Sermon preached on 2 Kings 17:1-23 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/20/2020 in Novato, CA.
Thus ends the northern kingdom of Israel. Today’s passage reads as a legal brief against Israel. Indeed, they had breached the terms of their covenant with God, and he finally executed the final sanctions of that covenant on these northern tribes. This passage stands then as a sobering record of the result of unbelief from a people who had received such grace and privilege from the LORD.
Let us begin with the historical record of the fall of Samaria. Here we see God’s judgment delivered upon Israel through the hand of Assyria. We pick up the narrative in Israel’s history in verse 1 with the record of the last king of the northern kingdom. Hoshea, whose name means “savior”, and is linguistically similar to the names Joshua and Jesus, would be no savior for Israel. It’s not that Hoshea didn’t try to save Israel from the monstrous threat of the powerful Neo-Assyrian empire. But the Assyrians proved too powerful to overcome. The history books record that the Assyrians had grown to become the largest empire in the world. Their army was powerful, used advanced military tactics, and were believed to be the first to equip their soldiers with iron weapons.
We’ve already read back in chapter 15 that Assyria had become a threat to Israel. There we found that King Menahem was able to temporarily appease them with tribute. However, then during King Pekah’s reign of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria conquered signification portions of the northern and eastern parts of Israel. Today’s passage picks up in the next generation, with now King Hoshea ruling over a much-diminished Israel, and King Shalmaneser now ruling the Assyrians.
So then, the same sort of story again plays out with Israel again here. We find in verse 3 that King Shalmaneser of Assyria came up against Israel and King Hoshea. Hoshea’s way to “save” Israel at that time is to again pay tribute to the Assyrians. And that “worked” for the moment in the sense of halting Assyria’s efforts of military conquest of Israel. But then we come to verse 4. The king of Assyria finds treachery in Hoshea. This results in Assyria somehow capturing and imprisoning Hoshea. They then invade Israel and ultimately put the capital of Samaria under siege for three years.
We’re told in verse 4 that the treachery that Assyria found in Hoshea is that he had messaged the King of Egypt and had stopped paying tribute to Assyria. What seems obviously implied here is that Hoshea was trying to save Israel from the yoke of the Assyrians by reaching out to help from Egypt. Yet, there are various places where God speaks against Israel trying to find help from Egypt. Just remember the history. It’s there in verse 7. God’s special relationship and national covenant with Israel is deeply rooted in the fact that God had powerfully redeemed Israel from Egyptian bondage in great power and wonder. There would be no salvation for Israel if Hoshea sought it in Egypt. The only hope for Hoshea to save Israel is if he were to seek it in the LORD God. But alas he does not.
So then, verse 9 records that Samaria falls to Assyria. The history books record this as happening in 722 BC. As Samaria is captured, Assyria then deports the Israelites off to Assyria and its various territories. Next week, we will read in the rest of the chapter of how Assyria resettles Samaria with foreigners that it brings there. God’s judgment had fallen on apostate Israel, as he had threatened. And so, thus ends the northern kingdom of Israel.
That leads us to our second point, to consider God’s great patience with Israel. This might seem to be a strange next point after we just spoke of God’s judgment falling upon Israel. But I want us in this second point to recognize that his judgment only fell upon Israel like this after much patience upon patience on the part of God. One way we might see this is right in verse 2. There we see the expected summary statement evaluating the king’s conduct in the sight of God. We are not surprised to find yet again an Israelite king described doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD. Yet, what is surprising is that it gives a further note about this. It says of his evil conduct, “Yet not as the kings of Israel who were before him.” That seems to be saying that Hoshea did evil, but his evil was not quite as bad as earlier Israelite kings. It seems to be saying that his conduct was a notable improvement from the other kings, albeit still able to be described as evil.
Hearing that his evil was not quite as bad as the previous kings might at first make you wonder why God then finally wiped out Israel under his reign. But that line of thinking misses the point. God didn’t wipe out Israel here because of Hoshea’s specific conduct. You see, if Israel’s final king was some super bad king, worse than all the other kings before him, one might mistakenly think that was the reason why God allowed Israel to fall. But no, Hoshea was not the worst king of Israel by any means. God didn’t wipe Israel out here because of some rash response in some moment of great fury against Hoshea. No, God’s judgment against Israel here was centuries in the making. It was the culmination of generation after generation of evil people led by evil kings. In other words, there was nothing rash about God’s judgment against Israel. The fact that Hoshea was some sort of an improvement demonstrates this. God had actually exercised much patience with Israel before finally falling his hand of wrath upon them.
