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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:31-33)

Sermon by: Robert Austell

September 2, 2007

We are finishing up our summer series, inspired by Hebrews 12:1, which describes a “great cloud of witnesses” – people of faith – who encourage us on in our race towards Jesus Christ, while helping us guard against the sin that would entangle and trip us up.

Today, we are looking at one of the so-called “good kings” of God’s people. He was some time after King David, when God’s people had divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, the southern kingdom.

As you read his story, you read of a godly king, one who sought God’s leading and blessing in everything he did, from establishing a judicial system to engaging in a defensive war against invading neighbors. He was diligent to obey God’s Law and to require that of the people he ruled.

And yet, at the end of the story of his reign, even as he is commended for being a godly ruler, there is a final dark line that indicates that all is not well in the land of Judah. There is still evil and sin afoot, almost lurking in the shadows. Beyond that even, almost as an epilogue to his story, Jehoshaphat goes on one last crazy shipping expedition against God’s will, and it ends in failure.

I want to tell you Jehoshaphat’s story as one who ran a nearly perfect race after God, but also note the very real dangers of sin, even at the end of the race, to entangle and trip us up. We must be obedient and follow after Jesus, but we must also be on guard against Satan, sin, and ourselves.

A Good and Godly King

If you want to read Jehoshaphat’s story in more detail, it’s found in 2 Chronicles 17-21, with a bit from the northern kingdom perspective in 1 Kings 22.

Jehoshaphat became King of Judah at 35, succeeding his father King Asa. Growing up he had seen Asa set an example of godliness, with a key act being his purging the land of idols, particularly those to Baal and Asherah. The northern kingdom had been overrun by this idol worship, but a series of godly kings in southern Judah continued to fight against the pagan practice. Like his father, Jehoshaphat “took great pride in the ways of the Lord and again removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah.” (2 Chronicles 17:6)

In addition to his work against idolatry, Jehoshaphat also regularly consulted God and His prophets before undertaking any activity. He established judges and courts of appeal and required godly character in these judges (ch. 19). And when the Moabites and Ammonites came to make war against Judah, he took the people out into the wilderness, declared a fast, and exhorted them to trust the Lord:

Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, put your trust in the Lord your God and you will be established. Put your trust in His prophets and succeed.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)

He followed this preaching moment with a time of worship, with the musicians and singers singing praise to the Lord:

Give thanks to the Lord, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. (v. 21)

And God delivered His people and this godly king who were trusting in their Lord.

There are more details, but this gives you a glimpse at life in Judah under the rule of King Jehoshaphat.

And so we come to the summary of King Jehoshaphat’s life in verses 31-32:

Now Jehoshaphat reigned over Judah. He was thirty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-five years. And his mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. He walked in the way of his father Asa and did not depart form it, doing right in the sight of the Lord.

If we could end there, we would only know that Jehoshaphat was a good, godly, effective, and blessed King. Reading those two verses is like watching a race in a movie where the champion is running down the final stretch, ahead of the pack, with the finish line in sight.

And the music changes. Watching, you start looking around because there is a shadow and a darkness.

The Sin that Entangles

The high places, however, were not removed; the people had not yet directed their hearts to the God of their fathers. (v. 33)

I’ll be honest; I got stuck on that first part about not removing the high places of idol worship. I didn’t know quite what to make of that at first. We read about where Jehoshaphat started out on that issue. He removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah (ch. 17). But they either got put back up or he missed them the first time.

I’ll also tell you that my first thought was that Jehoshaphat wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. This was his skeleton-in-the-closet. Like so many successful politicians or televangelists, he had an impressive public image and ministry, but in the end we discover the dirty little secret.

As I read and re-read this verse, though, the second part of the verse began to come to the foreground: “The people had not yet directed their hearts to the God of their fathers” (v. 33b). It appears that the order went out, and perhaps some or all of the high places were destroyed, but the people of Judah rebuilt them.

And here’s the bottom line on that. Having a godly king and godly leadership isn’t enough. Being part of the more-godly-than-our-northen-relatives southern kingdom was enough. Having someone else clean up your act for you isn’t enough. In order to be obedient to God and not be entangled by sin, the people of Judah had to have a heart change.

