"God at Work in Desperate Times"
2 Chronicles 20:1-30
(Delivered Sunday, March 16, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
There's a certain kind of story in the Old Testament that has really grown to appeal to me. It's the kind of story in which the people of God are faced with a situation that is utterly outside their control - a situation that threatens to completely destroy them; one they have absolutely no resources for and no ability to stop, and in which they are at a complete loss as to what to do. It's the kind of story in which, in their utter helplessness, they cry out to God and find that He comes to their rescue marvelously - so that, though they started out with fear and trembling, they end with joy and rejoicing. I like to call them "stories of God at work in desperate times".
I'll tell you why I think I love the Bible's stories of God at work in such desperate times. I think it's because, more than any other kind of story, those stories most clearly remind me of my own situation as it really is. You see; the moment I start thinking that I'm the one whose in control of things around me and that I'm sufficient for the circumstances of life - the moment I convince myself that I'm the self-reliant winner of my own battles and the independent master of my own fate - that's the moment I'm living in a fantasy world. It's such a prevailing attitude in this world - and one that takes me in so subtly - that I find myself slipping into that frame of thinking all too easily. But when I'm suddenly hit with a desperate situation that exceeds my own ability and resources, and remembering once again how utterly helpless I really am I cry out to God to come to my rescue - then I'm suddenly forced back into reality!
I was drawn this week to a story of God at work in a desperate time. It's a story of good, godly king Jehoshaphat, one of the Old Testament kings of Judah. And what particularly caught my attention was that, in a very desperate set of circumstances - that of the approach of an invading army of overwhelming proportions - Jehoshaphat cried out to God for help with these words: "O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what do do, but our eyes are upon You" (2 Chronicles 20:12).
That's a great prayer! It expresses the attitude of a man who had a firm sense of reality. Jehoshaphat's example has much to teach us about the principles of believing on God and seeing Him work in desperate times.
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Let me begin by telling you a little about Jehoshaphat himself. A few generations before Jehoshaphat was born, all the twelve tribes of Israel had constituted one great nation. But King Solomon had failed to remain faithful to God; and so, the kingdom became divided under the reign of his son Rehoboam. The southern kingdom, Judah, was passed on to Rehoboam's son Abijah, then to Abijah's son Asa, and then to Asa's son Jehoshaphat. Over the course of its history, Judah had some kings who were good and godly and others who were wicked and faithless. Jehoshaphat was one of the good ones; and so was his father Asa.
There was something that happened to King Asa that I suspect his son Jehoshaphat never forgot. Early in his reign, King Asa commanded the people to put away their idols and to seek the God of their fathers. God had granted peace to the land; and so he ordered that the fortified cities of Judah be built up. He told his people, "Let us build these cities and make walls around them, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us, because we have sought the LORD our God; we have sought Him, and He has given us rest on every side" (2 Chron. 14:7). He also built up the army; and the land saw great prosperity under his rule.
But then, the king of the Ethiopian nation came out against Judah with an overwhelmingly great army - a staggering one million foot soldiers and three hundred chariots. Asa's army was greatly outnumbered. And so, Asa cried out to God with a cry of great faith; and he said, "Lord, it is nothing for You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, O LORD our God, for we rest on You, and in Your name we go against this multitude. O LORD, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!" (v. 11). And God answered this prayer. The Bible tells us that the Lord struck the Ethiopians miraculously and caused them to flee before Asa's army in such a way as to never recover. It was a great victory for God, and for the people who trusted Him.
Jehoshaphat grew up with a great heritage of faith. No doubt, his royal father repeatedly told him that story of "God at work in a desperate time". Jehoshaphat was by no means a perfect man; but nevertheless, he was a king with a strong appreciation for the faithfulness and power of God, and with a passion to carry on the reforms that had been begun by his good father Asa.
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And so, Jehoshaphat had become king and had reigned for many years over Judah. His reign was a very prosperous and blessed one. But then, one day, desperate times struck. The Bible tells us ...
It happened after this that the people of Moab with the people of Ammon, and others with them besides the Ammonites, came to battle against Jehoshaphat. Then some came and told Jehoshaphat, saying, "A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, from Syria; and they are in Hazazon Tamar" (which is En Gedi) And Jehoshaphat feared and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to ask help from the LORD; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:1-4).
Two people groups who were a constant trouble to the people of Israel had risen up against King Jehoshaphat - the Ammonites and the Moabites. Historically, they were the two people groups that had originated from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his two daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). And aligned with Moab and Ammon against Judah was the people of Mount Seir, that is, the Edomites - another people group with a long history of troubling Israel. When God had brought the people of Israel into the promised land, He commanded them to leave Moab, Ammon and Edom alone (Num. 20:14-21; Deut. 2:4, 9, 19). But now, these hostile nations had arisen against the people of Judah, had snuck around the southern side of the Dead Sea with a multitude of soldiers, and were at En Gedi - a mere day's journey away.