We see God’s patience also described in verse 13. It says, “Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer. The prophets implored Israel to turn from their evil ways and to instead keep the commands and the statutes that God demanded under the Law. In case it was not obvious, it notes how these laws were given to their fathers. In other words, the laws had been given years and years ago. And the prophets have been warning them ever since.
Recall that the law and national covenant which bound Israel to obedience was given by Moses at Mt. Sinai. At this point, that was somewhere in the range of 700 years prior. On the eve of God bringing them into the Promised Land, God gave them the law to instruct them as how to live as his covenant people in the Promised Land. But God also gave them then the warning that if they forsook God once they were in the Promised Land that he would chasten them. They would know blessing in the Promised Land for obedience and faithfulness to the covenant. But they would know cursing in the Promised Land for disobedience and faithlessness to the covenant. God said then that the height of such curses would be to completely expel them from the Promised Land. For example, Moses in Deuteronomy 29:27 warns them not to forsake the LORD lest he uproot them “from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land”.
From that time on, down through the centuries God patiently had to remind them and warn them again and again. I recall even at the start of the northern kingdom of Israel, when Jeroboam son of Nebat broke away from King Solomon to rule the northern tribes, God sent the prophet Ahijah to declare such a judgment on Israel. There, Ahijah declared that Jeroboam and all Israel was going to be uprooted from their land and exile. That prophecy was given at the beginning of this northern kingdom of Israel and that was about 200 years prior to the events in today’s passage. In other words, this eventual outcome hung very specifically over Israel’s entire 200 year history as its own nation. And throughout that time, God sent prophet after prophet to Israel. Jehu the prophet to King Baasha. Elijah and Elisha to the notoriously wicked house of Omri. There was Micaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Jonah, and others, that God sent to this northern kingdom of Israel. But one generation after another largely ignored those warnings. But all this demonstrates the tremendous long suffering of God. He did not choose to wipe them out in a moment of great fury. He patiently, deliberately, mercifully, dealt with them over the centuries until finally his patience ended and this final judgment fell upon them.
This leads us then to our third point to see why it ultimately came to this. Let us consider the reason for God’s judgment. Or maybe it would be better to say “reasons”. This chapter records various related reasons for why God poured out this strong judgment upon them. Let’s begin with the list of various first commandment violations. God says in the first commandant, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The meaning is that the people were to have one and only one God, and he was to be the LORD God, the one true God who created all things, but also redeemed them from Egypt. Yet, we see here Israel’s record of going after other false, pagan gods. They worshiped the goddess Asherah via Asherah poles, per verses 10 and 16. They worshiped the chief Canaanite deity Baal per verse 16. They worshipped all the stars and planets in the sky according to verse 16. Verse 17 mentions their participation in divination and omens – such sorcery is ultimately satanic and could also be considered a first commandment violation. Likewise, we see that they did child sacrificing in verse 17. While that in itself is also murder, a sixth commandment violation, it was also inherently an act of worship to a pagan deity, possibly Moloch. So then, multiple forms of violating the first commandment were practices down through Israel’s long history.
We can also see several second commandment violations listed here as reasons for God’s judgment. The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” The big violation here are the golden calves that Jeroboam had set up at the start of the northern kingdom of Israel. That is referenced in verse 21. They were setup to keep Israel from going down to Jerusalem to worship there, and they had been a plague on Israel ever since. Verse 21 calls this great sin. While we can think of the second commandment having application to any perversions to how we are supposed to worship the one true God, these golden calves were as literal of a violation of that commandment as possible. Likewise, we can also see in verse 11 that they worshipped on every high hill and under every green tree – which if that worship was done unto the LORD God it would be a second commandment violation – or if unto a false god then just another first commandment violation.
Notice that verse 9 depicts Israel’s sin here as something done secretly. We might wonder in what sense do they do this secretly since it seems we have been made very well aware of all such sins and if they built all these pagan worship spots, how secretive could they have been? But likely what this has in mind is a form of religious hypocrisy. In other words, for most of Israel’s history they didn’t just come out and say they weren’t really followers of the LORD and the true religion. Rather, it seems that largely Israel did feign to worship the LORD. Yet while they said that, in practice they conducted that worship in various second commandment perversions and they added to such perverse worship the worship of other false gods. So, they became textbook examples of hypocrites who pretended to follow the LORD when they really didn’t.
And all this was ultimately an issue with their hearts. We see this starting in verse 13. There it begins by mentioning how they ignored the prophets despite their many repeated warnings throughout the generations. Verse 14 then goes on to explain why – because they didn’t believe in the LORD their God. Thus, verse 15 goes on to say how they despised God’s laws. And they despised God’s covenant with them. And they were just plain stubborn like their fathers before them had been. Again, this all comes down to their hard hearts of unbelief. This is what happens when you don’t truly believe in the LORD. You despise all his commands for your life, because you won’t truly put your faith in him as your God. They may have felt the need for whatever reason to outwardly maintain some outward show of following the LORD God – but really their hearts were far from God.
