"From Rise to Fall"
1 Chronicles 5:18-26
(Delivered Sunday, December 14, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
If a brand new believer wanted to start reading the Bible for the first time, and were to ask me for a good place to start, I'd probably not send them to the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles. The first several chapters of that book are genealogies of the Jewish people. And though they are very important genealogies, I'd be afraid that the long list of hard-to-pronounce names might be a bit intimidating to a new reader.
And yet, it's to that very portion of the Scriptures that I ask you to turn this morning. Every once in a while, in this biblical listing of genealogical information, the writer was lead by the Holy Spirit to insert a slice-of-life story in the history of God's people Israel. And there's just such a story in the fifth chapter of 1 Chronicles one that, I believe, contains an important spiritual lesson God would have us consider.
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Now; before we read this passage from 1 Chronicles, let me share just a couple of important things you should know about the book itself. Understanding the purpose of the writer of the book will help us appreciate his inclusion of this remarkable story that we're about to read.
You should know, for example, that 1 and 2 Chronicles were really meant to be thought of as one continuous book. And contrary to what you may think, the human author was not C.S. Lewis! Whoever it was had to have been alive sometime after the people of the southern kingdom of Judah had been released from their captivity in Babylon, and had returned to their homeland; because that's how the story ends in in 2 Chronicles. This means that the writer had to have written this historical record sometime after 538 B.C. And we may have an important clue as to who the original author was; because the last two verses of 2 Chronicles are almost identical to the first three verses of the Book of Ezra. And so, the godly scribe Ezra may very likely be the human author of 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Ezra returned with a group of exiles back to their homeland in 458 B.C. His kinsmen had spent many years of captivity in a pagan land; and his great concern was to bring about a revival of spiritual devotion to God in their hearts. And this burden is reflected in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles.
This amazing couple of Old Testament books 'chronicle' the story of God's people beginning all the way from Adam, describes the Exodus, recites the genealogies of the different tribes, outlines the story of the various kings, and concludes with the story of the seventy-year captivity in Babylon and the return of the people to their homeland. And if Ezra indeed was the writer of these two books, then he was outlining the story to God's returning people in order to give an objective explanation of why the captivity had happened in the first place. He wanted to remind them that it was their sin of unfaithfulness to God and their wicked worship of the false gods of the nations around them had been the cause of their troubles (see 2 Chronicles 36:14-21). And he wanted them to learn from their own history . . . and not fall into the sin of unfaithfulness again, now that they were returning to their homeland.
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And this is exactly the sort of thing we find in somewhat miniaturized form in this morning's passage from 1 Chronicles 5. It tells the story of the glorious rise of a people under the mighty hand of God, of their growing unfaithfulness as the years rolled on, and of their grievous fall into captivity in the end.
The writer of 1 Chronicles was reviewing the genealogies of the various tribes of Israel; and particularly the genealogies of three tribes that had settled in the area east of the Jordan River, prior to the time of the conquest of Canaan. After reviewing some of the information regarding the tribe of Reuben, and then the tribe of Gad, the writer tells this story:
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Now; what the apostle Paul writes elsewhere about the history of the Jewish people though in another context certainly applies here, and with respect to those of us who are in Christ today:
It's God's will that those of us whom He has raised in great privilege in Christ not suffer the fall through the sin of unfaithfulness, as these ancient Jewish people had fallen. So; let's learn from their sad example.
And let's begin by considering . . .
1. THEIR RISE (vv. 18-22).
Their story begins back in the days of Moses. Just before the people of Israel were led into the promised land, these people gazed upon the portion of land on the east side of the Jordan River, and saw that it was well-suited to their needs as keepers of livestock. So they said to Moses, "If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not take us over the Jordan" (Numbers 32:5). So; after they crossed over to help the other tribes conquer the land God was giving them (Joshua 4:11-13), they settled in the land of Bashan (Joshua 13:29-31).
The story in our passage takes place several centuries later. Somewhere around the middle of the 11th century B.C. during the reign of King Saul, the first of the Jewish kings (1 Chronicles 5:10) these three tribes of the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Mannaseh, all entered into war together with the people group known as the Hagrites. The Hagrites were descendent's of Ishmael (1 Chronicles 1:29-31); having taken their name from his mother Hagar (Genesis 16:15; 25:15). God had said, in Genesis 16:12, that Ishmael would be "a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him"; and so, we can imagine that these three tribes found it necessary to enter into conflict with these decedents of Ishmael in order to protect themselves.
Though the combined force of these three tribes numbered 44,760 men (see also Joshua 4:13), and though they were described as valiant and capable soldiers, they faced an opposing army that outnumbered them many times over. And yet; we're told that they "were helped against them", and that the Hagrites were "delivered into their hand, and all who were with them".
And how did this happen? We're told that "they cried out to God in the battle. He heeded their prayer, because they put their trust in Him" (v. 20). They were already keepers of a great amount of livestock; but as a result of the victory God gave them, they carried off a great booty of 50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, and 2,000 donkeys as a result of the victory God gave them along with, in addition, 100,000 prisoners of war.
They cried out to God; and as a result, God responded to their prayer and gave them great victory. This was because as soon as they cried out to Him, as it says in this passage, "the war was God's" (v. 22). It became His battle; and He always wins every battle He enters!
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What a great victory this was! not only as a great military victory, but also as a great victory of faith! They trusted God in the challenge that faced them; and found that God helped them! This was truly their "rise" to greatness in the kingdom of God.
