Priest and Patriot

The story of Jehoiada is that of a man upright and resolute, fearless in his loyalty to God and ruthless in his hatred of idolatry. To the piety of a priest he added the sagacity of a statesman; by his courage and faith he saved the royal line of David from becoming extinct little more than a century after David’s death, and in that became an instrument in the hand of God. His sterling worth shines out from the dramatic narratives in 2 Kings 11:4 to 13:9 and 2 Chron.22:11 to 24:25, and the manner in which prosperity or adversity respectively followed the nation’s adherence to, or apostasy from, the terms of the Mosaic Covenant forms a colourful background to the story.

Jehoiada was High Priest of the Temple at Jerusalem in the time of Ahaziah and Joash, kings of Judah. He died a few years before the death of Joash at the unusually advanced age of a hundred and thirty years, according to the narrative, and although the credibility of this fact has been questioned, all known sources including Josephus, are unanimous and consistent on the point and there seems no ground on which the statement can be rejected. In such case he must have been born some ten years after the death of Solomon and lived through the reigns of nine monarchs, from Rehoboam to Joash.

The first eighty years of the life of Jehoiada were years of prosperity and peace in Judah. Four successive kings, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa and Jehoshaphat, were noted for their allegiance, in the main, to the Lord God of Israel and the exaltation of the Covenant. Idolatry was not allowed to flourish, the Temple services continued and the Aaronic priesthood discharged the duties of its office with the support and endorsement of the people. Apart from one lapse into idolatry on the part of Rehoboam, which resulted in Shishak the king of Egypt waging successful warfare against Judah, various attacks by Philistines, Ethiopians, Arabians and even their brethren of the northern ten‑tribe kingdom were all easily repulsed, in some cases with signal demonstrations of Divine power. Twice is the statement made that the land "had no more war", once in the reign of Asa and once in that of Jehoshaphat. This was the golden age of Judah’s tranquillity when the law of the Lord was observed in the land and the blessings of the covenant came upon the people in consequence—and then good king Jehoshaphat died and his son Jehoram took the throne.

At once the situation changed. Jehoram had married Athaliah the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, of the ten‑tribe kingdom. Athaliah, like her mother, was a fervent worshipper of Baal, and so, too, was Jehoram. The royal pair immediately began to institute Baal worship in the Kingdom and seduce the people from allegiance to the God of Israel. Jehoram murdered his six brothers, the remaining sons of Jehoshaphat, to eliminate possible rivalry. Whether Jehoiada was High Priest at this time is not known; the records are fragmentary—one Amariah held the office during the reign of Jehoshaphat and may have continued into that of Jehoram, but the time of Jehoiada’s entry upon the stage was in any case imminent. In the meantime, Jehoram’s reign of twenty‑five years, during which the Covenant was repudiated, cost Judah the loss of her Edomite possessions, and various successful invasions of peoples from the east and south, all of whom took considerable spoil culminating in the slaying of all Jehoram’s sons except one, Ahaziah. Finally the king himself died a lingering death of a malignant disease and, says the narrator scornfully, "departed without being desired". He was denied burial in the tombs of the kings, which showed pretty clearly that the nation had had enough of him and refused him the customary honours at death.

The surviving son, Ahaziah, a young man of twenty‑two, already married and the father of several young sons, reigned only one year but managed to crowd into it a considerable amount of villainy. Urged on by his mother Athaliah, "that wicked woman" as the Chronicler calls her in 2 Chron.24:7, he continued the policy of his father and got himself involved with the ten‑tribe kingdom in that nation’s wars with Syria, in consequence of which he was first seriously wounded in battle and then finally despatched by Jehu the avenging Israelite who was engaged in the elimination of all royal idolaters with particular emphasis upon the ruling house of the ten‑tribe kingdom. Thus Judah was left without a king and the royal heirs were children of only a few years old.

