UZZIAH, KING OF JUDAH, changed by his growing attitude of self-importance, unwisely started to take over a priestly function at the temple. (II Chronicles 26:1-16.) Warned by Azariah the high priest that the king would displease God by this act, Uzziah was so angered that he was hardly aware of a sudden quivering in the floor.
A King Not Above God
"It would take more than all of you to get me out of here before I choose to leave!" Uzziah snapped. "And why should God be displeased with me?" "None but a son of Aaron the Levite should burn incense in this sanctuary," Azariah pointed out. "You will surely bring down the wrath of God for disobeying His laws!" (II Chronicles 26:17-18.) The priests, moving toward Uzziah, nodded in assent. This made the angry king even more upset. Undaunted by a king, the priests continued approaching Uzziah, who indignantly held his ground. Just as the priests were about to reach him, they halted. Their expressions of determination turned to those of surprise and dread as they peered intently at him. "A white spot has just appeared on your forehead," Azariah informed the king. "I think it's leprosy!" Although Uzziah instantly considered the high priest's remark a trick, his free hand went to his forehead. The censer he was holding crashed to the floor. He was horrified to feel an area of soft, puffy, moist skin above his eyes. It was like pressing his fingers into something dead, cold and mushy. "Get him out of here before something worse happens!" Azariah instructed the priests. The foremost men seized the king and whisked him toward the door, but Uzziah was so anxious to get out of the sanctuary that he broke away from them and raced ahead. The congregation outside was amazed and bewildered to see the king rush out of the temple in such an undignified manner, and dart out of sight into a group of aides and attendants. (II Chronicles 26:19-20.) Azariah and his priests emerged just as another rumble, this time very strong, came from the quaking ground. The earth shook violently and the temple trembled. Screams of fear went up from the congregation, which fled away. (Zechariah 14:5; Amos 1:1.) This earthquake, one of the most severe in history, was a token of God's anger because of what Uzziah had done. It did great damage to the earth's surface for many miles around, but God didn't allow a vast destruction of cities and lives because of what happened at the temple. Nevertheless, thousands of people had to race for their lives when huge fissures cracked open in the ground. The Bible compares the earthquake to a terrifying one that will occur when Christ returns to the earth only a few years from the time this present-day account is written. (Zechariah 14:4; Matthew 24:29.) Uzziah, also called Azariah, remained leprous until his death several years later at the age of sixty-eight. (II Kings 15:1-7.) Until then, because of his contagious disease, he had to live apart from others except devoted servants who chose to stay with him. Even under these conditions he continued to be regarded as the ruler of Judah, although others, including his young son Jotham, performed most of the regal functions. Having died a leper, Uzziah wasn't entombed in a royal sepulchre, but was buried in a field near the regal tombs. Unlike some other kings of Judah who had followed God and had later fallen into idolatry, Uzziah worshipped only the one true God all his life. His deplorable downfall came from believing that he was above the Law and that he was too great a man to have to observe certain special rules God had established for deportment at the temple. (II Chronicles 26:21-23.)
Meanwhile, in Israel
For six months, during Judah's prosperity under Uzziah, Jeroboam's son Zachariah ruled the ten tribes, called the House of Israel. He continued the idol-worship his father had followed. He was so indifferent to the welfare of the people that he was very unpopular with them. He was murdered before a public gathering by a man of high rank named Shallum, who had already persuaded high officials and the guard to support him. No one tried to arrest Shallum for this brazen act. He made himself king immediately. (II Kings 15:8-12.) Zachariah's death ended the reign of the descendants of Jehu, king of Israel over a hundred years previously. God told Jehu that because he had been obedient in destroying the family of disobedient Ahab, his descendants for four generations would rule Israel. (II Kings 9:1-10; II Kings 10:30-31.) Zachariah was of the fourth and last generation. More generations from Jehu probably would have reigned if Jehu hadn't allowed the customs of Jeroboam I to remain the established religion. Menahem, commander of the army of Israel, had started out to the northeast to recapture towns and cities taken by the Syrians. When he heard that Shallum had become king by doing away with Zachariah, he was so angry and envious that he returned to Samaria and put an end to Shallum after that king had been in power only a month. (II Kings 15:13-15.) Menahem proclaimed himself ruler, then set out again on his military mission. He went back to Tirzah, a former capital of northern Israel and the city he had been besieging when he returned to Samaria. Menahem took over Tirzah and other cities to the northeast. His goal was the strongly fortified city of Tiphsah on the Euphrates river. He reasoned that capturing it would be necessary for a stronghold against westward military movements by Assyria. Besides, it would be an important garrison against Syria. When Menahem arrived at Tiphsah, he didn't surprise the inhabitants, who had been informed of the Israelites' approach hours before. The Israelite army commander demanded that heavy barricading be removed and the gates opened. He promised that he would spare the inhabitants if they would surrender, but that any who resisted would die.
