Thursday, January 31, 2019

What to pray (2 Chr 20:1-13)

WHAT TO PRAY (2 Chr 20:1-13)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2019

Sometimes you face a difficult situation and know that you should pray but do not know how. In an act of desperation, you might compose a limerick like this student writes the night before an exam.
As I sit me down to study,
I pray the Lord I won't go nutty.
If I should fail to learn this junk,
I pray the Lord I will not flunk.
But if I do, don't mourn at all,
Just lay my bones in the study hail.
And tell the prof I did my best,
Then pile my books upon my chest.
Now I lay me down to rest,
And pray I'll pass tomorrow's test.
If I should die before I wake,
That's one less test I'll have to take.
Sometimes you face a difficult situation and know that you should pray but do not know how. King Jehoshaphat faces a difficult situation, and he may wonder What to Pray. He does not compose a limerick, though, but voices something that is effective in resolving his difficult situation.

After the Northern Kingdom of Israel falls to Assyria, and King Jehoshaphat rules the remaining Israelites in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, a federation of local governments decides to exploit Judah's weakness and invade the land. As these hostiles position troops at the border ready to attack, the Jewish monarch knows he is outmatched and appears before his people to enlist their aid in asking God for help.

I. The nation faces a coalition of enemy forces (2 Chr 20:1-4).
2 Chr 20:1 The Moabites and Ammonites with some of the Meunites came to make war on Jehoshaphat. 2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, "A vast army2 is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea. It is already in Hazazon Tamar" (that is, En Gedi). 3 Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. 4 The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.
A. The enemy readies to pounce.
When Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel, enemy troops spared the Southern Kingdom of Judah, leaving that nation intact as a buffer with the Egyptian empire further south. Now that Assyrian troops are no longer in country, Judah faces a coalition of Moabites and Ammonites together again as they were when Israel was in the wilderness on its way to the Promised Land. At that time, God had instructed Moses to avoid them and not to engage with them militarily:

Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. (Deut 2:9)
When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. (Deut 2:19)
There was no military confrontation at that time, probably because Israelite forces were too numerous. Instead, there was a religious confrontation that drew God's people away from Him, a state of affairs that persists through several administrations, sometimes under the surface, diminished but never defeated:
The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD. They served.. .the gods of Moab land] the gods of the Ammonites. (Judg 10:6)
After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab [and] the Ammonites. (1 Sam 14:47)
King Solomon...loved many foreign women...Moabites land] Ammonites.... Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites.... They have forsaken me and worshiped...Chemosh the god of the Moabites and Molech the god of the Ammonites. (1 Kgs 11: 1, 7, 33)
As Assyrian influence in the region wanes, these two local powers, Ammon and Moab, are emboldened to exploit the vulnerability of God's people. Their combined military force is more than a depleted United Kingdom (now reduced by half) can handle. King Jehoshaphat faces a dilemma with few options: Surrender to a superior foe and give up all hope of national restoration or resist a superior foe and see all hope of national restoration destroyed. Thankfully, there is a third option, but it is the riskiest because it involves doing nothing: Appeal to God for His help and await His intervention. Jehoshaphat chooses this third option, but he wants to give his request the best chance of success, so he enhances it by calling for a national fast.
B. The nation resolves to pray.
Prayer is often the last resort in tackling a problem after people have exhausted other options. Indeed, it may be so for Jehoshaphat. The biblical author does not record what attempts at diplomacy preceded the troop buildup along the border or how long the king waited before he began seeking God in earnest. At some point, he recognizes that his options are severely limited.
1. Jehoshaphat calls a fast.
This is the first time a fast marks a national emergency, the first time a ruler tries to convince an entire nation to forego eating and pray instead. Whether or not Jehoshaphat gets complete cooperation, his appeal probably convinces the majority to join him. Moreover, the fasting is not just something they will do in the privacy of their homes; they will have community participation and support.
2. Jehoshaphat convenes an assembly.
While there are many reasons to hold a public forum, the impending threat of annihilation by enemy forces is a strong motivation. On another occasion the purpose of such a gathering would be to generate enthusiasm among troops before engaging in battle. There is no mention of Jewish forces here. While some soldiers are probably present, the majority of people is probably civilian, along with several clergy and representatives from the royal court.

