The prophet and the king: A tale of two kingdoms

“Then all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king in place of his father Amaziah. He was the one who rebuilt Elath and restored it to Judah after Amaziah rested with his ancestors.

Uzziah was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years. His mother’s name was Jekoliah; she was from Jerusalem. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fearof God. As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success.” (2 Chronicles 26:1-5)

“But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” (2 Chronicles 26:16)

Whenever someone tells me they saw something on the news that’s a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, I am reflexively skeptical. With some notable exceptions, biblical prophecies were fulfilled a long time ago.

But that doesn’t rule out the value of biblical precedent. Solomon wrote, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). An ancient narrative can have contemporary parallels.

Uzziah (also known as Azariah) was made king after his father had arrogantly and foolishly challenged the king of Israel and was soundly defeated. The temple and the royal treasuries were plundered. A conspiracy emerged, possibly priests and Levites (who served in the looted temple) as well as military leaders, and they put Amaziah to death.

To backtrack a little, the people of God were never meant to have a king. They were ruled by judges up to the time of Samuel, but when his sons didn’t measure up, the people said to the prophet, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:5).

Samuel knew this was a mistake, but the Lord acceded to their request and pointed out to the prophet that it was Him, not Samuel, that they had rejected. And though the prophet always reminded the people that asking for a king was wrong, he also passed on the Lord’s gracious accommodation:

“If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well” (1 Sam 12:14).

Uzziah’s long reign—52 years counting his co-regency with his son—confirmed this. The king built towers and fortified the wall of Jerusalem. He built towers and dug out cisterns in the wilderness for his large herds. He recovered territory for Judah from the surrounding nations and enlarged and equipped the army.

But then he crossed a line he shouldn’t have. He entered the temple to burn incense and was stopped by the priests, but not before he was struck with leprosy. Then because he was unclean, he was banished not just from the temple but from his court. He lived out the rest of his life as a leper in a separate house. His son Jotham ruled until he died (2 Chr 26:16-23).

Coincidentally—or perhaps not—“in the year King Uzziah died” (Isa 6:1), Isaiah had his incredible vision of the Lord in his temple and received his commission to prophesy to the people. But his message painted a different picture from the apparent blessing of God on Uzziah’s reign.

The priests hadn’t forgotten the bright red line that distinguished their roles in the temple. They went about their duties as always. And they knew to stand in Uzziah’s way when he tried do what was reserved for the priests. But the spiritual condition of the nation was appalling. Clearly there was something wrong—very wrong.

“New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies,” the Lord declared (Isa 1:13). Could he really mean it when he said, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!”? Stop having church as you’ve always done it? Doesn’t the Bible say “not giving up meeting together”? (Heb 10:25) How can an assembly be “worthless”?

The prophet elaborated, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught,” the Lord said (Isa 29:13).

“Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to their chariots,” he said. Nevertheless, “The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear” (Isa 2: 7, 17-18).

The material blessing of God had been real. There is no suggestion that it wasn’t. But at the same time there had been a steady spiritual erosion, an incremental slide into unfaithfulness. The high calling of God had been exchanged for the lowest acceptable common denominator. But as long as they were prosperous and secure—as life was for a time under Uzziah–did it really matter?

It’s not as if there were no red flags. When David was being pursued by King Saul in the wilderness, he spared Saul’s life not once but twice even though he easily could have killed him (1 Sam 24, 26). His companion Abishai once even encouraged him: “God has given your enemy into your hand this day” (1 Sam 26:8). It would have been very easy to elevate himself to king with one quick stroke.

But David said, “’Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives,’ he said, ‘the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed’” (26:9-11). It was a bright red line David just couldn’t cross.

But it was the people who “conspired against” (2 Chr 25:27) and took the life of Amaziah, Uzziah’s father, and it was “the people of Judah . . who made him [Uzziah] king.” Imagine you’re 16 and the people want to make you king. How much persuasion would it take?

Yet there is no mention of Uzziah’s retribution for the murder of his father or capitulating to the people out of fear. How could this be? Was he sympathetic to the people’s complaints, sympathetic enough to look the other way at their treachery? Ambitious? Fearing for his life as the son of the failed king? Was Uzziah himself part of the conspiracy?

Did the Lord have Uzziah in mind when Isaiah prophesied, “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves”? (Isa 1:23). Or, “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning”? (Isa 1:25-26)

The restoration to come would be different from Uzziah’s reign. In fact there would be no kings. In 722 BCE Israel was destroyed by Assyria, then in 587 BCE Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians and the temple destroyed (Isaiah probably received his call about 740 BCE). Kings and kingdoms disappeared. The people of God became subject to other nations from then until the coming of Christ.

When this happened:

“To us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.” (Isa 9:6-7)

Uzziah’s kingdom served a purpose, for a time. There was a measure of God’s blessing in it. But, as Daniel prophesied, ultimately “the God of heaven [would] set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan 2:44). It’s a kingdom not of this world, but no less real than the kingdoms of this world we know and see.

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