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The Tragedy of Jotham

Read 2 Chronicles 26:23-27:9 to start. .

This evening I would like to talk about tragedy. I know, I know, not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear about to close out your weekend. Why would I choose such a topic? Well, tragedy is part and parcel with living in a fallen world. It is part of this life, and as unpleasant as it might be to think about, it’s something that we need to consider from time to time.

When we hear the term tragedy, we might think of sad and terrible events, such as have happened recently in Nova Scotia, or maybe we think of Shakespearean plays such as Macbeth or Hamlet. A tragedy is by definition an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.  If you are talking about a play, it would be one dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character.

It’s not the idea of tragedy in general that I’d like to consider today, but rather a specific example, which we find in the passage we read a few moments ago. You might be thinking that the passage we just read does not sound particularly tragic. Sure, King Uzziah died and his son became king, but that’s the normal way things work with kings and succession. Reading about Jotham’s reign it sounds generally successful and effective, he built up the walls of Jerusalem and he added fortifications to strengthen the outlying areas, he saw a hostile neighbour subdued and put to tribute, he served God and didn’t mess up royally as his father had done, the details of which we would see if we read the previous chapter. Uzziah had in his later years become proud and decided that he wanted to burn incense to God as the priests did, and because of his presumption, he was struck with leprosy. He spent the last years of his life in quarantine, isolated away because of his illness, something that sounds very familiar to us today.

But Jotham didn’t do anything like that. He is considered one of the good kings of Judah, one of the better kings in fact. Of the 20 kings who ruled the southern kingdom after the death of Solomon, less than half did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and several of them had serious failings and inconsistencies. There were at least three of them who started well, but later in their reigns became some combination of proud, disobedient, self-centered, or generally corrupt. Not so with Jotham. His reign was not particularly long, but at 16 years, it can hardly be considered brief. Sixteen years is longer than I’ve been at my current job, and it’s longer than I’ve lived in Montague. It’s longer than any of my children have been alive, in fact it’s about as long as I’ve been married. Sure, there were some kings who spent far longer on the throne, but many had reigns which were much shorter.

As for his time on the throne, in the passage we read, as well as the companion passage in 2 Kings chapter 15, we don’t see wicked behaviour or crippling disasters recorded during the reign of Jotham, again, that’s something of an exception. For most of his predecessors, and I believe all of his successors there was at least one calamity or narrowly averted catastrophe that we are told of in scripture, or a hasty and unexpected overthrow or untimely demise.

So why would we look at the reign of this lesser known king as being tragic in any way? He was not overwhelmed militarily. He did not worship idols. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father had done, but without his father’s presumption and pride. He made no foolish mistakes that we are told about, and he was not a tragic figure undone by ambition or arrogance. This is not a conventional tragedy.

Sometimes the tragedy is not in what went wrong, however, but in what could have been, but was not. As devastating as calamities and catastrophes may be, lost opportunities, chances to do great and lasting things which are never realized, are no less tragic.

There are two shortcomings, two failures of the reign of Jotham that we find in this chapter. The first is in verse 2, and while it feels like it is mentioned in passing, almost as an aside or an editorial comment, it undercuts everything which comes before, and the accomplishments which follow. And the people did yet corruptly. Six words, that is all. Jotham did well, he followed God, but his people did not follow his example.

In 2 Kings chapter 15, as I mentioned, we can read another account of Jotham, an even shorter and less detailed one, if you thought the nine verses of 2 Chronicles 27 were too extensive. That book adds a bit of detail that we don’t have in Chronicles, though. Apart from a mention of more military challenges, we learn in verse 35 that the high places were not removed: the people sacrificed and burned incense still in the high places.

What were the high places? These were various locations, generally located on elevated ground, where the people went to worship. At first glance, that doesn’t sound so bad. The problem is the question of who exactly were they worshipping, and how? There were some people who no doubt had the intention of worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in these high places, but in their own manner, not according to the highly detailed instructions that had been given to Moses in the wilderness, which the priests had been conducting for centuries, first in the tabernacle, and then later on in Solomon’s temple.

