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1 Kings

Evil Mercy

Mercy: when teaching children, I like to tell them that mercy means 'not getting what you deserve'.  This is in contrast to justice, which means 'getting exactly what you deserve'. And the right to execute justice or show mercy belongs ultimately and totally to the One who sits as Judge over all the universe.  It is Yahweh, the Creator, who says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).  All of our own exercises of justice and mercy as human beings derive totally from His decisions in these areas. It is that last statement - that our exercise of mercy derives from His - that leads me to write on 'evil mercy' this morning.  A statement like that may sound nice and proper on the surface, but when carried out to its logical end, it can lead to some not-very-politically-correct conclusions.  For instance, what if God has not extended mercy to a people group or individual?  What then?  If the human exercise of mercy derives totally from God's extended mercy - since He is the Judge - then are we as humans to be unmerciful where He has not shown mercy?

In a word: yes.

Consider if you will a story from the book of 1 Kings.  In chapter 20 of that book, there is a story of King Ahab and the northern kingdom of Israel going to war against Syria, which was under the leadership of Ben-hadad.  Before the battle, an unnamed 'man of God' approached King Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because the Syrians have said, "Yahweh is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys," therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am Yahweh.'"  God was going to prove that He created, owned, and sat as High Sovereign over every inch of the universe through His victory over the Syrians, using the much smaller army of Israel as His tool.  He had "devoted to destruction" (20:42) the entire Syrian force, deciding to execute justice and withhold mercy.

Toward the end of the battle, though, Ben-hadad, king of the Syrians, took council with some of his servants, and they decided to put sackcloth around their waists and ropes on their heads and beg Ahab for mercy.  "Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings," they said (v. 31).

Now it is certainly not a bad thing at all to have a reputation as a merciful person.  Our God has a reputation of being a God rich in mercy, and we are to be like Him.  But that's just it: we are to be like Him.  We are to show mercy where He shows mercy.  But when He declares that there is to be no mercy for a particular people, person, or crime, then we need to withhold our own exercise of mercy in that event.

King Ahab did indeed show mercy where God had not: sparing the life of Ben-hadad.  And immediately upon releasing the enemy king, a prophet of Yahweh came to Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people'" (v. 42).  God judged Ahab for showing mercy where He had not extended mercy.

This is not the only case of this happening in the Bible.  King Saul did something very similar in sparing the life of Agag, king of the Amelekites, in 1 Samuel 15:8.  Because of this evil mercy where God had not shown mercy, God said that He regretted that He had ever made Saul king, and it was from that day that God began to remove the kingdom from Saul and give it to his servant David.

But what is the application of all of this for those of us living in the twenty-first century of the New Covenant?  Is there ever a situation in which we could be said to be guilty for showing mercy where God has not shown mercy?

Yes there is.  The application for us would be in the way that we execute justice for crimes committed.  We are not in a situation where we have prophets walking up to us and telling us to devote this or that people to utter destruction, but we have been told what God's just penalty for various sins should be.  We are told that sacrificing to and worshiping gods other than Yahweh carries the death penalty.  Other sins that carry the same judgment are adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft, bestiality, rebellion against one's parents, murder, kidnapping, being a false prophet, and even lying about your virginity.

The only one of these crimes that we in America still punish with the justice that God demanded is murder, and we don't even do that well.  Some states do not hand out death sentences for murder at all, and when those that do actually do so, it is rarely done in a timely enough manner to be considered 'justice'.

It is a very dangerous thing for a nation to consider itself 'more civilized' than God and extend mercy for crimes that the Judge declared were abominations against His very character.  We do not have that right, and we ought not to think of ourselves as merciful and loving when we do so.  It is simply and purely disobedience, and it shows that we care more about the creature than we do the Creator.  I am not advocating that individuals take God's Law into their own hands and carry out those death penalties that the state leaves unfulfilled.  That is never once commanded in Scripture.  I am merely declaring that for any nation to be obedient to the Lord and bear the sword of justice as it was intended - and thus receive the blessings of God - that nation needs to pattern its laws after God's perfect Law.  And we as Christians need to recognize this fact and help our leaders to make right decisions that bring our nation's laws more in line with His.

