After Solomon’s folly the kingdom of wisdom and peace he had ruled over—the closest to the design of the restful ruler the earth had yet seen—was torn into two by Rehoboam and Jeroboam.
And, as far as I knew the story, so it continued until the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was carried off to Assyria, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah, to Babylon. Those who return after Cyrus’ edict appear to be from Judah, so I assumed the Northern Kingdom lost to the world, some returned to become Samaritans, others scattered throughout the Imperial cultures that dominated the ancient near east at the time.
Except, that’s not what happened. The kingdom is reunited.
God never gave up on the northern kingdom despite pronouncing their doom under Jeroboam’s fledging kingship. The Lord creates by dividing (Gen 1), and he unites the same way: by death, exile, reunion in the grave, and ultimately in resurrection. That’s exactly what happened to Israel.
Think of the two last great reforming kings of Judah: Hezekiah and Josiah. Israel has since been carried into exile and dominated by Assyria. Yet, in Hezekiah’s strange Passover (2 Chronicles 13) we see reunion. This Passover, it’s worth noting, is the Bible’s approach to pragmatism. They did the right thing in the wrong way at the wrong time, knowingly, but were blessed because of their hearts. Being pragmatic isn’t always wrong, but you do have to approach it like Hezekiah.
This passage was instrumental in us thinking through how to approach communion when we couldn’t rent our venue and all church activity was online in one form or another.
Anyway, when they decide to celebrate the Passover for the first time in a very long time, Hezekiah writes to the northern tribes on the premise that they are welcome to come south to Jerusalem and join in. His letter is circulated all around Greater Israel, and while it’s largely greeted with derision, some do come south. Hezekiah reunites the people, not politically, but liturgically.
Then Josiah’s great reforming movement (2 Kings 23) reaches all the way north to Bethel, one of Israel’s two great shrines, where one of the two golden calves they set up to worship is kept. His war on the idols extends into the Northern Kingdom.
Then in exile, Judah’s corruption by the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 13) leads to them following Israel into the same grave, which is then undisturbed to await resurrection. The stick of Israel and Judah is reunited by being sent into the grate (Ezekiel 37).
And, in the return (Ezra, Nehemiah), everyone who returns is a Judahite. Everyone who returns is part of the royal tribe, because all Israel becomes Judah. Notice for example Anna the prophetess, delighted to see infant Messiah, from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2). The returning kingdom is not divided, and points firmly forwards towards the greatest son of Judah, the man who was Israel united: Jesus the Christ.
Why does this matter? Well, honestly, because I’d never noticed it until Peter Leithart mentioned it in passing at the THINK conference. Leithart was keen to find here a theology of church division and reunion in keeping with his broader project. He may have a point though, that union is not found in eliding differences, but in the way that dividing is God’s movement for the healing of divisions.
To put it more simply: a united church is not one that becomes one denomination again, it’s one that recognises division in the Church as a genuine horror, for all many of those divisions were well intentioned, and listens carefully to the critique offered by others within the Church outside of our own tiny subsets.
But it’s also one that will one day be united, and all other identities subsumed under that of Jesus the King.
To look at this another way, here are two other lessons to learn from these passages:
In Christ, life follows death. Everything that dies in Christ comes back to life. Everything. Not always this side of the great resurrection, but you can hold with a certain surety that it, or they, will return in the age to come. Everything changes in the light of the resurrection.
If you are one of the people, you are one of the people. You are a royal priest (1 Peter 2). A Judahite, and a priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7, Psalm 110) after your great high priest, the returning king. Oh, in case that wasn’t enough, if you are united with Christ, you’re adopted as the daughter or son of the Most High God, YHWH himself.
And there’s more. Because you’re united with Christ, you are lifted into the godhead, and considered by the Father as though you were the Son.
If you have died to yourself in faith and repentance, and your sin has been exiled in Christ on the cross; if you have joined him in the grave in baptism, then you have been raised to new life forever.
That which dies is exiled. That which is exiled is placed in the grave, reunited. That which is in the grave bursts forth with the fragrance of spices. So it was with Israel. So it was with Christ. So it will be with you.
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