Chronicles in the Good Society
In God’s good society, all are cared for, and all know whom they follow.
500 B.C. The people of Israel have returned from exile. One of the difficult tasks facing them was the rebuilding of a shattered society. Institutions were gone, the monarchy no longer ruled, the temple was in ruins, and above all, their connection to Yahweh still seemed uncertain. In this context, the question of how to rebuild a good society was vital.
To those who are trying to do just that today, the book of Chronicles shows what a good society looks like. Chronicles does not provide a step-by-step plan, but tells the stories of Israel's history. The writer of Chronicles shapes the stories, showing both what a good society and what a bad society look like.
The question shot through both 1st and 2nd Chronicles, then, is: "What does this story tell me about a good society that is living in covenant with God?"
We don't have the time to look at all of the stories in the sixty-five chapters that compose Chronicles, but we can catch some of the highlights in unexpected places. One such place is in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. It is one of those long and, for many of us, tedious genealogies. Read carefully, however, and it is a gold mine of pictures of what makes for a good society. One of those pictures emerges in Nimrod in 1 Chronicles 1:10: "Cush fathered Nimrod. He was the first on earth to be a mighty man." The first nine verses of 1 Chronicles give us only names, but in this verse we are given commentary on Nimrod—he is the first mighty man. In other parts of the genealogy (1 Chronicles 7; 1 Chronicles 11, 20:5-8) we will be introduced to mighty warriors. Perhaps most surprisingly, in chapter 9 we are told of another group of mighty men, those who work in the service of the temple: "Besides their kinsmen, heads of their fathers' houses, 1,760 mighty men for the work of the service of the house of God" (1 Chronicles 9:13). Whether they were military or temple servants, these mighty men had the important role in the good society of preserving, defending, and building. To put it another way, a good society has heroes.
To understand the role of those heroes in God's good society, we need to understand a bit of what God was about in the Old Testament. The heroes were not simply those who kept Israel alive and safe—they were heroes who through their great deeds built a toehold for the kingdom of God to extend into all the world. When they did their work, it was not only Israel that benefited, but the entire world. When God's good society has heroes—when it pursues the making of heroes by calls to discipleship, encouraging risky actions for God and his kingdom, raising children who think of others rather than themselves, building a community that loves the stranger—the impact of these heroes is felt far beyond the four walls of the church. It is felt in nation-changing ways: when a William Wilberforce makes a nation rethink slavery, when American churches challenged racism in the 1960s, when a member of God's people quietly mentors an inmate, or when a group of God's followers gather to think deeply about God's concern for the poor.
When God's people are living out God's vision of a good society, they also contribute to forming a good society in the wider culture. Their contributions provide an important and stable part of building a good society. Their work is grounded in the ideas found in Scripture, and then lived out, day after day.
Back to Chronicles. You may notice that the reign of Saul gets very little attention in Chronicles. That's because he did little to show the way to building a good society. The focus moves quickly from King Saul to King David, and from David to his mighty men—the heroes who make his reign possible. When his reign has been established, it's time for David's first official act. What will he do first? What you do first when you become national leader says a lot about where you are headed. So when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took over as president during the Depression, he skipped all the inaugural balls and went right to work. He wanted Americans to know that he knew how desperate things were. The first 100 days in office often define an entire presidency. So what you do first matters. The first thing David does? He seeks to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem. The ark represents the throne of God, the presence of God among the people, God as the leader of His people, and God as the divine warrior of His people.
David's first move is to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem. In other words, his first move is to bring proper honour and worship to the God of Israel. 1 Chronicles 13:2 tells us that David talks to the whole assembly. The Hebrew word for assembly is Qahal, and this kind of assembly is especially for religious purposes. Right from the start, we realize that David isn't just talking to a bunch of people who have come together for political purposes—rather, he is talking to a worshipping community, people who are ready to honour and worship God.
While David may be pleased with this worshipping community, he is not satisfied with it. He proposes that before they bring the Ark back, they grow the assembly. They need to call on all of Israel to show up. As in all societies, there are those who resist the call because they are focused on the day-today things of life—remember Jesus' parable about the great banquet? David knows it is essential for these people to leave their daily concerns behind and join in this great moment of worship and honouring God. Rather than allowing people to ignore such an important moment, he sends out a call to leave behind the stuff of daily life and come together in awe of God and wonder at the ark.
So what makes for a good society? The first thing that the Chronicler tells us through the story is that a good society is the kind in which people leave behind their daily affairs and come together to honour God. The people don't come together mildly, in a bored spirit, before God, deciding that they may or may not get involved in honouring him, depending on their moods; rather, they spend the kind of energy honouring him in worship that reflects his place as great God of all the earth, deserving of full attention and love rooted in heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Of course, the idea that worship is central to a good society just doesn't feel true. It doesn't even feel true to many who follow Christ. Focusing on God, honouring him, kneeling before him on a weekly basis with others who have faith in him may seem like a good thing to do, but not essential for a good society. But here is the reality. Worship is not only what we owe God; it is what shapes us. This idea that worship shapes us is true in all societies, for all societies worship something. In this regard I am reminded of the poem "God Save the Flag," by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Washed in the blood of the brave and the blooming, snatched from the altars of insolent foes . . . vainly the prophets of Baal would rend it, vainly its prophets pray for its fall; thousands have died for it, millions defend it, emblem of justice and mercy to all." The poem is about the American flag, and one senses the theme of worship in the words. Here we see that for some, the flag of a nation becomes an object of worship. The flag is but one focus of worship in societies. A society may worship the state itself, or a particular value or an ideology. Whatever the society worships comes out in its rituals, songs, and liturgies spoken on its high holy days.