Doing what you think you should be doing, but doing it in your own way, that’s not really obeying, is it? If you go for a drive, and you don’t pay much attention to the speed limit, and so you don’t drop down to 50 when you’re coming into Montague, but you keep it up around 80, well, if you do that on a regular basis sooner or later you will see the red and blue lights and there will be a man in a uniform with a piece of paper for you.

Just because you didn’t hit anything or do any damage doesn’t mean that you are following the rules. The speed limit is clearly set out, and while you should be familiar with all the rules of the road, after all, there was a written test to pass before you got a driver’s licence, the speed limit is printed on a black and white sign. You can’t miss it. The speed limit may be inconvenient and annoying, especially if you are in a hurry, but ignoring them comes with consequences.

The high places, which if we looked at through the books of the Kings and the Chronicles, we would see were a persistent blot on spiritual conduct of the Israelites. Time after time it comes up that one king or another was generally righteous, but the high places were not removed. The people continued to do their own thing, regardless of what their king was doing. When the king ignored the worship of Jehovah and instead went after idols, the people did as they pleased. When the king worshipped only the Lord, the people still did as they pleased. It was easy and it was convenient for them to worship locally own their own terms, and so they did, even if it was wrong.

People worshipped the Lord God at the high places, even if they were doing it incorrectly and in defiance of the law, but that’s not all they did. There are remains of these locations to be found today, a number have been uncovered by archaeologists. Typically there was an altar for sacrifice, and perhaps some tables and seats, but there were also in many cases graven images, idols hewn from stone and poles formed from wood for the worship of false gods. Many of the high places that the Israelites used had been first used by the Canaanite people before them, and we know how wicked their behaviour was, such to the point that the Lord had commanded Israel to destroy them, to root them out and never to worship their gods.

The Canaanite nations practiced all manner of perversion and wickedness, both in their manner of life and in their manner of worship. They bowed down to a wide variety of false gods who of course could not answer their prayers, they participated in immoral activities as part of their religion, and they, most horribly, conducted human sacrifices, in particular with infants and young children. It is no wonder that God wanted their practices to cease, they were deeply abhorrent then, just as they are when we consider them now. Yet time and time again we see that the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, worshipped those same idols, and they did so primarily at the high places. At times when the kings were evil the worship of false gods made its way into the temple in Jerusalem, and at those times of course there was widespread evil throughout the land, but even when the king on his throne served the Lord, and cleaned up Jerusalem and the temple, still the worship at the high places continued.

The passage we read to start indicates that the people did yet corruptly. This was not a new thing, some unprecedented descent into wickedness, but rather that they remained in a sinful condition. They had been that way already, and they remained so. The spiritual leadership, or lack thereof, meant that no change took place. The people continued in their corruption.

God calls us to repent and turn from our evil ways. That was the message that the prophets brought in those days, and the message that John the Baptist preached before Christ’s ministry began, and of course it is what the Lord Jesus Christ said on countless occasions. The people of Israel needed to repent, but they did not do so, not during Jotham’s reign.

It wasn’t until the reign of Hezekiah, who was Jotham’s grandson, that we finally see the high places dealt with and the activities of them suppressed. And again king Josiah, he even went so far as to send out people into the former territory of the fallen northern kingdom to destroy the high places and pagan practices beyond his own borders.

It was possible to remove the high places, to stamp out the idolatry and to deal with the corruption that permeated the land. Jotham could have done so. But he did not.

Would it have been a challenge to do so? Would it have been a difficult, long term project? No doubt. But Jotham undertook other ambitious tasks, as we read in the chapter. He did building projects, the high gate of the house of the Lord, and expansion of the city walls, and it was hardly limited to Jerusalem; his administration built cities and castles and towers in the mountains and the forests. He built up the nation’s infrastructure, he improved its military strength. He was in all likelihood a man not troubled by hard work and time consuming missions. After all, building a tower or a fortress is hardly a weekend project. It’s not like cleaning out the shed and raking the yard. Jotham was willing to do those things. He would have considered them to be important enough, to be needful enough, to invest the time, effort, and resources to accomplish his building programs. But as for the spiritual condition of his people, Jotham appears to have done little or nothing. He himself may have followed God, and done so in an entirely acceptable and worthy manner, but we see no evidence of change in the hearts and minds of the people.

