Sermon preached on 2 Kings 17:24-41 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/27/2020 in Novato, CA.
Today’s Scripture passage is in many ways a bleak and dark passage. This whole chapter is dark and bleak. Actually, stretch back two chapters and we find this whole section of chapters 15-17 are a dark and bleak point in Israel’s history. These chapters record the fall of Israel to Assyria, as well as a foolish turn of Judah to be more like Israel. So, today’s passage records the aftermath of Israel’s demise where the Assyrians begin to resettle the land that had formerly belonged to Israel. The dark and the bleak continue in this passage. Yet, in the midst of the bleakness, God was still at work through it all.
Our first point for today is to observe God’s judgment of reversal. While on the surface this passage is about Assyria resettling the land of Israel, the bigger point is about Israel’s fall due to its failure to fear and worship. God reverses the history of Israel in judgment by removing them from the land he had brought them into. We see this point being made in the last part of today’s passage. If we look at verses 34-40, at first they start off as a critique on the people whom Assyria resettles into the land. But they quickly turn things back around onto Israel. It was with Israel that God had made a covenant after he redeemed them mightily out of their Egyptian bondage. It was to Israel that he gave the law at Sinai through the ministration of Moses. God had called Israel to fear and worship him and him alone. God had instructed Israel how to go about worshipping him. God had specifically told Israel not to fear and worship other gods – the false gods of the nations whom he would be driving out before their eyes. This God had done. God expelled those pagan idolatry-loving peoples out of the Promised Land and settled Israel there. They were to be a holy people unto the Lord living in a special land God had set apart for them as his chosen people.
But as we’ve read again today, Israel forgot that covenant God had made with them, and did not keep the laws God gave them under that covenant, verse 40. So then, that is why we are here today, in the aftermath of God’s judgment of Israel. God had expelled Israel from the land, just as he said he would do from the start if they forsook him. This is the reversal aspect of God’s judgment here. God had displaced the pagan nations to originally give the land to Israel, who was then to be a special people set apart unto the worship of the LORD. Instead, Israel had acted like the nations with all their idolatry and false gods. So, God displaced the Israelites and then gave the land to the pagan nations who moved into it here in today’s passage. We can see a reversal of sorts. Israel becomes the uprooted and the pagan gentiles repopulate the land.
How sad this is after all the special privilege Israel received. Conquered exiled Israel’s position at this point is exactly what the prophet Hosea had prophesied just a few years before. Hosea 1:9 prophesied that God would call his people the name “Not My People”, saying, “For you are not my people, and I am not your God.” Hosea had prophesied that Israel would experience a disowning by God. That is exactly what this represents when Israel is cast out of the land and the nations brought into it. It is God saying to Israel that they had rejected him as God, so he was rejecting them as his people. That is the bleak picture we have here. The resettling of the land of Israel is ultimately a fruit of God’s judgment on Israel where he reverses their special position with him.
Let us then turn next to consider this resettling of the land and to observe that it is the origin story for the Samaritans. By the way, we see that the resettlement is said in verse 24 to be among the cities of Samaria. You might recall that previously Samaria was a single city – the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. But at this point, we see the text begin to refer to the whole region north of Judah as Samaria. Indeed, the Assyrian records show that is how they designated this whole area, as the province of Samaria. That designation would stick for the area from here on through the New Testament timeframe. So then, the people of this province become known as Samaritans.
Going back then to the start of the passage, we see that Assyria begins to resettle Samaria with people groups from different parts of their empire. Samaria then becomes a melting pot full of different foreign cultures that have been brought together at the command of the Assyrian King. Let me note that we find elsewhere that Assyrians continue to bring and resettle various peoples for the next several decades (c.f. Ezra 4:2). One other note about this population is that there was actually still a remnant of Israelites that had somehow managed to escape being deported from the land. We don’t see that in today’s passage, but it is noted in 2 Chronicles 30:6. So, this really was a melting pot of sorts where a great number of various foreigners are moved into the land and a small remnant of Israelites are there and over time they become a single people group known as Samaritans.
So then, these new imported peoples begin to have trouble with lions, verse 25. We’re told that it was the LORD who sent the lions because the new peoples didn’t fear him. In verse 26, we see that the Assyrian officials also discerned this, saying that the lion problems must be because the new peoples don’t know the “law of the god of the land”. So then, the Assyrian king sends one of the Israelite priests, who had been deported, back to live in Israel with the job to teach these new Samaritans how to fear and worship the LORD.