Basic Training

The stories of faithful kings in the Bible are fascinating and encouraging.  You read of men like David, Asa, and Hezekiah, and you watch how they put their trust in Almighty God to give them victory, and that's exactly what He does.  David put the entire Philistine army to flight by taking out their most skilled and armed and armored champion with a single sling stone.  Asa achieved what is probably still the single most deadly victory in the history of warfare, killing one million enemies in a single battle.  Hezekiah prayed to God for help during the siege of Jerusalem and God slayed 185,000 enemy soldiers during the night. The pattern seems simple: if you are the king, you stop trusting in man and put all of your trust and hope in God and then watch Him do amazing things.  For those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of faith, this complete trust in God does not really seem that difficult.  But for most of us - especially those of us who are pastors - when we trust God like this, we don't always get to see the big victory.  In fact, we often get pretty stepped on by the world when we hand it all over to God, and it can be rather discouraging.  Where's my victory?

Well, here's the problem: we're looking at the wrong Scriptural examples.  Sure, that was the way that God dealt with the kings of His people, but there are other faithful characters in the Bible's narrative who have a different experience, and we share much more in common with them.  Of course, I'm talking about God's prophets.

If the kings of Israel and Judah get to experience great victory over their enemies when they turn to God in faith, the prophets most often get the opposite result.  They are hated by almost everyone, killed for their testimony concerning God's Word almost to a man, constantly ignored, and almost always find themselves swallowed up in poverty, chains, pits, and prisons.  Sounds like a pretty good benefits package, eh?  Why are things this way?  Why the huge disparity between the experience of faithful kings and prophets?  Their God is the same God!  To try to answer these difficulties, I want to turn to the life of Elijah.

Elijah is really the first main prophet in Israel.  Moses was certainly a prophet of God, and Samuel is often considered the very first of that office after the people conquered the land of Canaan, but Elijah is the first of a series of prophets that dominates the rest of the Bible's story from that point to the end of the Old Testament.  And just thinking about Elijah calls to mind some amazing stories like the contest on Mount Carmel, the chariot of fire, the boy raised to life, and the jars of oil and flour that would not run out, among others.  Elijah is an enviable character, you would think, but we need to look closer at the details of his life.

In 1 Kings 17, when we first meet Elijah, he delivers the Word of Yahweh's judgment to King Ahab - something that would become a common occurrence - but then is instructed by God to go and hide himself on the east side of the Jordan river, by the brook Cherith, and there remain until God would choose to move him elsewhere.  It is there by the brook that we are told of how God fed Elijah by the ravens.  They would bring him meat and bread every day.  Now, that sounds pretty miraculous and special until you are the one who is having to live outdoors near a brook until it completely dries up (which probably took more than a few days) and eat from scraps dropped into your lap by birds.  They weren't bringing him takeout bags from Chili's, that's for sure.  This "miraculous provision" would probably be labeled "extreme poverty" by just about anyone who had to go through it.  That doesn't mean that it wasn't miraculous.  It just wasn't fabulous.

And Elijah moved from that place to live with a dirty, depressed widow and her son who only had a tiny amount of oil and flour to eat and nothing else.  Yes, God provided miraculously once again for His prophet, causing both jars to never run out, though their contents should have been used up many times over, but we need to keep in mind that it was just oil and flour.  Chapter 18 of 1 Kings begins with "after many days", meaning that this diet of oil and flour cakes served in a very small house in the midst of a years-long drought continued for a very long time.  Again, miraculous?  Yes!  Fabulous?  No.

We could go on, but we would just see more like this.  The story is the same for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and all of the Old Testament prophets, as well as Peter, John, Paul, and yes, Jesus, in the New Testament.  So why would anyone ever want this job, then?  I will tell you that it's not because of earthly triumphs and blessings.  It is because of God.

It's true that the prophets of Yahweh didn't conquer nations and live in palaces, but they dwelt in the very presence of the Creator of the universe!  There is no amount of worldly treasure that you can hold in your hands that can compare with the treasure of the Word of God that we hold in these jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).  There is no amount of fine food that can compare with "every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).  To those who are called to proclaim God's Word, God does not give fabulous earthly kingdoms; He gives us a far greater treasure: He gives us Himself!  And to keep us from confusing which is the greater gift, He graciously prevents us from "having it all" so that we can see and appreciate His wonder.  This is the way that God makes us ready to stand in the most important place and role that a human being can stand: as a proclaimer of His Truth.  May we do so humbly and in full appreciation of the glory and honor of the post.