At this point Athaliah, the widow of Jehoram, stepped in. She was a bold, ambitious woman like her mother Jezebel and she had no intention of retiring into obscurity. She had a powerful court party on her side; it seems evident that Baal worship and idolatry was rampant among the nobility and aristocratic circles of the nation although the bulk of the populace were still loyal to God. Athaliah had just lost in death her brother Joram, king of the ten tribes, as well as her husband. Jehu was increasingly victorious in the north and had vowed to destroy idolatry in Israel; by a bold counterstroke Athaliah determined to consolidate idolatry in Judah, by wiping out the Davidic line through whom the Divine promises were to be fulfilled. She had her forces seek out and put to death all the sons of Ahaziah, her own grandchildren, and herself assumed the title of queen of Judah, reigning supreme over a land which she intended should never again honour the name of the God of Israel.

But she reckoned without Jehoiada.Jehoiada had married Jehosheba, a daughter of Jehoram, not by Athaliah but one of his other wives, so that Athaliah was her stepmother. She evidently shared her husband’s sterling faith, and by a quick‑witted stroke whilst the slaughter of Ahaziah’s sons was proceeding she rescued the youngest, a baby not more than a few months old, and hid him in an adjunct to the Temple where his presence would not be suspected. There, in concealment, the child lived for six years, and grew, while Athaliah reigned over the land and Jehoiada waited and planned. How many devout souls in Judah at that time must have mourned the calamity that had fallen upon their land and wondered if God had "forgotten to be gracious", little dreaming that the means of deliverance was present, unseen, in their own midst and would be revealed in due time.

It is here that the astute statesmanship of Jehoiada becomes evident. Biding his time during those six years, allowing no suspicion of the existence of the lad to arise in any mind, he evidently decided that at seven years of age Joash could be presented to the people as their lawful king. The account in 2 Chron.23 has all the drama of a typical Eastern palace plot. Five leading officers in the armed forces whom Jehoiada knew to be trustworthy were let into the secret; they in turn went throughout the length and breadth of Judah selecting equally trustworthy Levites and heads of families and brought them to Jerusalem. Weapons which had been stored in the Temple since the days of King David were brought out and with these an armed force was created, posted to guard the approaches to the Temple. That venerable building must have speedily taken on the semblance of a fortress.

When all was ready, the seven‑year old Joash was brought from his seclusion into the Temple, closely guarded by a determined body of priests and Levities who alone might enter the sacred precincts. In the outer court were massed a crowd of spectators who had evidently been told what to expect, flanked on either side by serried (tight) ranks of stalwart armed men eager to defend their king. It is evident that a substantial opposition to Athaliah and her paganism existed in Judah and the news that a king possessing right of lineal descent from David still lived and was now to be crowned met with very general approbation among the people in general. So well had Jehoiada laid and executed his plans that it seems no one of the Baal party knew anything of what was afoot until it was too late. With all solemnity the High Priest placed the crown upon the head of Joash, anointed him and put into his hand a copy of the Law of Moses. The trumpets sounded and the cry went up "God save the King". It is an interesting point to notice that this expression, so familiar to us as a tribute of loyalty and respect to the British monarchy should have had its origin at this dramatic moment in the history of the "People of the Book".

Athaliah heard the shouting and the music from the royal palace, which occupied a position almost adjacent to the Temple, and came out immediately to investigate. According to 2 Chron.23:13 there were trumpets and musical instruments and choral singing so that she could hardly have failed to realise that something very unusual was transpiring in the usually quiet and deserted Temple. She only had time to see the boy‑king standing arrayed in all the regalia of his office before being seized, together with apparently a small body of her compatriots in idolatry, and hurried to the valley of the Kidron below the Temple walls, where without further ceremony she was put to death. They were savage days and passions ran high, and the followers of the Everliving had suffered a great deal at the hands of the idolaters; their patriotism too had been affronted by the manner in which their nation had been made almost a subservient province of Phoenicia—for Jezebel was a daughter of the famous King Ethbaal of Tyre and for generations Tyre had exercised a strong influence in Israel’s affairs. Now that the opportunity was theirs the people of Judah vented their pent‑up resentment on all that had to do with the hated foreigners and their alien religion. The great Temple of Baal at Jerusalem, which stood alongside Solomon’s Temple, was completely destroyed, Mattan, its high priest, slain in front of his own altar, and all the images and instruments of Baal worship in the land broken into pieces and dispersed. In a solemn ceremony, presided over by Jehoiada, the people and the king pledged themselves to each other "that they should be the Lord’s people", implying a formal avowal of loyalty to the Mosaic Covenant and renunciation of all that was not in accord therewith.

