God will hold his rebellious people to account.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Kings 17:7-20
And so we come to the end of the northern kingdom, wiped out by Assyria who acted as God's agents of divine retribution for their vast sin and rebellion. Let's take a look at Israel's history, see how it will be repeated in Judah, and ask how something like this could happen.
Therefore, the Lord was very angry with Israel, and he removed them from his presence (17:18)
[The Fall of Samaria, Don Lawrence, 1964.]
This is a "big picture" passage, so I'm going to focus on "big picture" notes. I'm working under the assumption that you don't need the verses explained. If anything, your hardest decision will be what you think you can cover in one sitting.
The direction I'm going in my notes is "What happened to Israel and why do we care?" I give an overview of the history of Israel with some key lowlights. I bring in the testimony of prophets Amos and Hosea to explain that God's judgment against Israel wasn't solely based on their religious failures -- their religious failures had led them into catastrophic societal sin.
I think you will hear some "America is on the same path as Israel" suggestions during your group discussion. Those can be helpful (at the very bottom of the post, I'll share some depressing statistics from 2022), but only if we remember that God had a unique relationship with Israel that He does not have with America. God has not made a covenant with America; He makes covenants with Christians. The ills in America are not God punishing "institutional America", but rather God allowing us to suffer the expected consequences for sinful actions.
Here's where I believe the "Israel's path" application can be instructive: seeing where and how Israel fell and committing to keeping you, your family, and your church family from making those kinds of mistakes.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Warning You Didn't Listen To
What warnings do you remember getting as a child or as a young adult? There are a bunch that *still* stick with me, things like
Look both ways before crossing the street
Never run with scissors
Never pass a knife blade-first
Look before walking into a hall
I even pulled one of them out at last week's "Pizza with the Pastor's" event. We gave out fancy lollipops, and I chimed in with "don't run with a sucker in your mouth". I have become my parents!
Heeding warnings like those have served me well. Thanks to the lovingkindness of the internet, every time anyone fails to heed one of these warnings, it is mercilessly plastered on social media and labeled as a "fail". I strongly disapprove of banking on someone else's misfortune or injury, so I'm only including three (and these are the ones that look like the person was the least injured):
What are the warnings ignored in the gifs above?
How about you? What warnings do you remember from growing up? And possibly more to-the-point, what warnings do you remember ignoring, and how did that turn out?
Special Focus: Safety Training
Warnings aren't just for kids. Quite a few of our church members work around heavy machinery, hazardous materials, or in a potentially dangerous environment. In those workplaces, there's some sort of safety personnel who is responsible for making sure that employees don't ignore the safety rules. Do you have any stories of people following the rules and it saved their life?
The point? These rules are there for our good, to protect us. When we ignore them, we are taking a terrible risk. Israel ignored God's warnings pretty much from the beginning, and it resulted in disaster.
This Week's Big Idea: The Fall of Israel
The fall of Israel: how did we get here?
The author of Kings gives us a pretty good retrospective of what went wrong in Israel, so I'm just going to give you some lists and timelines of key events in this path toward destruction. Keep this master timeline in the background of our history lesson.
A Bad First Step
You remember that the nation of Israel divided into two kingdoms (North = Israel, South = Judah) because Solomon's son Rehoboam was a mess, and the north rebelled behind army leader Jeroboam. To solidify his rule, Jeroboam built two rival temples at Bethel and Dan, setting up idols and encouraging the Israelites to worship them.
Jeroboam never fully unified the north, and his son Nabad was assassinated by a usurper named Baasha. Baasha made an alliance with the King of Aram, enabling him to focus on Judah, conquering a number of Judean cities before King Asa of Judah bribed Aram into breaking that alliance and attacking Israel (remember that?). This diminished Baasha's credibility, and his son Elah was assassinated in another coup that ended with the palace destroyed and military commander Omri on the throne.
Omri moved the capital to Samaria and established a powerful military economy by allying with Tyre (he married his son Ahab to Phoenician princess Jezebel) and ending the war with Judah. This enabled him to take control of his borders with Aram and Moab. His son Ahab was able to extend that influence even further, even establishing an alliance with Aram to resist the growing power of Assyria.
But Ahab's willingness to indulge Jezebel's Baalism drew the attention of two prophets -- Elijah and Elisha -- who stood for Yahweh in an increasingly godless society (remember Mount Carmel?) Elisha anointed military commanders Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel, and both kings brought down Ahab's entire family (Ahab's daughter Athaliah had a few years to try to eliminate the ruling family of Judah before the purge caught up with her; remember that?).
