Sunday School Lesson: Asa — Strength in God
Asa: Sunday School Lesson Intro
In the books of Kings and Chronicles, similar accounts of the same events, we encounter a new period in the history of Israel—the era of the monarchy. The beginnings of this era are rocky at best. Saul, the impressive first king of Israel, loses his life in battle while David rises to power. David almost loses the throne to one rebellious son only to have it reach its cultural height in another. Just after Solomon's death, however, the cycle that we quickly get used to in these books begins. That is, Israel is led by a mixed bag of kings. Some follow Yahweh. Others do not. However, there are also plenty of in-between kings. We will see in the reign of Asa that Israel's kings were complex personalities who often vacillated in their commitment to God and in their administrative and military competence. Only through God's mercy could such leaders continue to lead Israel through its struggles as a people.
It is amazing how the Bible anticipates this cycle of good and evil kings. The prophet who anoints the first two kings of Israel warns the people of all the implications of their request for a king. In fact, 1 Samuel 8:7-9 lets us in on the conversation that Samuel has with Yahweh about this grave request:
And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee. Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
In the remainder of the chapter, God explains to Israel all that a king will do, centering on a military draft and high taxes. There will be times, Samuel says, when the people will feel like slaves before the king's power. Nevertheless, with the people unrepentant, God grants them a king, and the consequences of that answer fill the pages of 2 Chronicles.
I. Remove sin and idolatry (2 Chron. 14:1-12)
King Abijah of Judah inaugurated a new era in the history of the divided kingdom by defeating the armies of Jeroboam, the last major leader in Israel with a previous connection to Solomon (2 Chronicles 13:19-20), in an unsuccessful attempt to reunite the two kingdoms. Abijah defeated Jeroboam through the Lord's help, as Abijah held firmly to God's covenant with David's house (2 Chronicles 13:4-5). Although his official reign was only three years (2 Chronicles 13:1-2), his legacy became known through the passing of the kingship to his son, Asa, who would reign over forty years (2 Chronicles 16:13). What is more, 2 Chronicles 14:1 testifies to this father-son duo in that the kingdom of Judah enjoyed ten years of peace as a result of their leadership. From David to Solomon, from Abijah to Asa, Israel's leadership rests on the ability of the older generation to pass on the faith to the younger.
A. Asa's early reign
"And Asa did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God: For he took away the altars of the strange gods, and the high places, and brake down the images, and cut down the groves: And commanded Judah to seek the Lord God of their fathers, and to do the law and the commandment. Also he took away out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the images: and the kingdom was quiet before him. And he built fenced cities in Judah: for the land had rest, and he had no war in those years; because the Lord had given him rest" (2 Chron. 2-6).
Stopping far short of telling the entire story, the first descriptor of King Asa as doing "good and right" (v. 2) begins a tradition in 2 Chronicles for summarizing the lives of the kings with a simple formula. Among the detailed stories of the many kings of Israel and Judah, the biblical writers want us to remember that the details are background noise compared to the big picture. And the big picture for Israel's rulers, held to the high standard of the Torah, is nothing less than obeying or disobeying God's precepts. Note the structure of the language. The Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the Temple are not mentioned. When the Bible summarizes Asa's reign, or any other king's, the measuring stick is not how that person lived in the eyes of the people, or the priests, or the biblical writers. The writers know who decides what is "good and right," and it is none other than Yahweh himself. In this regard, there is no room for shades of gray. Every ruler, at the end of his days, was summed up with a single phrase, and God was the sole measuring stick of the worth of that ruler's leadership.
Thankfully, the Bible also gives us a complex view of the personalities that sat on the thrones. Asa's early reign was characterized by a firm opposition to all forms of idolatry in deference to God's law. Although Asa became known for his military prowess, his first war was on the foreign gods that had so quickly invaded Israel. It was Solomon and his foreign wives who reintroduced the nation to these pagan cults, a scandal that we only know from 1 Kings 11 (that is, the Chronicles leave this information of national disgrace out of their account of Solomon). By the time of Asa, the land was riddled with altars stacked on the high points of Judah's mountainous areas, sacred stones used in pagan ritualism, and poles dedicated to Asherah—a Phoenician goddess often depicted as a consort to Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. This war on idolatry was significant because it signified that Asa understood God's dream for Israel's character as a nation. It is not simply that those gods were qualitatively inferior, although this was true. It was that Israel had no history, no story to go along with those gods. As Doug McIntosh writes:
The people of Israel were not to imitate any pagan custom. Distinctiveness was the central feature of their faith and lifestyle: you are a people holy to the Lord your God. This distinctiveness was based on God's choice in making Israel separate from all the peoples, a choice that made them his treasured possession (Holman Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Max Anders).