This was a dreadful situation! One day's distance was not enough time to rally up the troops. That's why Jehoshaphat had cried out to God and said, "... We have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You" (v. 12). Unless God acted on their behalf, they were all doomed. This, of course, fits the criteria for yet another story of "God at work in desperate times".
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This story begins fearfully; but, as we shall see, it ends joyfully and victoriously. So; what happened inbetween? How did Jehoshaphat react to all this? More to the point, what specific principles can we learn from his experience about trusting God in our own desperate times?
One of the first principles I'd like to suggest to you is that of ...
1. CULTIVATING A TRUST IN GOD BEFORE THE DESPERATE TIMES COME.
If you'll look at verse one, you'll see that it tells you when this desperate situation struck Jehoshaphat: "It happened after this ..." What is the "this" that all this happened after? The "this" involved two very important things.
First, it involved Jehoshaphat learning a difficult lesson about the need to break his own alliances with ungodly kings. He had made a very unwise and destructive alliance with the ungodly king of the northern kingdom of Israel, King Ahab. He had agreed to aid Ahab in his battle against one of Ahab's enemies; and it proved to be a horrible disaster. Ahab was killed, and Jehoshaphat barely escaped with his own life. And a prophet of God sternly rebuked Jehoshaphat for this foolish choice, saying, "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Therefore the wrath of the LORD is upon you. Nevertheless good things are found in you, in that you have removed the wooden images from the land, and have prepared your heart to seek God" (2 Chronicles 19:2-3). Though he never made a complete break from this sinful tendency (20:35-37), it does seem that Jehoshaphat exercised greater caution regarding his associations and alliances.
The second thing the "this" involved was Jehoshaphat's actual spiritual reforms in Israel. The Bible tells us,
So Jehoshaphat dwelt in Jerusalem; and he went out again among the people from Beersheba to the mountains of Ephraim, and brought them back to the LORD God of their fathers. Then he set judges in the land throughout all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, "Take heed to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment. Now therefore, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care and do it, for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, no partiality, nor taking bribes."
And so, by the time this particular crisis hit, Jehoshaphat was well along in getting his spiritual house in order. He was breaking off alliances with ungodly and sinful rulers, and he was making great progress in advancing the spiritual reforms of his people. He was already growing wonderfully as a remarkably godly king over a progressively God-honoring people.
Now; try to imagine what would have happened if he had tried to get his spiritual house in order as soon as he had heard about this approaching army. Isn't that what many people try to do when they're faced with a crisis? They realize that they have been neglecting their own spiritual needs and responsibilities. They had failed to cultivate a growing sense of faith in God during the good times; and now that the desperate times have come, they are caught completely unprepared.
Jesus told a parable that has something to say about this. He said,
Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall (Matthew 7:24-27).
Listen, dear brothers and sisters; the rains are going to come. The winds are going to blow. The flood waters are going to rise. Desperate times will strike in your life. And when they do, that's not the time to scramble around and get your spiritual house in order. That time to prepare is now - before the disaster strikes. Now is the time to break from sinful habits and practices. Now is the time to build the habit of daily Bible reading. Now is the time to deepen your relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ through regular attendance at church. Now is the time to develop deep communion with the heavenly Father through regular, private prayer. The time to cultivate a pattern of faithfulness toward and trust in God is now - so that when the desperate times come, you will be found ready.
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Jehoshaphat was a king who had already cultivated a depth with God. And when the crisis struck, he knew what to do. And this leads us to the second example he gives us ...
2. SET YOURSELF TO SEEK THE LORD AS SOON AS THE DESPERATE TIMES HIT (vv. 3-13).
The Bible tells us that this great man of God was "afraid" when he heard what was coming. No one could blame him for that. But notice that even in his fear, as it says in verse 3, Jehoshaphat "set himself to seek the LORD". The NIV translates this by saying that he "resolved to inquire of the LORD". The first thing he did, when the greatest crisis of his life came upon him, was to make it his own commitment to turn immediately to God - not as a last resort, but as the very first recourse.
