Is "I guess he wasn't terrible" a ringing endorsement?
Bible Study Notes and Commentary for 1 Kings 15:9-22
This week, we meet King Asa, who stopped the decline of Judah and put her on a good path of worship (that's good), but he also made some very questionable decisions as king. Yes, doing good things is good, but Asa reminds us that it also matters how we finish. Let's not be satisfied with "did some good things".
"Go and break your treaty with King Baasha of Israel so that he will withdraw from me.” (15:19)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a "what's your favorite part about Independence Day and why" discussion opener. I'm sure you can find a way to tie it in to this week's lesson.
A timely twist on this topic might be something like "with the recent political discourse, what are freedoms you didn't realize you appreciate?" or "what are freedoms people are worried about losing?".
I'll be preaching on religious liberty in our church's service. If there's one thing I've become worried about in today's climate, it's that people have forgotten what "freedom" means in the first place. "I believe in freedom of speech, unless you say something I don't like." "I believe in freedom of religion, unless I disagree with your religion." And so on. And people on all sides of every debate are falling into that attitude. If you believe a freedom should be restricted to a certain group of people, it's not a freedom. But enough of my soapbox!
The fact is that we still have the freedoms granted by our Constitution and its amendments. I'm grateful for them, and I'm grateful for everyone who has fought on the battlefield, in the courtroom, and on the legislative floor to preserve those freedoms. And I want to do what I can to ensure that my kids and grandkids will continue to enjoy those freedoms.
When Pressured to Act Unethically
If you have a Bible study group willing to get deep quick, you might start out with an even more serious topic than that last idea. In this week's passage, good King Asa faces some serious pressure. His response is to do something unethical.
We all face pressure in work and school. And we've all been tempted to relieve that pressure through a choice that we know would be sinful.
Your major homework assignment isn't going well, but you know someone in your class who would be willing to give you the answers.
Your shareholders are out for blood, but you know that by changing a couple of numbers, you can shift the blame to someone else.
Your client wants this project approved today, and you know that the inspector might "grease the wheels" if you do something nice for him.
Things like that -- a situation where under normal circumstances you wouldn't dream of doing any unethical, but because the pressure is on, you might relax your moral compass "just this one time". Have you ever been in a situation where -- because of outside pressure -- you were tempted to do something unethical? If you gave into temptation, what ended up happening? If you "did the right thing", how did it go?
When I study companies that eventually collapsed in some sort of scandal (like Andersen Consulting, or Waste Management), it regularly seems to come back to one unethical decision that opened the floodgates of subsequent unethical decisions. But I've read a lot of stories of companies who "got away with one" and emerged not too worse for the wear.
If there's a single difference that would wrap up this discussion idea, it's that God doesn't allow anyone to "get away with one". Not only does He see and know all, but He also knows the motives of your heart. When we learn about good King Asa in this week's passage, the Bible doesn't let him skirt on his poor decision.
This Week's Big Idea: An Overview of the Kings
You might be happy to see this outline of the rest of our time in 1/2 Kings:
July 10 - Elijah on Mount Carmal
July 17 - Elijah talking to God
July 24 - Elisha and Naaman
July 31 - A miracle in Samaria
August 7 - The chest of Joash
August 14 - The fall of Samaria
August 21 - Good king Hezekiah
August 28 - Good king Josiah
We really only have two lessons that get into the weeds of the relationship between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah -- this week, and August 14. So, I'll just give you a little bit here, and we will circle back around to it in August.
I found a shockingly helpful "family tree" on Wikipedia.
Because it doesn't include any dates, it's a lot easier to follow. [Note: here's something I've always found confusing. Both Israel and Judah had kings named Ahaziah and Jehoram (which is a form of Joram) at roughly the same time. Some skeptics have called this an error. Sure, it's confusing, but that doesn't make it an error.]
Because I can't leave well-enough alone, here's a family tree with dates and prophets:
Elijah and Elisha aren't marked because they didn't write their own books. If I ever redo this graphic, I'll add them.