Convenient Worship

I think that King Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel must be the patron 'saint' of the modern American church.  You remember king Jeroboam, right?  He was the one who came before Solomon's son Rehoboam to ask that he reduce the heavy burden of labor that Solomon had forced onto the people.  And after King Rehoboam denied the request, it was Jeroboam who led the rebellion of ten of the tribes of Israel, and who himself was crowned king of those tribes in the north. And Jeroboam hadn't been king very long before he started to see a potential problem for his kingdom.  The fact that the temple of Yahweh was located in Jerusalem would mean that a good many of his people would still travel down to the south in order to worship as Yahweh required at His temple.  He was worried that as his people traveled thus several times per year their hearts would gradually return to the southern king of Judah.  So, Jeroboam came up with a plan, and this is why I say that he must be the patron 'saint' of the modern American church.

First, King Jeroboam would make the pilgrimage to the place of worship more convenient.  Instead of the one temple down in Judah, now the northern king told his people that there were two new alternatives for worship much closer right there in the land of Israel.  He put one of these places in Bethel and one in Dan (1 Kings 12:29).  Now the people would not have to travel so far: a welcome change from the oppressive commands of old!

Second, King Jeroboam made some symbols that people could look at to focus their worship.  Instead of just a place to bring sacrifices and pray, now they had some beautiful golden calves to give their worship some meaning beyond simply bringing the offerings that God required.  Worshipers could focus their attention and finally feel like their god was a little closer to them.  This made the god easier to manage: less spiritual, invisible, all-powerful, and holy.  He became more familiar to them; they could finally understand the one that they worshiped.

Third, King Jeroboam removed the stringent requirements on who could and could not officiate temple service.  Yahweh had commanded that only the Levites could serve the temple, but Jeroboam saw the oppression in that and so he let anyone who desired to do so become one of the leaders of worship (1 Kings 13:33).  Gone now were all of the arguments of years gone by over who could be the special ones who serve the temple.  Now anyone who wanted an inside job with little heavy lifting could sign right up.  This was progress!

Fourth, King Jeroboam invented his own feast days (1 Kings 12:33).  Those others that Yahweh had commanded weren't as good as the ones that he could "devise from his own heart", so he set up new ones.  After all, what could possibly be wrong with inventing a new celebration of worship?  It all just adds to the experience!

Finally, he removed senseless restrictions on where people could worship.  Sure, he had already made the two temples at Bethel and Dan for convenience, but he also allowed the people to worship on any old high hill that they desired.  Yahweh had said that this was off-limits, but the new easier-to-understand gods that Jeroboam had made didn't care one bit!  If you want to worship over there on that mountain in your own way, why should anyone stop you?  The new worship is all about what makes you feel good about the experience!

Note as you read the chapters concerning Jeroboam in 1 Kings that there are no stories of any other sin that the man might have committed.  We are not told about adulteries, murders, covetousness, abortion, homosexuality, or any other 'low' sin that he may have been involved in.  Far more destructive than any of those things in God's eyes is what this king did concerning the worship of Yahweh: how he broke from the clear instructions that God had given in order to make things more convenient and to not have to tell anyone, "No!  You can't do that!"  And the pronouncement that we have in the Scripture concerning all of Jeroboam's changes was that, "this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut off and to destroy it from the face of the earth" (1 Kings 13:34).

Sadly, it is far too easy to see the many parallels between Jeroboam's great sins and our own in the modern American church.  We try to remove every obstacle we can that might keep lost people from coming to church (even though the gathered worship is for believers and not unbelievers anyway), but in doing so, we remove a lot of what God has commanded should be in there.  We are constantly about the business of reducing God down to a manageable size: something that we can comprehend and that exists only to serve us.  We loathe to tell anyone "No" in worship, and let just about anyone stand behind the pulpit, teach our children in Sunday School (which is itself one of those added-on things that has become a sacred cow in today's church), lead the singing, or whatever.  We invent holidays and celebrate them like we want to (when was the last time you saw a command in the Scripture to celebrate Christmas or 'easter' - named after a pagan goddess that Jeroboam was even credited as worshiping?).  Our worship is all about doing what you feel is right and what makes you happy - what gives you the 'warm-fuzzies'.

