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Jehoshaphat: Help in Distress

[To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.]

INTRODUCTION

Distress is so interwoven into the biblical story that we almost stop noticing its power. Especially in 2 Chronicles, the kingdoms of Israel face distress at every turn: distress from enemies, distress from within, distress from without. Various leaders approach this distress in varying ways, and often the quality of their leadership is determined by the collection of their responses to distress. After all, it is much easier to act as a God-honoring king when things are going well. It is in times of distress that a person's character is tested.

This constant narrative of distress in 2 Chronicles also leads to deeper theological questions that undergirds the narrative. Obviously, the Jews are chosen by God to be His people. Yet He continues to allow significant distresses to enter their situation. It is not as if these distresses are always the result of sin. At times there does not appear to be any logical reason for the distress. So, how do we deal with this theologically? Christian author Annie Dillard reminds us, "The omnipotence of God makes no sense if it requires the all-causingness of God" (For the Time Being). Although God may not cause distress, in His omnipotence He allows it. How should we properly approach this?

As Christians, we are made privy to the secret of suffering and distress. That is, through weakness, power is evident (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Through the suffering of the Cross, resurrection is made possible. As Professor Henri Nouwen writes:

The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the beloved sons and daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be a part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. It is not hard to say to one another: "All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God." But it is very hard to say: "But didn't you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?" (Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World).

Distress in the life of Israel became the testing ground wherein God formed them to be His people.

I. CRY TO GOD FOR HELP (2 Chronicles 20:1-13)

By the time we arrive at 2 Chronicles 20 we are quite familiar with King Jehoshaphat. He is the successor to the throne of Judah after his father, Asa, and he remains one of the most famous kings of Judah in the divided kingdom's history. We find out in 2 Chronicles 17 that Jehoshaphat walked in the earlier example of his father, devoting his heart to God. However, he strikes an unwise alliance with Ahab, king of Israel, against the city of Ramoth Gilead which almost costs him his life. Only because he cries out to God is he spared (2 Chronicles 18:31). Despite this error in judgment, Jehoshaphat rebounds, and continues to govern with excellence. He even builds a professional judicial system for Judah in 2 Chronicles 19. Chapter 20, however, depicts the greatest crisis he has ever known.

A. An Ominous Threat (vv. 1-4)

1. It came to pass after this also, that the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them other beside the Ammonites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle.

2. Then there came some that told Jehoshaphat, saying, There cometh a great multitude against thee from beyond the sea on this side Syria; and, behold, they be in Hazazontamar, which is Engedi.

3. And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.

4. And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the Lord: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.

After his misled alliance with Ahab in chapter 18, Jehoshaphat bounces back to install judges throughout the land who answer directly to the high priest (2 Chronicles 19:11). This appointment of judges is no small matter. It was meant to turn the structures and hearts of the nation toward God himself. Yet just after this remarkable achievement, distress is brewing.

Israel had no enemies more fearsome than the Moabites and Ammonites. Each of these peoples lived just east of the Jordan River valley, and their close proximity made it easy to put together joint military campaigns. It is left to us to guess about their goals. Ancient warfare was not necessarily focused on gaining land, though this was sometimes the aim. Sometimes war was embarked on for the purpose of plunder, including obtaining human slaves. Whatever the case, these enemies of Israel are intent upon battling Judah, and Jehoshaphat must quickly respond.

The opening phrase in verse 3 gives us a glimpse at Jehoshaphat's initial, visceral response to this critical threat. He was afraid, yet he responded to his fear wisely by seeking God, and not by himself. He rallied the entire nation to the cause through the concrete act of fasting. We tend to think of fasting as it pertains to our individual spirituality. However, in the Old Testament it was often a radical community or national practice. In his chapter on fasting, Richard J. Foster reminds us that fasting was not only built into the Torah (see Leviticus 23:27), but "fasts were called in times of group or national emergency" (Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth). As Foster notes, the situation in 2 Chronicles 20 qualifies as such an emergency.

The response from the people to Jehoshaphat's heartfelt plea for a national fast is met with overwhelming affirmation and enthusiasm. No one stays home on this important day. They have heard the severity of the threat, and they recognize their only hope lies in their God.

B. Remembering God's Story (vv. 5-9)

5. And Jehoshaphat stood in the congregation of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court,

6. And said, O Lord God of our fathers, art not thou God in heaven? and rulest not thou over all the kingdoms of the heathen? and in thine hand is there not power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee?

7. Art not thou our God, who didst drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and gavest it to the seed of Abraham thy friend for ever?