A couple of things to be reminded from the Bible Project video:
EVERY KING IN THE NORTH WAS "BAD". They batted .000. You might be wondering if it's a typo that there were 20 kings in the north and 20 kings in the south, but the south lasted an extra 150 years. Nope -- count the names on the Wikipedia chart and my chart. The kings in the north tended not to last very long. In a possibly related note, I remind you that EVERY KING IN THE NORTH WAS "BAD".
Longevity doesn't necessarily tell us anything, though. You'll notice that Ahab reigned in the north for a long time, and Manasseh reigned as long as anybody in the south, and both were catastrophically terrible kings who maintained power through terrible means.
The Bible Project summarized the intended role of the king very well:
Lead the people to worship God
Rid the nation of idolatry
Remain faithful to God's covenant
One of the encounters we skip in 1 Kings 21 summarizes the sort of thing God would say to one of the scoundrel kings:
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Get up and go to meet King Ahab of Israel, who is in Samaria. He’s in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you murdered and also taken possession?’ Then tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, the dogs will also lick up your blood!’” 20 Ahab said to Elijah, “So, my enemy, you’ve found me, have you?” He replied, “I have found you because you devoted yourself to do what is evil in the Lord’s sight. 21 This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you and will eradicate your descendants: I will wipe out all of Ahab’s males, both slave and free, in Israel; 22 I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have angered me and caused Israel to sin.’
The influence a king had over his people was substantial, and God rightly held the king to a high standard.
So, here's the biggest question for you to think about: what went wrong with the kings? We've talked about this enough that I think you have a pretty good idea. Was there one big thing that worked against the kings' ability to follow God? Was there a group of common factors? And most importantly, what can we take away from the failures of the kings?
Where We Are in 1 Kings
When the 10 northern tribes made Jeroboam their king, abandoning Solomon's son Rehoboam, he understood the disadvantage of not having Jerusalem -- both as a fortified capital and the location of God's temple. To compensate, Jeroboam built two major centers of worship at Bethel and Dan (at the ends of his kingdom), and he built up the city of Shechem (which isn't too far away from the future capital, Samaria).
We read a very bizarre story about a man who lied to a prophet resulting in the prophet being killed, and he felt guilty (?). The awful point of the story is that things deteriorated very quickly in the northern kingdom. Jeroboam essentially created his own religion, and he angered God greatly. We learn in chapters 14 and 15 that his son Abijah died young, and that was a picture of what would happen to Jeroboam's entire house. His son Nadab succeeded him as king, but just two years into his reign, a man named Baasha killed Nadab and everyone related to Jeroboam and declared himself king.
Meanwhile in the south, Rehoboam's son Abijah succeeded him as king. (Yes, both Jeroboam and Rehoboam had sons named Abijah. It means "Yahweh is my father", so kinda like the "John" of that day.) He only reigned 3 years. 1 Kings 15 doesn't say much good about Abijah, but 2 Chron 13 notes that he at least attempted to do proper worship and that he defeated Jeroboam in battle. He did enough to be mentioned in Jesus' genealogy (Matt 1:7). He was succeeded by his son Asa, the king in question in our passage.
Asa and Baasha came to power within a year of one another; Baasha was king for 24 years, and Asa was king for even longer. They fought against one another pretty much the whole time. This week's passage focuses on a fort at Ramah.
Here's a great map to show the urgency of things. Ramah is about as close to Jerusalem as Bethlehem -- too close for comfort, and pretty audacious for a warring king. Ramah is in the territory of Benjamin, which had declared loyalty to Judah, and had strategic control over a major trade route through Jerusalem. Baasha thought to cut off Jerusalem -- and the crazy thing to me is that Asa didn't think his army could conquer Ramah. But that's a big part of this week's passage, so on we go.
Part 1: Wholehearted (1 Kings 15:9-15)
9 In the twentieth year of Israel’s King Jeroboam, Asa became king of Judah, 10 and he reigned forty-one years in Jerusalem. His grandmother’s name was Maacah daughter of Abishalom. 11 Asa did what was right in the Lord’s sight, as his ancestor David had done. 12 He banished the male cult prostitutes from the land and removed all of the idols that his ancestors had made. 13 He also removed his grandmother Maacah from being queen mother because she had made an obscene image of Asherah. Asa chopped down her obscene image and burned it in the Kidron Valley. 14 The high places were not taken away, but Asa was wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his entire life. 15 He brought his father’s consecrated gifts and his own consecrated gifts into the Lord’s temple: silver, gold, and utensils.
