Sunday, June 6, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - 2 Kings 10:18-36
Matthew 10:1-16

But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart,

for he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, who caused Israel to sin. In those days

the Lord began to cut Israel short. Hazael defeated them on all Israel's borders from

Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the tribes of Gad and Reuben and Manasseh, from

Aroer which is by the river Arnon, and Bashan.

II Kings 10:31f.

The story of the Divided Kingdom is not all that easy to follow. As it is told in First

and Second Kings, it skips back and forth between Israel in the north and Judah in the

south until the northern kingdom falls. This makes it hard to get any real sense of

continuity--it is a little like reading two stories at once.

One aspect of the narrative is very simple, though. A kind of summary judgment is passed

on every king at the end of his reign, and the same criterion is applied to all. Kings are

good to the extent that they enforce the centralization of worship in the temple in

Jerusalem. They are bad to the extent that they allow sacrifices to be offered elsewhere,

worse if they encourage this, and of course terrible if they allow or encourage the

worship of other gods.

By this criterion, all the kings of Israel, the northern kingdom, are found guilty. A

little background may help. The nation had never been as "united" as it might seem. David

had ruled the southern tribes for seven years before the northern tribes chose him as

their king after the death of Saul's son Ishbosheth. When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam

automatically became king over the southern tribes, but the northern tribes felt that they

had every right to reject him, and did so. The fact that he had been crowned in Jerusalem

was, in their view, irrelevant.

The northern tribes, known collectively as Israel, then chose Jeroboam as their king. He

could not very well allow his subjects to keep going to the temple in the capital city of

a rival nation and hearing that God had chosen the line of David for eternal kingship. So

one of the first things he did was to establish temples near the northern and southern

borders of his land, in Dan and in Bethel. This was "the sin of Jeroboam, who caused

Israel to sin." It violated the criterion I mentioned earlier, the centralization of

sacrificial worship in Jerusalem.

There is a closely related second theme in the story of the Divided Kingdom, namely that

good kings are rewarded and evil kings are punished. The summary comments at the death of

each king include a very brief synopsis of his success or failure and a kind of

theological explanation. In our text, for example, Israel's losses at the hands of Hazael

are attributed to Jehu's failure to "depart from the sins of Jeroboam"--that is, to his

maintenance of the temples at Dan and Beersheba.

This is rather hard on Jehu. He had been designated as king by Elisha, one of the Lord's

own prophets. He was a reformer, by the criterion of our narrative one of the kings most

loyal to the Lord God of Israel. Our Old Testament reading described only the last phase

of his massive (and bloody) efforts to eliminate the worship of Baal. He exterminated the

whole family of Ahab and Jezebel, those monarchs who stand as the very worst of all. Yet

during his reign, the nation suffered disastrous setbacks.

That is not all. Israel's fortunes remained at a low ebb until the rule of Jehu's

great-grandson Jeroboam II. He is described simply as having done evil, not departing from

the sins of the first Jeroboam, and yet he restored the borders of Israel to their

original extent and apparently even extended them. He went on to rule for forty-one years,

by far longer than any other king of Israel, making this apparently the most prosperous

and stable period in the history of the northern kingdom. The theological explanation of

the success of this evil king is that the Lord saw how the nation was suffering, and used

this evil king to bring relief.

In fact, if we read the story of the Divided Kingdom with care, we find that time and

again "good" kings encounter failure and "evil" kings find success, and that every such

instance is explained by a kind of transfer process. When an evil king of Judah prospers,

it is because the Lord remembered David. When a good king of Judah suffers, it is because

the sins of his father or his grandfather were so great. When an evil king of Israel

prospers, it is because of the Lord's compassion for the people. When one of Israel's

better kings suffers, the "sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat" are always there to bear the


There are several levels on which we could approach this strange situation. One is simply

literal--we may presume that the human author of the narrative wants the reader to believe

that the nation's security depends on the centralization of sacrificial worship in

Jerusalem, and uses the only device available to deal with facts that keep refusing to

agree with the theory. This is a fairly familiar practice. We ourselves believe that God

is just, and when the better people suffer or the worse ones prosper, we look for hidden

causes, for hidden connections. We may even go as far as the Biblical text does and claim

to have found them.

On a slightly deeper level, we may presume that the author is fully aware of the

discrepancy between outward appearance and inner causes. In this case, we may be looking

at an effort to face the reader with the fact of injustice. Good kings may suffer, and bad

kings may prosper. There is justice, but it is not as simplistic as we might want to

believe. We are caught up in the history of a community and bear the consequences of that

history regardless of our own virtues or vices. We make a difference, but that difference

may not show up during our own lifetime.