Jehu faced the army of Hazael of Aram and survived by bribing Assyria (King Shalmaneser -- an act recorded on the Black Obelisk) to attack Aram from behind. That didn't work for long, and when Hazael pushed back the Assyrians, he conquered Jehu's son Jehoahaz and made Israel a vassal state. When Assyria rebuilt its army, it attacked Aram with a vengeance, enabling Jehoahaz's son Joash (Jehoash) to rebel and recapture territory lost to Aram. Joash also sacked Jerusalem, looting the temple.
Joash's son Jeroboam II led Israel to its greatest position. He conquered wide territory around Israel, plundering his way to exorbitant wealth. This led directly to the other two prophets God sent to Israel: Amos, and Hosea (more about them below). Israel had become woefully corrupt, and the death of Jeroboam was a tipping point. Jeroboam's son Zachariah was assassinated by Shallum who was assassinated by Menahem.
An Ignominious End
Menahem stayed in power by bribing the Assyrians, and his son Pekahiah was assassinated by Pekah who was assassinated by Hoshea. By Hoshea's reign, most of Israel had been captured by Assyria, and Hoshea's last-ditch alliance with Egypt resulted in the complete destruction of Samaria.
Israel was ruled by 19 kings -- every one of them "bad" (in the sense of ignoring the covenant and worshiping false gods). They were born in rebellion, and they lived in rebellion.
[Aside: The Skeptic's Argument
Those who reject the spiritual elements of the Bible argue that Israel didn't fall because they had abandoned God but rather because they inhabited land that was attractive to the Assyrians. There was nothing supernatural about the ordeal -- this was just another in a long line of kingdoms conquering kingdoms.
The problem with that argument is it misses the entire point. Aram and Assyria never thought they were doing God's will by conquering Israel. They believed they were acting in their own best interests, not being Yahweh's errand boys. That's the point. God used nations to bring about His judgment by their own free actions. He could have intervened and defended Israel (as He had in the days of Elijah and Elisha), but He did not. Yes, Israel was an attractive target for the Assyrians. That was the lever God pulled to bring about His justice.]
The Arguments of Amos and Hosea
These two books provide a clear description of how far Israel had fallen into depravity. Use any of these verses to add context to this week's passage.
Amos is a tour de force against the injustice that had filled Israel. God expects His people to act with justice and righteousness -- that they take care of the poor and vulnerable. MLK even cited Amos 5:24 in his "I Have a Dream" message.
Amos preached during the height of Jeroboam II, when Israel experienced its greatest wealth (and not coincidentally its greatest corruption). Consider these accusations:
2:6 The Lord says: I will not relent from punishing Israel for three crimes, even four, because they sell a righteous person for silver and a needy person for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample the heads of the poor on the dust of the ground and obstruct the path of the needy. A man and his father have sexual relations with the same girl, profaning my holy name. 8 They stretch out beside every altar on garments taken as collateral, and in the house of their God they drink wine obtained through fines.
4:1 Listen to this message, you cows of Bashan who are on the hill of Samaria, women who oppress the poor and crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring us something to drink.” 2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: Look, the days are coming when you will be taken away with hooks, every last one of you with fishhooks.
6:4 They lie on beds inlaid with ivory, sprawled out on their couches, and dine on lambs from the flock and calves from the stall. 5 They improvise songs to the sound of the harp and invent their own musical instruments like David. 6 They drink wine by the bowlful and anoint themselves with the finest oils but do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
It just gets more disturbing from there. I can summarize these accusations as:
The wealthy shamelessly took advantage of the poor
The wives were just as complicit as the men
The people cared more about comfort than conviction
Keep these in mind. There is not much hope in Amos, just judgment. That's because he's preaching during Israel's decadence -- they didn't believe they could fall, so why should they worry about forgiveness?
The reference to "fishhooks" is literal -- it's one of the ways the Assyrians kept control of their prisoners. (The Assyrians invented torture on a scale previously unknown.) At the very end of the book is a brief glimpse of hope, that God will one day rebuild Israel, but Hosea will go more into the theme of restoration (by Hosea's day, the cracks in the foundation have become evident).
Hosea is most well-known for his marriage to a prostitute, but this is one of the most significant books about Israel in the Bible, filled with damning details about Israel's failures. He began preaching in the last years of Jeroboam II, and he died not long before the fall of Samaria. That means he preached during 7 kings (!), more than any other prophet. With all of the assassinations and fleeting alliances, Israel was thrown into extreme political and social chaos, each wealthy family looking out for its own best interest.
