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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 Chronicles 23

 

 

Verses 1-21

JEHORAM, AHAZIAH, AND ATHALIAH: THE CONSEQUENCES OF A FOREIGN MARRIAGE

2 Chronicles 21:1-20; 2 Chronicles 22:1-12; 2 Chronicles 23:1-21

THE accession of Jehoram is one of the instances in which a wicked son succeeded to a conspicuously pious father, but in this case there is no difficulty in explaining the phenomenon: the depraved character and evil deeds of Jehoram, Ahaziah, and Athaliah are at once accounted for when we remember that they were respectively the son-in-law, grandson, and daughter of Ahab, and possibly of Jezebel. If, however, Jezebel were really the mother of Athaliah, it is difficult to believe that the chronicler understood or at any rate realized the fact. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah the chronicler lays great stress upon the iniquity and inexpediency of marriage with strange wives, and he has been careful to insert a note into the history of Jehoshaphat to call attention to the fact that the king of Judah had joined affinity with Ahab. If he had understood that this implied joining affinity with a Phoenician devotee of Baal, this significant fact would not have been passed over in silence. Moreover, the names Athaliah and Ahaziah are both compounded with the sacred name Jehovah. A Phoenician Baal-worshipper may very well have been sufficiently eclectic to make such use of the name sacred to the family into which she married, but on the whole those names rather tell against the descent of their owners from Jezebel and her Zidonian ancestors.

We have seen that, after giving the concluding formula for the reign of Jehoshaphat, the chronicler adds a postscript narrating an incident discreditable to the king. Similarly he prefaces the introductory formula for the reign of Jehoram by inserting a cruel deed of the new king. Before telling us Jehoram’s age at his accession and the length of his reign, the chronicler relates the steps taken by Jehoram to secure himself upon his throne. Jehoshaphat, like Rehoboam, had disposed of his numerous sons in the fenced cities of Judah, and had sought to make them quiet and contented by providing largely for their material welfare: "Their father gave them great gifts: silver, gold, and precious things, with fenced cities in Judah." The sanguine judgment of paternal affection might expect that these gifts would make his younger sons loyal and devoted subjects of their elder brother; but Jehoram, not without reason, feared that treasure and cities might supply the means for a revolt, or that Judah might be split up into a number of small principalities. Accordingly when he had strengthened himself he slew all his brethren with the sword, and with them those princes of Israel whom he suspected of attachment to his other victims. He was following the precedent set by Solomon when he ordered the execution of Adonijah; and, indeed, the slaughter by a new sovereign of all those near relations who might possibly dispute his claim to the throne has usually been considered in the East to be a painful but necessary and perfectly justifiable act, being, in fact, regarded in much the same light as the drowning of superfluous kittens in domestic circles. Probably this episode is placed before the introductory formula for the reign because until these possible rivals were removed Jehoram’s tenure of the throne was altogether unsafe.

For the next few verses [2 Chronicles 21:5-10; Cf. 2 Kings 8:17-22] the narrative follows the book of Kings with scarcely any alteration, and states the evil character of the new reign, accounting for Jehoram’s depravity by his marriage with a daughter of Ahab. The successful revolt of Edom from Judah is next given, and the chronicler adds a note of his own to the effect that Jehoram experienced these reverses because he had forsaken Jehovah, the God of his fathers.

Then the chronicler proceeds to describe further sins and misfortunes of Jehoram. He mentions definitely, what is doubtless implied by the book of Kings, that Jehoram made high places in the cities of Judah and seduced the people into taking part in a corrupt worship. The Divine condemnation of the king’s wrong-doing came from an unexpected quarter and in an unusual fashion. The other prophetic messages specially recorded by the chronicler were uttered by prophets of Judah, some apparently receiving their inspiration for one particular occasion. The prophet who rebuked Jehoram was no less distinguished a personage than the great Israelite Elijah, who, according to the book of Kings, had long since been translated to heaven. In the older narrative Elijah’s work is exclusively confined to the Northern Kingdom. But the chronicler entirely ignores Elijah, except when his history becomes connected for a moment with that of the house of David.

