FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB Link to all three readings
In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.
Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”
The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are a retelling of the history of the Israel in the era of the kings, using material from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. 2 Chronicles begins with Solomon’s reign and continues through the Babylonian Exile (c. 597-539 B.C.), after which the kingship ceased to exist. Sunday’s reading marks the conclusion of the Chronicle narrative, the destruction of the Temple and the sorrowful forced dislocation of most of the residents of Jerusalem and its environs to a seven-decade captivity in Babylon. The history of post-exile Israel is picked up in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the same time that this text was composed.
The Chronicle is a retelling, so the obvious question is why the original Biblical narrative needed a reworking. Father Lawrence Boadt explains the forces at work in his 2012 commentary (which I strongly recommend for your home working library.) In the first instance, the sheer length of the exile strongly suggests that those who returned to Jerusalem in 539 B.C. were literally new to the place and probably under-informed of the staples of Israel’s life, such as kingship, temple, priesthood, and law. The vacuum created by the absence of a king was filled by the priests who desired to fill the gaps of Israel’s self-understanding.
Given the upheaval created by the exile, detailed in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah that follow, religious leaders sought to remind their returning brethren that Israel had once been well served by its own kings, notably David and Solomon. Thus, Chronicles provides another source for the history of the monarchy, a version which Boadt observes has removed the warts of the kings recounted in Samuel and Kings. For example, David’s adultery with Bathsheba is edited out of Chronicles, and his role in the construction of the Temple is exaggerated. This second history is colored with emphases on the needs of post-exilic times: rebuilding the Temple, renewing the observance of the Law, restoring the power and functions of the priesthood. [Whether the popularity of King Cyrus of Persia among the returning Israelites played a role in Chronicles, one way or the other, is hard to say.]
Sunday’s text is the conclusion of the revised story of Israel’s kings. It is interesting that the moral collapse of Israel is described quite democratically—everyone is to blame; the kings are not singled out. The fall is depicted as the desecration of the holy place and the influx of pagan religious rites. The text describes the appearances of the pre-exile prophets, and their rejection is described as widespread among all the classes. God’s wrath is finally provoked, and the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, began a protracted campaign against Israel around 600 B.C. that concluded with destruction of the Temple and mass relocation. Jeremiah’s prophesy of a seventy-year desolation is remarkably accurate. Israel’s springtime would be the conquest of Babylon by Persia, and its remarkable King Cyrus.
The final paragraph of Sunday’s reading is, interestingly, repeated in the opening of the Book of Ezra which follows. It is a remarkable thing that the Lord directly inspired a gentile king, and even more remarkable is its content. Cyrus, in 539 B.C., states that all the kingdoms of the earth have been given to him and he has been charged by God to build him a house in Jerusalem. Cyrus allows any one of this God’s people who wish to undertake the rebuilding process to go, and he includes the blessing “May his God be with him!” Cyrus, not surprisingly, enjoyed considerable love and gratitude among the people of Israel, who loyally record his generosity for posterity by recounting what on its face is quite embarrassing—that a pagan king proves to be a God-chosen redeemer where their own kingly line has failed.
Cyrus and his successors took this divine commission seriously. In 440 B.C., a century later, the Persian king Artaxerxes dispatched a royal official of his court to assist Jerusalem in shoring up its defenses and restoring observance to Jewish Law. The courtier-now-governor was named Nehemiah, the author of the Biblical work under his name.
Sunday’s text is not simply a statement of sin and redemption, but also of the surprising fashion in which God works. We worship a God “without walls,” so to speak, and we would do well not to ‘domesticate” or “appropriate” the all-powerful. The Sunday Gospel text from St. John concludes: “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Goodness and light appear in unexpected places, too, even in Persian palaces.