One of Hosea's biggest challenges was Israel's ignorance of the law (really, the whole covenant with Moses). What they knew could probably be summarized as
God forbids idolatry
God requires ethical righteousness
That's probably it. But that was enough for Hosea to present a very clear case against Israel.
4:1 Hear the word of the Lord, people of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land: There is no truth, no faithful love, and no knowledge of God in the land! 2 Cursing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery are rampant; one act of bloodshed follows another.
4:7 The more the priests multiplied, the more they sinned against me. I will change their honor into disgrace. 8 They feed on the sin of my people; they have an appetite for their iniquity. 9 The same judgment will happen to both people and priests. I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.
12 My people consult their wooden idols, and their divining rods inform them. For a spirit of promiscuity leads them astray; they act promiscuously in disobedience to their God. 13 They sacrifice on the mountaintops, and they burn offerings on the hills, and under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, because their shade is pleasant.
7:11 So Ephraim has become like a silly, senseless dove; they call to Egypt, and they go to Assyria. 12 As they are going, I will spread my net over them; I will bring them down like birds of the sky. I will discipline them in accordance with the news that reaches their assembly.
12:7 A merchant loves to extort with dishonest scales in his hands. 8 But Ephraim thinks, “How rich I have become; I made it all myself. In all my earnings, no one can find any iniquity in me that I can be punished for!”
I would summarize those verses like this:
The land was filled not just with immorality but crime
The priests were no better than the people
Everyone had abandoned the religion of the covenant
The leaders looked to other countries rather than God for help
The economy was dominated by extortion and dishonesty
And what would God do?
13:7 So I will be like a lion to them; I will lurk like a leopard on the path. 8 I will attack them like a bear robbed of her cubs and tear open the rib cage over their hearts. I will devour them there like a lioness, like a wild beast that would rip them open. 9 I will destroy you, Israel; you have no help but me. 10 Where now is your king, that he may save you in all your cities, and the rulers you demanded, saying, “Give me a king and leaders”? 11 I give you a king in my anger and take away a king in my wrath.
But even then, there is hope:
14:1 Israel, return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. 2 Take words of repentance with you and return to the Lord. Say to him, “Forgive all our iniquity and accept what is good, so that we may repay you with praise from our lips. 3 Assyria will not save us, we will not ride on horses, and we will no longer proclaim, ‘Our gods!’ to the work of our hands. For the fatherless receives compassion in you.” 4 I will heal their apostasy; I will freely love them, for my anger will have turned from him.
The punishment will come, but there is forgiveness on the other side.
So there you go. Our passage in 2 Kings focuses on the religious side of Israel's failures, but Amos and Hosea make it clear that their religious failures led to catastrophic moral failures. All of this together resulted in God establishing a "point of no return" -- judgment and destruction was coming, even if they tried to repent at the last second.
Here's a discussion question I'd like you to consider throwing in at some point: how can religious failures lead to moral and ethical failures? In other words, how would sticking to God's covenant have prevented Israel from these other disastrous decisions? (The answers will hopefully come back around to something we say today -- "Our relationship with God isn't just for Sunday mornings." Of course, their relationship with God didn't even happen on Sunday mornings anymore, so to speak.)
Where We Are in 2 Kings
Last week, we talked about the aside of "The Chest of Joash" and the repairs on the Temple in Jerusalem. I call it an "aside" because in the very next verse, Joash sends a bunch of money from the temple treasury to Aram as a bribe.
The next few chapters in 2 Kings focus on the last kings of Israel, which I briefly described above. Jehoahaz made God so angry that God let Aram oppress them mercilessly until Jehoahaz repented. God then raised up Assyria to take Aram's attention, and Israel had peace. His son Jehoash didn't learn any lessons. Even the proper gesture of visiting Elisha on Elisha's deathbed ended badly. Jehoash had some victories over Aram, and he rebuilt his military, but he did not rise to his full potential.
In the south, we learn about good king Amaziah who made the stupid decision to provoke Jehoash to battle after Jehoash had rebuilt Israel's military. It was a rout. Jehoash sacked Jerusalem and plundered the temple, taking Amaziah and his family captive. Amaziah was eventually assassinated, and his son Azariah (Uzziah) became king. He was a good king, but he had leprosy, so his son Jotham served as the acting king.