God has not refused to speak on the kinds of things that He demands be a part of His worship in New Testament times.  It isn't as if He only really cared about such things during the Mosaic Covenant.  He has purposefully given us many instructions all throughout the New Testament epistles on how we should do church, but tragically most of these get completely ignored in favor of "what we've always done".  Tradition and whim are not the determiners of what true worship should be - God is!  Let's covenant more faithfully to pattern our churches and our worship on what He has said and leave "the devices of our own hearts" outside the doors.

A Very Wise Fool

As soon as we hear the name, King Solomon, it conjures to our mind's eye images of gold and peacocks and splendid ivory thrones bedecked with lions.  His kingdom was - simply put - the most beautiful and extravagant place that the world has ever seen.  He built palaces: for himself, for his wives, and, of course, for God.  We are told that he had so much gold that silver was nothing; it was about as common as dirt.  He ate with gold forks and spoons, drank from gold cups, and dwelt in such opulence that it took away the breath of even the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:5). And Solomon received all of these gifts, as well as the most expansive kingdom that Israel has ever had, as a byproduct of one of Yahweh's blessings.  In 1 Kings chapter 3, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and tells him to ask anything of Him and He will give it.  But instead of asking for long life or riches or the defeat of his enemies, Solomon simply asks for the wisdom to govern God's people.  God is so pleased by the humble request that He tells the young king that He will give him wisdom and all of the things that he didn't ask for besides!

But if we think that Solomon's physical blessings were astounding, we should take a look at the fruits of the blessing that he actually asked for.  King Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs, as well as the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (or Solomon).  We are told that his wisdom was unmatched from that time onward.  People came from far and wide just to listen to his wise and discerning judgments.  There is no doubt that the man was exceedingly smart, and yet I've got a picture of a crying LEGO jester at the top of this article and the title says something about a fool, so obviously something went wrong.

Well, something did go wrong.  Later on in Solomon's life he began to do some really bad stuff - really foolish stuff.  His father David had committed adultery and killed one of his own 'mighty men' because of a pretty face, but Solomon would do worse.  We're told in 1 Kings 11:4-8 that Solomon eventually began to turn from Yahweh because of his many wives, which he loved, and he built a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, and for Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites, and that he followed after Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom, another abomination of the Ammonites, as well.  The smartest man in the world was committing idolatry!  How could this be?

It began, as all sin does, with simple disobedience.  Solomon did not suddenly fall off the wagon one day and start building temples for idols.  He had been living in opposition to God's instructions for quite some time before that, and his eventual descent into idolatry was as a result of not being obedient from the outset to what God had commanded of His kings.

Listen for just a moment to what God had commanded through Moses concerning Israel's future kings way back in Deuteronomy (before the people of Israel ever even made it into the Promised Land):

When you come to the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say,'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' you may indeed set a king over you whom Yahweh your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, 'You shall never return that way again.' And heshall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this Law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God by keeping all the words of this Law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

These instructions, handed down by Yahweh Himself, read like a road map of Solomon's sins!  King Solomon actually violated every single command given here concerning Israel's kings.  He acquired many horses (1 Kings 10:26), he got them all from Egypt (v. 28), it would be an understatement to say that he had many wives (11:3), and he certainly had excessive silver and gold (10:14-22).

Now, even though we're not told one way or the other, I'm going to hazard a guess that Solomon probably didn't follow the latter half of those instructions either: the part that tells the kings to copy the Law and read it daily.  Perhaps if he would have done so, he would have seen earlier the huge problems that he was getting himself into.