Asa helped the nation live out this separateness through his policy of aggression toward foreign gods.
As a result, God gave the land of Judah peace. However, verses 6 and 7 show us something of the initiative of this great king. While he well understood that seeking the Lord brought rest and peace, this was not an excuse for laziness. No, Asa recognized that the still relatively new nation of Israel was under constant threat from surrounding enemies. So he used the time of peace to fortify Judah's defenses. This does not mean he was a militaristic person. Asa did not seek to expand the territory of Judah, only to protect it. As a result, a period of prosperity reminiscent of the reign of Solomon characterized the first part of Asa's rule.
B. An early victory
"Then Asa went out against him, and they set the battle in array in the valley of Zephathah at Mareshah. And Asa cried unto the Lord his God, and said, Lord, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O Lord our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude. O Lord, thou art our God; let no man prevail against thee. So the Lord smote the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah; and the Ethiopians fled" (2 Chron. 10-12).
Certainly the new king hoped he could live out all of his days in peace and prosperity, unchallenged by any enemy. But he was also smart enough to recognize this as a pipe dream well before the challenge arrived. In fact, he not only built strong walls around the towns of Judah—the best form of military defense possible in the ancient world—but verse 8 records his diligence in building up Judah's infantry defense force. This includes both solid training and specialized equipment for over half a million infantry. Ten years into the reign of Asa, that army was called to active duty.
It is unclear whether Zerah was a ruler or a general, since all we know about him is that he led an army from Cush (v. 9). Cush was located in modern-day Ethiopia, and we do know from other historical accounts that an army from northern Africa was passing through the region around this time. If Zerah was leading a large regional army, this would do justice to the Hebrew phrasing of verse 9—an army of "a thousand thousand" ("a million men," NASB). The text is clearly meant to show Judah was outnumbered, given the fact that Judah's army is countable while Zerah's was too large to count. Against this overwhelming force, Asa showed his true colors.
Asa did not give an inspirational speech to his fighting men, he did not rally his generals, and he did not redraw his battle plan. Instead, he stopped in the middle of the field of battle, stood between the armies, and cried out to Yahweh, his God. He expressed desperation but also trust in God's help. There was nothing ceremonial or sanctimonious about his prayer. Asa's prayer is exemplary, being direct and honest, invoking God's name to come to His people's defense.
The result of Asa's prayer was sweeping divine action. Although the armies of Judah were required to fight a brave battle, the glory for the victory did not go to the fighting men, but to the Lord. They realized they were being empowered to destroy a vast, much stronger army. In addition, the place of the Cushite army's encampment was given over to the men of Judah, who ransacked its great wealth, adding to the glory of God's victory.
II. Draw close to God (2 Chron. 15:1-19)
One of Asa's primary and most admirable qualities is his humility. As we will see in chapter 15, Asa's mighty exploits and accomplishments do not cause him to be puffed up. Instead, he surrounds himself with wise advisers and remains teachable, even in great victory. This teachable posture reminds us of what God-honoring leadership still looks like today.
A. Azariah's holy exhortation
"And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded: And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you. Be ye strong therefore, and let not your hands be weak: for your work shall be rewarded" (2 Chron. 15:1-2, 7).
Biblical leadership is never a solo enterprise. The Proverbs are especially full of maxims that teach a godly leader to surround himself with able advisers (Proverbs 11:14; Proverbs 12:20; Proverbs 15:22). Asa, likely familiar with these proverbs of Solomon, does just that. After the great battle of chapter 14 is won, Asa is given a new challenge from a wise adviser. Azariah is not initially named a prophet, although the content of his prophecy identifies him as such. He should not be confused with King Azariah of 2 Kings 15. We know nothing of his roots or emergence. His father, Oded, is known nowhere else in Scripture. What we do know is that he has a message from God burning in his heart, and he does not hesitate to communicate it to the king: "The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! . . . But if you abandon him, he will abandon you" (2 Chronicles 15:2 NLT).
