For any of you ladies out there who always wanted to study the wicked queen Athaliah from the Old Testament…No! Seriously, for any of you ladies who are going through a time of personal discouragement looking at what seems to be the weakness of your church, ministry or personal effectiveness in this wicked world, I invite you to step into this study and see what God did during some incredibly dark moments in the life of His people Israel. And may the tenacity of our God to pursue His redemptive purposes greatly encourage you!
Athaliah: the Day God’s Promise Seemed to Hang by a Thread
Text: “And Jehoiada said to them, “Behold the King’s son shall reign as the Lord has said.
Okay, I’ll start with a story. It’s about Ethel Kennedy, the wife of a famous American politician. According to the story, Ethel Kennedy had been chosen “Mother of the Year” by some group or other. I’m not sure what standard the group used to come to this conclusion. But anyway the group chose her and a photographer went out to her home to take some pictures of her. I imagine the home was spotless that day and that Ethel’s hair and makeup was just right. I’m sure she wanted to look very poised and peaceful and hoped her children would behave. And afterwards maybe all the ordinary moms who saw the photos envied her and wondered why they couldn’t be supermom too. But one of Ethel’s neighbors may have had a more realistic view of Ethel’s mothering skills since she lived right there and saw what when on day in and day out. Anyway, when interviewed for a book about the family she said she remembered the very day the photographer had come. And she recalled that at the very moment that the photographer was inside the house taking pictures of the mother of the year, three of Ethels kids were up on the roof playing cowboys, trying to lasso the chimney! If only the photographer had included those shots with the article!
Well, maybe we should give Ethel some grace since she did have 11 kids to keep track of, but the point is, things are not always what they seem. That photographer didn’t have the big picture and so the readers of the article missed the truth.
We don’t want to do that in our study today. We want to step far enough back to see what’s going on not just in the house, but on the roof, so to speak. Because if you just focus on all these characters: Athaliah, Jehoshabeath, Jehoida and Joash running around, apart from the big picture, all you will see is something that looks like the typical struggle for political power and you’ll miss the main points of the study, which are how desperately God’s people need a redeemer, how much God wants to redeem them and how strong He is do to it!
Those things ladies, is what our study today is all about. Today we will see Athaliah’s brutal attempt to wipe out the line of David, but behind Athaliah, we will also see Satan’s attempt to make God’s promise to send our Savior fail. But above Satan, we will see God’s hand firmly in control. And we will see that because of who our God is they never had a chance! So I encourage you, as we study, Let this reality change you. Let your heart melt at the greatness of God’s commitment to send the Savior that would one day die for your sins, to bring you to God. Let your heart thrill with awe at how strong the saving purposes of God are and how invincible is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then let that hope free you to act like Jehoshabeath did, and to get personally involved in God’s purposes.
Knowing the depths of the saving love of God can turn even Athaliahs into Jehoshabeaths! So let’s get started in seeing how strong God’s love for us really is. Our study is divided into 3 sections. 1) Judah’s dark night 2) the faith of a few, 3) the King revealed.
I. Judah’s dark night
You can open your Bibles to 2 Chronicles 22. Let’s start by reading v. 10.
Now when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family of the house of Judah.
This verse describes an incredibly dark night in Judah’s history. These little princes are all just small children playing together. They are Athaliah’s own grandchildren. Yet she sends her assassins into the room and simply exterminates them.
I think it’s important for us to ask when we read this verse is, who WAS this woman Athaliah and why did she do this? This information contains some good warnings for us. So bear with me while we take a short detour from the text.
To see who she was I need to catch you up on what was going on in the South, in Judah. First, realize that after the kingdom had split into north and south, in contrast to the uninterrupted line of evil kings in the north, Judah had had three fairly good kings that had sought the Lord.
Jehoshaphat was the third and the best. Coming to power two years after Ahab, the Bible says Jehoshaphat was much like King David. He walked in God’s ways and he truly delighted in God. Some of the great things he did were to tear down centers of false worship, to send teachers of God’s Word through the land to bring the people back to God; he trained judges to deal justly with the peoples conflicts. Also, when he heard news that a huge army was coming against Judah, his reaction was to seek the Lord and fast, and to gather all Judah together to seek God’s help. That beautiful story and how God delivered Judah as they sang praises to Him is found just two chapters back in 2 Chronicles 20. Amazing how fast things can change. But when you see the sin Jehoshaphat fell into you’ll understand why they changed.
