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Return of the King: Rise and Fall

From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of God’s love for the pinnacle of his creation: man and woman (of course this refers to humanity in general, including children). The Bible is a collection of books spanning multiple literary genres from narrative to poetry – – but it still tells one story, if read in its context as a comprehensive whole. It’s the story of God’s love which has no bounds, even when it is rejected – – and that happens a lot – – he keeps offering it again. That’s basically how to read the whole thing: cycles of fall and restoration, exile and return. Ultimately, return will be definitive and permanent.

God created man, meaning the human race, out of love. Not only that, he wishes to dwell with the human race as a friend wants to be where the friend is. Love is not satisfied with anything else. And God himself is essentially love itself. We are created by love, for love. That’s the meaning of the Bible.

Throughout 2019, I was taking a course of 2 semester long classes on the Old and New Testaments. It was offered by the Institute of Catholic Culture (ICC) which exists to educate and instruct adults in the Catholic faith through an entire curriculum of teaching that covers philosophy, literature, history, the modern world, and Scripture. Good stuff. And it’s all completely free! I’ve learned a lot from the ICC, and the recent course has been no exception! It was taught by Father Sebastian, a very gifted Scripture teacher and Byzantine Catholic priest. I learned a lot from him, and from the book that supplemented our reading of the Bible, Walking with God, by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins.

The Scripture course really put the prohibition against idolatry and the event of the exile into Babylon into a new perspective for me. In Exodus and the books following, God repeats the commandment to have no other gods beside him and to love him with all of one’s heart, mind, and strength. All the other commandments and even the dietary and ceremonial laws of the Mosaic covenant, have this as the heart and source. It all comes down to this. As Father Sebastian would always point out, ultimately God doesn’t care if you put bacon and cheese on your burger. The practices of the kosher laws were intended to keep the people’s hearts pure. Surrounding pagan cultures had their own ways of doing things, and Israel was to avoid imitating them so as not to worship falsely as they did. The people of Israel (not the modern State) were to be set apart for God, in order to act as a light, God’s instrument for reaching and winning over the other nations. Israel was to be the older brother, leading his siblings to know and love their Father. It wasn’t some kind of superiority complex, “look at us, we’re better than you,” etc. Israel was not meant to be like everyone else, but to be holy as God himself is holy. If they lived like everyone else, how could the other nations come to know and love God? The worst thing then would be idolatry, rejecting God as the only one who could lead to man’s fulfillment and flourishing.

There were many warnings against idolatry, especially in Deuteronomy which contained a whole section of curses and punishments that fall upon the people if they were to abandon faith in God and engage in pagan practices of worship. In short, they would lose it all. They would be lost and lose their inheritance, and ultimately end up in captivity again.

Unfortunately, in the history of salvation, there was a lot of backsliding. Even shortly after their liberation from Egypt, some of the people longed to go back. Kind of like Stockholm syndrome, missing their captors. That’s why they wanted to worship the golden calf, it reminded them of Egypt, where the false god Aphis, depicted as a bull, was worshiped. Animal sacrifice was instituted as a means for the people to make a break from this false worship of animals. Destroying sin.

The Establishment of King and Temple

Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon

When the Israelites regained the land of Canaan or Palestine, they had to continually ward off the other neighboring people to preserve their way of life and worship rightly. Often, the people would slide into the behaviors of their neighbors instead of being the lights God intended them to be. They were like children tossed to and fro. Although they knew the law of God, they failed to keep it.

After Some time of settling the land, and being led by various judges (see the Book of Judges), the people of Israel desired to have a king rule over them just like the other nations around them. The reality was that God had been king over them all along, nevertheless, God granted their request through the prophet Samuel who anointed Saul as their 1st king. However Saul committed acts of disobedience towards God and David was raised up in his stead. All the 12 tribes of Israel accepted him and he was anointed king over them all.

The Greek word behind “Good News,” is loaded with meaning, the heralding or announcing of the victory of the king. Whenever a king and his army were successful in battle, the news of his triumph and exploits went before him and the people were all to celebrate. Even though that Israel requested a king while God was their king all along, God granted the request and would work through the human king as his representative. So there were 2 kings, the Divine King and the human king. And everything was just great because the king and the people worshiped and served God as he deserves. Well – – maybe for a little while. Thus began the Golden age of Israel.