The other prophets of Judah delivered their messages by word of mouth, but this communication is made by means of "a writing." This, however, is not without parallel: Jeremiah sent a letter to the captives in Babylon, and also sent a written collection of his prophecies to Jehoiakim. [Jeremiah 29:1-32, Jeremiah 36:1-32] In the latter case, however, the prophecies had been originally promulgated by word of mouth.

Elijah writes in the name of Jehovah, the God of David, and condemns Jehoram because he was not walking in the ways of Asa and Jehoshaphat, but in the ways of the kings of Israel and the house of Ahab. It is pleasant to find that, in spite of the sins which marked the latter days of Asa and Jehoshaphat, their "ways" were as a whole such as could be held up as an example by the prophet of Jehovah. Here and elsewhere God appeals to the better feelings that spring from pride of birth. Noblesse oblige. Jehoram held his throne as representative of the house of David, and was proud to trace his descent to the founder of the Israelite monarchy and to inherit the glory of the great reigns of Asa and Jehoshaphat; but this pride of race implied that to depart from their ways was dishonorable apostasy. There is no more pitiful spectacle than an effeminate libertine pluming himself on his noble ancestry.

Elijah further rebukes Jehoram for the massacre of his brethren, who were better than himself. They had all grown up at their father’s court, and till the other brethren were put in possession of their fenced cities had been under the same influences. It is the husband of Ahab’s daughter who is worse than all the rest; the influence of an unsuitable marriage has already begun to show itself. Indeed, in view of Athaliah’s subsequent history, we do her no injustice by supposing that, like Jezebel and Lady Macbeth, she had suggested her husband’s crime. The fact that Jeroham’s brethren were better men than himself adds to his guilt morally, but this undesirable superiority of the other princes of the blood to the reigning sovereign would seem to Jehoram and his advisers an additional reason for putting them out of the way; the massacre was an urgent political necessity.-

"Truly the tender mercies of the weak, As of the wicked, are but cruel."

There is nothing so cruel as the terror of a selfish man. The Inquisition is the measure not only of the inhumanity, but also of the weakness, of the mediaeval Church; and the massacre of St. Bartholomew was due to the feebleness of Charles IX, as well as to the "revenge or the blind instinct of self-preservation" of Mary de Medici.

The chronicler’s condemnation of Jehoram’s massacre marks the superiority of the standard of later Judaism to the current Oriental morality. For his sins Jehoram was to be punished by sore disease and by a great "plague" which would fall upon his people, and his wives, and his children, and all his substance. From the following verses we see that "plague," here as in the case of some of the plagues of Egypt, has the sense of calamity generally, and not the narrower meaning of pestilence. This plague took the form of an invasion of the Philistines and of the Arabians "which are beside the Ethiopians." Divine inspiration prompted them to attack Judah; Jehovah stirred up their spirit against Jehoram. Probably here, as in the story of Zerah, the term Ethiopians is used loosely for the Egyptians, in which case the Arabs in question would be inhabitants of the desert between the south of Palestine and Egypt, and would thus be neighbors of their Philistine allies.

These marauding bands succeeded where the huge hosts of Zerah had failed; they broke into Judah, and carried off all the king’s treasure, together with his sons and his wives, only leaving him his youngest son: Jehoahaz or Ahaziah. They afterwards slew the princes they had taken captive. The common people would scarcely suffer less severely than their king. Jehoram himself was reserved for special personal punishment: Jehovah smote him with a sore disease; and, like Asa, he lingered for two years and then died. The people were so impressed by his wickedness that "they made no burning for him, like the burning of his fathers," whereas they had made a very great burning for Asa.

The chronicler’s account of the reign of Ahaziah does not differ materially from that given by the book of Kings, though it is considerably abridged, and there are other minor alterations. The chronicler sets forth even more emphatically than the earlier history the evil influence of Athaliah and her Israelite kinsfolk over Ahaziah’s short reign of one year. The story of his visit to Jehoram, king of Israel, and the murder of the two kings by Jehu, is very much abridged. The chronicler carefully omits all reference to Elisha, according to his usual principle of ignoring the religions life of Northern Israel; but he expressly tells us that, like Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah suffered for consorting with the house of Omri: "His destruction or treading down was of God in that he went unto Jehoram." Our English versions have carefully reproduced an ambiguity in the original; but it seems probable that the chronicler does not mean that visiting Jehoram in his illness was a flagrant offense which God punished with death, but rather that, to punish Ahaziah for his imitation of the evil-doings of the house of Omri. God allowed him to visit Jehoram in order that he might share the fate of the Israelite king.