Now, of course, the careful Bible student will know right away this is going to be a problem. This repatriated priest was a priest from the northern kingdom of Israel. He immediately takes up residence in Bethel and that says it all. We know the kinds of priests that Israel had. They were not Levitical priests. Remember, when Jeroboam son of Nebat instituted his changes to worship, the Levites left for Jerusalem in protest and Jeroboam made anyone who wanted to be a priest a priest. And of course, Bethel, along with Dan, became the chief worship sites where they placed those golden calf idols by which to worship the LORD God who had brought them out of Egypt. So then, if their instructor in the worship of the LORD was going to be from such a priest, then we know they are going to be taught a perverted form the true religion.
And yet, on the one hand, these various people groups do begin to worship the LORD, albeit in a perverted way. This is stated in verse 32. You might note that there it says that they “feared the LORD”. This must be understood in a qualified sense, because just two verses later it speaks of how they didn’t fear the LORD. But there was a way in which they began some form of ritual worship of the LORD under the guidance of this repatriated Israelite priest. And in true to form to their instructor, verse 32 speaks of how they appointed among themselves all sorts of people as priests. In other words, still there was no t aLevitical priesthood in their worship of the LORD. And verse 32 also speaks of how they conducted this worship of the LORD in the various high places throughout the land. In other words, still they were not worshipping the LORD in his central temple in Jerusalem as the LORD had commanded. So, this institution of worship of the LORD in Samaria seems very true to form from what the Israelites had been doing before.
While this was bad in itself, we go on to see that this was not their only worship that they were doing. In addition to their perverted worship of the LORD, we see they also continued their former pagan worship practices. A summary of such is in verses 29-31. Each different people group came with their own pagan religion and their own false god or gods that they brought with them. So, when they were brought into Samaria they continued in such false religion as well. Notice the emphasis on how their pagan worship is described in those verses. It speaks of how they “made” their different gods. Babylon made their god, and Cuth made theirs and so on and so on. This is describing how they fashioned their idols after their false gods and then worshipped those idols. The language of “made” is an intentional critique. If you make your god, then its not a god. People today still worship various man-made religions.
So then, here we see that these peoples had a syncretistic religion. Their personal religion was partly trying to worship the LORD and partly trying to worship the pagan gods of their peoples. This is why it says on the one hand that they did fear the LORD and on the other hand that they did not fear the LORD. If that sounds like a direct contradiction that’s because it is. That’s the point of the author. Syncretistic religion is ultimately a direct-contradiction of biblical religion. This was the state of the Samaritan melting-pot of a religion.
The last think we could note about the religion of these Samaritans is how he distinguishes them from his covenant people of Israel. Note in verse 34 that they are described as not keeping all the various requirements of the covenant God gave Israel to keep. The next verse then how emphasizes God covenanted with Israel. Notice what is subtly implied here. The LORD made that covenant with Israel – not these Samaritans. The LORD gave all these laws under the Mosaic covenant to Israel, not to these Samaritans. These Samaritans may have been in the habit of making their own religion with their false gods, but the one true LORD God says he is the one to make the religion for his chosen people to follow. These final verses that emphasize the special relationship God had made with Israel leave an open question for these half-breed, syncretistic Samaritans about their standing before God.
Going forward into time, we see that the Samaritans would end up in a lot of conflicts with the Jews. That conflict really begins to develop in a couple hundred years from this point in the history. It begins after the southern kingdom of Judah themselves are conquered and exiled and then return from exile and begin rebuilding. One of the first items to rebuild then will be a new temple in Jerusalem. Ezra 4 records that at that time the Samaritans come to Judea and offer to help the returning Jews rebuild the temple. The Samaritans at that time profess to worship the same God, but the Jews won’t recognize them and won’t let them help rebuild the temple. At that point, there is growing strife between the Jews and the Samaritans. We later see, for example, the Samaritans trying to stop the Jews by force and intimidation from rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. Later on, history records the Samaritans building themselves a temple to the LORD God on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, of which the Jews under the leadership of the Maccabees attack and destroy.
This hostility between Jews and Samaritans can be seen carrying on into the New Testament timeframe. For example, at that classic passage in John 4 where Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well, the passage notes that Jews did not have dealings with Samaritans. As a further example of the Jewish perspective of Samaritans at that time, we can remember how in John 8:48 the Jewish religious leaders accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon. That was not meant as a compliment.
So then, in the sacred history, this passage becomes the origin story for the Samaritans and it sets up the conflict between them and the Jews. It’s the background for the conflicts we see in Ezra and Nehemiah. And it’s the background for the tensions between these two groups found in the New Testament. The fact that we should see this as such an origin story is there in the final verse. Verse 41 records that this butchered form of religion practiced by these initial Samaritans was then “faithfully” passed down from one generation to the next unto the present day of this book’s recording.