Jehoash's son Jeroboam II benefited greatly from Jehoash's victories over Aram and Judah, and he reigned for 41 years, taking Israel to its greatest extent of territory and wealth. He was also a very wicked man, though we have to read the prophets Amos and Hosea to see just how bad things were. In the eyes of the world, Jeroboam was a great king. In the eyes of God, he was an abject failure. Jeroboam's death led directly to the death-throes of Israel. His son was assassinated after 6 months, and the usurper survived 1 month. The next king, Menahem, reigned for 10 years by paying heavy tribute to Assyria, extracting that money from the upper class. His son was assassinated after 2 years. The official who usurped the throne, Pekah, reigned for 20 years, all the while losing territory to Assyria.
In the south, we learn about good king Jotham and his disastrously wicked son Ahaz (the swing between the two would be a great lesson if we had more time for it). Ahaz bribed Assyria into helping him fight off the combined armies of Israel and Aram. He even copied an altar he saw in Damascus, ordering the priests to completely "redecorate" the temple and change the way they did the sacrifices.
Finally, we are introduced to Hoshea, the last king of Israel, and his actions that led Shalmaneser king of Assyria to destroy Samaria and deport the Israelites into exile. I'll show you a map of this at the bottom of the post. That leads into this week's passage.
Part 1: Warned (2 Kings 17:7-13)
7 This disaster happened because the people of Israel sinned against the Lord their God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt and because they worshiped other gods. 8 They lived according to the customs of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites and according to what the kings of Israel did. 9 The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right. They built high places in all their towns from watchtower to fortified city. 10 They set up for themselves sacred pillars and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every green tree. 11 They burned incense there on all the high places just like the nations that the Lord had driven out before them had done. They did evil things, angering the Lord. 12 They served idols, although the Lord had told them, “You must not do this.” 13 Still, the Lord warned Israel and Judah through every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commands and statutes according to the whole law I commanded your ancestors and sent to you through my servants the prophets.”
Remember that 1/2 Kings was compiled/edited into its final form in the final years of Judah's exile in Babylon. They were approaching the "70 year" mark, and they had received signals that things were about to change around Babylon, giving them hope that they might be able to return to Jerusalem. The editors of 1/2 Kings wanted to be very clear why God had punished His people as He had. If the people were going to get a "second chance", they needed to make sure they would not repeat those mistakes. (Note: we aren't going to cover the fall of Jerusalem, so this is your chance to talk about these "big picture" ideas.)
As you can see, the editors of 1/2 Kings focused on the religious aspect. But the prophets Amos and Hosea were very clear that there was a social aspect to this as well -- abandoning God's law had led the Israelites into all manner of sin, even flagrant crime.
This passage makes it clear that God warned them time and time again through the prophets. 1/2 Kings was written by exiles from the southern kingdom. Those exiles had not only the words of Amos and Hosea, but also 10 more prophets God sent to them (with the same message God sent to the northern kingdom -- you could note that King Ahaz of Jerusalem was doing the exact same things as the wicked kings of Samaria). God was not being capricious or vindictive. He warned them time and time again, "If you do [this], I will do [that]." And He did.
This is why the Pharisees were so strict in Jesus' day, as well as why they had so much clout with the people. No one wanted to go back into exile.
If you want to extend the discussion here, send your group members to Deuteronomy and to any of the prophets -- what are examples of the warnings God gave the people? How clear do they seem? Hint: they're pretty clear.
Part 2: Rejected (2 Kings 17:14-17)
14 But they would not listen. Instead they became obstinate like their ancestors who did not believe the Lord their God. 15 They rejected his statutes and his covenant he had made with their ancestors and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves, following the surrounding nations the Lord had commanded them not to imitate. 16 They abandoned all the commands of the Lord their God. They made cast images for themselves, two calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed in worship to all the stars in the sky and served Baal. 17 They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire and practiced divination and interpreted omens. They devoted themselves to do what was evil in the Lord’s sight and angered him.
This passage says exactly what we would expect it to say. God warned them, and they didn't listen.
The idiom behind "follow" is pretty severe. It means to abandon the path you are on completely and walk down a different path. In the imagery of worship, it means to abandon your loyalty to God and embrace the practices of whatever pagan influence around you. We covered the most dramatic use of this idiom a few weeks ago:
20 So Ahab summoned all the Israelites and gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Then Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.” But the people didn’t answer him a word.
The accusation is so powerful that Jeremiah would use it to describe the death of the southern kingdom:
2:5 This is what the Lord says: What fault did your ancestors find in me that they went so far from me, followed worthless idols, and became worthless themselves?
Not only did they follow worthless idols, they jumped to the very extremes of the worst parts of paganism: child sacrifice. This is intended to be as stark of a "how did this happen?" situation as there ever could be.
