In this particular passage of Scripture, the nation of Israel, to the north, has fallen so far from God's desire and purpose that he has given up on them, and they have been defeated and carried off into captivity. Judah, the southern kingdom, is following the same pattern. They have become more and more distant from God's desire. This portion of Scripture deals with Josiah, king of the southern kingdom. Josiah found the temple full of corruption. As king, he asked his priests to clean up the temple. They found the Law of God hidden back in a cupboard. The high priest brought out the Law and read it to the king, and the king was so impressed he decided to make the southern kingdom of Judah as God would desire before he destroyed it as he had Israel.
Astrology is still dangerous
That brings us to chapter 23 of Second Kings, and I want to start with the fourth verse. There are three directions I see us going today. First, I want us to see exactly how we can drift away from what God wants and end up with a terrible mess in our lives. Then we'll deal with what we might do to undo the mess we find ourselves in. Then we'll see the hope that God has for us.
We begin in the fourth verse. It says, "The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank, and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron Valley and took the ashes to Bethel." (Bethel was a city 60 miles north of Jerusalem—right on the border of what had been Israel.)
The king said, "Look, we have gotten ourselves in such a difficult mess that if we have any hope of getting out of it, we have to separate ourselves from that which has been giving us problems."
That is true of us. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we're going to straighten out our lives. The things we have done in the past have gotten us away from God. We think we'll hold on to those. They're not going to do any harm. They'll just be there, and we'll have them if we need them. Otherwise, they won't make any difference. What the king discovered, and the truth for us, is this: When we decide to get right with God, one of the things we have to do is to destroy all those parts of our life, those things in the past that have been important to us, and get them away so they can no longer be an influence.
Verse five reads, "He did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem."
Sometimes people couldn't make it to the temple, and so they began to have little areas where they could worship in the mountains around the cities and around Jerusalem. Then if you could not get to the temple to worship, you at least could be out where you could supposedly draw near to God. But you'll remember that one of the foolish things Solomon did was to begin building temples in these mountains around Jerusalem, temples to the pagan gods of the women he'd married. What had happened by this time was that here were all these areas known as the high places—areas having shrines to the various pagan gods. The people did things there that were offensive to God. In the last half of that verse, it says he got rid of "those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, the constellations and to all the starry hosts."
What if someone came to you in this sanctuary and said, "I have a great idea. Why don't you ignore everything you've ever believed about God and Jesus Christ? Start out in a whole new direction by worshiping a whole new kind of god." I honestly believe you'd say, "No I don't want to do that." But that isn't the way we drift from God. It seems to me that what is in 2 Kings is also the danger that we have today in our country. What happens is that we tend slowly to drift away from God.
Here in the temple they had a whole system of worship of the stars and all the constellations. They had priests who were responsible to determine what the stars do and how they might speak to us and guide us.
I've had people sometimes ask me, "David, you really don't believe there's anything wrong with my doing horoscopes in the newspaper, do you? I mean, they're in the newspaper and in TV Guide, right next to the crossword puzzles. There isn't anything wrong with that, is there?" Well, the answer is yes. It's the same kind of a question as, "There isn't anything wrong with taking just a little bit of crack, is there?" People, as we begin to deal with these things, they become part of our life.
I don't think Israel decided one Tuesday afternoon to go into the middle of God's temple and build some kind of a telescope to see what the stars were doing. I don't think they thought that. I don't think they ever had an intention of one day having priests who would give honor and worship to the sun and to all of the stars. It came over hundreds of years as they began to be more and more influenced by things that were not of God. If we don't have God, we're going to have something.
I'd say the most foolish thing that anyone in this room could do would be to play with horoscopes. If you do it, you're dumb. You say, "Well it makes some way for me to pass the lonely afternoons." There's got to be better ways to pass the lonely afternoons than to put things in your mind that pull you away from God. Listen, that stuff is serious. It isn't a game. In the Old Testament was a nation that had fallen into the trap of thinking that the stars and the sun and the moon had control over their lives and deserved their worship and honor. "I don't think that," you say. "This is just a pastime." But that's what they did. That's what got them into the mess they were in when King Josiah decided to change it. What he did was to take away all of the priests and all of the paraphernalia that had been there for the worship of the constellations. He destroyed them.