Menahem Grasps Another City
Before long Menahem found that he wasn't yet in a position to make demands or carry out threats. The people of Tiphsah stubbornly refused to do anything except wait. As the hours passed the commander grew furiously impatient. "These stupid foreigners are asking to starve or die of thirst through a siege!" Menahem stormed. "I don't have time for a siege, but I'm not leaving here until I take this city!" Menahem's angry determination cost him many men in his wild attack on Tiphsah. There were repeated attempts to scale the walls, timed with the efforts of archers who shot their arrows from fatally short distances. Finally, after what appeared to be a fruitless struggle, a contingent of Israelites managed to get over the walls, push back the defenders, pull down the barricades and open the gates to allow the rest of the Israelite army to pour into the city. "Make the infidels pay for our losses!" Menahem ordered his officers. "Slaughter those who hide as well as those who resist! And do away with every pregnant woman you can find!" The king's commands were carried out. Many were slain, and Tiphsah fell to Israel. This was an example of the violence and cruelty that characterized Menahem's rule during the next ten years. Besides being murderously vengeful, the king maliciously insisted on the worship of idols, even though he had a knowledge of God. (II Kings 15:16-18.) One day Menahem received a report that an army from distant Assyria had crossed the Jordan river and was marching toward Samaria. Within hours the bristling, excited king was leading his army eastward to meet the invaders. When they came within view and he saw that their numbers extended for miles across the plain, his liking for war suddenly deserted him. The king of Israel hastily arranged for a party of his officers to go ahead with a flag of truce to meet the Assyrians while he and his troops waited at a distance. This resulted, a little later, in his being invited by Pul, the Assyrian king, to ride forward for an exchange of words. "I am surprised that a military man of your hostile reputation would come to meet me in peace," Pul commented dryly, critically eyeing the other ruler. "If you come in peace, I welcome you in peace," Menahem replied. "Peace between Assyria and Israel depends on what you do to make amends for what you did to Tiphsah," Pul bluntly stated. "Many of the murdered inhabitants were my people!" The usually barbarous and unfriendly Menahem struggled to conceal his sudden fear and maintain diplomatic composure. "Such a grave matter shouldn't be discussed in the middle of a desert," he observed. "If you will be my guest at my palace in Samaria, we can talk there in comfort."
The Cost of Land-Grabbing
Weeks later, while Pul and his top officers enjoyed themselves in Samaria and the nearby Assyrian army occasionally feasted on special food supplied by the Israelites, the two kings came to an agreement. Meanwhile, the distraught Menahem, gambling on the hope that Pul could be appeased by a sum of money, decreed that those who were prosperous among the Israelites should pay a special tax. In spite of the sins of Israel, about 60,000 families still enjoyed God's blessing of prosperity. Through the hurried efforts of collectors, the tax money poured in. Equal to about two million dollars, it was promptly turned over to the king of Assyria, who took his army back to his home nation. He saw no reason to lose any of his soldiers against the Israelites if their king chose to buy his way out of a war. (II Kings 15:19-20.) There were Israelites who were highly critical of Menahem for taxing the people to escape trouble, but if the king had chosen to stand against the invaders, Israel probably would have been defeated. It was a matter of disaster being postponed to the time God had picked to bring the Assyrians again to Samaria. Menahem died shortly after this event. He was succeeded by his son Pekahiah, who continued in the idolatry of his forebears. His rule was cut short, after only two years, when one of his captains burst into his palace, along with fifty men, and assassinated Pekahiah. This captain, Pekah, whose name was much like that of his victim, seized the throne to hold control of the ten tribes of Israel for the next twenty years, during which he carried on in the idolatry of the rulers who had preceded him. (II Kings 15:21-28.) But while the Israelites were having all this trouble, the Jews fared much better because they had better leaders. In the second year of Pekah's reign over Israel in Samaria, Uzziah's son Jotham, twenty-five years of age, came into full rulership of Judah. Happily for his kingdom, he lived and ruled by God's laws during his sixteen years as king. Although he worked to clean out idolatry from Judah, it was so deeply ingrained in many of the people that he never succeeded in removing it. (II Kings 15:32-35; II Chronicles 27:1.) Jotham remembered his father's lesson and didn't go into the temple. Like Uzziah in his better years, Jotham built fortifications and observation towers in places where they were needed. He continued to improve Jerusalem's walls, as well as part of the temple. His ambition was to maintain and improve the projects his father had started. Because of his loyalty to God, most of the years of Jotham's reign weren't marred by war. The king's first battle was with the Ammonites, whom the army of Judah defeated. As vassals, the Ammonites paid tribute in silver equal to about $200,000 as well as over 90,000 bushels of wheat and the same amount of barley. For three years they made the same payment to Judah. (II Chronicles 27:2-6.) After that they rebelled against bringing it. Jotham was so engrossed in a more serious matter that he didn't have time to send an army to demand the tribute. The army of Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, was overrunning much of the territory of the kingdom of Israel. This was no small concern to Jotham, who any day expected to learn that the Assyrians were heading toward Judah, also.