One writer even says Jehoshaphat deserves “a share in the blood dripping from Athaliah’s hands.” Why? Because in spite of his love for God and the good he tried to do, Jehoshaphat really blew it in one area which led directly to the massacre. See, what were Israel and Judah after all? What made them different from the nations around them? It was that God in grace and love had called out a people to be His very own. He had rescued them from idolatry, and he knew that if turned around and intermarried with idolaters the temptation would be too strong and they would get sucked back in. He knew how susceptible we as sinners are by nature to idolatry and how contagious it is. So he had clearly forbidden marrying idolaters.
But Jehoshaphat deliberately disobeyed God in this area. He married his son Jehoram, to Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter, Athaliah. How could a man who so delighted in God, marry his son to a Baal worshipper? Did his son think Athaliah was cute and at the decisive moment Jehoshaphat wanted to please his son more than God? Was he seduced by the political and economic advantages he thought he could gain through connections to Ahab? Was it pride? Did he think, “I’m an exception! I’m strong enough in my faith! I can handle one little Baal worshipper?” Did he presumptuously think he or Jehoram had the power to save Athaliah?
Whatever he was thinking, his act of disobedience went on to curse his own sons and grandchildren. The truth was, Jehoshaphat could not handle Athaliah. He didn’t have the power to save her. And Jehoshaphat reaped what he sowed. Athaliah planted seeds of murder and darkness in the heart of his own son, who after his father’s death, killed his six brothers in paranoid zeal to protect his power.
Disobedience to God has ugly fruit, doesn’t it? But there’s more! Bringing Athaliah into Jehoshaphat’s family hindered the whole nation’s repentance. In spite of all Jehoshaphat’s efforts to bring the people back to God, at the end of his reign 2 Chronicles 20:33 gives the final report card “…the people had not directed their hearts to the God of their fathers.”
No wonder. Jehoshaphat’s willingness to compromise was not a great advertisement for His God. And many of the girls probably thought: hey, look what my godliness has gotten me. I’m still single while Athaliah gets to marry the guy in line to be king! Maybe a little idolatry might get me a husband too!
And after Jehoshaphat died, things went from bad to worse. Far from converting Athaliah, Jehoram was converted by her and tried hard to undo all the good his father had done. He didn’t just compromise a little. He actively promoted idolatry. (2 Chron. 21:11) By the time we get to the events we are studying today there was so little fear of God left in Judah that a temple of Baal had been built right next to the house of God. Athaliah’s sons even dared break into the house of God to steal the holy vessels to use for the worship of Baal.
2 Chronicles 21:6 lays the blame for all of this right at Athaliah’s door. It says,
And he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife…
God did not close his eyes to this evil. To show them their sin He began to remove blessings and protection from Judah. She found herself losing battles with her enemies. Jehoram died a slow painful death. All his children except for Ahaziah were slaughtered by Arabian raiders. You might wonder why God didn’t just wipe them all out at that point. It was what they deserved. But the Bible tells us God held back his wrath because of a promise. Look at 2 Chronicles 21:7:
Yet the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David, because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever.
We’ll understand more about that promise as we get further into our study. But for now it is enough to know that God endured these vessels of wrath because he was planning to use a descendant of David to pour out his grace on his chosen. He was planning to bring the world a savior! Jesus!
So because of God’s gracious plan, Ahaziah was spared temporarily. Unfortunately he didn’t see God’s grace or repent. He just kept on pursuing the alliance with Ahab’s family. And so as soon as Ahaziah fathered children, God’s judgment struck him too. We saw that in our last study. While he was on a visit to Uncle Joram in Israel, Jehu began God’s mission to execute the sons of Ahab. Finding Ahaziah there with Joram, Jehu’s men chased him down and killed him too. He was just 23 years old. At the same period one final group of Ahaziah’s relatives, also visiting Ahab’s family, were killed by Jehu.
So back to our question of who Athaliah was, we’ve seen a pretty clear picture of where she came from and who she was in terms of her influence on the people of God. We’ve seen the death and darkness she brought into Judah up to this point. Now let’s look at the reason she kills her grandchildren.
There are two answers. The most simple answer is her idols made her do it. What she worshipped!
Don’t let the word idolatry make you tune out thinking it was just a problem for people in the old testament and has nothing to do with you. It’s common to all of us. Romans 1 teaches us that all men are worshippers. It’s how we were created. But apart from Christ’s transforming work in our hearts, instead of being satisfied in God, we always exchange the worship of the true God for worship of some part of His creation. That doesn’t have to mean a stone image. The thing you worship could be entertainment. It could be someone’s love or approval, it could be security. It could be money or possessions, success or sexual pleasure. It could be your children. It could be comfort or personal peace or anything else.
