“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. ” 2 Chronicles 7:14
History is always more than just a list of events. The events which are chosen, how they are described, the conclusions that are drawn, show us history is about meaning as well as facts. Living in Ireland, we know how much history matters, how much the way that history is understood matters.
The Constitution of Ireland begins with these words:
‘In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation . . .’
Talking about ‘centuries of trial’ and ‘heroic and unremitting struggle’ in a constitutional document demonstrates a view of history that is about much more than setting down facts; it’s about seeing history as something with meaning. The Constitution is a statement of explicit belief that God himself has brought Ireland to the point it has reached in 1937, it acknowledges ’all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial’.
Understanding how history has been seen in Ireland, as God working his purpose out down through the centuries, enables us to understand how history was seen in the Bible. Events were seen as having meaning, as showing that God had a purpose in what happened.
The books we see as ‘history’, Joshua through to Esther, are not the only history told. We know from looking at the first five books, Genesis through to Deuteronomy, the books of the Law, that the stories of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and the stories of Moses are vital parts of the history of the people. The Exodus, the escape from Israel, is the single most important point in the history told in those first five books, a moment that is still recalled each year.
The history books tell the history of the nation of Israel, from the occupation of the land, down to the loss of both the kingdoms and the return from exile. Eight centuries of history are covered. The history books begin with the time of Joshua and the occupying of the land of Canaan in the 13th Century BC. Joshua is followed by the reigns of the Judges up until c. 1050 BC, a time which covers the days of the book of Ruth. Then the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles tell of the establishment of kings: Saul who died c. 1007 BC, David who ruled Judah from 1010-1003 and the united kingdom of Judah and Israel from 1003-970 BC, Solomon, who ruled 970-931 BC.
Solomon is the last ruler of a united Kingdom; it divides into the northern kingdom of Israel, which falls to the Assyrians, the first deportations happening in 740 BC and the kingdom finally falling in 722 BC. Judah, the southern kingdom, is invaded in 597 BC when there is the first deportation of Jewish people to Babylon, again in 587 BC when the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and further captives are taken, and finally in 582 when the final deportation takes place. The book of Esther is set during the time of the Jewish exile.
Ezra and Nehemiah were one book until the Christians divided them in the Third Century AD. They cover the period from around 539 BC, as the exile in Babylon is drawing to a close, until about a century later, and tell of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and of the Temple.
Read the history books in the Bible and there is a pattern of history in the book of Judges that is repeated through the following centuries. The people repeatedly turn their backs on God and on his Law, which leads to them suffering his judgment, which then prompts them to repent of their wrongdoing, which brings forgiveness from God. This pattern continues through the time of the kings — a cycle of sin, downfall, repentance, and restoration.
In the days of David, David’s murder of Uriah in order that he may have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, leads to the death of her baby and David’s repentance for his wrongdoing. In the time of Solomon, at the moment of the dedication of the Temple c. 957 BC, God declares that if the people would only repent of their wrongs, God would forgive them. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, he declares. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. ”
The cycle goes around and around. Ahab, the king in the days of Elijah, is described as worse than all of those who preceded him. Three hundred and fifty years on from the dedication of the Temple, the people are still turning their backs on God. During the reign of Josiah, after the reading of the Book of the Law, in 2 Kings 22:16, God warns, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me’.
Josiah is a good king. 2 Kings 23:25 says, ’Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses’, but Josiah’s efforts are in vain. He is succeeded by his son Jehoahaz and then by his son Jehioakim, 2 Kings 23:32 and 37 are identical comments on the two sons, ‘He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his predecessors had done’.
Read the books of history as we would read other history books and they can make rather dismal reading; from the times of great expectation at the opening of Joshua, everything seems to have fallen apart by the end of Kings. Read them as we would read other history books, and we would have to admit that the writers were not always accurate, that the stories do not always accord with historical facts.
But do the opening words of the Irish Constitution accord with historical facts? There was not much sign of the people being sustained during the years of the Famine; nor much sign of unremitting struggle in the times that followed the arrival of Strongbow. History is about belief as well as about events.
Gerhard von Rad, the German theologian wrote, “in principle Israel’s faith is grounded in a theology of history. It regards itself as based upon historical acts, and as shaped and re-shaped by factors in which it saw the hand of Jahweh at work.” What matters is not the historical acts themselves, but the belief that God is present and active in the history of his people.
Von Rad believes the Old Testament, “tells of God’s history with Israel, with the nations, and with the world, from the creation of the world down to the last things, that is to say, down to the time when dominion over the world is given to the Son of Man”. He goes on, “This history can be described as saving history because, as it is presented, creation itself is understood as a saving act of God and because, according to what the prophets foretold, God’s will to save is, in spite of many acts of judgment, to achieve its goal.”
Read the books of history and there are many, many times when the people fail and many, many times when God forgives. God’s will is to save us; through the history of his people, his will is to save. May we have the gift to discern his hand all through the ages.