So here we have a case where the smartest, wisest, and most likely richest man the world has ever known goes horribly astray because he wasn't reading his Bible every day.  Instead of being like him and relying on our own good sense to get us through each day, we ought to be like another king - one toward the end of Judah's history: Josiah.  King Josiah is the one that found the book of the Law hidden in the temple and simply read it.  And when he read God's Law, he did not just hear the words and then try to justify himself by coming up with reasons why he didn't need to follow those commands of God anymore, or by somehow convincing himself that he was in fact being obedient when he knew he wasn't.  He just tore his clothes, confessed his great sin, repented, begged forgiveness, and vowed to be obedient to what he had read for the rest of his days (2 Kings 22:11-23:25).  Let's read God's Word like that - every single day - and let it keep us from walking foolishly, no matter how wise we may be.

Like Sand and Stars

Exactly how many grains of sand are there on the seashore?  Or how many stars are really out there in the heavens beyond even what we can see?  Could anyone really ever count either of these? Way back in Genesis 15, a man named Abram poured out his heart toward God, expressing his despair over having no children of his own - no heir for his household.  And in response, God told him to go outside and try to count the stars.  "This is how many offspring I will give you," God told him (v. 5).  Later in the story, in chapter 22, when Abraham showed that he was willing to sacrifice the one beloved son that God had given him in his old age - the heir through which all of those promises were supposed to come to pass - God told him again, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (22:17).

Certainly, since the time of Abraham, there have been many born into that physical family of people that we call 'Jews' or 'Israelites'.  The number continues to grow even to this day.  But when do you think that the promise could be considered to be fulfilled?  Is there a certain number that we are looking for?

Actually, we are told in 1 Kings 4:20 that during the time of King Solomon, "Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea."  The text clearly means to indicate at this point that God's promise had found fulfillment.  That shouldn't be surprising; many of God's promises were finding fulfillment during this time.  He had brought them into the land that He had promised to give them.  He had given them peace on every side.  He had chosen a place for His Name to dwell.  And He even brought about the fulfillment of the promise that He had made to David, saying, "Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my Name" (2 Samuel 7:13 - cited as being fulfilled in 1 Kings 5:5).

This period was a time of great physical fulfillment for all of these promises, but this was not to be the end, and would by no means be the greatest manifestation of the fulfillment of these blessings.  David had just taken a census of the men of Israel as one of his last acts as king, and though the number was large for a nation of that day - 1.3 million men who could draw the sword - it doesn't even compare to the populations of a lot of world cities today, and it certainly doesn't compare to the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the shore.  And even though Solomon was a great king, and the house that he built for the Name of Yahweh was pretty magnificent, both he: Solomon, and it: the temple, were nothing compared to what would be revealed at the greater fulfillment of those promises.

This is because God never intended the physical fulfillment to be the main point of any of those awesome covenant blessings.  When God spoke of Abram's 'seed' (or 'offspring') through whom all of the world would be blessed, He did not just mean a certain ethnic group descended from Abram's loins.  He meant - in the most glorious sense of His promise - a certain Man - a singular 'seed' - would come through Abram's family, and that it would be through this Man, Jesus Christ, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  And God meant that Abraham's spiritual offspring: those who shared the same faith in his Heavenly Father, would truly number more than the stars or the sand.  Likewise, when God promised David that his son would sit on his throne forever, and that He would build Him a house, He was not just talking about Solomon and the temple.  Rather, His larger picture included the coming of Jesus Christ and the building of a temple out of living stones (souls!) where His Name could dwell (1 Peter 2:5).

The ultimate fulfillment of all of this is of course through Jesus Christ.  He is the 'Seed' of Abraham and the 'Son' of David.  And His people are synonymous with His 'house': the congregation of saints (1 Corinthians 14:33), the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the bride prepared for the Bridegroom (Revelation 21:9).  And the number of that people will far surpass 1.3 million.  In fact, in Revelation chapter 7, we are told that the number will be 144,000, but that is not a literal number.  That is a number that figuratively represents the fulness of God's people.  Thus, that is the number that John "heard" described (v. 4), but when he turned to look (verse 9), what he actually saw was "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

Those old promises were about Jesus and they were about us - that is, those of us who have clung to Christ for salvation from the just wrath of God!  Isn't that exciting?  When you have read Genesis 15 and 22 and 2 Samuel 7, did you see yourself there in Christ?  By virtue of His righteousness and the Holy Spirit's regenerating work, we are made a part of that great family and a part of that great temple!  Praise be to God the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit for including us in all His promises!