Who is the most effective general to have ever lived? Which battles saw the greatest number of casualties? It might surprise a lot of people to find out that a somewhat obscure king from the southern kingdom of Judah a scant four generations after David holds the world record for greatest military achievement of all time. In fact, in the list of battles by casualty on Wikipedia, this king is nowhere listed, even though many other ancient sources are. I guess the Bible - the world’s most textually attested historical record (by far) - doesn’t count for the kind of people that make these silly lists. At any rate, the king’s name was Asa, and he was a pretty good king.
Asa began his reign with a stellar performance. He “did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 14:2). That is the typical praise for those kings of Judah who mostly walked in the ways that God commanded. Asa was a little better than typical, though:
“He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him.” (2 Chronicles 14:3-5)
In addition to this, he also faced down his very own mother, and took the idolatrous Asherah pole that she had made and chopped it to bits and burned the pieces (2 Chronicles 15:16). Sure, he was the king, but it takes some zealous guts to rebuke your own mom like that - no matter how much she might deserve it!
And then comes the big story. An Ethiopian named Zerah came out against Judah with an army of one million men, supported by an additional three hundred chariots (chariots being effectively the tanks of ancient warfare). Now, Judah and Benjamin together were able to field over half a million men to meet this massive horde (for an idea of scale, just imagine that this army of Ethiopians was one hundred times larger than the army of orcs that fought against Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), but it wasn’t the strength of Judah’s arms that helped King Asa to win the day against the million man army. Asa brought the issue to God:
“And Asa cried to the Lord his God, ‘O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.’” (2 Chronicles 14:11)
The next verse is striking: “So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians” (2 Chronicles 14:12). In fact, the Lord defeated them, routed them, and the army of Judah pursued them and killed every single man of the one million that was originally arrayed against them. Now take a moment and go look for the list of battles in world history, sorted by casualty numbers. See any that get close to one million? This is a world-record-setting battle, but all of the praise belongs to the Lord. It was His victory, accomplished for His people, in answer to the faithful prayer of the king.
So Asa was a pretty faithful guy. Look at that huge victory! Look at all of those reforms that he made that started to clean up Judah and Benjamin from the previous years of slack adherence to God’s commands! But sadly, his story doesn’t really have a happy ending.
“In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might permit no one to go out or come in to Asa king of Judah. Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the Lord and the king's house and sent them to Ben-hadad king of Syria, who lived in Damascus, saying, ‘There is a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father. Behold, I am sending to you silver and gold. Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me.’” (2 Chronicles 16:1-3)
If it seems weird to you that the guy who had previously defeated a million men through his faithful reliance on the Lord later turned to earthly means to handle another threat, then you are not alone. God even sent Hanani the seer to confront Asa over this strange change of heart:
“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” (2 Chronicles 16:7-9)
And the slide down into lack of faith doesn’t end there, sadly. Asa took the rebuke very badly, and even started inflicting cruelty on his own people because of his anger, rather than humbling himself and repenting (contrast his response to David’s in 2 Samuel 12:1-13). Then his life comes to an end in a very ignoble fashion:
“In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.”
What a pitiful way for this extraordinary life to end! How could a person begin with such faith and zeal for the Lord, and then fall apart like this forty years later? Shouldn’t the experiences of the early part of his life have shown him the value of trusting the Lord for all of his needs?
Ultimately, we don’t really know what happened to Asa. Maybe after his huge victories, he got out of the habit of trusting God with his needs. Maybe he thought that the smaller things in his life weren’t important enough to bother the Lord with them. Maybe he just stopped meditating on the Word of God day and night, thinking that he had a pretty good handle on all of that stuff.
Whatever the reason for his downfall, his life should serve as a cautionary tale to those of us who are long in the Christian walk. We should spend quality time daily bringing our needs, our longings, and our concerns before our Heavenly Father. We should also spend time daily meditating on His Word, never content to stop drinking from that endless spring. And in every season of our lives, we should trust Him to carry us through first and foremost. There may be human or natural tangents, like doctors, medicines, or attorneys, but if our first hope isn’t in the Lord and His sovereign hand, then we’re in no better shape than Asa. Gout, or cancer, or bankruptcy are merely tools in God’s hand to shape us into the likeness of His Son. They do not exist outside of His control. Thus, if we ask Him for help, and trust in His answer, no matter the final outcome, our lives will be victorious.