On this level, the author is probably right in choosing centralization as a cardinal

virtue. The Promised Land is a little more than a bottleneck between the Nile valley

region and Mesopotamia. It is dwarfed by those much larger and more fertile areas.

Geographically, it has about as much warrant for independence as the Brooklyn Bridge. Its

only long term hope would lie in its unity. Once it divided, the handwriting was on the

wall. Israel, through which the main trade routes ran, would be the first to fall. Judah,

more mountainous and decidedly off the beaten track, could hold out longer, but not

forever. Not instantly but inevitably, disunion would exact its toll.

Our theology, though, would point us to a still deeper level. When we look beyond the

human authors of Scripture to Scripture as the Word of God, this entails the belief that

there is a depth of meaning beyond the conscious intent of the human authors. This need

not be miraculous, for after all, we ourselves often "say" more than we intend, more than

we know we are saying. There is a kind of transparency to the community from which the Old

Testament emerged which makes it a natural microcosm of human attitudes and behavior. It

is not at all hard to see ourselves reflected in it.

Swedenborg's doctrine of correspondences offers us a disciplined way to look at this

reflection. It is not a magic decoder, but involves rather an appreciation of the way in

which our inner and outer worlds relate to each other. If we are to use it appropriately,

we need to look first at the most basic relationships, and move from there toward details.

How might this work if applied to the story of the Divided Kingdom? We would begin with

the obvious, the effort to explain all the ups and downs of that confusing period in terms

of a single simple criterion, the centralization of sacrificial worship at Jerusalem.

Before we go any further, we can look at our own lives for similar impulses and find an

embarrassment of riches. Again and again, we find ourselves trying to find the one clue to

the puzzle, the one answer to our problems. We may lay the collective blame on socialism

or patriarchy, on materialism or idealism. We really do not want to face up to the actual

complexity of the world we live in.

If we visualize for a moment how much is happening that we do not know about even in the

relatively small community outside these walls or even in the lives of the people in this

room, it begins to look as though the field of our knowledge is rather smaller than the

field of our ignorance. If we extend our view beyond these nearer boundaries, to the state

or the nation or the world--which itself is a rather small one in an incomprehensibly vast

universe--the field of our knowledge does not get all that much bigger, and the field of

our ignorance seems to have no limits at all.

So we simplify, trusting that what we do know is a reasonably fair sample, that the vast

field of our ignorance is not all that different from the minute field of our knowledge.

We simplify, we oversimplify, we fall in love with our simplifications, and then struggle

to understand the events that refuse to fit the pattern.

Strange as it may seem at first glance, we are not all that much more knowledgeable about

ourselves. Long before Freud wrote about "the unconscious," Swedenborg published extensive

descriptions of deeper levels of our own being, levels of which we are normally unaware.

Through much of our adult life, we are of two minds about a great many things, no more

"united" than the Divided Kingdom. We keep looking for the key, for a focus to our lives,

for a sense of identity and purpose--for a sense of meaning.

Through the more active years of our adulthood, we tend to look for this meaning in our

achievements, whether as parents or professionals or both. We take an image of the "doer"

we believe we ought to be and set it up as our "central sanctuary." We struggle to live up

to it. We do our best to interpret the ups and downs of our lives as effects of our

fidelity or infidelity to that ideal.

We are not completely wrong in this regard. The effort to live up to our self-image does

guide us fairly consistently toward constructive relationships and actions. We reject any

number of impulses on the grounds that we don't want to be that kind of person, we don't

want even to think of ourselves as that kind of person. Swedenborg speaks of our being

restrained by our fears of what others will think of us--we are restrained also by our

fears of what we might think of ourselves.

For all its virtues, though, the criterion of living up to our ideal self-image can carry

us only so far. Every time we surprise ourselves, for better or for worse, we are faced

with the possibility that our self-image is not completely accurate. We are called to stop

trying to force an explanation on the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves.

Actually, the facts do not always speak all that clearly. We move into an area of

uncertainty--or rather, we begin to recognize the boundaries of our knowledge and the vast

scope of our ignorance.

This, at last, is the point at which our religion takes on new depth and centrality. It is

only when we recognize our ignorance that we begin to appreciate and trust the Lord's

wisdom. Am I "saved?" Only the Lord really knows. I don't really need to. All I can do is

try to be the person I am created to be in the situations in which I find myself.

Everything else is in the hands of a Providence which is infinitely loving and wise--much

more trustworthy than I.


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