We can only guess at what exactly was going on in the heart of Asa to require this poignant message. After all, Asa has already shown his fierce dedication to God for the first ten years of his rule. Indeed, the first decade stands without scandal or blemish. Seen in this light, perhaps Azariah's prophecy is an exhortation meant to discomfort, to keep Asa from falling into lazy contentment. He reminds the king of the period of the judges, in which national life was often in chaos (v. 3). In fact, this chaos spilled into neighboring territories (vv. 5-6). The point appears to be that forsaking Yahweh will undoubtedly hurl the nation backward in time, and God wants Asa to continue to lead the nation forward. Verse 7 promises a great reward to Asa, should his leadership remain faithful to God. Azariah proclaims that not only Judah's stability, but international stability, is at stake in Asa's commitment.
B. Asa's proper response
"And when Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Oded the prophet, he took courage, and put away the abominable idols out of all the land of Judah and Benjamin, and out of the cities which he had taken from mount Ephraim, and renewed the altar of the Lord, that was before the porch of the Lord. And also concerning Maachah the mother of Asa the king, he removed her from being queen, because she had made an idol in a grove: and Asa cut down her idol, and stamped it, and burnt it at the brook Kidron. But the high places were not taken away out of Israel: nevertheless the heart of Asa was perfect all his days. And he brought into the house of God the things that his father had dedicated, and that he himself had dedicated, silver, and gold, and vessels. And there was no more war unto the five and thirtieth year of the reign of Asa" (2 Chron. 15:8, 16-19).
Although Azariah's prophecy does not directly address issues of idolatry, Asa's response once again focuses on ridding the land of Judah from pagan cults. This shows us how concrete and practical godly leadership was in this time period. We tend to qualify godly leadership under the term spiritual, but this term does not even exist in the Hebrew language. For the ancient Jews, to follow God meant literally to cease from following other actual gods. This kind of radical commitment is how Asa responds to Azariah's prophecy.
Although Asa's early reign included a no-tolerance policy toward foreign cults (see 2 Chronicles 14:5), these cults have apparently worked their way back into the fringes of Judah's religious scene. The technical term for this mixture of paganism with biblical faith is syncretism. It is not that the people of Judah were refusing to worship Yahweh. It is that they were worshiping Him alongside other gods that they were used to—gods introduced by immigrants and their neighboring communities.
Asa must be filled with courage in order to expunge these cults from Judah. He has many reasons to fear. First, wouldn't trying to expel them a second time simply cast light on the failure of Asa's first anti-idol campaign? Why would the people listen this second time when they had so quickly turned away from his first campaign? Second, religion is serious business; people cling to false gods and will often die for them. Asa knows that not everyone will react positively to his campaign, especially those who live in cities that have only recently been annexed into Judah. Nonetheless, he takes this great challenge upon himself and cleans out the idols from the kingdom. Also, in a symbolic act of returning fully to Yahweh, he rebuilds God's altar—a sign of the nation's singular commitment to Yahweh.
At the end of the chapter, we see further actions by Asa that prove his courage and commitment. His own grandmother is implicated as Asa purges the land from idols (v. 16 NIV; see 1 Kings 15:13). He not only deposes Maachah from her position in the royal court, but also ceremoniously destroys her idol in full view of the people. Asa's heart was "perfect" (2 Chronicles 15:17)—"fully committed to the Lord" (NIV)—so that he never worshiped idols. Verse 18 describes how Asa dedicates to the Lord the spoils (silver, gold, and utensils) of the wars against Jeroboam and the Ethiopians. As a result of Asa's leadership, Judah enjoys 25 more years of peace (see 2 Chronicles 15:19).
C. A national holiday
"And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul; That whosoever would not seek the Lord God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. And all Judah rejoiced at the oath: for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought him with their whole desire; and he was found of them: and the Lord gave them rest round about" (2 Chron. 15:12-13, 15).
After Asa's campaign to rid the kingdom of idols, the king decides to rally the people around their new identity in God (vv. 9-10). This is especially necessary since the excellent leadership of Asa has resulted in growth in the kingdom. People in the northern kingdom of Israel hear of the peace and prosperity in the southern kingdom of Judah, and many migrate south. Just five years after defeating Zerah and the Cushites, Asa leads the nation in renewing their faith in God through a tremendous celebration of His goodness. The plunder from that battle five years ago will not go to increase their wealth. It is dedicated to God in sacrifice, thus producing a feast for the entire nation. However, this is not just some casual party. The people are called to remember the covenant they have with God (v. 12).
