Kings 21:9). This indictment is even more ominous than that associated with Ahaz. This time God decided to exile Judah (2 Kings 21:10-15).
Amon, who succeeded Manasseh, followed his father’s example. He was assassinated by his own servants after reigning for only two years (2 Kings 21:20-24). His son Josiah was only eight years old when he became king in his place.
Josiah “did right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the way of his father David” (2 Kings 22:2). It is difficult to decide whether Hezekiah or Josiah was a better king in God’s eyes. We saw that Hezekiah had greater faith in God, but Josiah’s devotion to God was deeper. For no king before nor after him was like him “who turned to the LORD with all his heart … according to all the law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25). This is reflected in his reforms, which was “already far more all-encompassing than Hezekiah’s” (Provan 1995: 274) even before he reinstituted the Passover in a way that “such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel” (2 Kings 23:21-23; cf. 2 Chronicles 35:18).
In other words, Josiah’s faithfulness to the stipulations of Deuteronomy outstripped not just Hezekiah but even David himself (Provan 1995: 274). Evidently this was because the then recently discovered “book of the law,” presumably Deuteronomy, had been read to him; for he was deeply affected by it and repented immediately (2 Kings 22:8-13). Such a response to hearing Scripture is exceptional, especially for a king. In spite of all this, Judah still had to be exiled as decided by God on account of Manasseh’s sins (2 Kings 23:26-27). However, in recognition of Josiah’s exceptional faithfulness, God said that it would not happen within his lifetime (2 Kings 22:18-20). Even then, this promise was fulfilled through Josiah’s untimely death in a battle against Neco, the Egyptian Pharaoh (2 Kings 23:29). Judah was exiled in three stages, almost immediately after Josiah’s death (cf. 2 Kings 24:2-4).
Josiah was succeeded by Jehoahaz, who “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” and reigned for only three months (2 Kings 23:31-35). He was exiled by Neco to Egypt, who replaced him with his brother Jehoiakim, who also did evil in God’s eyes (2 Kings 23:36). During his reign the Assyrian Empire had already fallen to the Babylonians. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and subjugated Jehoiakim as well as took Daniel and other Jewish youths to Babylon to be trained to serve the Babylonian king (2 Kings 24:1; Daniel 1:1-7). This was the beginning of the Exile.
Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin, who was also evil in God’s eyes. He reigned for three months before Nebuchadnezzar returned in 597 BC and deported to Babylon Jehoiachin, his mother, his wives, his officials, his fighting men, the craftsmen and smiths, as well as others who were in Jerusalem “except the poorest people of the land” (2 Kings 24:10-16). The prophet Ezekiel was also taken to Babylon at this time (Ezekiel 1:1-3).
Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah king in his place (2 Kings 24:17-20). Zedekiah was also evil in God’s eyes. So finally in 586 BC, because Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (2 Kings 25:1-12). Zedekiah was blinded and brought to Babylon after witnessing the slaughtering of his sons. Most of the rest of the people who were left in Jerusalem were taken into exile.
So even the exceptional faithfulness of Josiah and his unprecedented reforms could not avert the judgment God had pronounced on account of Manasseh’s sins. In fact, Josiah himself had to be taken out of the way so that there was no delaying of God’s judgment. Mercy is deserved when there is repentance (2 Chronicles 30:9). Granted that Manasseh was more evil than Ahaz, why was it that God’s mercy could no longer accommodate Judah when Josiah’s repentance was deeper than Hezekiah’s (see also 2 Chronicles 33:10-13)? This questions not only God’s mercy but also His justice.
The answer is found in the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC (2 Kings 18:13-19:36; Isaiah 36-37; 2 Chronicles 32:1-23). This single historical event, unmistakably corroborated in Assyrian records (Pritchard 1969: 288), is given unusual attention in the Old Testament (cf. Schoors 2013: 104-106; Evans 2009: 1). The Assyrian king Sennacherib “came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them” (2 Kings 18:13) but failed to capture Jerusalem, in spite of the large army sent against it. Jerusalem would have fallen if not for God’s miraculous deliverance in response to the prayer of Hezekiah, whose monotheist faith was unmistakable (2 Kings 19:14-20).
Of particular significance is that God, through the prophet Isaiah, had not only foretold this invasion as well as His intervention, but also forewarned Judah not to trust in Egypt for deliverance (Isaiah 7:17-19; 8:5-8; 31:1-9). And more importantly God had specifically prepared Hezekiah to trust in Him for deliverance in this particular crisis. For some time before the invasion, Hezekiah became sick and God sent Isaiah to tell Hezekiah that he would die and not recover (cf. Young 1969: 507-508, 532-533). This caused Hezekiah to plead earnestly with God. In response God said He would heal Hezekiah and give him another 15 years to live, adding that “I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; I will defend this city” (2 Kings 20:6; Isaiah 38:6).
The unexpected promise of a future deliverance was not out of place because God knew Sennacherib’s invasion would come within 15 years. If Hezekiah and the city did not survive that coming invasion, God’s promise of another 15 years would have failed. When Hezekiah asked for a sign that God would heal him and thus give him another 15 years, and by implication deliver him and the city, God performed an unmistakable miracle (2 Kings 20:8-11; Isaiah 38:7-8, 22). Being human, when the crisis finally came, initially Hezekiah wavered in his faith (2 Kings 18:14-16), but with further assurance from God, he rose to the occasion and God delivered him and the city (2 Kings 19:1-7; 14-36; Isaiah 37:1-7; 14-37).
All this means that the Assyrian invasion had special significance in God’s plan for Judah. For God had said through Moses that before sending them into exile He would warn them through calamities of increasing severity (Leviticus 26:14-33). This means after Ahaz’s sins, which included child sacrifice, God gave Judah the most severe ever warning through the Assyrian invasion. And since it brought the nation to the brink of destruction it had to be the final warning. From then on, if they persisted in violating the Mosaic Covenant, they would have to be exiled. This was spelled out through Isaiah. After recounting the near decimation of Judah by the Assyrians (Isaiah 1:7-9; cf. 8:8), God warned Judah that unless they repent they would go into exile (Isaiah 1:18-20). So when Manasseh not only practiced child sacrifice but also introduced idolatry into the Temple itself, the Exile became a forgone conclusion (divine sovereignty).
But this did not mean that the kings after Josiah suffered purely on account of Manasseh’s sins. There were themselves all evil in God’s eyes and thus deserved what they got on account of their own sins (human responsibility). As we shall see, the prophet Jeremiah, who preached in Jerusalem from the time of Josiah until the fall of the city, explained that Judah went into exile for their own sins.
There is still a loose end to be tied up. For we saw that the message of the book of Judges is that Israel needed a king to ensure that the nation observed the Mosaic Covenant. Now that even with kings the nation failed to observe the Mosaic Covenant to the point of being exiled, what then is the message? The message is that the nation needed not only a king, but a good king. We saw how good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah could reform the nation and lead the people to keep the Mosaic Covenant. However, bad kings like Manasseh and those after Josiah could undo everything in the very next generation. The message then, is that the nation not only needed a good king, but a good king that would not be replaced. Since the Davidic Covenant is still valid, 1-2 Kings points to a future Davidic king that would be good and would not be replaced (cf. Genesis 49:10).