This is a great way to be introduced in the Bible -- Asa is one of very few kings who were favorably compared with David. You'll note that I was rather down on Asa in my introduction, contrary to these words here. I feel like the author of kings was "grading on a curve" at this point. Everyone else has been so rotten that anyone who at least tried to do the right would be celebrated. And I get that. Let's give credit where credit is due! But let's not ignore some of the really, really poor decisions Asa would make.
Let's start with an important translation note: in Hebrew, the word "father" could also mean "forefather"; and "mother" was also used for other, more distant female ancestors. That's going to be confusing when you read 1/2 Kings; some versions go ahead and insert words like "grandfather" to make that easier for readers.
The language is rather graphic. The word for "idol" in verse 12 is connected with the word for "dung", and the word for "obscene" is related to the verb "to be revulsed".
These references point us directly to Solomon. Male cult prostitutes, obscene idols to Asherah -- those are related to the trouble we read from Solomon's harem.
"Abishalom" is a variant spelling of "Absalom". I went to 2 Chr 11 for a little more clarity on who was related to whom and why we should care:
20 [Rehoboam] married Maacah daughter of Absalom. She bore Abijah, Attai, Ziza, and Shelomith to him. 21 Rehoboam loved Maacah daughter of Absalom more than all his wives and concubines. He acquired eighteen wives and sixty concubines and was the father of twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters. 22 Rehoboam appointed Abijah son of Maacah as chief, leader among his brothers, intending to make him king.
Maacah (or Maakah) was "favorite wife" and "mother of the kingly line", but she apparently commissioned one of those obscene idols I mentioned a few weeks ago. Asa didn't let her importance protect her from discipline.
Here's my question: how did Asa "do right" when he had been raised in such a dysfunctional family? This is one of those subtle but important lessons that we are not bound to repeat the mistakes of our parents and grandparents. The court would have had at least some advisors and priests who were upright and godfearing, and Asa listened to them. To me, this is an encouragement to keep influencing young people toward good, even if you don't think they will listen to you.
Eventually, we learn in 2 Chron 15 that God sent a prophet to Asa for the specific purpose of encouraging him to enact a series of religious reforms, which Asa did. But he was predisposed toward that, which means that he had some good influences in his past.
But for all of this good, there are three failures associated with Asa:
Not removing all of the high places (15:14)
Relying on a military treaty rather than God (15:17)
Relying on physicians rather than God (2 Chr 16:12)
So, not finishing a job, and taking your own advice before God's. How many of us have done those very things? This is a good reminder to me that no matter how matter how many good things you do along the way, it matters how you finish.
The Bible makes a big deal about these utensils. Go back and read 1 Kings 7 -- Solomon had a large number of utensils made for work in the temple (just like we have all kinds of utensils to use in our kitchens, there were all kinds of utensils to do the various things in the temple; think about all of the sacrifices that were made...)
But just like the rest of this passage associates the good things of Asa with David (as opposed to the bad influence of Solomon), I think this verse does too:
So all the work Solomon did for the Lord’s temple was completed. Then Solomon brought the consecrated things of his father David—the silver, the gold, and all the utensils—and put them in the treasuries of God’s temple. (2 Chr 5:1)
Here's my guess -- over time, some of these valuable utensils made their way into "private collections" for "private use". We can imagine how things like that would happen. Anyway, Asa found all of them and brought them back to the temple.
Last week, we learned about "stewardship" in our morning service (at FBC). This is a related topic -- when we've said we're going to use something for God, we had better do so. If we know how much money we should be giving through the church and other ministries, we had better do so. If we've said something like "God, if I get that boat, I'll use it for ministry" (which is sketchy to begin with), we had better follow through.
