Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Chronicles 20:1-30
by Lora Copley
Firm places often prove otherwise.
Stand on financial security? One Wall Street crisis and retirements are on sinking sand.
Stand on your strength of your heroes? Say it ain’t so, Joe, but even childhood idols like Lance or Tiger leave us disappointed.
Stand on national defense? See 9-11. Stand on your physical strength? See the doctor’s report. Stand on your job? See the pink slip. Stand on family togetherness and love–see the moving van or the divorce papers or the empty nest or the casket.
All our foundations are vulnerable. How do we respond when the ground we trusted in proves not a firm place to stand?
This is the question Chronicles tackles. The Chronicler’s audience had seen “all they once held dear and built their life upon” shattered. The enemy Babylon had leveled their cities, laid waste their land, and shackled their wrists. Worst of all, the temple —the very symbol of faith and security – was demolished before their eyes. The exiles are devastated. Some give up on the faith, others marry into other religions. Even as exiles trickle back after Cyrus’ edict, the question on everyone’s mind is “Who are we- now that our identity and security and foundations- are gone?”
So the Chronicler reminds the exiles of their history. He says, “Listen, you who live in shaky times, with sinking sand all around, this is your story!”
In this portion of the story, the imperative is to “stand firm” in wobbly places of fear. In fact, ten times some form of Hebrew words for “standing” is used. The Chronicler shows three pictures of what standing firm looks like. But more importantly than how we stand firm is where we stand firm.
The first picture of standing firm is in good King Jehoshaphat reaction to the enemy threat. Like everyone, he is scared spitless. But he doesn’t scramble to forge a treaty, or order arms, or find an alliance. No, this king of our forefathers calls the community to pray their fears.
All the people- from every age, gender, town – gather in the temple and the king prays. He starts by acknowledging God’s rule and promises and then lays out the situation. (An instructive pattern for prayer.) The king ends, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
So often we either want to minimize our fear and deny its power. Or we maximize our fear, wallowing, thinking it’s the whole story. But the king does neither. He acknowledges his fear and then looks to God. He prays his fear. That’s standing firm.
Second picture of standing firm: Vs. 14 “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel (Jahaziel is a worship leader, from a long line of worship leaders.) and said: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the battle is not yours, but God’s!… You will not have to fight. Stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD gives you.”
These words remind of almost identical words spoken in another fearful place. At the Red Sea, when another enemy– Pharaoh and his army—were also making a beeline to wipe out God’s people. The Lord promised in Exodus 14.13: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm! The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” And Jehoshaphat’s people remember the wall of waves crashing down on Pharaoh. They remember the threat drowned under God’s own ambush. They remember Miriam leading the celebration, singing “The LORD is my strength and my song… The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name!”
And Jehoshaphat’s people, when they hear the Lord’s assurance of salvation, when they remember the Moses story, they burst out into songs of praise. Yahweh hasn’t done anything yet but give his Word. They react as if the battle is already won.
A more practical Israelite-perhaps of my Dutch variety- may nudge his neighbor “Ummm…Isn’t this a little premature? The enemy is still knocking at our gate!” But for the king, who prostrated himself, and for the assembly, who fell down in worship, and for Jahaziel and the Levites who stood and gave loud praise to Him, His word was enough. Standing firm.
Jehoshaphat goes a step further. He puts his military where his mouth is. He stations the worship leaders at the head of the army. By this outrageous song-service of a battle strategy, the people of God will show complete confidence in God’s word. (Psalm 20:6-7) This too is a picture of standing firm. They sing their trust. (What better way to move your beliefs the 18 inches from your head to your heart? Praise.)
As the praise of God ascends, God sends down ambushes, and in a classic Biblical pattern, the enemies panic and destroy each other.
Imagine you are a Levite, a worship leader. Your king puts you at the front of the battle line to sing trust. But you don’t know what is going to happen. Sure, God parted the waters for Moses but there’s no water in this valley. And that was over 700 years ago! Does God still act like that? Or are you and the other singers just giving a pep rally to dead men walking? You sing Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good even louder, praying to yourself “O Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
And then as you make the nerve-racking turn at the end of the gorge that overlooks the desert where the battle is to be, your voice cracks. The singing around you dies down. Thousands slain on the desert. The enemy is already defeated! A shout goes up! YHWH is a warrior! The battle is His! His love stands firm forever!
