“They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:33). This is one of the strangest, saddest yet most repeated sinful behaviours throughout history. And recent events have provided another disgraceful example. But first, what was the context of this ancient “amazing disgrace”?
The northern tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians and a large number of Israelites had been carried away to Nineveh and surrounding environs. Further, many Assyrians were now settling in this region of the Promised Holy Land. This was the particular case here in Samaria.
In later history, the Romans would devise the heartless means of ploughing salt into the land of vanquished peoples. Crops could not grow in such poisoned soil. The result was the people were unable to become independent of the empire. The Assyrians did the same thing religiously and culturally to those they conquered.
In order to thoroughly subjugate those they militarily conquered, the Assyrian policy was to bring hordes of their own people to live in the communities of the conquered. By doing so, the conquered would have difficulty maintaining their distinctive cultural characteristics, including their religious practices. By such assimilation, the unique religious beliefs and convictions of those conquered would be weakened and the empire would, in a measure, be unified. In fact, by the time of the New Testament this is precisely what had happened to the region of Samaria. The Jews had lost all sense of old covenant Judaism. Therefore, they were rejected, and even in some cases despised, by more orthodox Jews (see John 4). The roots of this spiritual and social mess are recorded in this passage in 2 Kings 17.
The Assyrians moved a large number of God-rejecting Gentiles into Samaria (v. 24). But because of their paganism, God judged them. The people panicked and asked the king for help. He astutely sent to them Jewish priests, who taught the people the Judaistic externals concerning how to worship the true God (vv. 25–28). Though the unwelcomed Gentiles went through many of the ritualistic motions, nevertheless they held to their idolatry, even putting idols in various Jewish “holy places” (vv. 29–31). They appointed their fellow unbelieving neighbours to be the priests, and so they had not only a corrupt religious system, but now it was led by a corrupt priesthood (v. 32). At best, the inhabitants of Samaria now had a “nominal” Judaism. This nominalism was described in these words: “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods.” They used the right words but were defined by the wrong dictionary. The result was a mockery of the true God and the true faith. Biblical Judaism had been domesticated by unbelievers. Sadly, many of the people “loved to have it so.” It was an early example of an amazing disgrace. Fast forward to today.
We often witness the same kind of nominal Christianity in our day. People who claim to know Jesus Christ are in many cases—often in the political realm—professing to “fear the LORD” yet in reality they are “serving their own gods.” Last week, such an amazing disgrace was front and centre in the United States.
The United States Supreme Court legalised gay marriage throughout the nation. That evening, the White House celebrated this foolishness by being lit up with the colours of the rainbow, the symbol of homosexual acceptance. This was disgraceful. The brazen “in your face, God” celebration of depravity is perhaps unprecedented by any former Administration of the US government. When a government shakes its collective fist in the face of God then such a moral crime is sure to be punished. When God placed the first rainbow in the sky it was to remind man of God’s grace in the light of His wrath. It was not an invitation to sin. But the disgrace of the Obama Administration was only beginning.
Within hours of this terrible decision by the Supreme Court, President Obama spoke at the funeral of a pastor who, along with eight of his church members, was recently murdered while attending their church’s Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting. Obama apparently sang some of the lines of the song Amazing Grace. He then later tweeted, “May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.” His Twitter account has an icon: the White House in the colours of the rainbow. I was shocked. I was stirred. I was indignant. The implication of his tweet is that we can defy God and expect grace at the same time. Yes, God is gracious. That is why He saves us from our sins, not in our sins. Mr Obama desecrated the concept of God’s true amazing grace into amazing disgrace. He is presuming God is on his side in the culture war. Hardly.
As I saw this news report I immediately thought of this verse: “So they feared the LORD, yet served their own gods.” If there was ever an example in modern times of blatant paganism wrapped in the guise of Christianity, this is it. Amazing disgrace indeed.
Such a mockery of the gospel should disturb us. And of course we have many such examples here in South Africa. We should be bothered. But it should do more than that. Among other responses should be a healthy self-examination of our own profession of faith. Could it be said of us, “So they fear the LORD [externally, ritualistically, profession-ally] but serve their own gods” [internally, practically, idolatrously]?
In other words, as people examine our lives will they see that what we profess to believe is actually what we practice in our behaviour? Do we display devotion to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ on Sunday and later in the week at Grace Group, yet head back to our home, or to the workplace, or to the gym, or wherever to “serve our own gods” of materialism, greed, sexual lust, prestige and the pathetic and joy-robbing god of being “acceptable” and “cool”? Do we profess that we are humbled by grace when we “worship,” yet on Monday mistreat others because of a supposed position of ethnic, economic or educational superiority? And, very much to the point, do we praise the Lord in worship for His amazing grace in the gospel and then on Monday treat with contempt those who are enslaved to their sin—including the sin of homosexuality? These days should motivate us to seek the Lord for more of His gospel grace, empowering us to both fear and to serve the Lord in such a way that the surrounding culture will take notice, to the glory of God for the good of their souls.
It is true that nominal, perverted and even a type of pagan Christianity is more and more visible. Yet we should not lose heart or hope, for the gospel remains the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Jesus Christ continues to build His church and the gates of hell continue to lose in their bid to defeat it.
Yes, there is much that can characterised as “amazing disgrace,” yet if we will fear the Lord and serve Him as God, we can continue to expect to be amazed by grace. God is still saving sinners. He is still shining His rainbow of grace to those who feel the guilt of their sins. And because of this, we can anticipate the glorious day when the rainbow is redeemed through the spread of the gospel to bring glory once again to the Lord who gave it to remind us of His amazing grace. When that happens on the global stage, then we will all be amazed that so many fear the LORD and serve Him as God. Oh what a day when Amazing Grace forever is victor over amazing disgrace.