Our hope as Christians is that as we know and are satisfied with the amazing love of Christ, that will push our idols out. But the reality is, even Christians are constantly tempted to idolatry and fall back into it often.
The epistle of James, chapter 4, makes this really clear. There James was writing a group of believers that were arguing and fighting instead of loving each other. Instead of building each other up in grace, they were killing each other in their hearts. And he told them the reason for this. He said it was because they were idolaters! The conflicts always began when someone else got in the way of them getting what they craved. What they craved could have been anything from rest and privacy, to customers for their businesses, to an invitation to dinner, to the most comfortable chair in the meeting, attention or recognition for service or talents, a leadership position, or the biggest piece of pie at the agape meal. James doesn’t say what they craved. He just bluntly says “You lust!”
You may not have thought about it before, but every single thing we do and say can be traced back to what we were worshipping and serving at that moment, whether Christ or something else. If you don’t think idolatry is a problem for you, think back to the last 24 hours and just think about all the words you have spoken. Think about every bossy, impatient, unkind, or ungracious word. Or even a refusal to talk when you should have been speaking words of love and encouragement. Or when you should have been sharing the gospel. Right there, behind those words or behind that silence is where you will see your idolatry. Oh, we might not be full-scale idolaters like Athaliah, but we’re willing enough to back-bite, or hold on to a grudge, or to get that certain edge in our voices, or ignore someone, simply because at that moment what we crave is more important to us that what Christ wants us to do.
That’s idolatry, ladies! When we see these things in our lives, James says we should lament and mourn and weep! But praise God, we have not been left helpless in our sin. The Spirit is jealously yearning for us, calling us back, telling us we have a Savior. As we humbly come to God in repentance and submit to God’s rule in our lives, He pours out grace to change.
But Athaliah had rejected God’s grace. She was a helpless slave of her craving for power and she took idolatry to a whole new level. Let’s read v. 10 of our text one more time to have that fresh in our minds.
Now when Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family of the house of Judah.
Here we see Athaliah receive the news that her son is dead. That word “seeing” really jumped out at me. I never want to see the way she did. For most mothers, hiring hit men would not be the first reaction to the news their only remaining child had just died. They would be overwhelmed with loss, full of memories, stunned by the news that they would never again see that beloved face. But what Athaliah saw in this news was distorted through the eyes of her idolatry. She didn’t see any reason to waste time mourning her son. Neither did she see a warning from God to repent. Instead red warning lights started flashing in the throne room of her heart. And what she saw was that she was no longer queen mother. She saw that unless she acted fast her connection to power would be broken. She saw that in Judah she had no right to the throne because she was not a son of David. So in that moment what Athaliah saw in that playroom in the palace were no longer sweet little grandchildren. Instead she saw deadly enemies, cutting her off from the power she craved. She saw that as long as the line of David survived she would never be permitted to rule Judah. So in that moment, her own grandchildren became expendable.
That’s a chilling picture of the fruit of idolatry, isn’t it. Of course this is all just what went on the human level. Behind that and fueling that was Satan stirring her up and using her as his tool.
We should never forget what Ephesians 6: 12 says,
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
But why would Satan want these children dead? For that you have to go back to God’s promise spoken to Satan in the garden after Adam and Eve fell and incurred God’s wrath. In Genesis 3:15, God said:
I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.
This promise unleashed a cosmic warfare that would be fought out on earth. Right here is the first promise God gave his people that he would one day send a Savior. By the way, this wasn’t an impulse or God scrambling around to fix things as if He were surprised by Adam and Eve’s sin. God had known from before He created us that we would fall. And it had been His purpose from the beginning to send a Savior. It was in the councils of the Trinity before time began that the Father had decreed that the wrath we would incur could be pacified by a worthy substitute. And before time began, God the Son had volunteered to be that substitute. That is why Jesus is called the “Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world.” In God’s eyes it was already accomplished. Human history up to the cross was simply God working out his plan.
The promise spoken to Adam and Eve was very general…the Savior could have been any believing woman’s son… but as the ages went by God made it more and more specific. For example, he would come from Isaac, not Ishmael, from Jacob, not Esau, from Judah not any of the others. Finally, as we saw, in Athaliah’s day the people understood that the Savior would be of the line of David.
Some people might think it was risky for God to give Satan so much information about the line of the messiah. But God wasn’t afraid of what Satan might do. As Dale Ralph Davis says,
“God made the coming of His kingdom depend on a promise he made and he placed that promise, open and exposed in all the turbulence and upheaval of human history.”