8. And they dwelt therein, and have built thee a sanctuary therein for thy name, saying,

9. If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help.

The drama of the scene intensifies as the focus shifts from the corporate fast of the nation to the national address from the leader. Only Jehoshaphat is not interested in a television appearance to calm everyone down. No, he stands directly in front of the Temple and beseeches God on their behalf.

Interestingly, the first half of Jehoshaphat's prayer is filled with questions. This is typical of Hebrew prayers, particularly in the Psalms, which sometimes read like an assault on God's character. Obviously, God does not need to be reminded of His divine attributes, but these questions root those praying, as well as those hearing the prayer, in the character and story of God. In a very potent way they remind the petitioners that God has been almighty and trustworthy throughout history.

The overall direction of these verses puts Israel's present situation in the context of their history with God. Jehoshaphat starts out remembering that God is in charge of the earth, that He bequeathed the Promised Land to Abraham, and that He called Solomon to build the magnificent Temple which they stand before. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes Israel's ability to constantly remember their history with God as "world making":

The world can indeed be imagined differently [than Israel imagines it]. It can be imagined with Thomas Hobbes as a war of each against all. It can be imagined with Henry Kissinger as a world in which might makes right. It can be imagined with Milton Friedman as a place of scarcity where we compete for limited goods. It can be imagined with Tom Ridge as a place of chaos and threat and risk. All such construals are possible and frequently enacted. But not in Israel. Not in this world of worship. Israel reads and imagines and celebrates otherwise, by appeal to its own remembered narrative, a narrative of constant fidelity, such constancy that evokes assured and unanxious gratitude (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church).

Although this scholar's language is a bit thick, his message is clear: Israel has a different memory than everyone else - a memory of a concrete historical covenant with God. It is this memory which can allow Jehoshaphat to leap from remembrance to petition.

C. Urgent Prayer for Help (vv. 10-13)

10. And now, behold, the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir, whom thou wouldest not let Israel invade, when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them, and destroyed them not;

11. Behold, I say, how they reward us, to come to cast us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit.

12. O our God, wilt thou not judge them? for we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.

13. And all Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.

Jehoshaphat has recited some high points of Israel's history with God. Because God has brought them this far, He certainly could not let them fall into the hands of the pagan armies. In this vein, verse 10 puts the onus on God, since He could have commanded Israel to attack these armies centuries ago. And, in exchange for their peace, they are getting aggression! The king closes his prayer, then, with a final plea for God's help.

Jehoshaphat does not ask God to annihilate the Moabites and Ammonites. He is not bloodthirsty or militant. He appeals to prudence in asking for God's judgment. This is appropriate given Jehoshaphat's name—a pairing of Jehovah and shaphat, meaning "The Lord is judge." His request simply asks God to act in line with His character. If these armies are justified in attacking Israel, the king has no complaint. But it is clear they are not. God is expected to respond decisively to such injustice, and Jehoshaphat will not be disappointed.

II. FOLLOW GOD'S PLAN (2 Chronicles 20:14-19)

The questions must have loomed over the people like a cloud once Jehoshaphat's inspiring prayer was complete: What next? Would God respond immediately? If not, how would they know what to do? This period of waiting is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the life of faith in God. In Christian terms, it is the Saturday that falls between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Thankfully, God always has a plan, and this is illustrated in what happens next in the story of Jehoshaphat and Judah.

A. A Mighty Prophecy (vv. 14-17)

14. Then upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, came the Spirit of the Lord in the midst of the congregation;

15. And he said, Hearken ye, all Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, and thou king Jehoshaphat, Thus saith the Lord unto you, Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God's.

16. Tomorrow go ye down against them: behold, they come up by the cliff of Ziz; and ye shall find them at the end of the brook, before the wilderness of Jeruel.

17. Ye shall not need to fight in this battle: set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the Lord with you, O Judah and Jerusalem: fear not, nor be dismayed; to morrow go out against them: for the Lord will be with you.

The nation stands in stone-cold silence, wondering exactly what to do after Jehoshaphat's prayer. Fortunately, they only have to wait a few moments. In a movement similar to modern Pentecostal worship services, one man has an anointed word for the assembly of the people.

The speaker in question is a mysterious character who appears nowhere else in Scripture. It is important for the writer to show two things about Jahaziel. First, he is a bona fide Levite, so pains are taken to step the reader through his lineage. Second, Jahaziel's speech is not of his own accord or imagination. It is a direct word from the Spirit of the Lord. In fact, we see this familiar formula used throughout the Old Testament for those whom God chooses to use in special ways: The Spirit of Yahweh "came upon" Jahaziel. Out of all the Levites and holy men and women, this man is chosen to deliver a precious word from heaven.