There are many other such stories in Scripture and they all teach us that when people who were faced overwhelming odds cried out to God in faith, God helped them and gave them a great and miraculous victory. We read for example that, later on in the history of the Jewish people, King Asa of Judah was confronted with the seemingly impossible challenge of defending his people against a hostile Ethiopian army that numbered one-million men—a vast army equipped with three-hundred chariots! But he cried out to God and said, "Lord, it is nothing for You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, O LORD our God, for we rest on You, and in Your name we go against this multitude. O LORD, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!" (2 Chronicles 14:11). And as a result of King Asa's trust in God, God brought about a great victory for his people.
Or we read later on of how the people groups of Moab, Ammon, and other enemies of Judah—"a great multitude"—arose to attack. Immediately, Judah's king, Jehoshaphat, "set himself to seek the LORD". He called the people to a fast, and appealed to God for help (2 Chronicles 20:3-4). Afterwards, one of the prophets told Jehoshaphat, "Thus says the LORD to you: 'Do not be afraid or dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God's'" (v. 15). And as it turned out, Jehoshaphat and his army didn't even need to fight in the battle. They arrived at the battlefield and found that all their enemies had already fought and killed each other!
Or we read later still of how the dreaded Assyrian army—an army that was literally sweeping every other nation into bondage—came to the very threshold of Jerusalem, threatened the people, and blasphemed the God of Israel. King Hezekiah brought news of these threats to the prophet Isaiah; and through Isaiah, God told the king, "Do not be afraid of the words which you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me . . ." (2 Kings 19:6). Hezekiah was inspired by this prophetic word to trust God and make his appeal to Him. And as a result, Hezekiah and his forces didn't even have to fight. The people of Judah arose in the morning to discover that an angel of the Lord had come in the night and slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their own camp (v. 35)!
Now; it may be the case that you and I don't have to face an opposing army, as many of these great men of faith did. But the spiritual principle we see in all these examples is the same: Whatever your or my challenge in life may be, we never rise higher than when we trust God Himself to lift us up and come to our defense in the time of trial.
As Psalm 146:5 says "Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God . . ."
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So; when it came to these three tribe east of the Jordan, this was their "rise". They trusted God; and He proved Himself to be a mighty help to those who trust Him.
But notice the ominous words at the end of verse 22: that they dwelt in their place "until the captivity". They began by trusting God; and that was their rise. And yet, in the end, they suffered loss and captivity.
And to understand how this happened, we must next consider . . .
2. THEIR SIN (vv. 23-25).
The downward slide came—as it so often does—during times of confidence and complacency. It came during the years in which the succeeding generations lived in the land that their forefathers had conquered for them. They not only dwelt peacefully in the land and tended their vast gains of livestock; but we're told that they "increased" in the territory that they occupied. What's more, they had leaders—"heads of their fathers' houses"—who "were mighty men of valor" and "famous men". They had entered into the blessings of God's good help to them. They had everything going for them.
But then comes the sin. As they spread across the territory God had given them, and as they enjoyed prosperity and great leadership over the years, they grew to be "unfaithful to the God of their fathers" (v. 25a). While their forefathers cried out faithfully to God and trusted in Him, the succeeding generations did not thank Him, or acknowledge His provision, or trust Him for their needs, or cry out to Him in their times of trial.
And what's more, we're told that the vacuum that was lefty by an absence of faith in the God of their forefathers was soon filled with false gods; so that they "played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them" (v. 25b). Like a wayward bride, they left their husband and were having spiritual 'affairs' with the false gods of the very people whose lands the one true God had graciously given them.
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Psalm 106:34-39 may be a very vivid description of the sin they committed and may even help remind us of the danger we ourselves could be under if we are not on our guard:
Dear brother or sister; you and I become caught by the same snare when we become complacent in our faith in God. When we lose sight over time of how dependent we truly are on Him for everything in our lives; when we begin to trust less and less in Him, and more and more in our own resources and strength; then we don't simply become "neutral" and "plateau-out" spiritually. We actually begin to fill the God-shaped void in our hearts with a false god—to our own destruction!
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So; these very people, who were raised to greatness because they trusted God, slipped into sinned because they grew to be unfaithful to Him and turned instead to false gods that could not help them.
And this leads us finally to . . .
3. THEIR FALL (v. 26).
We're told something remarkable about the sovereign power of God over even the ungodly nations of the world—that "the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria" against them. The God who had raised them up because they had trusted Him was also able to raise up other nations—even pagan nations—against them when they turned away from Him.
About three-hundred years after He had given great victory to their forefathers, God allowed these same tribes the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to be removed from the land that God had given them, and to be taken far away into captivity. The writer of this account says that they were still in that far away place even at the time he wrote.
It was a shocking story of a rise, a sin, and a dreadful fall. What a sobering lesson it must have been to those who were even then returning to their homeland from their captivity from Babylon!
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The Holy Spirit led the writer of 1 and 2 Chronicles to include this story, not only for those returning Jewish people long ago, but also for our benefit today. And I'd like to suggest at least two lessons it has to teach us.
First of all, it teaches us of our own desperate need to be sure that we are constantly, consistently faithful to look to, cry out to, and rely upon the God who faithfully helps all those who genuinely trust in Him. "For," as the Bible tells us, "the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him" (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Is there some trial or challenge in your life right now? Have you done as the ancient people of Israel did when God had raised them up in victory? Have you "cried out to God in the battle"? Perhaps this very morning, God is using this passage to call you to repent of the failure to make Him your first trust. Perhaps He is calling you to stop looking to other things, and to learn to look to Him for your help.
And another thing that I believe this passage would teach us is of our need to make sure that we are faithful to pass a trust in God on to the next generation! Successive generations had, over time, forgotten what God had done for their forefathers.
Are there some young people that God has placed in your life that you can protect from the downward slide into unfaithfulness? May God help us to pass a genuine faithfulness to the infinitely trustworthy God of Israel on to the next generation; and to speak to them as it says in Psalm 78:1-8;
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