The Passover was an annual feast which celebrated Israels deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Israelite males were commanded to keep the Passover at a fixed site where God would place His name (Deut 12; 14.22-29; 16.1-17). This spiritual centre of the nation was Jerusalem, where Solomon finally "built the house for the name of the Lord God of Israel" (2 Chr 6.10). In the New Testament local churches are linked closely to the name of Gods beloved Son (Mt 18.20). And Christians are expected to break bread every week, so remembering their deliverance from the enslavement of sin by Christs sacrifice (Acts 20.7). This similarity between Israel remembering the Passover at Jerusalem and Christians breaking bread in a local church allows us to glean from this Old Testament passage practical lessons for how believers should remember the Lord.
Having cleansed the temple some years earlier, Hezekiah now yearned for national unity and blessing; and to this end he took counsel "to keep the passover in the second month" (v.2). While this was not ideal, it was in keeping with the Law of Moses which permitted the Passover to be kept on the second month for those who were defiled or travelling (Num 9.9-11), and it was necessary "because the priests had not sanctified themselves sufficiently, neither had the people gathered themselves together to Jerusalem" (v.3). Since the northern kingdom had now fallen into the hands of the Assyrians, and many of the northern tribes had been deported (vv.7,9), "Hezekiah might regard himself as the king of all Israel, and in this character might invite the remnant of the ten tribes, as his subjects, to the Passover".1 And "So they established a decree to make proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba [southern border] even to Dan [northern border], that they should come to keep the passover unto the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem" (v.5). Hezekiah longed to keep the Passover for Gods glory. So, too, Christians should break bread in a manner that glorifies the Lord. After all, it is "the Lords Supper" (1 Cor 11.20).
The kingdom of Israel was tiny, stretching from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north (approximately 150 miles). Rapid communication could be carried across these relatively short distances by men running on foot (see 2 Sam 18.23). With little time, and a sense of urgency, runners ran throughout all Israel, carrying a message of repentance (v.6). With the three-fold authority of the king (vv.1,6,12), his princes (vv.2,12) and Jehovah (v.12), the runners commanded the tribes to "turn again unto the Lord" (vv.6,9) and to stop trespassing against Him with a stiff neck, like their forefathers (vv.7,8). The runners appealed to the tribes to "yield ["the giving of the hand as a pledge of fidelity"2] yourselves unto the Lord" (v.8), to "enter into his sanctuary, which he hath sanctified for ever: and serve the Lord your God" (v.8). If Israel did these things God would turn again to them in mercy (v.6), turn away His fierce wrath from them (v.8), and return their captive family members to the land (v.9). For those who had felt the hard heel of the Assyrian forces it was a wonderful offer of restoration, if only they would grasp it. Sadly, only a minority of the northern tribes "humbled themselves", and came to Jerusalem (v.11). The majority "laughed them to scorn, and mocked them" (v.10; cp Acts 17.32-34). And yet, despite this poor turnout from the north, huge numbers were found at Jerusalem to keep the feast (v.13). These included "all the congregation of Judah, with the priests and the Levites, and all the congregation that came out of Israel, and the strangers that came out of the land of Israel, and that dwelt in Judah" (v.25). The potential for ill-feeling breaking out among this diverse congregation was enormous. But instead, "the hand of God was to give them one heart to do the commandment of the king and of the princes, by the word of the Lord" (v.12). Local churches are also made up of different kinds of people, but it is just as important for them "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4.3).
The very act of gathering for the Passover had a sanctifying influence on the nation. The northern tribes had to repent before coming south, and before keeping the feast the gathered company "arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense took they away, and cast them into the brook Kidron" (v.14). Feeling "ashamed [kâlam, to wound3]" the priests and Levites sanctified themselves (v.15). And immediately after their joyful remembrance of the Passover "all Israel that were present went out to the cities of Judah, and brake the images in pieces, and cut down the groves, and threw down the high places and the altars out of all Judah and Benjamin, in Ephraim also and Manasseh, until they had utterly destroyed them all" (31.1). In a similar way the weekly remembrance of the Lord Jesus ought to have a sanctifying influence on Christians, who are ordered to examine themselves before they break bread (1 Cor 11.28).
This particular Passover in Israels history provided a superb display of divine grace, for although the priests and Levites "stood in their place after their manner, according to the law of Moses the man of God many in the congregation that were not sanctified had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written" (30.16-18). They acknowledged this shortcoming and "Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good Lord pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary. And the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people" (vv.18-20). This may well have been literal physical healing because even New Testament saints can be smitten by illness and die as result of inappropriate behaviour at the Lords Supper (1 Cor 11.30). What can we learn from this? It is certainly not an excuse for disobedience. But it does show that "upright seeking of the Lord, which proceeds from the heart is to be more highly estimated than strict observance of the letter of the law".4 Cold mechanical obedience alone does not make for good worship. There needs to be a heart that longs after God. David wrote, "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God" (Ps 42.1). Furthermore, we must beware of judging others too severely. Moses misinterpreted Aarons refusal to eat the sin offering on the day his sons were slain by God (Lev 10.16-20), and Michal was wrong to despise Davids zeal for God (2 Sam 6.16). "There are occasions when an interceding heart is more appropriate than strict dogmatism."5
This Passover was a delightful occasion. Never since the death of Solomon and the disruption of the kingdom had all Israel gathered together to keep the Passover (vv.5,26). Now, under Hezekiahs leadership, all "present at Jerusalem kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with great gladness: and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day" (v.21). "The Levites taught the good knowledge of the Lord: and they did eat throughout the feast seven days, offering peace offerings [standing for fellowship], and making confession to the Lord God of their fathers" (v.22). The people willingly surpassed the demands of the Law, keeping the feast for an additional seven days (v.23). Hezekiah and his princes gave generously to the people (v.24). Hezekiah himself had spoken "comfortably unto all the Levites that taught the good knowledge of the Lord" (v.22). Considering all of these details it is not surprising to read that the voice of the Levites "was heard, and their prayer came up to his holy dwelling place, even unto heaven" (v.27). Local churches can experience the same today. Christians should be glad when they break bread and praise the Lord joyfully. Their worship should be shaped by the solid teaching of the Word of God. They ought to appreciate the close fellowship that is enjoyed at the Lords Supper (1 Cor 10.16), readily confess their faults to the Lord, and go beyond the mere letter of the law. Elders must lead by example, be enthusiastic for the truth, and encourage others. If these features were more commonly seen in local churches how much more would their prayers be heard in heaven.
To be continued.
1 Caspari, S. cited by Keil & Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament.
2 Keil & Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament.
3 Strong J. A concise dictionary of the words in the Hebrew Bible; with their rendering in the authorized English version.
4 Keil & Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament.
5 Riddle, J M. Kings of Judah.