I’ll just stop right now to make the application. It’s straightforward and easy to see. It is not enough to come to a good church and hear biblical preaching or even do godly things like service projects, mission trips, and worship itself, if your heart is not personally and individually and from your heart-of-hearts inclined toward God.

Your mom or dad making you live right is good for your health. Your preacher or friends coercing decent behavior may get you out of a worse mess this time around. But in terms of knowing God, experiencing true life and joy, and living life blessed by God, you will not get it without turning your heart to God.

That’s the power and the importance of the biblical message of repentance. It means a turn-around from the inside out.

So first, like Nathan’s words, “You are the man!” last week, we must realize that nobody and nothing else can make us right with God. Only Jesus can, experienced when we turn towards him and trust him with our lives. We can’t absorb faith or relationship with God from the people around us.

But secondarily, realize what this means for those who desire faithfulness from those around them – spouses, children, friends, and others. We can be a good witness, as Jehoshaphat was to the people of Judah. We can, for a time, make sure our young children make the right decisions and do the right things. We can point others towards God. But the change is ultimately between Jesus and the heart, and we are on the outside – interested, but outside.

Don’t let that put you off being a good witness and example and parent and friend. But realize what is our part and what is God’s part. Pray for heart-change. Pray for repentance. Pray for conviction of sin and the “turning”. Tell the story of your own turning to Jesus. Take every opportunity to point to Jesus Christ.

The Calling and the Danger of Mixed Company

Finally, and I want to be careful in how I say this, be mindful of the influence of the company you keep. Jesus says we should be in the world but not of the world. It is so much easier to either withdraw or get sucked in. But neither is an option. We are to be a faithful witness without being turned away ourselves.

Is this a possibility? Absolutely – look at Jehoshaphat.

First, we do have a clue as to how the idols and high places were re-introduced into Judah. Seeking an alliance with the northern kingdom, Jehoshaphat arranges an engagement between his son, Jehoram, and Athaliah, the daughter of King Ahab of the North. The northern kingdom had long been overrun by idol worship, and Athaliah re-introduced Ball worship when she came to Judah. This does not excuse the country from embracing, but it does solve one mystery.

My point is that it was not enough for Jehoshaphat to be godly. He could not keep all those around him from sinning, and soon the idolatry that Athaliah introduced had saturated his kingdom.

Secondly, we don’t really know what led to this, but at the end of ch. 20 we read that Jehoshaphat made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, against the will of God. He built ships for a joint mission, but it ultimately failed. The apparent reason for this being against the will of God was the alliance with the ungodly Ahaziah, whose faithless reign was short-lived.

We are to be witnesses for Christ in the world, but it is so important for us to be on guard against sin and “alliances” that go against God’s will. Back to the analogy in Hebrews 12:1, we are running a race towards Jesus Christ. It is essential that we be turned towards him, else we are running away. But Hebrews also warns us to beware the sin that entangles. Jehoshaphat, who ran such a faithful race, was tripped up near the end of his life by an entanglement with sin – disobedience against God and an unhealthy “alliance.”

I don’t doubt that Jehoshaphat is numbered as one of the “cloud of faithful witnesses.” The failed naval mission fell through because of unfaithfulness, but I trust that resounding faithfulness throughout life was counted as righteousness.

What Jehoshaphat teaches us is threefold:

1. That we are not saved by the faith or right acts of those around us, but by turning to Jesus Christ in faith.

2. That we cannot save another, however much we love them, by our own faith or right acts. That loved one must themselves turn to Jesus Christ in faith to be saved.

3. We must guard ourselves diligently against sin, which threatens to tangle us up and render us ineffective for God. Constant obedience, prayer, and re-turning to God through His grace in Jesus, are what keep us in the race.

Take a quiet moment to close your eyes and consider Jesus Christ. What is your relationship to him? Is he a friend of a friend? Are you turned towards him or away from him? Do you need to change direction in your heart of hearts?

Take a moment to respond to these questions before God. Amen.

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