In Proverbs 29, verse 18, we read where there is no vision, the people perish. Jotham may have had a vision for a militarily strong kingdom, for defence against hostile neighbours and the encroaching threat of the Assyrian empire, but he lacked a vision for the sacred. Reading the short account we have of his life and of his reign, he sounds like someone who ticked all the boxes for doing the right thing, for being competent in his role, and being well behaved and obedient, but he didn’t go that extra mile to follow God. He could have done so much more on that front, but he did not. He could have imposed laws or been a positive influence. But he failed to do so.

It wasn’t that he was unaware of the high places. He went out and built all these structures in the hinterlands of Judah, he would have seen where the people were worshipping idols, or where they were worshipping the Lord in an improper manner, or where they were doing some abominable mixture of the two. People left to their own devices, without direction, without instruction, and frankly, without leadership and discipline, will end up following all manner of strange and warped religious practices.

Jotham did not provide the spiritual leadership that his people needed, even as he provided plenty of practical and military leadership. That is why I term this as a tragedy, because he was a righteous man, but he was not a holy king. He had the opportunity to do something tremendous, to change the unfortunate spiritual path that his people were on, but he failed to capitalize on it.

There is a lesson there for those of us who may be in a position of leadership at one level or another. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our communities, none of us are of course kings, but we likely have some degree of influence, great or small it may be. We all have opportunities to point those around us toward the Saviour, to be a voice of truth amidst the madness and lies of this present world. So often we fail to take advantage of the chances that are before us. Sure, we might get some things done, and we might live in a manner that is well-behaved and upright and not sinful, but how much more might we do? And so, like Jotham, we are not as successful as we could be.

For all his projects and achievements, it’s hard to term Jotham as being successful. Not only because he failed to do anything to correct or direct the hearts of his people, but also for as much as he built and improved and won victories, the legacy he left behind lead to further tragedy. We see that at the close of the chapter, in verse 9: And Ahaz his son reigned in his stead.

Look at the first few verses of the next chapter to get an idea of what his reign looked like. 1 Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem: but he did not that which was right in the sight of the LORD, like David his father: 2 For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made also molten images for Baalim. 3 Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel. 4 He sacrificed also and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree.

We could go on reading and see how he was a complete failure militarily, how his people were defeated and killed and carried away as captives, how his own son, his chief official, and his right hand man were all killed by the same enemy, how the Philistines, the Edomites, the Arameans, and the northern kingdom of Israel all took their pound of flesh, how they occupied towns and areas that Judah had owned, and of course carried off plunder and captives. We would learn of how Ahaz stripped whatever valuables he could from Solomon’s temple and used it to buy off the Assyrians, but to little avail.

They say that the apple does not fall far from the tree. In the autumn when we go to pick apples, we find apples that have fallen down from the trees, they are usually on the ground right under the trees, which is where you would expect them. At the orchard I’ll usually eat an apple or three while I’m picking, and when I’m done with it I’ll throw the core over into the next field. Well, Ahaz was an apple that someone took and pitched into next week. He was nothing like his father. For all the success his father had, Ahaz had none. For all the achievements and building up of the kingdom that Jotham had accomplished, Ahaz lost more. All the income that had been brought in from tributes taken from defeated enemies, Ahaz spent that and more besides. And for all the right doing in the sight of the Lord which Jotham was praised for, Ahaz did every wicked thing he could think of.

The fact that the people did yet corruptly during Jotham’s reign, the fact that there was opportunity to correct them, to turn them to a better path, that was tragic. But the fact that his own son turned his back and ran away from the Lord as fast as he could is a greater tragedy still. And that is one which resonates deeply with me as a parent, as it should with anyone who has children. Jotham may have done that which was right in the sight of the Lord. But he did not teach his son to do the same. He may have tried, but without positive results. He may have done well as a king, but as a father, he was a failure.

Parents, I’m speaking to you now, and I’m speaking to myself, we all have an opportunity to instruct our children, to direct them in the ways of truth and righteousness, as it says in Proverbs chapter 22, verse 6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. This is the most important responsibility that you and I have as parents. We have a lot of considerations as parents, we need to provide food, clothing, shelter, love and care, all those things are necessary, but correct instruction is every bit as needful, because the result lasts throughout their lives. It’s not glamorous or exciting, but it is absolutely vital. It’s far more important than making sure our children have the things they want, the toys, the activities, the treats, the brand name clothing, the experiences, the vacations, the whatever else you want to name, all those things that we spend so much time and effort on providing, when it’s good instruction from us that they really need.