So Satan knew the promise and Satan saw that all that were left of the line of David was in the palace playroom. If he just could get rid of those children, God’s promise would fail. The Son of God would never be born. The cross would never happen. Satan’s head would never be crushed. And God’s plan to call together a redeemed people that would live to the praise of His grace, would end in humiliating defeat. So I’m sure that Athaliah’s action was not just human scheming. It was also demonically inspired.
But what we can rejoice in is that whether the attempt was of man or of Satan it failed. And to see that let’s go on to our second section, “the faith of a few.”
And we’ll read vs. 10-11
Now when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family of the house of Judah. But Jehoshabeath, the daughter of the king, took Joash the son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the king’s sons who were about to be put to death, and she put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Thus Jehosabeath, the daughter of King Jehoram and wife of Jehoiada the priest, because she was a sister of Ahaziah, hid him from Athaliah, so that she did not put him to death. And he remained with them six years, hidden in the house of God, while Athaliah reigned over the land.
I love those first two words in v. 11, “but Jehoshabeath,” because they show that what believers do in this cosmic war between God’s purposes and Satan’s really does matter. But I also love the first word “but” all by itself because even though the verses don’t mention God explicitly, we can know that behind Jehoshabeath is our great God intervening. Just when it seems that the whole plan of redemption is hanging by a thread, one helpless baby away from disaster, we see that God has already positioned Jehoshabeath right where He wants her, and has given her the faith and the courage to act. This whole story teaches us that God not only wants to save us, but that He is strong enough to do it! Like Psalm 115:3 says
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
This passage is so full of hope for all Christians, because it shows us that even when things look darkest for the church of Jesus Christ; even when the enemies of God seem strongest and the obstacles insurmountable; even when the work of God seems hopeless and the light completely extinguished; even when it seems too late to change things; even then our God rules. Even then He is in complete control and is working out His saving purposes.
I’ll tell you a secret! I love how God in His providence has brought us to study this passage at this precise point in the life of this church, because I know the thoughts that some of you are struggling with as you watch it shrink. You look around and wonder how long we can last. It seems to you as if we’re hanging by a thread. But I would encourage you: Don’t just look around. Look up! Get the big picture. Ask who is your God? What are His purposes until He comes? What are His promises? Grab hold of the hope from this study and confess to God like Job did: I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of yours can be withheld from You.” Job 42:2
I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
And then get involved in fighting for what God can still do through this church. As Daniel 11:32 says, “The people who know their God shall be strong and do exploits!”
But back to our story, let’s take a closer look at what happened through Jehoshabeath’s eyes. By the way, Jehoshabeath is another evidence of God’s grace. Her father and step mother were Jehoram and Athaliah and yet by God’s grace she was serving the true God. Anyway, Jehoshabeath has been visiting her nieces and nephews in the palace. Suddenly assassins burst into the playroom and begin the slaughter. I’m sure she saw Athaliah’s hand in this, since her own uncles had been killed in a similar way. But I don’t know if she thought about the messiah right there on the spot. Or even about the rightful heir to throne. Her instant reaction may have been as simple as wanting to save the life of one baby.
It’s interesting that there was no voice from heaven or lightning striking to show her what to do. What she did sprang out of the faith and character God had already built into this godly woman. It sprang out of who she was serving at that moment. But somehow unseen by the assassins in the midst of the confusion, she snatches baby Joash away. She quickly hides him in the palace storage room for beds, together with his nurse. Only then does she have time to think. Now it is no longer a split second decision to rescue a baby. Now it becomes a deliberate choice to risk everything to serve the true king, the last remaining seed of David, and only hope for the messiah. She takes him home, and together with her husband, the high priest, they begin the task of preparing for the future.
But according to v. 12, nothing exciting happens for six years! I think verse 12 is a good reality check. Sometimes fighting for the King just means doing the small things faithfully, day after day. In Jehoshabeath’s case, there were diapers to change, meals to prepare, lessons on how to tie sandals. Jehoiada needed to teach God’s law on the level a small boy could understand. Nothing glorious. And no one to share the burden with except God and maybe one or two others sworn to secrecy. I’m sure there were times they felt lonely in their mission.
Personally this speaks to me when I look and there are only 5 people at prayer meeting, or one out witnessing…or two at the old folks ministry. Did they sometimes look at the boy and wonder if they were crazy to invest so much in one small boy?One pastor said,
“Outwardly how much did God’s purposes look like defeat! Even for those aware of Joash’s existence, he seemed so weak and powerless.”
Can you relate? Isn’t that often the experience of Christ’s church as she waits for the revelation of Her King? Isn’t it true that she often seems weak and powerless, while the enemies of the king prosper?