He proclaimed a national fast, and called the people to assemble to ask help from God - even the women and children (v. 13). And Jehoshaphat led them in prayer. Notice very carefully what he prayed, because it shows you how he had set his heart to seek the Lord:
Then Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD, before the new court, and said: "O LORD God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You? Are You not our God, who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever? And they dwell in it, and have built You a sanctuary in it for Your name, saying, "If disaster comes upon us - sword, judgment, pestilence, or famine - we will stand before this temple and in Your presence (for Your name is in this temple), and cry out to You in our affliction, and You will hear and save.' And now, here are the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir - whom You would not let Israel invade when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them and did not destroy them - here they are, rewarding us by coming to overthrow us out of Your possession which You have given us to inherit. O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You." Now all Judah, with their little ones, their wives, and their children, stood before the LORD (vv. 5-13).
Review the words of Jehoshaphat's prayer. You'll find that there is a very specific order to how he sought God at this time of crisis. I believe it is a pattern of prayer we also are meant to follow at such times.
First, Jehoshaphat began by remembering who God is. He prayed, "O LORD God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You?" When desperate times strike us, how few of us think of stoping to remember who God is and what He is like - His transcendence over the things of this earth, His absolute sovereignty over the nations, the limitlessness of His own power! But this is the first part of seeking God in a time of testing.
Second, Jehoshaphat recalls the promises God has made. His nation - the nation God raised up and placed in the land in which they now dwelt - was being threatened. And so, he prayed to this great God whose mighty attributes he just remembered, and said, "Are You not our God, who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?" In other words, Jehoshaphat remembered the promise the almighty God made to His friend Abraham concerning offspring - a promise that was certainly not now about to be revoked by a foreign nation!
What's more, he remembered the promises that were made to his own great grandfather Solomon regarding the temple that he had built. At the dedication of that temple, Solomon prayed and asked that, in a time of trial, God would hear His people if they cried out with their face to this temple - a request that God promised to honor (1 Kings 8:22-53; 9:3). Jehoshaphat recalled that promise of God concerning the people to whom this land had been given; saying, "And they dwell in it, and have built You a sanctuary in it for Your name, saying, "If disaster comes upon us - sword, judgment, pestilence, or famine - we will stand before this temple and in Your presence (for Your name is in this temple), and cry out to You in our affliction, and You will hear and save.'"
In this desperate moment, Jehoshaphat seeks God by recalling and reciting the promises that God Himself made to His own people. What a great way that is to seek God, the great Promise Keeper.
Third, after remembering who God is and recalling His promises to Israel, Jehoshaphat sets himself to seek God by reviewing the situation before this great God. He prays, "And now, here are the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir - whom You would not let Israel invade when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them and did not destroy them < here they are, rewarding us by coming to overthrow us out of Your possession which You have given us to inherit." When hit with a desperate situation, Jehoshaphat doesn't begin by running into the presence of God and complaining to Him as the very first thing; because that certainly wouldn't be a way to seek God. Nor does he dishonor God by speaking as if God didn't already know the facts. Instead, Jehoshaphat calmly and confidently presents the situation as it is to this mighty God whose attributes he remembered and whose promises he recalled - more to affirm the situation before God than to offer new information to Him.
And finally, Jehoshaphat ends by requesting God to act on behalf of himself and his people. "O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You." He doesn't tell God what to do; but simply asks God to act. The request for help comes, not in a panicked manner, but after all these other things had been brought before God first and a solid perspective of things as they really are had been established.
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Now; as I said, I believe the specific order of events in this prayer shows us how God wants us to seek Him when a distressing time hits us. I'll show you why I say that. Let's look at the Bible's story of another distressing time - this one with respect to the early church.
The apostles Peter and John were brought before the leaders in Jerusalem and were commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus any further. They had healed a man in Jesus' name; and now people everywhere in the city were turning to Jesus. The apostles, who said they could not but speak of Jesus and proclaim Him, were further threatened by the authorities and then permitted to go. But Peter and John reported all this to the church. It was a distressing time in that the authorities had threatened them and commanded them to cease preaching in the name of Jesus. But notice how the church prayed!
So when they heard that, they raised their voices to God with one accord and said; "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them [here, remembering who God is], who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: "Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ' [here quoting about God's promises concerning Jesus in Psalm 2]. For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and purpose determined before to be done [here affirming how God's own word was fulfilled before their eyes, and thus recalling the promises God had made in His word]. Now, Lord, look on their threats [reviewing the situation before God], and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus" [thus, requesting God to act on their behalf]. And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:23-31).
I believe God, through His response to that prayer, is showing us that He approves of the pattern of it. May Jehoshaphat's example - as well as that of the early church - teach us how set our own hearts to seek God when a desperate time strikes.