Knowing this shows why David's first action— worshipping God—is so important. This act of worship shows what kind and what object of worship the writer of Chronicles sees as central to a good society. In the worship revealed by David's action, people are reminded again that God is God, and that they are not. In worship, people are reminded that there is only one who is worthy of all that they have and are: God. In worship, there is an inward journey that strengthens for the outward task. In worship, there is a reset back to the one true story of the whole world. All of these may seem like wonderful platitudes, but the truth is that they are more than that. In his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . .and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, Bradley Entner Wright shows that those who are regularly part of a worshipping community are more loving, neighbourly, and giving than those who are Christians but don't attend worship or those who are not affiliated with a religion.
Let's return to Chronicles. This first attempt at praising and honouring God doesn't turn out so well. Uzziah tries to steady the ark when the oxen stumble, and he dies. The celebration ends. The Ark doesn't get to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 13). David is truly seeking to build a godly society. In doing so he's taken a great, God-honouring first step, and now someone is dead. What happened?
Part of the answer comes in 1 Chronicles 15, when David makes the second attempt to bring the Ark back. David says to the priests and Levites, "Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the
rule" (1 Chronicles 15:13). They did not seek God according to the rule. Seek means to inquire carefully, to look deeply. David and the rest hadn't taken the time to carefully check out how things were supposed to be done in transporting the ark. And so they hadn't done it according to the rule. In Hebrew, rule is the word mishpat. Mishpat is more than God's rules; mishpat is God's government, his reign and rule. David and the others did not carefully look at how they were to live within God's kingdom or how to follow the demands of God and his kingdom.
In a good society, people diligently seek out how God calls them to live in his kingdom, and then live out what they have learned. In the case of David and company, an entire nation would live under that law as the law of the land. In our case, it means that we diligently seek what it means to live in God's kingdom, and we live that way, providing an example of what it means to live under the reign of God as we run our businesses, participate in politics, and live in our neighbourhoods. We build a good society by living in God's ways, and then inviting others to live in those ways as well. Living out the values of the kingdom in our context means to call on our government and others to honour the values of the kingdom. A confession of faith called Our World Belongs to God says this: "We work to influence governments— resisting them only when Christ and conscience demand. We call on all governments to do public justice and to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, groups, and institutions so that each may do their tasks. We urge governments and pledge ourselves to safeguard children and the elderly from abuse and exploitation, to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, and to promote the freedom to speak, work, worship, and associate."
Living out the values of the kingdom brings peace to the city—these values bring about a good society. While we cannot demand or force others to live those values, we can influence our government to act and rule in a way that makes for shalom, rather than death. Again, as we do this, we help build a good society that is rooted in God's vision for the society he desires for his people.
And there is much more in the book of Chronicles on the things that are connected to a good society. There is the importance of music, good order, and wise rulers. But let me close with two things we find it in a number of places in Chronicles. Both of them deal with structures, though different kinds.
The first place we look is 2 Chronicles 14:6-7. There we find that King Asa is all about building strong cities:
He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had no war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace. And he said to Judah, "Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the Lord our God. We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side." So they built and prospered.
What is intriguing is that the building of cities was a way success was measured in the ancient Near East. Mesopotamian annals and regnal-year titles regularly comment on the king's building activities as evidence of his success. And here, the Chronicler uses what other nations consider success to show the success of a king of Judah.
Why? Would it not be better to speak of all the king's religious accomplishments, his care for the poor, or his lack of building projects (which would show he was not following the ways of the world)? Could there be something else here that we might be missing? Could it be that building buildings— creating the literal structures of society—is part of building a good society?
This certainly rings true in light of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 to fill, subdue, and rule over the earth. I love the idea that Asa reflects success not in terms of the surrounding culture, but in terms of God's grand vision of culture-building and city-building. While other nations may look on and say, "The Chronicler caught our values," the nations have actually unwittingly caught the values of God—so much that we read in Revelation 22:24-26: "By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations."
What does this mean for God's people building a good society today? It certainly calls us to add beauty to the world in our buildings and other projects, but it also means that God's people long for beauty, not just utility, in public buildings and spaces, and that longing calls us to be willing to participate through taxes, input, and helpful concern in the building and maintaining of such spaces.
The building of real structures is part of good society, but there is also another kind of structure that is also seen as essential to a good society. It is a nation that builds the structures of justice. The two great kings of Israel, David and Solomon, both have justice as a central part of their rule. The Chronicler records that David administered justice and equity to all (1 Chronicles 18:14). It is important to remember that this "all" speaks of David faithfully dealing not only with God's people, but according to God's covenant call to care for the foreigner and stranger. In God's good society, all are cared for. Likewise, Solomon is said to be a king of justice (2 Chronicles 9:8). When it comes to structures, however, no one is shown as building better structures of justice than Jehoshaphat who builds a court system throughout the land. A court system with an interesting twist, as it doesn't represent the king's interests but God's interests (2 Chronicles 19.4-11). While David, Solomon, and Jehoshaphat represent a good society connected to living in covenant with God, their concern for building structures of justice touches a call to all societies (see Amos 1-2).