So Joash began his reign and he reigned forty years in Jerusalem. For the first twenty years or so of that period Jehoiada was undoubtedly the power behind the throne, in effect the uncrowned king of the land, guiding and instructing the young lad until he was mature enough to assume the duties of kingship himself. It is rather puzzling to note that during this twenty year period, when Jehoiada was the acknowledged director of the nation’s destinies, there seems to have been singularly little progress made in restoring the Temple, rescuing it from the neglect of the past three reigns, and making it again the centre of national worship. The impulse to restore the Temple seems to have come, not from the High Priest, but from the king, and this could hardly have been before he was a young man in his late teens. In fact, so late as the twenty‑third year of his reign the work had not been completed and it was the king who called Jehoiada to account over this and instructed him to expedite and finish the work. It might be charitable to conclude that the advancing age of the High Priest, now more than a century old, is the explanation of this apparent shortcoming, although he seems to have been vigorous enough in affairs of state. It might on the other hand have been that, after all, he was a better statesman than priest, that the secular cares which had devolved upon him for so many years left insufficient time and energy for his sacred duties. If so, Jehoiada would not be the only one in history to whom that has happened, and it is a lesson to all of us. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God" is always a sound injunction, and all other things must take second place.

The saddest commentary on the story is that immediately following Jehoiada’s death the whole of his work was undone. The king’s new youthful advisers had scant sympathy for the old priest’s piety and reforms. The rising generation neglected the Temple and forgot the Covenant. Idolatry came back and the idol shrines once more desecrated the land. Prophets of the Lord raised their voices in protest and were unheeded; Zechariah the son and successor of Jehoiada in the priesthood publicly rebuked the offenders, and by the king’s command was stoned to death in the court of the Temple. At once the Divine protection that had been over Judah was withdrawn; the penalty of the covenant came into effect. The armies of Syria invaded the land, slew all the leaders—those same leaders who had advised the king to his idolatrous course—laid the land under tribute and took great spoil back to Damascus. The disasters coming upon the nation led to a palace plot which resulted in the murder of the king. As with his father and grandfather, he was not buried in the tombs of the kings of Judah, being deemed unworthy of that honour; it is worthy of notice that Jehoiada, although not of royal lineage, was in fact buried in the tombs of the kings "because he had done good in Israel, both toward God, and toward his house" (2 Chron.24:16). Throughout those troubled times, this venerable old High Priest was the true king of Israel; under the hand of God he preserved the Davidic line from extinction and he struck idolatry in Judah a blow from which it never really recovered. In after years there were periods of idolatry under Ahaz and Manasseh, but not to the extent of former times. The contribution which Jehoiada made to the outworking purpose of God was a valid and a lasting contribution, even although his personal work may seem to have been nullified at his death. It takes more than a temporary resurgence of evil to cancel good that has already been done, for good is enduring; it may be temporarily overlaid with evil but cannot be destroyed by it. A lesson for those of us who may be faced with similar situations in our own lives and in our own days is that the faithfulness and untiring service of Jehoiada bore its real fruitage, not in his own day and lifetime, but eight centuries later when the Lord of glory came to a people, a "remnant", who were the heirs and successors of all that he had done and for which he stood. Something of the faith and hope he instilled into men’s hearts in those dark days was passed on through the generations until it emerged in the lives of those at the First Advent who "looked for deliverance" in Jerusalem, and, seeing Jesus, recognised him indeed as "He that should come".