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Occasional Letters - Father and Son

D Newell, Glasgow

It is astounding how much we inherit from our parents. According to impartial observers, I have my mother’s skin, sense of humour, and obsession with cleaning the gas cooker; while my father has bequeathed me his baldness, deafness, and a predilection for early morning throat clearing. Years ago as a student I was correctly identified (from behind, mark you) by a stranger who claimed to recognise the family gait: "You walk like a Newell", she said. Yes – whether we know it or not we are heirs to so much. But one of the clear truths of Scripture is that godliness is not automatically passed on to the following generation. As someone has put it, God has no grandchildren. The sad catalogue of Judah’s kings abundantly illustrates this – good men sired bad sons, and vice versa. Back in the early twentieth century the eminent man of letters Edmund Gosse wrote a famous (and doubtless prejudiced) account of his relationship with his devout Christian father, the naturalist Philip Gosse, entitled Father and Son. It records the increasing alienation of a man from his upbringing.

One of the most interesting father and son duos in the Bible is Hezekiah and Manasseh. Since Scriptural history is supervised by the God who cannot lie, we can be confident in its trenchant character assessments. The Old Testament often includes what we might call spiritual snapshots, condensed summaries which incisively highlight the dominating features of Judah’s kings. First of all, let’s consider Hezekiah. He appears in the Old Testament historical books uncomfortably sandwiched between his ecumenising father Ahaz (2 Kings 16.10-14) and his apostasising son Manasseh (2 Kings 21.1-9). Here is the relevant passage from 2 Kings 18.3-7:

"[A] He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. [B] He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. For [C] he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but [D] kept his commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses. And [E] the Lord was with him; and he prospered whithersoever he went forth."

Just as we can trace distinct physical features in a photograph so we can foreground the key spiritual qualities of Hezekiah. Here are five simple points (ABCDE) which you can develop at leisure.

His Actions: Hezekiah did what was right in God’s sight (the only measure of correctness, after all), and found a positive role model not in his own father Ahaz (a spiritual disaster) but in David. It is good to look out for (and to seek to be) a man or woman who sets an example of what is right. There may be older saints in the local assembly who illustrate what it means to be a consistent believer. Hezekiah knew that godliness involved the removal of error, so he was not afraid to embark upon a vigorous campaign of cleansing Judah from idolatry and superstition. The world may boast in the tolerance of religious pluralism, but God’s Word insists upon truth at all costs.

His Belief: he trusted not in men, nor in himself, but in the Lord. In fact he was the most noteworthy of Judah’s monarchs in the steadfastness of his faith. All our confidence must rest in Jehovah, for all else is a broken reed. People will always let us down, whereas God, by contrast, is immutably faithful (Lam 3.22-23).

His Consistency: he stuck at what was right and didn’t deviate, despite the opposition which doubtless came from people who had prospered under his dad’s slack regime. Commencement in godliness is usually fairly easy; continuance demands hard slog.

His Doctrine: he went all the way back to the instructions God gave Moses. The great message of the prophets was that Israel should return to the law. So today – the only way to progress in faith is to go back to the unchanged teachings of the Bible. The Lord did not disclose new truth to Hezekiah, nor does He reveal anything new today; all He has to say to us is in the written Word, "the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude v.3, ASV). Mind you, Hezekiah carefully distinguished between a divine command and a man-made tradition. Over time, the Israelites had turned Moses’ brazen serpent into a religious relic to be venerated; so Hezekiah called it what it really was (Nehushtan – a mere lump of brass) and smashed it up. How quickly a good thing can be misused. You have only to think of the superstitious nonsense of Roman Catholicism to see the point.

Finally, his Enablement: God was with him. That was the secret of his success, for no one can manage alone. Indeed, his very name means "strength of Jehovah". Of course, the Lord’s presence does not automatically guarantee an easy ride. Joseph knew the Lord with him specifically when his brothers sold him into slavery and when he was unjustly imprisoned for alleged attempted rape (Genesis 39.1-2; 20-21). His outward circumstances were far from encouraging – and yet in the midst of it all God was there.

Hezekiah therefore stands as a superb model for every believer. But what about his son? Manasseh’s name means "forgetting", presumably looking back to Joseph’s firstborn, named after his Egyptian experience where the Lord’s goodness "made me forget all my toil [the hardships he endured], and all my father’s house [the advantages he lost]" (Gen 41.51). Yet despite a godly upbringing Manasseh forgot the claims of God. The tragic snapshot in 2 Kings is devastating in its condemnation (2 Kings 21.2-3). And if we only had this account it would be gloomy indeed, for there is not one bright spot in all his 55 long years of power. But it is the marvel of God’s sovereign grace to shine in the darkest hour and intervene in the blackest heart. The chronicler’s narrative provides an unexpected snapshot of repentance. The king who had stubbornly resisted God’s word was taken captive to Babylon: "And when he [Manasseh] was in affliction, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, And prayed unto him: and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God" (2 Chr 33.12-13).

Amazingly, Manasseh became a pattern of how we should respond to affliction: "he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself". His grandfather Ahaz had reacted differently, for "in the time of his distress did he trespass yet more against the Lord: this is that king Ahaz. For he sacrificed unto the gods of Damascus" (2 Chr 28.22-23). Distress hardened Ahaz in idolatry, but it melted Manasseh into a genuine contrition which was demonstrated by his conduct when he returned to Judah (2 Chr 33.14-16). The worst king in Judah’s history ended well, although not even his transformation could save the nation from judgment, for his evil influence lingered on (2 Kings 23.26; 2 Chr 33.17). As Shakespeare’s King Lear says, "Woe, that too late repents!" Manasseh was saved, but his nation still suffered. How careful we should be about the kind of example we set others! Whatever our family background, may the Lord give us help to steer a straight course for Him.

To be continued.

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