Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Lesson in Searching for Hope

            It’s been a tough week for the whole country, it seems.  The elementary school shooting in Connecticut, with so many young lives taken senselessly, brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.  And it brings questions as well.  The moments right after tragedy, however, never seem like the appropriate time to respond to the skeptics who seem to think that every calamity is another argument against God’s existence.  That discussion should be reserved for another time, one that won’t distract from the deep hurt being experienced by the families involved.  But these moments after tragedy do seem like an appropriate time to ask questions about faith’s response to devastating situations like this one.

            One of the places where I believe we see faith’s response to tragedy is the end of the book of 2 Kings.  It’s a strange ending, but it’s one I’ve come to believe shows us an important characteristic of life lived with God.

The Odd Ending of 2 Kings

The books of 1-2 Kings, as we might expect, tell us about the years of the kings of Israel.  1 Kings begins with the death of David, their most beloved king, whose trust in God (even in spite of some failures) was the epitome of what true Israelite kingship should’ve been.  It goes on to tell of the glory days of Solomon’s reign and the emotion-driven division of the kingdom into northern Israel and southern Judah.  Then 1-2 Kings provide overviews of each king who reigned, and the ups and downs that came from each one’s faith, or lack thereof.  And they tell of how both kingdoms eventually became unfaithful, and were punished by being taken into captivity.  First, the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17), and then the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 25).

Finally, the account ends somewhat abruptly, with an anecdote about Jehoiachin.  Jehoiachin was the second-to-last king of Judah at the age of 18, before Nebuchadnezzar came and took him in chains to Babylon.  11 years later, Jerusalem was finally wiped out in a more permanent exile.    Here’s the somewhat strange ending to the book of 2 Kings:

[27]  Now it came about in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, that Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he became king, released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison; [28] and he spoke kindly to him and set his throne above the throne of the kings who were with him in Babylon. [29] Jehoiachin changed his prison clothes and had his meals in the king's presence regularly all the days of his life; [30] and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion for each day, all the days of his life.

Doing the math, Jehoiachin was then 53 years old, having spent the last 37 years in prison.  His days as an 18-year old king were far behind him, and perhaps he had long ago resigned himself to a slow death in prison, never able to live his life.  But finally, things improved for him somewhat.  He was allowed out of prison, and given some sort of position over the other kings who were there in Babylon.  He ate with the king Babylonian daily, and had an allowance for all he needed, each day for the rest of his life.

 What That Ending Might Teach Us

My first thought: well, I guess I’m glad things got better for Jehoiachin, but what does that have to do with the terrible tragedy of what just happened?  Jerusalem – God’s chosen city of that time – had been burned and plundered, and God’s people are taken away from their homeland.  Innumerable lives had been lost or altered permanently.  Why end with this random note about Jehoiachin’s situation improving?

 It seems that the mention of Jehoiachin is a search for hope.  Things were bad for God’s people.  But God had promised that a descendant of the house of David would reign on David’s throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).  And well – the writer seems to be saying – Jehoiachin is a descendant of David, so the line of David lives!  What’s more, the line of David seems to be doing very well in Babylon.  So God may not be done with His people yet!  After relating the tragedy and hurt, 2 Kings presents a note – in fact, a final note – of hope.

What a great lesson in searching for the hope that only God can bring.  The writer of 2 Kings probably doesn’t know how things will turn out.  Even though inspired by God, not all the writers and prophets knew that God would fulfill the David promise by sending Jesus as the eternal King (1 Peter 1:10-12 shows this).  The writer perhaps didn’t know how God could bring any good from the tragedy the nation had seen.  But he trusted that God wouldn’t forget His promises, and he’s looking for ways that might happen.  Sure enough, centuries later, Jehoiachin would have a descendant named Joseph, who decided to spend his life with a young woman named Mary, who was visited by an angel and told she would have a child by the Holy Spirit, and you know the rest.  Jesus would reign as king forever, and the hope of 2 Kings had finally come to fruition.

Developing A Perspective of Hope

There are always times in life when we wonder how any good can come from a situation.  It may be after a shooting in Connecticut.  Or after a broken relationship.  Or when the doctor says it may be cancer.  Or when we witness the hurt of poverty in someone’s life.    Those times when life feels more like a tragedy than a symphony.  The situations are different, but the questions are often the same: Perhaps God has given up on us.  Maybe He’s not keeping promises anymore.  Maybe He doesn’t care that people are hurting and that lives have been forever altered. 

It is those times when the heart of faith searches for ways in which God may yet bring something good out of the ashes.  We may not know how He will do it.  But we’ve seen Him keep His promises before, and those experiences serve as altars of remembrance upon which we can place our trust.  We hurt, but we also move forward in a final note of hope.  The situation is devastating, but Jehoiachin is still alive – perhaps all hope is not lost!  

Let us be people who search for the Jehoiachin’s in the midst of tragedy, the rays of hope by which God may yet surprise us once again.   This Christmas will have a note of sadness with it for our nation, knowing that families in Connecticut who had already bought Christmas gifts will have an empty place around the tree.  But I pray that along with that sadness, we will keep learning to be people who move forward in search for hope, even in times when things feel empty.  For where God reigns, hope is ever present.

May we all have a blessed Christmas with friends and family; one filled with thanksgiving and hope.

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