Instead, we see that they really put their hearts in following the nations with their corrupt practices. That’s the point of verse 15. Despite the fact that God had set Israel apart from the pagan, unbelieving world, they aspired to be like them. Despite the fact that God judged those pagan nations by expelling them from the Promised Land when he brought in Israel, still they tried to follow after their footsteps. Looks at how verse 15 describes this sort of following after the nations. It says, “They went after false idols and became false.” Another translation says, “they followed vanity, and became vain.”
It would be instructive for us to note that elsewhere in the Bible we learn that Israel struggled with a lot more sins that didn’t even make today’s list. For example, the book of Amos records all the ways that Israel perverted justice for the poor and needy. And while those sins against neighbor were also great evils, notice that God chooses to highlight here their sins against the first and second commandments. To God, their perversions to worship and their devotion to false religions were their most egregious sins. Isn’t that instructive for today? It’s these first and second commandment violations that are often dismissed today, including by people who profess Christ. Too many so-called Christians want to join the popular bandwagon of the world and say that the different world religions are all just worshiping the same god by a different name. And even more Christians are far too quick to alter how God has called us to worship him in order to try to make worship more palatable or entertaining to man. Yet, here we see that of all the sins God could have pointed to for Israel, the ones that were the most “deal-breakers” for Him were these first and second commandment violations. If others try to downplay such sins, let us not downplay them.
So then, we’ve seen today a sobering record of God’s judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel. God had much patience for them over centuries, but finally their day of judgment had come. God uprooted them from the land and exiled them among the nations. They wanted to be like them, and so God sent them to go live with them.
While today’s passage reads like a legal brief against Israel, we might stand back and reflect on how this information would have been immediately of use. It would have served as a message of great warning to Judah. The southern kingdom of God’s people in Judah yet remained at the time of Israel’s fall to Assyria. Verse 18 specifically records how God had yet spared Judah from the same downfall.
And I use that word “spared” intentionally. It is not like Judah was innocent. Israel’s sin is highlighted here in their context of their fall. But we see in verse 19 that Judah also had not been keeping the commandments of the LORD. They too had been walking in the sort of evil practices that Israel had been. When verse 13 referenced all the prophets God had sent to warn his people, it specifically mentioned that he sent prophets to both Israel and Judah. Today’s passage would have served as a great warning to Judah. Would they continue in following after Israel’s waywardness? If so, they should not be surprised when they ultimately taste of the same downfall and are also removed from the land.
In fact, that would be their history. While they would have some generations of great repentance and reformation in the years ahead, their many sins over the years would eventually catch up to them. And God would send the Babylonians to destroy and exile them. Yet the hope of verse 18 here, that Judah at this time was spared, was nonetheless the continued hope. Even when they do later fall to Babylon, we see something with Judah that was not very easy to see with the northern tribes of Israel. We see a remnant of the line of Judah clearly maintained in history, including the line of David. We see that tribe and lineage preserved for a time in Babylon until God brings them back to the Promised Land. And from there and from that Davidic line the hope of Israel and Judah finally comes. From David’s line would come Jesus, the true “savior” that Hoshea was not. And he would begin his saving work where the people needed it the most – in dealing with the bondage of sin. As the angels foretold, Jesus came to save his people from their sins.
There would be no lasting salvation for God’s elect without dealing with our sin. So then, Judah being spared in today’s passage was both a warning to them and a glimmer of hope for them. And that hope has been realized in the coming of Jesus Christ. And that hope is now hope to the world. If before foolish Israel looked to follow the nations and found vanity and judgment, Jesus now offers the nations to follow him and find salvation and life. While Israel rejected the many prophets that were sent to them, may no one reject God’s Son that has been sent to save us. Jesus Christ is the hope and salvation for the world! For us who belong to him, we are assured that we have salvation from the final day of judgment that is coming on this world.
Yet, may we not miss the warning from this passage that still applies today. If you are outwardly in the church but secretly not truly believing in Christ, God knows and God sees. If you despise his Word and his covenant in unbelief and hardness of heart, then this terrible judgment upon Assyria is a picture of what is in store for you. I don’t say that in anger or hate. I say that in concern for your soul. God is so very patient with us. If you have only been feigning to follow Jesus, I would urge you to truly turn to him today.
So then, for us who are in Christ, let us no longer live as the world does but as those who have been set apart by Christ and redeemed out of the bondage of sin and death. We were not redeemed from our former way of life to continue to live in it, but rather to walk as sons and daughters of the living God. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.