Just go on the Internet and read about the suffering church all around the world. But that doesn’t mean God has stopped working. In fact He has said that His power is perfected in our weakness. And church history has proven that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Just when the church seems closest to extinction is often when God raises it from the dead in resurrection life.
But while you wait for God to work where do you get your strength to go on? Where did Jehoshabeath and Jehoiada get their strength? Well, they were surrounded by the worship in the temple with the songs of God’s past deliverances. They had daily reminders of his grace for sinners as they witnessed the daily sacrifices. They could keep their eyes on the promises and meditate on what God said He would do. And they could enjoy the fellowship of the true king.
And so can we! Because we too have all these things but far better in Christ. Yes, our King is presently hidden, but we know he has come once already. We have heard the cry of agony on the cross and the cry of His triumph. We have seen the empty tomb. We have heard his promise that He is coming again. Not only that but daily we are invited to fellowship with Him and rejoice in His love.
But moving on, one last question before we get to our final section. What was the rest of Israel thinking and doing while Athaliah reigned? Think about six long years of Athaliah on the throne. I think there was a lot of regret going on during that time…a lot of eyes being opened to the fruit of idolatry. But I’m sure many despaired, thinking God had abandoned them. That their sin had annulled God’s promise and that it was too late. Still there may have been those that believed that God was able to raise someone from the dead if necessary to fulfill His promise. And they were right!
But let’s turn to our final section, “The King revealed”
and we’ll see how much mercy God has for sinners. As chapter 23 opens Joash is now seven years old and Jehoiada knows that it is God’s time for him to reign. And so what he does is he enters into a covenant with 5 chosen captains who go secretly through the land summoning the leaders of the people to Jerusalem. They don’t yet know what they’ve been called for. But then he brings out Joash and in v. 3 says to them:
Behold the King’s son. Let him reign, as the Lord spoke concerning the sons of David.
Jehoiada goes on to present a carefully crafted plan for crowning the king in a way that will best protect the King from any possible attempt on his life. We won’t go into the details.
But can you imagine the awe that filled these leaders’ hearts as they looked at the boy that they thought was long dead standing next to Jehoiada safe and unharmed. I think that they must have begun to weep at their own sin and unbelief in contrast to God’s strong love and grace. The verses don’t say what they were thinking, but they do say that every last one of them united together to risk everything for God’s chosen king. And in vs. 11-15 we see that King crowned. Let’s read that:
Then they brought out the king’s son and put the crown on him and gave him the testimony. And they proclaimed him king, and Jehoiada and his sons anointed him, and they said, “Long live the king.” When Athaliah heard the noise of the people running and praising the king, they went into the house of the Lord to the people. And when she looked, there was the king standing by his pillar at the entrance, and the captains and the trumpeters beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets, and the singers with their musical instruments leading in the celebration. And Athaliah tore her clothes and cried, “Treason! Treason! Then Jehoiada the priest brought out the captains who were set over the army, saying to them, “Bring her out between the ranks, and anyone who follows her is to be put to death with the sword.” For the priest said, “Do not put her to death in the house of the Lord.” So they laid hands on her, and she went into the entrance of the horse gate of the king’s house and they put her to death there.
In the middle of this joyful scene we see a sobering picture of Athaliah. Athaliah’s idolatry had totally blinded her to what God was doing. It had given her a false sense of security. It had warped her view of justice and it had proven ultimately to be useless. It couldn’t deliver what it had promised. And in fact rather than being in control, Athaliah ended up an unwilling instrument of God to accomplish His purposes. Even today, when we read about her, it only moves us to praise God more for His sovereign power and saving love.
Athaliah’s hatred for the true king was futile. God’s King and His Kingdom cannot be stopped. Don’t ever forget that! In fact, for us, in Christ it has already arrived, though not yet as it will one day. If we had time, I’d take you to Revelation and show you glimpses of the throne room of God and we’d see all heaven worshipping the lamb that was slain. One day every knee will bow to Him and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, even Athaliah. But we who are the redeemed can bow to Him now, adoring him in our hearts for our salvation and then choosing to live our lives now in the light of that day, fighting for his kingdom purposes. Because what we do really does matter.
Will there be times that we don’t understand what God is doing in our lives or in the church? Of course! But what we are meant to do during those times is humble ourselves under God’s hand, rest in the fact that He understands when we don’t, repent of our idols where needed, and moment by moment receive the grace He freely offers to the weak—grace to love, trust and obey Him within the circumstances He has ordained—grace to actively align ourselves with His purposes, no matter the cost, and no matter how few people stand with us—and grace to wait joyfully, with our eyes on Him, knowing His promises cannot fail.