Our culture is absorbed with sex
In the sixth verse, it tells how he brought out the Asherah from the house of the Lord outside of Jerusalem to the Kidron Valley, burned it, ground it to dust, and threw its dust on the graves of common people. What in the world was an Asherah?
The King James Version called it a wooden image. History tells us it stood about 35 to 40 feet tall. It probably weighed several tons. It was carved out of wood, and it was the shape and figure of an erect penis. That thing sat in the middle of the temple. It was a major part of the worship in the nation of Israel.
If you desired, you could worship this particular type of religion, which put a great emphasis on sex. There were buildings built like red light districts in our day. There were women prostitutes or men prostitutes; take your pick. You could go in and have all of the enjoyment that you wanted as you were giving worship to God. There were, in fact, women who spent their time as priestesses weaving cloths to drape it, and they would stroke it. This was going on in the temple of God.
And Josiah said, "Listen, this isn't right." But you see, people, in America today, it's so easy for us to fall into all kinds of problems in this area of sex. Next to food, sex is about the heaviest drive that young and old people have. What happens is we begin to place more emphasis and more attention on this area of our lives. I dare say in the two or three hundred years before this passage of Scripture was written, if someone had gone to the nation of Israel and said, "What we're going to do is put a great big penis in the middle of your sanctuary," they would have said, "No way!" But as they began to put more and more emphasis on sex, the whole nation was destroyed. So King Josiah came and said, "We have to do something because astrology and sex are destroying our relationship with God and our life as a nation."
The northern kingdom became so corrupt that God gave up on them and let them be totally defeated, destroyed, and carried off into captivity. And the king said, "If we don't change, the same thing is going to happen to us." Now, is there anything wrong with Playboy? Well, is there anything wrong with just a little bit of crack? These things get into my life and into your life and they can distort and twist and ruin so much of what we are in our relationship with God. King Josiah said, "If we don't stop, our nation is going to be destroyed because you can't let things get ahead of God."
Child sacrifice is a horrid problem
It says in the eighth verse, "Josiah brought all of the priests from the towns of Judah and desecrated the high places, from Geba to Beersheba, where the priests had burned incense. He broke down the shrines at the gates—at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua, the city governor, which is on the left of the city gate. Although the priests of the high places did not serve at the altar of the Lord in Jerusalem, they ate unleavened bread with their fellow priests. He (Josiah) desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech."
They had another practice that had grown up. Right outside of the temple, outside of the walls of Jerusalem, right over on the north side, there's a valley. That valley was very deep. And a practice had grown up as the people became more corrupt. They began to worship a god by the name of Molech. Molech said that what a person needed to do if he really wanted to have a life that was rich and full and complete was to get rid of their children. They would take their children, infants and up to eight or nine years of age, to a large cauldron with a fire burning in it all of the time. They would throw the children into the ceremonial fire.
Along the rim of that mountain on Molech celebration days, thousands of people with huge kettle drums would begin to beat the drums with more and more ardent fervor. The drumming did two things. It stirred up the people until they were willing to give their own child, their own newborn baby, to this god of Molech, and it also would keep the crowds from hearing the screams of the children.
Now why do we talk about all that on a day like this? We have no valley outside of our church. We have no drums. We hear no screams of children. But we have the sacrifice. If you want a good life, all you have to do is give up your children. We don't use fire anymore; we use saline solutions. And all you need do is go to a clinic. Life is taken care of, and problems are over. You're free to be and to do what you want.
I think somewhere deep down inside, we are right along the path that Israel had gone before and Judah was going now. Our lives have become so wrapped up with strange pagan religions, astrology, and all of the garbage. We now see pleasure becoming more and more popular in our land. There's more of an emphasis on finding what I want to do in the way I want to do it. I want no burdens of undesired children as a result of my pleasures.
Our nation may be destroyed, too
The 11th verse says that the king "removed from the entrance to the temple of the Lord the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Molech. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun. He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz, and the altars Manasseh had built in the two courts of the temple of the Lord. He removed them from there, smashed them to pieces and threw the rubble into the Kidron Valley."
You see, it had gotten so corrupt that in the very temple built by Solomon to the glory of God, in all of the little anterooms and all of the little corridors and all of the little corners there had been built all kinds of altars to all kinds of gods. Whatever you desired to have, whatever pleasure you wanted, whatever need you had, somewhere within the confines of that temple you could go and have your dreams fulfilled.
