As the Sweet Psalmist of Israel once observed, heathen gonna rage (Psalm 2, paraphrased). If you study any history, you’ll recognize that the story of mankind has been a story of violence, betrayal, division, conquest, and tyranny. Times of peace appear as anomalous, often illusory, respites that only grow tension until the next inevitable outburst of violence. And yet, above and apart from it all, the kingdom of Israel, chosen by God to be a priestly nation among nations, stood in stark contrast.
Or it should have.
That same Sweet Psalmist of Israel, a man who chased God’s own heart, did some raging of his own. And it wasn’t just him. He was one of the good ones. The kings of God’s chosen nation killed many people, and not always for good reasons. The records we have in the history portions of the Old Testament are a fascinating glimpse into the development of a culture told through rapid-fire narrative covering several centuries of ancient history. They paint a picture of a nation characterized by violence, betrayal, division, conquest, and tyranny.
Reading through Kings and Chronicles can be disheartening. The Lawbearers, the people selected by God to demonstrate how a pure nation ought to behave, hardly appear different from the surrounding countries. When kings such as Jehu slaughter whole families of their enemies, their actions are accepted as normal and even good. It often seems as though God’s purposes are accomplished, not by repudiating the raging of the heathen, but by besting them at their own violent game. The anger of man very often seems to fulfill the righteousness of God. With such a bloody history, it’s not hard to see how Christendom, from the early centuries to the present day, has justified supporting brutal crusades, conversion at the threat of death, wars of aggression, capital punishment, and torture.
But even small stars shine bright against dark skies. In 2 Kings 14, a small star appears. A man named Amaziah rises to power in Judah. He’s not a perfect king, but he’s remembered as having done what was right. In one of his first acts as king, he executes the men who murdered his father. In the middle of this transfer of power, verse 6 stands as an island of grace: “But he did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the LORD commanded, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin'” (ESV).
It’s sad that a king of God’s nation should be remembered for the people he didn’t kill, but here it’s a welcome reminder that where God’s word meets human culture, grace abounds. This passage assures us that, while God works through the kings’ ungodly and violent actions throughout the nation’s history, he neither needs nor endorses them. Those who take seriously what God has commanded value mercy and preserve life.
When Jesus, embodying the fullness of the Godhead, confronted and overcame the world by giving up his life, destroying his enemies by forgiving them and making them his friends, he established once and for all that God’s justice, his promises, his righteousness, does not need the anger of men to reach its desired end. God takes on himself the chastisement required for our peace. The sword of the Lord is the word proclaiming peace on the mountain, the roaring lion is a Lamb, and the blood soaking the conqueror’s clothes is his own. Meanwhile, whatever destruction that is allowed to persist ultimately destroys itself.
As Christians, we’re free from the world’s hurricane of violent regime destroying violent regime. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). The dreams of raging nations are in vain. God has set us free to awaken, arise, and feel the light of our Prince of Peace shining upon us.