His word begins with the familiar Old Testament expression/imperative, "Hear!" The Hebrew word is shema, which became a specific term to refer to the greatest commandment, given in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. By beginning his declaration with this verb, Jahaziel has the attention of the people. He is calling them to remember the Shema and to love the Lord completely by living out His word.

Jahaziel's word is in direct contrast to Jehoshaphat's initial response to the crisis back in verse 3 of the text. Fear has no place in the people of God, even in the face of this mighty army. This is important because fear is always the first obstacle that God's people must face in order to do His work. The Russian novelist Fyodor Doestoevsky once wrote, "Fear is simply the consequence of every lie." If the people of Judah were to walk in fear, they would be walking in the lie that God is insufficient, uncaring, or powerless to save. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and Jahaziel proclaims that this will be fully proven on the day of battle (v. 17).

We can only guess whether the fighting men chuckled or stood in awe at such a "flawed" battle strategy: "Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you" (v. 17 NIV). After all, many of these men had been in battle before. They had seen God work as they fought the enemy, but they had never conceived of dropping their weapons and giving up the fight! They undoubtedly look to Jehoshaphat's leadership to see if Jahaziel's word will be accepted as truth.

B. A Reverent Response (vv. 18-19)

18. And Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell before the Lord, worshipping the Lord.

19. And the Levites, of the children of the Kohathites, and of the children of the Korhites, stood up to praise the Lord God of Israel with a loud voice on high.

Jehoshaphat must make a quick decision, and the Spirit of the Lord guides him into the truth. Recognizing that Jahaziel's word is from God, the king must find a way to convey this to the people. Words are unnecessary; Jehoshaphat simply falls on his face toward the Temple, and lies in silence on the ground. This posture is common in the Old and New Testaments when a person experiences an encounter with God. In fact, it is often reserved for encounters with angels or even Jesus, particularly in the Book of Revelation. Therefore, we can see just how seriously Jehoshaphat takes this prophetic word from Jahaziel.

The people unsurprisingly fall in line behind Jehoshaphat. After all, they have already committed to a national fast. They obviously trust their king and are willing to follow him in whatever he asks of them. Yet in the midst of this somber and sobering moment, there are a few Levites who can't take the silence any longer. Filled with praise to God through their strong faith, these Kohathites and Korahites, whose ancestors were gatekeepers for the Tabernacle (see 1 Chronicles 9:19; 1 Chronicles 26:1), begin to spontaneously praise God with bursts of shouting. We do not know what they shouted, but we can imagine the exuberance of this day. The day that began with an international crisis ends in praise as the people look forward to the impending victory of God.

III. TRUST GOD TO DELIVER (2 Chron. 20:20-30)

At this point in the narrative, we are faced with yet another pause. Previously, the people were left to wonder what to do after Jehoshaphat's heartfelt prayer. When the response of Jahaziel's prophecy was swift, they now must wait for specific battle directives. The reader is temporarily left hanging with many questions: How will they draw up the battle lines? Will they carry their weapons? Will there be no fighting at all? These questions build up the tension in the story as it closes with an astounding victory.

A. An Odd Battle Plan (vv. 20-21)

20. And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.

21. And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the Lord, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the Lord; for his mercy endureth for ever.

Oddly enough, the text remains silent as to the actual battle plan. Jahaziel's word commanded them to take up battle positions, but was unspecific about how God would intervene. All that we know is that the army marches toward the Ammonites and Moabites and awaits Jehoshaphat's instructions. Those instructions will turn out stranger than they had likely imagined.

In his wisdom, fashioned by years of experience, Jehoshaphat picks up on the apprehension that some of the men are experiencing. For all we know, the priest Jahaziel was not a significant leader in Israel's political or military machinery of that time. In fact, he may not have even been a particularly significant Levitical priest. Jehoshaphat's faith, however, is not in Jahaziel or any other man, but in the word from God. Therefore, he commands the fighting men to have faith that God uses prophets, even though they are often the most unlikely mouthpieces for God's will to be revealed. This history of prophets was certainly familiar to Judah's fighting men.

Jehoshaphat, however, begins to improvise. Though the prophecy said nothing about this, the king makes a bold and daring move. As they near their battle positions, he positions singers in front of the army to extol the goodness of God. The word love ("mercy," v. 21) in Hebrew is an important term. Hesed refers to the overwhelming covenant faithfulness of God. It communicates that God has made an eternal pact with His people. This is the proclamation of the singers in the hearing of all Judah and her enemies. Perhaps it seemed silly to these enemies at first. In moments they would see that these singers—and their God—mean business.