So, a couple of discussion ideas:
Don't let your family history drag you down
Don't hold back in your gifts/commitments to God
Part 2: Cornered (1 Kings 15:16-19)
16 There was war between Asa and King Baasha of Israel throughout their reigns. 17 Israel’s King Baasha went to war against Judah. He built Ramah in order to keep anyone from leaving or coming to King Asa of Judah. 18 So Asa withdrew all the silver and gold that remained in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and the treasuries of the royal palace and gave it to his servants. Then King Asa sent them to Ben-hadad son of Tabrimmon son of Hezion king of Aram who lived in Damascus, saying, 19 “There is a treaty between me and you, between my father and your father. Look, I have sent you a gift of silver and gold. Go and break your treaty with King Baasha of Israel so that he will withdraw from me.”
Now we have to acknowledge that Kings is telling us a truncated story. The full story of Asa is told in 2 Chron 14-16, and it makes a lot more sense of these events.
Asa did a certain amount of religious reform early in his reign (although most of it happened later), and he enjoyed 10 years of peace as a result. An army from Cush (Africa) moved against him, and Asa specifically called out to God for help in the battle, and God gave them a great victory. Sometime later, a prophet came to encourage Asa to even further reform, which Asa did.
And then even later, we have the aggression from Baasha. The dates in 2 Chr 15:19/16:1 don't line up with what we know of Baasha, so either there was a scribal error in the number (most likely) or a scribal error in the name of the king of Israel. This aggression from Baasha probably took place about 16 years into Asa's reign, probably about 5 years after all of the reforms. The Chronicler makes Asa's error very clear:
7 At that time, the seer Hanani came to King Asa of Judah and said to him, “Because you depended on the king of Aram and have not depended on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from you. 8 Were not the Cushites and Libyans a vast army with many chariots and horsemen? When you depended on the Lord, he handed them over to you. 9 For the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth to show himself strong for those who are wholeheartedly devoted to him. You have been foolish in this matter. Therefore, you will have wars from now on.” 10 Asa was enraged with the seer and put him in prison because of his anger over this. And Asa mistreated some of the people at that time.
So, yeah, that seems like an abrupt heel-turn. (This is one reason why some scholars think that "Baasha" must have been the wrong king; it might make more sense for a weary, old king to have forgotten God's protection 25 years before.) But let's be honest -- a lot can happen in 6 years, can it not? Think about where you were 6 years ago (that would be 2016, btw -- seems like ages ago).
For whatever reason, Asa forgot about God's protection and decided to come up with a clever (and very unethical) political solution. He went to Israel's neighbor Aram -- who had a peace treaty with Israel (!!!) -- and bribed their king into breaking that treaty. Because his vulnerable flank was being attacked, Baasha abandoned his pressure on Jerusalem to defend his borders. As a military tactic, it's quite sound. You'll see it successfully used by desperate military leaders many times in human history.
But for a king who should know to rely on God, it's triply egregious. Not only did he rely on himself, but his solution of bribing someone to break a treaty was a terrible look for a son of David. And -- he used the temple treasury to fund the bribe. Yikes! He hadn't completely overcome his upbringing, I guess.
As a result, God would bring the era of peace to a close. It's worth pointing out that the Chronicler says that Israel and Judah did not fight one another for decades during Asa's reign. This actually reinforces the earlier date of the event, because 1 Kings 15:32 indicates that Asa and Baasha were at war "throughout their reigns".
Terrible decision. Last week, I asked you what's the worst advice you've ever taken. My guess is that you've thought of other examples since last week. Well, this is the perfect time to pull them out. But you could put this spin on it -- have you ever been pressured into taking bad advice? Asa was "feeling the heat" from outside pressure, and perhaps that caused him to make a rushed decision. When we're under pressure, we think that we don't have time to think, to give careful consideration. That's simply not true. We always have enough time to think. And that's the value of a close relationship with God -- when you've already living in step with the will of God (through spiritual disciplines), those sorts of "snap decisions" will always be made from a Christian perspective.
But let's say that your prayer life hasn't been great recently, and all of a sudden you're faced with a real crisis, and someone near you is pushing you to make a decision you don't know is right. How can you handle that?
Let me just say this: you always have time to pray. And you can almost always push a decision back at least a little while, giving you more time to think and pray.
In the case of Asa, this decision took a long time to put together. Forst don't get built overnight. He had to assemble the bribe and send it with someone trustworthy who understood the situation. He had plenty of time to go before God.