The book of Kings had stated that Jehu slew forty-two brethren of Ahaziah. It is, of course, perfectly allowable to take "brethren" in the general sense of "kinsmen"; but as the chronicler had recently mentioned the massacre of all Ahaziah’s brethren, he avoids even the appearance of a contradiction by substituting "sons of the brethren of Ahaziah" for brethren. This alteration introduces new difficulties, but these difficulties simply illustrate the general confusion of numbers and ages which characterizes the narrative at this point. In connection with the burial of Ahaziah, it may be noted that the popular recollection of Jehoshaphat endorsed the favorable judgment contained in the "writing of Elijah": "They said" of Ahaziah, "he is the son of Jehoshaphat, who sought Jehovah with all his heart." The chronicler next narrates Athaliah’s murder of the seed royal of Judah and her usurpation of the throne of David, in terms almost identical with those of the narrative in the book of Kings. But his previous additions and modifications are hard to reconcile with the account he here borrows from his ancient authority. According to the chronicler, Jehoram had massacred all the other sons of Jehoshaphat, and the Arabians had slain all Jehoram’s sons except Ahaziah, and Jehu had slain their sons; so that Ahaziah was the only living descendant in the male line of his grandfather Jehoshaphat; he himself apparently died at the age of twenty-three. It is intelligible enough that he should have a son Joash and possibly other sons; but still it is difficult to understand where Athaliah found "all the seed royal" and "the king’s sons" whom she put to death. It is at any rate clear that Jehoram’s slaughter of his brethren met with an appropriate punishment: all his own sons and grandsons were similarly slain, except the child Joash. The chronicler’s narrative of the revolution by which Athaliah was slain, and the throne recovered for the house of David in the person of Joash, follows substantially the earlier history, the chief difference being, as we have already noticed, that the chronicler substitutes the Levitical guard of the second Temple for the bodyguard of foreign mercenaries who were the actual agents in this revolution. A distinguished authority on European history is fond of pointing to the evil effects of royal marriages as one of the chief drawbacks to the monarchical system of government. A crown may at any time devolve upon a woman, and by her marriage with a powerful reigning prince her country may virtually be subjected to a foreign yoke. If it happens that the new sovereign professes a different religion from that of his wife’s subjects, the evils arising from the marriage are seriously aggravated. Some such fate befell the Netherlands as the result of the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with the Emperor Maximilian, and England was only saved from the danger of transference to Catholic dominion by the caution and patriotism of Queen Elizabeth. Athaliah’s usurpation was a bold attempt to reverse the usual process and transfer the husband’s dominions to the authority and faith of the wife’s family. It is probable that Athaliah’s permanent success would have led to the absorption of Judah in the Northern Kingdom. This last misfortune was averted by the energy and courage of Jehoiada, but in the meantime the half-heathen queen had succeeded in causing untold harm and suffering to her adopted country. Our own history furnishes numerous illustrations of the evil influences that come in the train of foreign queens. Edward II suffered grievously at the hands of his French queen; Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, contributed considerably to the prolonged bitterness of the struggle between York and Lancaster; and to Henry VIII’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon the country owed the miseries and persecutions inflicted by Mary Tudor. But, on the other hand, many of the foreign princesses who have shared the English throne have won the lasting gratitude of the nation. A French queen of Kent, for instance, opened the way for Augustine’s mission to England.

But no foreign queen of England has had the opportunities for mischief that were enjoyed and fully utilized by Athaliah. She corrupted her husband and her son, and she was probably at once the instigator of their crimes and the instrument of their punishment. By corrupting the rulers of Judah and by her own misgovernment, she exercised an evil influence over the nation; and as the people suffered, not for their sins only, but also for those of their kings, Athaliah brought misfortunes and calamity upon Judah. Unfortunately such experiences are not confined to royal families; the peace and honor, and prosperity of godly families in all ranks of life have been disturbed and often destroyed by the marriage of one of their members with a woman of alien spirit and temperament. Here is a very general and practical application of the chronicler’s objection to intercourse with the house of Omri.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Chronicles 23:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-chronicles-23.html.

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