II Chronicles 15 is set after King Asa of Judah defeated the Cushites, with God’s help. A prophet, Azariah the son of Oded, comes to King Asa and prophesies. Azariah encourages King Asa to be strong, for Asa’s work will be rewarded. Inspired by Azariah’s prophecy, and also a prophecy of Azariah’s father Oded that Azariah apparently shared with Asa, Asa rids Judah, Benjamin, and the Ephraimite cities Asa captured of idolatry. There are Northern Israelites and people from the Israelite tribe of Simeon (which was south of Judah, but may have moved north) who see that God is with Asa and gather to him. The Judahites and these other Israelites commit themselves to follow God, and to put to death any Israelite in Judah who does not seek the LORD.
In the course of Azariah’s prophecy to King Asa, Azariah says some rather enigmatic things. Allow me to quote Azariah’s prophecy (in the KJV):
“The LORD is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you. Now for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law. But when they in their trouble did turn unto the LORD God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them.
And in those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries. And nation was destroyed of nation, and city of city: for God did vex them with all adversity. Be ye strong therefore, and let not your hands be weak: for your work shall be rewarded.”
What specific time frame does Azariah have in mind here? When did Israel lack the true God, a teaching priest, and law? When did Israel depart from this godlessness and turn to God, who heard her? When was that turmoil among nations and cities that Azariah mentions? And what does all of this have to do with Azariah’s thesis: that Asa should seek God and pursue the work that shall be rewarded?
There are a variety of explanations:
1. One view is that Azariah is referring to the time frame of the Judges. The Nelson Study Bible and Ralph Klein in the HarperCollins Study Bible go with this interpretation. The time frame of the Judges was one of turmoil. Other nations invaded and bothered Israel, and people bypassed the highways, presumably because they had criminals and robbers on them (Judges 5:6-7). A generation arose that did not know God or remember God’s deeds for Israel (Judges 2:10), and each Israelite did what was right in his own eyes. Yet, whenever the Israelites called upon God for help, God sent them judges to rescue them. Azariah may be referring to this to encourage Asa and Judah to call on the LORD, regardless of how far they may have spiritually sunk, for God will answer them as God answered the Israelites in the time of the Judges. Asa is to continue his policy of religious reform, and God will honor his work.
2. Another view is that Azariah is talking about Jeroboam, the king of Northern Israel, who (in the eyes of the Chronicler) had forsaken God, the Torah, and the legitimate priesthood in Jerusalem. David Rothstein in The Jewish Study Bible says that the Aramaic Targum has this sort of view. The idea may be that King Asa of Judah should seek the LORD, even though his neighbors to the north do not. A question I would ask of this interpretation would be how it handles II Chronicles 15:4, which depicts the afflicted people calling to the LORD and being answered by him. The Northern Israelites did not do this too often. There were times when God answered their prayers—-I think of the time that God sent them rain after the Israelites at last acknowledged that the LORD is God, in response to Elijah’s competition with the prophets of Baal—-but I have a hard time believing that Azariah had incidents like this in mind. Then again, who knows? Azariah may be saying that God is willing to answer the sinful North whenever it calls to God for mercy, and so that should encourage Asa to seek God.
3. A third view is that Azariah is referring to the kings of Judah prior to King Asa, kings who disobeyed God and experienced affliction from other nations (i.e., Shishak). In this scenario, Azariah is encouraging Asa to depart from the godless policy of his predecessors. But does this fit? Azariah is talking about a time when Israel lacked God, a teaching priest, and Torah, but Judah had God, the Jerusalem priesthood, and the Torah under Asa’s predecessors. Arguably, going back to the view that Azariah is talking about the time frame of the Judges, Israel had these things even way back then: the priest Phinehas makes an appearance in the Book of Judges. Interpreters have responded to this sort of argument by saying that, sure, God, Torah, and priests may have existed in Israel at these times, but people were not listening to them, and the authorities failed to teach and to enforce the law, so it was like these things did not exist for Israel. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? Similarly, what if God is speaking and no one listens or responds? Overall, if Azariah is speaking about Asa’s predecessors, the point may be that there has been lawlessness and international chaos during the reigns before Asa, but God has been eager to help Israel when she has called upon him. In II Chronicles, that has been the case: Shishak invaded Judah when Rehoboam was king, but God helped Judah when she showed humility (II Chronicles 12). Even in Asa’s reign, God helped Judah when Asa called to him while contending with foreign aggressors (II Chronicles 14).
4. A fourth view is that Azariah is talking about the future. Rothstein attributes this view to the LXX, but, as far as I can see, the LXX only uses the future in this prophecy in v 4 and v 6. V 4 says that he will turn to God, and God will answer. The “he” is probably Israel, which is discussed in the previous verse. Azariah may be predicting that Israel will turn to God after a period of lawlessness, and that may be a prediction of Asa’s religious reforms. V 6 of the LXX says that nations will fight nations and cities will fight cities. That is consistent with the Hebrew, which uses a vav-perfect (which often is future-tense). The idea here may be that hard times are coming for the world, but Asa and Judah can find security by turning to God.
Which explanation do I buy? I tend to lean towards the view that Azariah is talking about the time of the Judges. That was when there was chaos, and it was also when Israel repented and was answered by God. Maybe the third explanation can work, too. Either way, Azariah’s point is that there was a time when Israel repented of her godlessness and called on God, and God answered her, and so Asa can be assured that God will do the same if Asa leads Judah to repent before God.