And that's my proposed discussion question: how did the Israelites come to this? Yes, it happened over generations, but each generation played its part in the drift away from God. And that leads to the immediate follow-up: today, what is our role in keeping our families tethered to God?
This is also where I would inject one of Amos's accusations from above:
6:6 They drink wine by the bowlful and anoint themselves with the finest oils but do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
The Israelites didn't care about their religious and societal collapse because they were comfortable. "What's the big deal?" Do we see this today among American Christians? I think so. What is the remedy to that?
Part 3: Removed (2 Kings 17:18-20)
18 Therefore, the Lord was very angry with Israel, and he removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah remained. 19 Even Judah did not keep the commands of the Lord their God but lived according to the customs Israel had practiced. 20 So the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel, punished them, and handed them over to plunderers until he had banished them from his presence.
This is the conclusion to Israel's story, and it also gives away the future of Judah. Don't worry, the authors weren't spoiling anything the readers didn't already know. The same fate awaited Judah for the same reasons. I'll cite an accusation against Manasseh that puts everything into perspective:
21:9 Manasseh caused them to stray so that they did worse evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites. 10 The Lord said through his servants the prophets, 11 “Since King Manasseh of Judah has committed all these detestable acts—worse evil than the Amorites who preceded him had done—and by means of his idols has also caused Judah to sin, 12 this is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I am about to bring such a disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that everyone who hears about it will shudder. 13 I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line used on Samaria and the mason’s level used on the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem clean as one wipes a bowl—wiping it and turning it upside down. 14 I will abandon the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will become plunder and spoil to all their enemies, 15 because they have done what is evil in my sight and have angered me from the day their ancestors came out of Egypt until today.’” 16 Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem with it from one end to another. This was in addition to his sin that he caused Judah to commit, so that they did what was evil in the Lord’s sight.
In other words, take all of the terrible things we've said about Israel and realize that it got even worse in Judah. If we couldn't understand how Israel came to that, how much more Judah who actually had a few decent kings?
What Happens Next: Exile
I'd love for you to take whatever time you have for this final section to talk about what happened to the Israelites. Here's a map/diagram from my NIV Study Bible that does a really nice job of summarizing the situation:
In order to keep their conquered people under control, Assyria would deport the most likely to rebel (ruling families, wealthy people, merchants) in groups all over their empire. Surrounded by unfamiliar territory and people who did not speak their language, they would not be much of a threat. Along the way, they were tortured and terrified, beaten into submission. The Israelites were taken past Babylon to Media (Persia), as far away from home as they could go. What a terrible, terrible way to end your life and end your people.
The map mentions that this very practice led to the demise of Assyria. Eventually, they had deported enough people to enough places that their entire empire was filled with angry exiles. When Babylon began to challenge them, their internal instability was such that they couldn't resist for very long.
There's one more part to this -- not only did Assyria deport Israelites to the far side of their empire, but they also imported other exiles from other parts of their empire. The Israelite farmers that Assyria left in place were joined by foreign exiles from all over Assyria's empire. Over the next 700 years, they intermarried, adding Greeks and Romans into the mix, becoming the hated Samaritans of Jesus' day. There is no other way to describe the hatred Jews had for Samaritans than racial prejudice.
Closing Thoughts: The Bible in America
Every once in a while, I share results from a research project called The State of the Bible. What they've shared this year has me thinking about this week's passage.
Israel fell because individuals made the wrong decisions repeatedly over generations. If we look at the data points in these charts as individuals -- individuals who may be Christians or may have Christian friends -- then we can point the finger back at ourselves, "What are we doing to be salt and light in our community?"
Here's the long and short of their findings in 2022 -- Americans have suddenly pulled back from their interest in the Bible.
The first thing they learned is that all of the gains made during quarantine are gone. All of the positive movement toward engaging the Bible is gone. Americans are as disengaged from the Bible as we have ever been.
And this chart explains what our concerns should be: the younger people get, the more likely they are to think that the Bible isn't useful.
Fewer than 1 in 10 Millennial/Gen Z think that our abandoning the Bible is the primary reason for our country's moral decay.
This is where I think this application works: that's basically where Israel was. They had stopped caring what their Bible said, and it led them into the kind of moral decline that we talked about this week.
America won't face the same "covenant punishment" that Israel did, but we can still use Israel as a model for where this kind of decline can lead. (I believe that Amos and Hosea are particularly useful -- even those Americans who don't think that a decline in church attendance or Bible literacy is that big a deal can see how those things can be connected to societal trends.) But here's the million-dollar question: what are we supposed to do about it?