A Tale of Two Kings

bible-1068176_1920“And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord.”

It’s not a statement that appears often in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. In fact, after the kingdom of Israel was split in two, it became an accolade that (when it applied at all) belonged exclusively to kings of Judah. That statement alone sets apart a small handful of rulers who stand out for their dedication to honoring and observing the commandments of God—but of those kings, the story of King Uzziah stands out for an entirely different reason.

Uzziah took the throne at the age of sixteen, and right out the gate we read that “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord” and “as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5). The account goes on to mention his conquests against the Philistines, his army of 307,500 men and his 2,600 mighty men of valor, his innovations and fortifications in Jerusalem, and most importantly, the fact that “he was marvelously helped till he became strong” (2 Chronicles 26:14, cf. 26:7).

The penalty for pride

But then Uzziah suffered what we might call a spiritual heart attack. We’re told that “when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Probably intended as an act of worship and thanksgiving to God, Uzziah entered the temple and did what only the priests had been consecrated to do: burn incense before God. Somewhere along the line, Uzziah became convinced that the rules didn’t apply to him—that the same God who had strengthened him wouldn’t mind if he transgressed His law in an act of worship.

So when 81 priests charged into the temple after him and commanded him to stop trespassing before God, his response wasn’t one of repentance. It was of fury. He was UzziahKing Uzziah. He had crushed armies, fortified his kingdom, and brought peace and prosperity to Jerusalem. How dare a lowly priest presume to tell him what he could and could not do!

The rest is history. “And while he was angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, before the priests in the house of the Lord, beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and there, on his forehead, he was leprous; so they thrust him out of that place. Indeed he also hurried to get out, because the Lord had struck him. King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:19-21).

Because Uzziah did not keep his heart in check—because he forgot where his strength and success came from—his pride and arrogance cost him his health, his kingship, and the aid of his God.

The most wicked king

Several generations later, twelve-year-old Manasseh came to the throne of Judah—and to call him wicked would be tantamount to calling Goliath “above-average in height.” Manasseh set himself apart as the most perverse king to ever rule over Judah, seducing “Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel” (2 Chronicles 33:9). Not only was he the worst king Judah ever had, he was more wicked than the pagan nations Israel had displaced. The beginning of 2 Chronicles 33 reads less like a biography and more like a laundry list of the worst possible sins a human being can commit—consulting spiritists, setting up altars and idols in the temple of God, worshipping every false god he could find, and even sacrificing his own children in fire.

In response to Manasseh’s flagrant sins (and refusal to heed divine warnings, cf. 2 Chronicles 33:10), God vowed to bring “such calamity upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab; I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down” (2 Kings 21:12-13). Manasseh had earned the wrath of God in a way few people ever have, and so it was little surprise that God allowed the armies of Assyria to carry away Manasseh with hooks and fetters into captivity.

180 degrees

What is a surprise is what happened next. Manasseh again did what few others in his position have done—“he implored the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13). The most wicked king in the history of Judah humbled himself before God and changed his ways. The result? God “received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God” (2 Chronicles 33:13).

Rather than fall back into his sinful ways, Manasseh’s account ends by recording how he sought to reverse his terrible sins—tearing down his pagan altars and idols, repairing the altar in God’s temple, making peace and thank offerings on it, and commanding Judah to serve only the true God.

A state of being

These two kings of Judah—Uzziah, who became mighty by seeking to follow God and then lost everything for the sake of pride, and Manasseh, who set a record in wickedness and then made a complete about-face by turning to God in humility—serve to illustrate one of the Bible’s most vital principles: namely, that we are judged for who we are, not who we’ve been.

God inspired Ezekiel to spell this out in Ezekiel 18, where God promises, “‘if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord God, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’

“‘But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die’” (Ezekiel 18:21-24).

Righteousness, God tells us, is not a bank. It’s not a balance where good deeds add to it and sins take away from it. On the contrary, it’s a state of being. Should we choose to sin and remain in sin, all the past righteousness in the world will not detract from our present state of being.

Uzziah did not get a free pass from his sin because of all the time he spent seeking God. He transgressed the law in pride, refused to repent, and was struck down in leprosy. His sin didn’t just detract from his righteousness, it erased it. Likewise, when Manasseh humbled himself before God, God didn’t tell him, “I’m sorry, but you’ve just sinned too much. There’s nothing I can do for you.” He was instead restored to the throne and allowed to live out the remainder of his years seeking after God.

The moments that matter

The application for us, I hope, is plain. There is no such thing as a little sin (James 2:10). There is no sin in the world that can be counterbalanced by past righteousness, and no amount of living God’s way can cancel out the death penalty for our sins. There is no bank account, no balance—there is only living God’s way, or not. When we fail, we must repent, ask God to wipe away that sin with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, and continue on in righteousness. The alternative is eternal death (Ezekiel 18:4).

We have, every moment in our lives, a choice: God’s way, or ours. Our failures or successes in the past aren’t what will determine our future—it’s the choices you and I are making right now, in each successive moment.

Therefore choose life.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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