Covenant is perhaps the central theological motif of the Old Testament. It represents the means by which God relates to His people Israel. It is common parlance for the way this relationship functions. As Old Testament scholar Jon Levenson puts it, "The Hebrew Bible is not only the story of Yahweh but also of Israel his people and of the complicated relationship between them. Central to that relationship is Israel's status not only as Yahweh's son, but as his firstborn son" (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity).
Under Asa's direction, the nation of Israel agrees again to act and to live as Yahweh's firstborn son. This commitment is accompanied by jubilant celebration, and it brings rest from war. But this rest would not last as long as it should.
III. Rely only on God (2 Chron. 16:1-14)
The tide turns dramatically as we enter the final account of Asa's life. Although chapter 16 is disappointing, we should be grateful for the honesty of Scripture. The leaders, and even the heroes, of our faith were not caricatures. They were real people with real flaws. Unfortunately, chapter 16 brings us face to face with those flaws in the life and reign of Asa.
A. An interstate conflict
Twenty-six years have now passed since Asa routed Zerah's army of Cushites under the power of God. He and the kingdom of Judah have prospered in every way, yet Asa soon makes a critical decision. In response to an act of aggression by the northern kingdom of Israel, Asa believes Judah is exposed and in danger. As a result, he looks to a dynasty that has been in alliance with Asa's family for two generations. Incredibly, Asa cements a treaty with the king of Aram (Syria) by offering gifts from the Temple treasury (v. 2). He buys Ben-Hadad off, and the plan works beautifully. Baasha, king of Israel, withdraws from the borders, and Judah's men destroy their siege works. Yet this is all a grievous sin in God's eyes.
B. A word of condemnation
"And at that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah, and said unto him, Because thou hast relied on the king of Syria, and not relied on the Lord thy God, therefore is the host of the king of Syria escaped out of thine hand. Were not the Ethiopians and the Lubims a huge host, with very many chariots and horsemen? yet, because thou didst rely on the Lord, he delivered them into thine hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him. Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars" (2 Chron. 16:7-9).
Asa continues to possess the integrity to listen to God's prophets. Hanani, a prophet known in Scripture more for his son Jehu than for any of his own accomplishments, approaches him with a rebuke. Asa could have eradicated a dangerous enemy, as he did the Cushites (Ethiopians). However, he had rejected a position of reliance upon God. Hanani assures Asa that this has not gone unnoticed in the divine realm.
The peace of God is taken away from the land. War is the penalty for Asa's foolish decision.
C. A sad decline
"And Asa in the thirty and ninth year of his reign was diseased in his feet, until his disease was exceeding great: yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord, but to the physicians. And they buried him in his own sepulchres, which he had made for himself in the city of David, and laid him in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries' art: and they made a very great burning for him" (2 Chron. 16:12, 14).
Sadly, Asa has lost his humble attitude, and he rages against Hanani, even taking out his immense anger on the people (v. 10). The final scene the Bible gives us of Asa is particularly sad, as it portrays a defeated ex-hero who no longer looks to God as His source.
Asa should have died in glory after a long, prosperous reign, but he dies having forgotten the blessing of relying on God. He thus continues the dangerous pattern of Solomon, and stands as an example of the truth that following God demands constant vigilance.
Asa: Sunday School Lesson Conclusion
The life of Asa walks us through the many sides and options of godly leadership. The overarching principle we find is that dependence on God leads to blessing. It is only when Asa himself forgets this truth that he falters. This is as relevant to the people of God today as it was then, and we can still follow Asa's tremendous example of faith and conquest.
Golden Text Challenge
"When Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Oded the prophet, he took courage, and put away the abominable idols ... and renewed the altar of the Lord" (2 Chron. 15:8).
The name Asa means "healing." It's an appropriate name, for when he received the throne of Judah, it was a sick land. Its people were diseased with idolatry, which was "detestable" (NIV) in the Lord's sight.
Asa brought healing to Judah by both destroying the idols and by repairing the altar of the Lord. It was not enough to only remove the source of the people's sickness (the idols); their covenant with God had to be mended in order for spiritual soundness to be restored.
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Photo credit: Unsplash/Jordan Whitt