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God very clearly heard the prayer of His king. The Bible goes on to tell us,
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, "Listen, all you of Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem, and you, King Jehoshaphat! Thus says the LORD to you: "Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God's. Tomorrow go down against them. They will surely come up by the Ascent of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the brook before the Wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the LORD, who is with you, O Judah and Jerusalem!' Do not fear or be dismayed: tomorrow go out against them, for the LORD is with you." And Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem bowed before the LORD, worshiping the LORD. Then the Levites of the children of the Kohathites and the children of the Korahites stood up to praise the LORD God of Israel with voices loud and high (vv. 14-19).
This, then, leads us to a third - and perhaps very surprising - principle we learn from Jehoshaphat's example. It is that we should ...
3. REJOICE IN GOD THROUGH WORSHIP DURING THE DESPERATE TIMES (vv. 14-25).
I wonder how many of us would respond to the threat of an impending army by quickly forming a worship team. But that's exactly what Jehoshaphat did!
So they rose early in the morning and went out into the Wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, "Hear me, O Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem: Believe in the LORD your God, and you shall be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper." And when He had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the LORD, and who should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army and were saying:
There was nothing that Jehoshaphat or the people of Judah themselves could do about the approaching army. But they could set themselves to seek God and pray for His help. And having relied on Him for His help, and having heard Him promise that the battle was not theirs but His, what else was there to do but worship Him? How appropriate, in fact, that the worship leaders should proceed the army and lead the way!
And look at what happened as a result:
Now when they began to sing and to praise, the LORD set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated. For the people of Ammon and Moab stood up against the inhabitants of Mount Seir to utterly kill and destroy them. And when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they helped to destroy one another.
Imagine - these hostile troops must have been motivated, for some reason, to bring all their riches and finest jewelry with them into battle! Who ever heard of a general telling his troops, "Now men, we're about to go into battle; so quickly put on your most expensive jewelry"? The only way to account for this is that God moved upon them to do this so that they would become easy plunder for the people who worshiped Him. The Bible says, "... The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous" (Prov. 13:22). And you'll notice that the victory was won as soon as the people of God began to worship the Lord and sing praises to Him.
It's always appropriate to worship God - even in a desperate time. In fact, the most appropriate thing to do in a distressing time is to stop and worship the Lord; because, as the Bible says, God is "enthroned in the praises of Israel" (Psalm 22:3). The enemy is defeated as soon as we begin to worship.
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This leads us to the final principle Jehoshaphat's example teaches us; to ...
4. BLESS GOD WITH YOUR THANKS WHEN THE DESPERATE TIMES ARE OVER (vv. 26-30).
The passage closes with these words:
And on the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Berachah, for there they blessed the LORD; therefore the name of that place was called The Valley of Berachah until this day. Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, with Jehoshaphat in front of them, to go back to Jerusalem with joy, for the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies. So they came to Jerusalem, with stringed instruments and harps and trumpets, to the house of the LORD. And the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of those countries when they heard that the LORD had fought against the enemies of Israel. Then the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around (vv. 26-30).
The people of God did not have to lift a single weapon in battle; because, as the Lord Himself had said, "... For the battle is not yours, but God's" (v. 15). And so, the people worshiped God and blessed Him right in the very valley where He had fought the battle for them. They not only worshiped God before the lines of battle; but they blessed him in the valley once the battle was over - calling the place "The Valley of Blessing" from then on. Then, they had a victory parade in praise to the Lord - with Jehoshaphat in the lead - blessing God with stringed instruments, harps and trumpets, all the way back home; and culminating, no doubt, in a grand worship service before the temple of God.
God is always ready to rescue us in the desperate times, if we will but cry out to Him. And when His rescue is completed, we have a duty to respond with our thanks and to bless His name. "Call upon Me in the day of trouble," God says; "I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me" (Psalm 50:15). His role is to deliver us; and ours is to glorify Him in return. The desperate times will come; but is your heart set to praise Him for His victory in advance? And has God brought about a deliverance from a desperate day for which you have yet to give Him thanks?
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Before men, Jehoshaphat was a great king; but before God, he was an utterly helpless and dependent man. From that standpoint, his situation was the same as ours. We too are utterly helpless before the desperate times of life, and are completely dependent on the help of our mighty God to fight our battles for us. Our prayer should be the same as Jehosphaphat's: "... We have no power ...; nor do we know what do do, but our eyes are upon You" (v. 12). That's reality.
In a Bible study group few weeks ago, we sang a hymn together that was printed on a sheet of paper; and as I was studying this story of Jehoshaphat, I happened upon that piece of paper again. Some of the words of the hymn seemed like a very appropriate way to conclude this morning's message:
I know not what of good or ill
Or better still, as Jehoshaphat would say, "Believe in the LORD your God, and you shall be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper" (v. 20). Do this, and you will see God at work in your desperate times.
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