Vol. 5, No. 11
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Second Kings 17:33-34 are verses that may catch and hold the attention of the curious due to the apparent incongruity of the statements made there. The verses read like this:
They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods -- according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away. To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the Lord, nor do they follow their statutes or their ordinances, or the law and commandment which the Lord had commanded the children of Jacob, whom He named Israel.
Before raising several questions, it is worthwhile to note that the Bible, of course, records Israel's frequent digression into idolatry. Their monotheism (belief in one God) often degraded into polytheism (belief in many gods). They paid homage to the gods of the Canaanites, who had lived in the land there before them. They would not have been so tempted had they driven out all those pagan peoples as God had originally commanded (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). However, they did allow many of them to live. Then, they intermarried with them. Over time, they began to worship the molded images just as their predecessors, and now, cohorts did.
As a side note, it is interesting to note that recent archeological finds confirm the paganism of the ancient Israelites. The May/June issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contained an article by Ephraim Stern that highlighted the finds that confirmed the many temples at numerous sites and the goddess worship that took place. Indeed, biblical history often speaks of the "high places," explaining that "They set up for themselves sacred pillars and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree" (2 Kings 17:10).
With that background, we are prepared to raise the questions of the verses at hand. How, indeed, could it be said, in verse 33, that the Israelites "feared the Lord, yet served their own gods"? Isn't that a contradiction? Further, how can verse 34 conclude something that sounds quite different, "...they do not fear the Lord..."?
The best answer is probably the most obvious. Even though the bold statement is made, "they feared the Lord," one has to understand it in its context. In such, it cannot indicate a complete fear of God such as Jehovah would desire. Rather, it would indicate that they acknowledged his name, and continued their worship to him. However, their worship to him was not according to his Divine prescription. Further, they would worship him at times, and at other times -- perhaps in the same day -- worship one or more other supposed deities.
The true Creator was overtly displeased with this practice. The verses are written in the explanation of why Israel was taken captive by the Assyrians. God was allowing it to happen because of Israel's disobedience.
Herein lie obvious lessons for Christians. When we claim to fear the Lord, we are obligated to follow him alone and submit ourselves to all his commandments (cf. Matthew 28:20). We can harbor no divided allegiance between him and other gods. The paganism of our day, even while gradually taking on the blatant form of idol worship, is usually a bit more subtle. People worship their own lifestyles so much that they claim God but a few hours a week when they step into a building that has the name of his Son on the sign. The rest of the time, they serve themselves. Others claim to trust God while superstitions like astrology control them. Some even unwittingly dabble in the New Age transcendental meditation or other practices. All the while, they sing the praises and claim a relationship with God.
We need, as Christians, to remind ourselves to be careful. We must avoid materialism because we cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). We should evaluate every practice introduced into society to see if it is consistent with our Lord's commands. In short, we need to "fear the Lord," but not in the limited sense of 2 Kings 17:33-34. We need to, as Paul admonished, give such care that we "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).