B. Yahweh's Victory for Judah (vv. 22-24)

22. And when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten.

23. For the children of Ammon and Moab stood up against the inhabitants of mount Seir, utterly to slay and destroy them: and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, every one helped to destroy another.

24. And when Judah came toward the watch tower in the wilderness, they looked unto the multitude, and, behold, they were dead bodies fallen to the earth, and none escaped.

When the fighting men of Judah arrive at their battle positions, the Ammonites and Moabites have united their front and brought in Edomite soldiers from Mount Seir. Since they have had time to choose their positions and get entrenched, they likely have a sweeping ambush planned for the army of Judah from several points around the battlefield. However, as the Lord's people begin to sing, God turns the tables on the enemy soldiers - Yahweh routes them using multiple ambushes. In fact, Judah's enemies wind up slaughtering one another.

First, the Ammonites and Moabites turn against the soldiers from Mount Seir. Next, the soldiers from Moab and Ammon turn on each other. By the time the armies of Judah find a high vantage point to see what is going on, thousands of dead bodies litter the landscape. Everything is still. Not a soul is left alive.

C. Celebration of God's Grace (vv. 25-30)

(2 Chronicles 20:26-28 is not included in the printed text.)

25. And when Jehoshaphat and his people came to take away the spoil of them, they found among them in abundance both riches with the dead bodies, and precious jewels, which they stripped off for themselves, more than they could carry away: and they were three days in gathering of the spoil, it was so much.

29. And the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of those countries, when they had heard that the Lord fought against the enemies of Israel.

30. So the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet: for his God gave him rest round about.

After a few seconds of dumbfounded bewilderment, the armies of Judah descend on the carnage, which has turned into a treasure trough of wealth for God's people. For three days they gather and catalogue the plunder, before dedicating the fourth day to worshiping the Lord. This worship was so memorable that the valley where they gather is named Berachah (v. 26), meaning "praise," from thereafter. Beginning the trek back to Jerusalem, the armies are so overwhelmed by the grace of God that upon entering the city, no one initially returns to his house or his family. They travel immediately into the Temple for yet another worship service, this one complete with a praise orchestra. What is more, the aftershocks of God's victory at Mount Seir not only affect the people of Judah, but also their neighbors who hear about what God has done. As a result, Jehoshaphat and Judah experience rest from war for the remainder of his life.

Jehoshaphat served God faithfully, even under distress, and was richly rewarded with peace.

CONCLUSION

In times of suffering and distress, the heroes of 2 Chronicles call us to a holy remembrance. We are not to remember our own strength or skill, but the character of God and our part in the story of the people of God. It is true that, as Christians, we are spiritual descendants of Jehoshaphat and his fighting men. Therefore, let us also allow God to fight battles in our lives that will reveal His glory to the people around us.

GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE

"O OUR GOD, WILT THOU NOT JUDGE THEM? FOR WE HAVE NO MIGHT AGAINST THIS GREAT COMPANY THAT COMETH AGAINST US; NEITHER KNOW WE WHAT TO DO: BUT OUR EYES ARE UPON THEE" (2 Chron. 20:12).

An enemy too strong, resources with which to resist too weak, and wisdom inadequate . . . no one wants to be found in this position. If we had to stop here, we would throw up our hands and surrender. But when we add the fourth dimension - a God who is able - we see a bright spot and hope comes alive! Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are very uncomfortable. Not knowing what to do (and not being able to do it even if we knew) creates the ultimate despair. That is exactly what happened to Jehoshaphat—and what happens to us.

The truth of the matter is that we must come to this state before we can see the glorious intervention of God. Let us note the essential conditions, the prerequisites for God's power.

This king recognized the awesome power of his enemy. Many Christians have lost important struggles because they underestimated the power of Satan. We should not glory in his power, but neither should we play games with an Enemy that has the strength to destroy us. A quick look at Scripture and current evil in the world lets us know that we face an unrelenting foe. Let us never forget this.

This king recognized the limitations of his wisdom. None of us, regardless of our wisdom, can outsmart Satan. Our victory over him will never be gained through human strategy and wisdom.

This king recognized the fact that his strength was insufficient against any enemy so strong. I am no match for Satan and his armies. He will grind me into the dirt and will do the same to you. "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm" (Jeremiah 17:5).

This king recognized the all-sufficiency of his God. He was wise in that he locked his eyes on the One who had the power to deliver and save him. If we are to win the battles of life, we must focus on Jesus and lock in the focus. Our God will deliver us!

To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.