The Assyrian Threat
The unwelcome report eventually came. Jotham's soldiers prepared to defend Jerusalem. The war machines built in Uzziah's time were set for action. What was more important, Jotham asked God to spare his nation from the Assyrians. According to ancient Assyrian records, the invaders went almost to the northeastern border of Egypt, by-passing the towns and cities of Judah and Philistia. They returned, but the only places they spoiled were in the territory of the ten tribes of Israel. Jotham's prayers had been answered. The Jews were spared, but so were the Philistines. God possibly spared the Philistines so that they could be used to trouble Judah during the reign of the next evil king. The Assyrians finally left Israel, but not without taking thousands of Israelites as captives and leaving Pekah with only half his territory. All the land east of the Jordan river was taken, never to be regained by any king of Israel. The Assyrians also took over many of the towns and cities of Syria. (II Kings 15:29; I Chronicles 5:25-26.) Thus Assyria became the common enemy of Israel and Syria; and Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the king of Israel, became allies in a plan to regain the wealth and strength they needed.
Israel Plots with Syria to Fight the Jews
That plan was to capture Judah's capital, Jerusalem. If that could be done, all of Judah could be theirs. But both Israel and Syria had become so weakened in manpower that the forces they sent against Judah were not strong enough to make inroads. (II Kings 15:37.) Even if the armies had been twice as large, they wouldn't have succeeded until the time God chose to allow them to succeed. Jotham died at the relatively young age of forty-one to leave the leadership of the nation of Judah to his son Ahaz, twenty years old. (II Kings 15:38; II Chronicles 27:6-9.) From then on conditions grew worse in Judah. Ahaz, following the bad example of all the kings of Israel, believed that it was foolish to worship a God he couldn't see. He chose to worship objects that were visible, no matter how lifeless. He saw to it that images of Baal were produced and made available to his subjects to worship. He was a base example to his people by putting his children through fiery rites associated with heathen gods. (II Kings 16:1-4; II Chronicles 28:1-4.) The armies of Israel and Syria again came against Judah, this time to successfully converge on Jerusalem. But the high, thick walls and unusual protective devices were too much for the attackers. (II Kings 16:5.) The soldiers of Israel returned to Samaria. The Syrian forces moved southward to the northeastern tip of the Red Sea, where they drove out the Jews and captured the port of Elath, which until then belonged to Judah. This is the first time the people of Judah are called Jews in the Bible. (II Kings 16:6.) The departure of the Syrians and Pekah's army didn't mean the end of trouble for Ahaz. The Philistines had learned that the army of Judah had been weakened by recent attacks. Their army moved eastward to capture towns and villages in southwestern Judah. About the same time the Edomites invaded Judah from the southeast by bands of mounted soldiers who captured and carried away people from the small towns. (II Chronicles 28:17-19.) This was frustrating to Ahaz, whose army couldn't be everywhere at once. He didn't want to break it up into too many parts, lest there be another siege of Jerusalem. He needed help. The only possible source was from distant Assyria, whose king had no friendly attitude toward Syria. Ahaz sent messengers to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, to ask for military aid to ward off the Jews' enemies, the Syrians, Israelites, Philistines and Edomites. As payment for the help he hoped to receive, Ahaz stripped the temple of most of its gold and silver and special treasures and sent them to the king of Assyria. For good measure Ahaz added some of the valuable objects from his palace. (II Kings 16:7-8; II Chronicles 28:20-25.) The next few days were difficult and trying ones for the king of Judah. He was filled with anxiety over what the Assyrian king would choose to do. If he made the decision to help Judah, Ahaz desperately hoped that the help would come before the Israelites decided to return and attack again. Finally a special messenger came to speak to the king, who impatiently demanded to know what the king of Assyria had to tell him. "But I am not from Assyria," the messenger said. "I've come from southern Judah to report that the Syrian army is approaching from Elath!"