Prior to this time, God dwelt among his people in the form of the great glory cloud, or Shekinah. His presence was within the Tent of Meeting which Moses constructed for the nomadic people. This illustrates just how much God desires to dwell among his people and be their God. The glory cloud was a visible manifestation and reminder of this. Eventually, a Temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant over which the Shekinah rested upon. God dwelt among the people with his presence as a great cloud of glory in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Downfall Begins

King David, The Anointed or “Christ,” (as all anointed kings were known, including Saul), flawed like the rest of humanity, but humble and righteous before God, was promised that his kingdom would last forever (2 Samuel 7). His son Solomon, even though he actually built the Temple, began introducing the false worship of foreign “gods” through his marriage alliances. Ironically, this wise man became a fool building shrines to idols worshiped by his pagan wives. These interactions with other nations were forbidden because they ultimately lead to worshiping as they worship, as proved to be the case with King Solomon. Because of harsher policies enacted by King Solomon’s son Rehoboam , the kingdom splintered into the Northern kingdom of Israel with its capital of Samaria, and the Southern kingdom of the tribe of Judah that preserved the line of David and valid temple worship in Jerusalem (although they had their share of bad kings.

The northern kingdom completely apostatized from the beginning and abandoned God through their practices of syncretism, blending into paganism (because of people like the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel), and eventually were taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Prophets, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, and Amos warned them but they didn’t listen. And so, these 10 tribes of Israel were dispersed and assimilated into other cultures (722 A.D.). The poor people who remained intermarried with pagan tribes from other lands conquered by Assyria and sent to settle the land. Eventually, these people became the Samaritans. That was the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

While they had a better track record, the Kingdom of King David in the southern part of Palestine fell into grave apostasy as well. People were worshiping false gods, especially those worshiped in Babylon. Prophets such as Isaiah in the beginning and Jeremiah towards the end (i’m getting there), warned them to repent to no avail. Even the kings, the worst of whom was King Manasseh who sacrificed his own children to Molech, fell into serious idolatry. But that was kind of a cycle. There were good kings such as Hezekiah and the great-grandson of Manasseh, Josiah. However, when the last good king died, Josiah, it was too late… destruction was already set in motion, In about 586 BC, the rising Empire of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar completely devastated the land of Judah. The last king of the House of David, Zedekiah, saw his sons murdered right in front of his eyes before he was blinded and led off in chains. This ended the Davidic dynasty and it seemed that the promise that the kingdom would last forever came to a screeching halt.

Tissot The Flight of the Prisoners
The Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot, (deportation of exiles by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC

The Temple with all its splendor and beauty, the place which housed God’s own Presence, was brought to the ground. The people had taken the Temple of the Lord for granted and believed that no destruction would overtake Jerusalem. All the while, they lived however they pleased and in a sense, cheated on God to whom reading they belonged. Shortly before its destruction, the prophet Ezekiel had seen a vision in which the Glory Cloud, the Shekinah, the manifestation of God among his people since the time of the Exodus, which hovered over the Ark of the Covenant, just up and left the Temple. And then it was brought to the ground.

The people of Judah, the remnants of the 12 tribes of Israel found themselves in a foreign land (because they forfeited their own through disobedience and idolatry. All of Jerusalem was completely decimated and they lost their human king as well as the Divine king whose presence left them. And so ended the glory that the people had been given by God, and they lost it all – – the warnings and curses of Deuteronomy came to pass because they rejected God.

15 The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.
16 The crown has fallen from our head;
    woe to us, for we have sinned!
17 For this our heart has become sick,
    for these things our eyes have grown dim,
18 for Mount Zion which lies desolate;
    jackals prowl over it.

19 But thou, O Lord, dost reign for ever;
    thy throne endures to all generations.
20 Why dost thou forget us for ever,
    why dost thou so long forsake us?
21 Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
    Renew our days as of old!
22 Or hast thou utterly rejected us?
    Art thou exceedingly angry with us?

Lamentations 5

To be continued…

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