2 Kings 16 (NIV)✞: Ahaz King of Judah
We could almost call this passage “Tiglath-Pileser King of Judah” instead of “Ahaz King of Judah,” since Assyria is going to be calling the shots throughout this passage!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this passage Ahaz becomes king of Judah, but he does not follow the LORD:
1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign. 2 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God. 3 He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. 4 He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.
At some point in his reign the nations of Aram and Israel attack Judah, and although they’re not able to defeat Judah they are able to claw back some territory for Aram.
Instead of asking the LORD for help Ahaz sends word to Tiglath-Pileser, the king of Assyria, requesting that Judah become Assyria’s vassal, along with a gift of silver and gold from the treasuries of the Temple and the palace. Tiglath-Pileser agrees and goes on the offensive on Judah’s behalf, though it seems like the Arameans suffer a lot more than the Israelites, with the Assyrians capturing the Aramean city of Damascus, deporting a bunch of Arameans, and putting the king of Aram to death.
After this Ahaz goes to meet Tiglath-Pileser in Damascus and while he’s there he sees an altar he likes so he sends detailed drawings to Uriah the priest back home in Jerusalem. (There are some notes below from the ESV Study Bible on this altar.) Uriah faithfully follows the drawings to have a similar one built in Jerusalem; I’m not sure if it’s in the Temple, but it seems that it’s at least close to it. In fact, not only does Ahaz start making offerings on the new altar instead of the old one, he has the old altar brought from its designated spot and places it aside the new altar, instead. He’s now using the old altar—the one designated by the LORD—for “seeking guidance” (v. 15✞).
In addition to all of this Ahaz also makes a bunch of modifications to the Temple, removing numerous aspects of it, “in deference to the king of Assyria” (v. 18✞).
When Ahaz dies he is succeeded by his son, Hezekiah.
Before getting into larger thoughts on this passage, the ESV Study Bible has some more information on the altar that Ahaz copies; in the following quote keep in mind that the NIV has been using the terms “Aram” and “Arameans” while the ESV uses the terms “Syria” and “Syrians,” but it’s the same people.
2 Kings 16:10–16 the altar that was at Damascus. Ahaz travels to Damascus to meet his new overlord and is so impressed by this Syrian altar to the god Hadad that he has a copy of it installed in Jerusalem. Ahaz has strayed far from true faith in the Lord, and his religion is full-fledged syncretism with the pagan religions of the other nations. The old bronze altar (1 Kings 8:64) is now to be used only for Ahaz to inquire by, i.e., for divination (the interpretation of omens). This probably refers to extispicy, the examination of the entrails of sacrificial animals, focusing on the inspection of the liver (hepatoscopy), in order to divine the will and intentions of the gods. Extispicy is attested in the ancient Near East from early in the second millennium B.C. and played an important role not only at royal courts but also in the everyday life of ordinary people. The god Hadad was central to the practice of divination, along with Shamash the sun god. The practice is forbidden, along with child sacrifice, in Deut. 18:10.
ESV Study Bible
It seems to me that the theme of this passage is that of a king of Judah trusting in worldly powers instead of the LORD. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for one nation to become a vassal state to another; sometimes that might be necessary for the weaker nation to survive. But the nation of Judah was different because they had the LORD; Assyria was the mightiest nation around at the time—or, if they weren’t (I’m not clear on the history), they soon would be—so it would make a lot of sense for a weaker nation to align to Assyria, unless that weaker nation had a special relationship with the God of the universe.
The passage makes clear that Ahaz does more than just make a political alliance, however; I’m focusing in on the term syncretism used by the ESV Study Bible above, which is the mixing of multiple religions together. It’s not that Ahaz gives up worship of the LORD so much as him mixing in worship of other gods in addition to worshipping the LORD. And, unfortunately for him, the Bible makes it clear that this is no better! God’s people were to trust Him, not Him plus whatever other worldly sources of help they could find. Was God not powerful enough to save Judah on His own? Was He so small that He needed to be augmented with Assyria?
We can be tempted to think of syncretism as not being so bad because at least people aren’t abandoning God altogether – except they actually are because they’re saying He isn’t enough. “Sure, I’ll pray to God, but if things get really tough I’ll need a source of support that actually works, too!”
Which we might never be so crass as to articulate in that way but we say it with our actions whenever we trust in God and something/someone else. We’re saying that we believe in a God that is only so big but no bigger; only so powerful but no more than that. It is, frankly, the sin that Western Christians in the 21st Century are the mostly likely to fall into! Again, we’d never think we’re falling into it, but if we really examine our souls I think most of us will find that we trust in God and we trust in our money. And, if we were really pushed, might have to admit that we trust in our money more than we trust in God!
And sure, if given an explicit choice—if God came to me personally and said out of the thunder, “You must either give up your religion or you must give away all of your money”—I would probably give up all of my money and follow Him. But He’s not likely to come and tell me that. He’s not even likely to put me in a situation where I’d need to make that decision in such an explicit manner. But have there been times when I was tempted to fudge the truth because I thought being honest would put me in danger of making less money? The source of that sin isn’t just selfishness, it’s lack of trust in God: I sort of trust Him to take care of me, but I really need money! (To be clear, I’m saying I sometimes feel that way in the moment, not that it’s true.)
And maybe for some it’s not a question of money. But there are other ways this insufficient trust in God can play out:
- Love: Some feel that they can’t be complete unless they have love. They may already be married, and are putting too much trust in their spouse (or their children), or they may just be yearning to be married, but either way they feel that God isn’t enough, they need God and love from another person.
- Career: This may be related to money, but it’s not completely the same; some people value the prestige that comes with their career so highly that they feel they need it; they need God, sure, but they really need success, because otherwise what gives their life meaning?
- Horoscopes: This might seem like an odd one but horoscopes really are about trying to get control of your own life since God’s not doing it for you. Which, again, nobody would ever say, but… why else would you need a horoscope? If you trust God to take care of you, do you need that other support?
None of these things are bad on their own, but when we feel we need them because God isn’t enough they become bad things. It’s what Ahaz did and it’s what we still do today. We just get smug about it because we feel we’re not worshipping other “gods,” like those dumb Old Testament kings, even though that’s exactly what we’re doing.