Application: It is appropriate to face any threat to public safety with a united show of public solidarity, especially along with an appeal to God for help. That was the response to the events of 9/11. There was a great show of patriotism and support for the US military. There was even an immediate increase in church attendance. The biggest challenge, however, is maintaining that enthusiasm after the memory of those events begins to fade. While patriotism and support for the US military have declined a bit, church attendance has probably suffered most, although other factors may also be at play (e.g., rise of hyper-partisanship). Despite the uncertainty of current events, God does not change, and the concern He has for His people never wavers. As the prophet Malachi writes, "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Malachi 3:6) Although the world is in a constant state of flux, God is firm in the way He thinks about and behaves toward you who belong to Him.

While the Ammonites and Moabites prepare to invade Canaan, the Israelites fast and assemble to petition the Lord for His mercy at this time of national need. As one might expect at such a gathering, their leader addresses the crowd assembled but not with a rousing political speech.

Rather than motivating his people to take up arms against the invaders, Jehoshaphat wants them to appreciate the great God they serve.

II. The king addresses a congregation of concerned citizenry (2 Chr 20:5-13).
2 Chr 20:5 Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem at the temple of the LORD in the front of the new courtyard 6 and said: "O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. 7 O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? 8 They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, 9 'If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.' 10 But now here are men from Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir, whose territory you would not allow Israel to invade when they came from Egypt; so they turned away from them and did not destroy them. 11 See how they are repaying us by coming to drive us out of the possession you gave us as an inheritance. 12 O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you." 13 All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the LORD.
Jehoshaphat gets right to the point of the assembly, which is not as most people might think, to apprise God of the people's dire straights but to praise God for His sovereign care.
A. The king appeals to God.
1. Jehoshaphat regals the nation's deity.
The current predicament is nothing God cannot handle. After all, "You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations...and no one can withstand you" (v. 6).
2. Jehoshaphat reviews the nation's history.
Israel and the Lord have a long-standing relationship together that extends back hundreds of years, to "Abraham your friend" (v. 7). "We have even enshrined that relationship by building 'a sanctuary for your Name'" (v. 8). "[The LORD] as a covenant God was bound to do this, and also as God and ruler of heaven and earth He had the requisite power and might."
3. Jehoshaphat recalls the nation's opportunity.
"We could have destroyed our attackers when we first arrived in Canaan and they were still weak, but we obeyed Your instructions to leave them alone ('whose territory You would not allow Israel to invade' v. 10). Now they are strong and we are weak."
4. Jehoshaphat reaffirms the nation's loyalty.
The current situation is critical: "We have no power to face this vast army....but our eyes are upon you" (v. 12).
B. The citizenry appears before God.
How would He respond to this people's desperate plea for help? The whole congregation "stood there before the LORD" (v. 13).

Application: In difficult situations you may be at a loss for words and not know what to pray. As Paul observes, "We do not know what we ought to pray for," but we are not at a loss for help and have nowhere to turn, because "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Rom 8:26b). Jehoshaphat was certainly in a difficult situation. Did he know what to pray? Whether or not he did, he knew that he could not go wrong by appealing to God's character and to the commitment He has to His people, an assurance He also offers to you. When you pray, review God's character and recall God's commitment to you as one of His own. Jesus' last words to his disciples affirms this bond: "I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt 28:20).

So, what happens following this pep rally in the temple? Do the Ammonites and Moabites give up, pack up, and go home? Not before God intervenes:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel...a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. He said: "Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: 'Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's. Tomorrow march down against them.... You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you." Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD. (2 Chr 20:4-18)
This Levite appears elsewhere in the biblical text but not as a prophet. Nevertheless, his standing in the community and the royal court must be high enough for the king to accept his word without question.

The biblical author continues with an "After Action Report," explaining what the king does next:
Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the LORD and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: "Give thanks to the LORD, for his love endures forever." [Wouldn't you like to be part of that advance guard? They're not even armed!] As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab, and...they destroy[ed] one another. When the men of Judah...looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead one had escaped.... The kingdom of Jehoshaphat was at peace, for his God had given him rest on every side. (2 Chr 20:21-30)
King Jehoshaphat is up against a very difficult situation. The Israelite people God has chosen him to lead are facing what looks like certain annihilation, and there is nothing he can do to prevent it. All that is left is to throw himself on God's mercy, appealing to His character and commitment (faithfulness). While your situation might not resolve quite so dramatically, you will not go wrong in your time of need by appealing to God's character and commitment.

For the Footnotes and Bibliography see the pdf here.

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Relevant and civil comments are welcome. Whether there will be any response depends on whether Dr. Manuel notices them and has the time and inclination to respond or, if not, whether I feel competent to do so.
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