In the midst of such a bleak and dark passage, I’d like to point to the glimmer of hope found in verse 39. Speaking of the covenant relationship God had made with Israel, it says, “But you shall fear the LORD your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” In a subtle way, this holds out hope for Israel. If yet, even in exile, they would repent and return to the LORD and fear and worship him, then yet they would have hope for deliverance. For I recall that prophecy Hosea gave that spoke of how God would call Israel “Not My People.” Yet in that very place of Scripture, it immediately goes on to speak of how God would later restore them and again call them his people and sons of the living God. This hope yet for Israel is subtly held out here.
And yet if we can see hope for Israel in such a bleak passage, I would say we can also see hope for the Samaritans. Don’t get me wrong. Today’s passage doesn’t give any explicit hope for these Samaritans. It focuses on their waywardness from true religion. Yet, while that is the tone of the passage, stop and think about what we see here. Yes, while we see great syncretism and perversion of true religion, think of what else we see. We see a group of various Gentile peoples taking steps toward worshipping the LORD – Yahweh God – the one true God who made the heavens and the earth.
True, their religion is by no means pure. We are not surprised to see Jews later spurn the Samaritan religion for its impurity. They really were religious half-breeds and their worship practices were not orthodox. Yet the open question of their potential standing before God gets answered when you turn to the New Testament. While we see many Jews there spurn Samaritans, think of how we see Jesus treat them. While Jesus’ own disciples at one point suggest to Jesus that he should call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village that didn’t receive him, Jesus would not have that (Luke 9:52-55). Rather, Jesus’ ministry plans ultimately included bringing his gospel of salvation to Samaritans.
Yes, Jesus’ earthly ministry and focus was first to the lost sheep of Israel. When he first sends out his twelve disciples on a mission trip in Matthew 10:5-6, he specifically instructs them not to go to the Samaritans, but only to focus on Israelites. Yet, Jesus’ own earthly ministry was not constrained to just the Jews. For example, when he cleansed the ten lepers in Luke 17, was not one of them a Samaritan? And while Jesus pointed out there that he was a foreigner, he also pointed out that he was the only one grateful for being healed. And when Jesus spoke to that Samaritan women at the well, while he acknowledged to her the Samaritan ignorance in terms of true religion, and that salvation comes from the Jews, he went on to minister to her and her whole village the good news that he was the Messiah who had come to save them. Jesus had taught the Jews in that famous parable of the Good Samaritan that even Samaritans should be viewed as neighbors. Jesus came to save not only the Jews but even these Samaritans, and even more beyond them.
That is in fact what we see happening after Jesus’s ascends back up into heaven. After his death and resurrection, his final words to his disciples before returning to the father is a call to evangelism. He tells them to begin in Jerusalem, and then go to all Judea, and then also to Samaria, and after that to the ends of the earth. Acts 8 records the beginning of the evangelism of the Samaritans, under the ministry first of Philip, and then with the laying on of the hands of the apostles they too receive the Holy Spirit.
And it’s not until after that God then has them start evangelizing and converting Gentiles. And so, God uses these half-breed Samaritans as a segue from the Jews to the Gentiles in bringing the gospel to the nations. You might recall that parable that Jesus gave about the wicked tenants who wouldn’t pay their rent to the owner. He sent servant after servant to collect and then finally his son. It was a picture of how God’s chosen people had rejected all God’s prophets and finally his son. Jesus then applied that parable to them saying, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Isn’t that what God has done with these half-breed Samaritans? They who were not a people have now been called the people of God! In fact, that’s how we see Paul using that Hosea prophecy in Romans 9 – to apply it to how God has sent the gospel to the nations to convert them to Christ and to make them part of his chosen people.
And so, in summary, if we recognize in this passage the origin story of the Samaritans, and all their failings, ought we not also recognize the origin story of God’s plan to save the Samaritans? For there can be no great salvation of Samaritans if they don’t need saving. There can be no recognition of the greatness of light without the experience first of darkness. Sin presents the need for a Savior. Today’s passage is the story of a people who need saving. God has saved Samaritans in Jesus Christ. And he has saved us in Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, many of us Christians today feel like we are in a pretty bleak and dark moment in history. It might seem like a time without a lot of hope, or a lot of positive fruit for God’s kingdom. Yet the plans of God have not failed. The promises of God are still yes and amen in Christ Jesus. That includes that the gates of hades will not prevail against the church, and that those whom God has chosen to be a part of his covenant of grace will be gathered up unto glory. Israel for a time may have forgotten their covenant that God made with them. But God never forgets his covenant. Be renewed in the biblical hope which is ours in Christ Jesus, even when our particular blip in history seems full of many challenges and obstacles for the church. God is still at work through it all. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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