I don’t know why Ahaz did not follow in the footsteps of his father. His father provided an example of righteous living, but maybe he offered no particular teaching or direction to his son. Maybe Jotham was so busy in all his building projects that he paid little attention to Ahaz while the boy grew up, and in doing so allowed the seeds of rebellion to take fruit and to blossom. Or maybe Ahaz was simply a defiant and rebellious son despite the best efforts of his father. We don’t know the particulars of Jotham’s parenting style, but the results speak for themselves.

There is a lesson and a warning for all of us who are parents, and for that matter, grandparents, when we look at the tragedy of Jotham. We can easily become so caught up in doing what feels urgent, what feels needful, what feels productive, that we lose sight of what is vital. Our relationship with our creator is at the center of who we are called to be as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. If it’s not in that central place in your life, then it should be. Whether it is or whether it’s not, our children will notice either way. Our children see and know what is important to us, because they are constantly looking at us, and to us, for guidance and for instruction. We need to point them to where they need to be facing, or who knows what direction they might go?

The time for this is not short, but it is limited. Look at the first verse of 2 Chronicles chapter 28. Ahaz was 20 years old when he began to reign. That means that Jotham had two decades in which to guide and influence his son before Ahaz came to power. Two decades to shape the future of his child, and the future of his nation. His efforts, whatever they may have been, were in vain, but the opportunity was there.

We likewise have a window of opportunity, and 20 years is about as much as we can hope to have. By that time children have grown into young adults, have hopefully matured enough to know at least a thing or two about what they want do with their lives, and have some amount of direction. By that time they are likely either working, have gone to school, or otherwise have flown from the nest, and our time of great influence as parents is at an end. It’s not a long span of time, but it’s a vital one.

I mentioned grandparents as well, because there may be a second window of opportunity for those of us whose children have children of their own. Grandparents can be an influence on their grandchildren, a tremendous one. I see this myself with my parents and my own children. My mother is a wonderful and godly example and teacher to my children. My father is certainly not. Thankfully, the kids are far more eager to spend time with her than with him. I am grateful that they have the opportunity to do so.

And grandchildren may learn more from their grandparents in some cases than we might realize at first. Looking back to the book of 2 Chronicles, at the end of the chapter, we read that Ahaz died and Hezekiah his son reigned in his stead. Hezekiah was one of the best kings that Judah ever had, easily in the top two or three on any list of the most righteous and God fearing rulers from the time of David up until the exile in Babylon. Was Jotham a godly influence on his grandson? Did he perhaps recognize that he had failed with Ahaz, and so reached down a generation to Hezekiah? We have no indication either way in scripture if that was the case or not, but it’s a possibility. Even the chance that he did should be an encouragement to all of us that even when we see tragedy unfold around us, tragedy perhaps of our own making, that there may still be opportunity for redemption available to us.

Finally this evening I would like to speak to all the children listening today. I know that you’re there, and maybe you’ve mostly tuned out by this point, but it’s time to listen up and pay attention. This part is for you.

I know your parents are not perfect. My children certainly know that I’m far from it. They might drive you crazy much of the time. They might mess up, and mess up a lot. You might resent them, you might resent that you have to do so many “church” related activities at times. Your parents aren’t doing those things because they think that Bible study and prayer and preaching are fun. They’re making you listen this evening not because it’s fun, but because it’s important. The truth of God’s word is important. How you live your life, how you grow up, the path you take, that is important. It’s so important, and it might feel like it’s a long way away from being relevant to your future, but it will be here before you realize it. Your parents love you, and they want you to grow up to follow, not in their own footsteps, but rather that you follow the path which Christ walked. That’s certainly not an easy path, but it’s a better path than any you will ever come up with on your own.

The direction you take, however, that’s up to you. No matter how well or how poorly you think that your parents are doing, what way you go is your decision. Yes, what you do will affect those around you, but it’s going to be you that most closely feels the consequences of what you choose. We all choose our own path. Choose wisely.