The king said, "It's wrong. It's wrong." He broke in pieces the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah, and filled their places with human bones. Furthermore the altar that was at Bethel and the high place made by Jeroboam—the son of Nebat who made Israel sin—even that altar and high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah.
See, not only was there an Asherah in the temple at Jerusalem—you might not want to go that far to have your thrill—all of the villages around and all of the hillsides had their own little individual Asherahs, and it was all there for pleasure.
In the 16th verse Josiah turns to see the graves that were there on the mountain, and he took the bones from the graves and burned them on the altar and defiled it "in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things."
What a mess they had in Israel. And Israel had fallen because of their mess. And now what a mess they've got in Judah. And the king says, "If we don't change as a nation, our nation is going to be destroyed because God won't let it happen much longer."
Here we are in America, and we have our little strange beliefs and things that we find in the newspapers and in the shopping carts and at the checkout counters. We have all of the things that we do in our lives, and there's nothing wrong with them. Except we're just going the same way Judah went so long ago. The question is, "What do we do about it?"
Well, I'm not really sure how much you and I are going to do to change what happens to America. That sounds negative and pessimistic. I don't mean it to be that way. I think it's probably a fact. Even though Josiah said, "We're going to have a reformation," and even though Josiah and the priests destroyed all of the things that had been there, the truth of the matter was that Judah had become so corrupted, so far from God's reality, that God never did bring them back. Not too long after that the city of Jerusalem was totally destroyed. The temple was burned to the ground, and the nation was carried off in slavery.
If you look at it in that way, Josiah failed because he didn't save the nation from destruction. They'd gone too far; they'd gotten too corrupt. But there were individuals in the nation whom he touched and who turned back to God. They gave themselves again to him, and when the nation was carried off. God made a promise to those who would be the remnant, and he said, "You will come back."
I think the hope for us is to do everything we can to change the direction our nation is going. Maybe we'll be more successful than Josiah was. But more than that, the task you and I have is to do what Josiah urged all of the people to do in our own lives. We need to evaluate who we are, where we are, what we are, what we do, and who we worship. I think what we have to do is come to a point where we see our sin—our separation—as offensive and our sin as tragedy.
Most of the time today in our land we either justify the sin we have in our own lives or explain it away. I'm good at that. We justify it in our own lives and see little consequence in anybody else doing it. You can't tell someone they shouldn't do something. We're free to do anything we want, and it isn't fair to have restrictions. Can you picture the United States some day when there are temples to a god like Molech where we kill children, and no one can stop us? It's our religion, and we have that right. Can you see the corruption that might come in our land where there could be religions built on this glory of sex, and no one can stop it because it's religion? We're free. That's what happened to Israel. That's what happened to Judah. And you know what happened to Israel and Judah.
God has no guarantee to keep our land. He has no promise to make America survive. God could care less if America disappeared tomorrow. Now, it makes a difference to me, but as far as God's eternal plan is concerned, I don't believe America is all that vital. We exist only at his suffrage, only as long as we have a right and a reason for existing. And we have no more right to exist than did Mesopotamia or Greece or the Roman Empire or all of the others that lost out.
Second Kings is a devastating book because it's a story of how a whole nation went straight to hell, and God let that nation be destroyed. I would say for you and for me the most important thing we can get out of Second Kings is to look at ourselves and say, "God, is it me? Am I adding to this thing in America that puts all of its emphasis on pleasure, all of its attention on what is fun and enjoyable with nothing ever that is of any consequence or pain? Am I part of that? Am I giving to my children a message that what really matters in life is how much fun I can have and how much recreation I can enjoy and how much I can gain? Am I doing that? If I am, I ought to read Second Kings very carefully."
In the third verse of chapter 23, the Word of God had been read, and it says the king stood by a pillar in the temple and made a covenant before the Lord to walk after the Lord to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all of his heart and all of his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in the book. And all of the people entered into the covenant. But they really didn't. When it was all done, they died.
But, people, if somehow we in America don't understand what's being said in this passage of Scripture, then our country is going down the tubes. We can sit and talk about freedom of choice and rights and privileges. We can do it till the end. But God doesn't have to pay that much attention to our logic. I hope in my life, I hope in yours, that you and I can do whatever we need to do to pull our own lives, our own families, our own children, and maybe our nation, out of this path we're following right now, just like Judah.