And the place that could have been Death Valley, instead is called the Valley of Berachah—The Valley of Blessing the Lord.
Praise is all over this story—praise before the battle, praise during the battle, praise after the battle. Praise is all over this story because this story is all about God.
And because it’s all about Him, the people stand firm by not denying their fear or getting swallowed by their fear instead they pray their fear. The people stand firm as they remember God’s word. And the people stand firm by singing their trust.
Yet the only reason Jehoshaphat and his people can stand firm is because of where they are standing. They are not standing on their own work or prayers or praises or wits or resources. It is not about them. They are standing firm in God. It is about the One who fights for them.
An architect and columnist for the Washington Post, Roger Lewis, wrote after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti about disaster-proofing buildings. What is so telling is how Lewis ended his article:
“In the end, it’s hard to avoid comparing Port-au-Prince and New Orleans, the former sitting atop colliding tectonic plates and the latter sitting below sea level. The comparison elicits an inescapable observation: If we could start from scratch, we would choose neither location for building a modern city, despite all our modern construction technology.”
This architect is saying it not just about how a structure stands, even more so, it’s about where that structure stands. And our text shows where we stand is “IN the Lord.” (vs 20) All other ground is sinking sand.
That’s what the gospel is all about. We stand firm in His work and not our own. Our Warrior God squarely conquered death, and sin, and our ancient foe, THAT is the reality we now stand firm in. That Big Battle reality has everything to say about the battles we face today.
Tim Keller preaches on this theme a lot: if you try to stand firm in your vocation, or a relationship, or your health, and you face a battle there and it is threatened, you will end up flailing about in quicksand anxiety. Or if you lose the job or the relationship, then you’ve lost everything. You are devastated. That was your identity, your security, your all. Game over.
But if you standing firm IN the Lord, then when that battle comes and you lose your job, it will hurt, but you still are okay, because your identity and security was not there. Your building still stands because it’s in Him. You can lose the little battles because the Big Battle has already been decided and that is where you are grounded.
We’re not outlining a formula here– that says if you just pray your fears, remember God’s word, sing your trust then –presto! You’ll always have the sweet ending that Jehoshaphat did, with enemies destroyed and three days of plunder to boot.
That’s not the point–not for the returning exiles or for us. The point is God always, always, always fights for His people. The proof is on the cross. And if it is in Him and in His victory you are planted, then you are completely secure. It doesn’t matter how many things get shaken in your life. Poise and peace and security are still yours because of in Whom you stand.
The word King Jehoshaphat uses (three times) in his final address in vs 20 is “aman“– a word related to our word “amen” and has to do with surety, establishment. In the hiphil sense, it literally means to “stand firm.” Some translations translate it “believe” or “have faith” but you could read it: vs 20 “Stand firm- in God and you will stand!”
“Amad” -to stand, to take one’s stand – is used seven times in the passage. Sometimes it has an intensifier. Does “hyper-standing” look like “standing still” or “standing firm?” Translations go either way. Different homiletical nuances can be made depending on your version. (P.S. If you use a “standing still” focus, look up a great Henri Nouwen quote about the job of trapezists to stay still. So helpful.)
Here’s a list of warning labels on actual consumer products:
On a cardboard sun shield for a car: “Do not drive with sun shield in place.”
On a Batman costume: “Warning: Cape does not enable user to fly.”
On a portable stroller: “Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage.”
On a bottle of hair coloring: “Do not use as an ice cream topping.”
You think these would be obvious. Perhaps we need a warning label on other things that ought to be obvious. Like a warning label on our jobs. “Warning: do not try to build your life on this profession.” Or on our kids “Caution: not able to hold the weight of your life.” Or a warning label financial or moral strength “Do not attempt to stand firm on this, will not support.”
Lora A. Copley is ordained by the CRCNA. She is a teacher for Classis Red Mesa’s Leadership Development Network and preaches by invitation.