When you are under pressure, that is the most important time to stop and "take a breath" and pray.
Part 3: Resolved (1 Kings 15:20-22)
20 Ben-hadad listened to King Asa and sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel. He attacked Ijon, Dan, Abel-beth-maacah, all Chinnereth, and the whole land of Naphtali. 21 When Baasha heard about it, he quit building Ramah and stayed in Tirzah. 22 Then King Asa gave a command to everyone without exception in Judah, and they carried away the stones of Ramah and the timbers Baasha had built it with. Then King Asa built Geba of Benjamin and Mizpah with them.
And things went according to plan. I gave you the verse from 2 Chron 16 where a prophet called Asa out for the fact that his plan was terrible and offensive.
Forgive me for this map -- there's more on here than you need, but I needed a big enough map to add the new place names. To the original map (which I downloaded), I added the general region of Naphtali (north of Galilee), the cities of Dan, Ijon, and Abel-beth-maacah, and the fact that "Chinnereth" just refers to the region around the Sea of Galilee.
"Ben-Hadad" means "son of the god Hadad" and was probably a title rather than a name because it comes up regularly when referring to the king of Aram.
We get a clear sense that no one can trust anyone. Here seems to be the hierarchy of trust:
Not a great situation for stability. If you have group members who enjoy this sort of thing, you might launch into a short side discussion about American business practices and how they reflect Israel's situation. How do people handle this sort of thing today?
So, Baasha simply abandoned the work he was doing. Left everything there. That seems short-sighted. The fact that Asa called on everyone in Judah to help dismantle (and there are hundreds of thousands of people there at this time) implies that Baasha abandoned a lot of valuable materials. Anyway, Asa had his people gather the material and used it to fortify two cities that were between Jerusalem and Jericho. A wise decision, and everything worked out well.
If you skip ahead to the end of 1 Kings, you'll find that Asa's son Jehoshaphat (of "jumping Jehoshaphat" fame) ruled for 25 years and furthered a number of reforms that Asa started. So, that's pretty good.
The leader guide brings up the valuable discussion: does the end justify the means? And of course it doesn't, but how can we be tempted to evaluate our actions from that perspective? And more importantly, how do we stop ourselves (and others) from taking that approach?
There are a lot of things to reflect on in this passage. Overcoming a negative family influence. Not resting on the laurels of an early good decision. Caving under pressure to make a bad decision. Not finishing well. Asa is an interesting "microcosm" of what was going on in Jerusalem, and I'm glad Lifeway chose these verses.
What Happens Next
Next week, we jump into everyone's favorite Elijah story, and I'll give the background on Elijah then. But there are few interesting outcomes to this week's passage to chew on.
First, I didn't say anything about this above because it only means something if we look ahead -- when faced with news from the north, Baasha went back to his capital of Tirzah rather than to the north. [Note: Jeroboam had chosen Tirzah as his capital and built it up. Tirzah was a few miles east of Samaria.] When he died, his son Elah succeeded him. Elah reigned for two years before being assassinated while drunk at a house in Tirzah.
I'm thinking that Baasha (later in life) preferred the protection of his capital city, and he put himself and his family in a kind of bubble. Certainly, his son was comfortable with reckless behavior in the capital, implying that he wasn't aware of the risks.
Just as Baasha killed Jeroboam's son and his entire family, a man named Zimri killed Baasha's son and his entire family.
And here's where things get really Game-of-Thrones-ish -- as soon as the army heard that Elah had been assassinated, they proclaimed their commander Omri to be the new king, and they immediately marched on Tirzah to overthrow the "usurper Zimri". Zimri, seeing the writing on the wall, set fire to the palace burning it to the ground with him in it. He had been able to call himself "king" for seven days.
Oh, but it's not over! Not everybody in Israel was happy with the army commander becoming king, and they put forward another man named Tibni to be king. Bigger-army-diplomacy resulted in Tibni's death and Omri consolidating power.
Omri actually survived as king for 12 years. His lasting accomplishment was moving the capital to Samaria, where it remained. He is probably most remembered for being that father of King Ahab, but more about him next week.