And so to the journey to Rome! In late summer, the prevailing wind in the Mediterranean is from the West. For Paul to be taken to Rome from Caesarea would be almost due West and therefore impossible. (See Map of Journey ). The usual route was to hug the South coast of Turkey and then sail to the South of Crete, followed by a rapid change of course North to the Adriatic Greek coast, crossing
over to Italy to disembark at somewhere like Brindisi. This was effectively a huge zigzag, staying as close to each coastline as possible for safety. Poor navigational aids made open sea sailing hazardous, to say the least!
But God had other plans! First, he warned Paul that the second half of the trip would end in disaster – for the ship, at least. They had already lost time early on, South of Turkey, and by the time they arrived at Crete it was the Day of Atonement. The sailing season was from Pentecost (May) until Tabernacles (end Sept / early Oct), which fell only 5 days after Atonement. Roman sea-faring wisdom regarded sailing after 15th Sept as ‘Risky’ and after mid November as ‘Suicidal’! But the captain and owner wanted to take a chance for commercial reasons. Paul prophesied a warning that was therefore ignored.
A hurricane storm appeared from nowhere and drove the defenceless vessel uncontrollably West at high speed. After many days of raging seas and howling winds, total darkness and a complete lack of hope, Paul received a further instalment of the prophecy: He would reach Rome to stand trial, and God would also spare the entire ship’s company – 276 of them. As Paul recounted this, he couldn’t resist adding “I told you so!”.
After fourteen days, they hit land – almost literally! Some sailors tried to escape in a lifeboat, but Paul made it clear that the prophecy only held good if they all stayed together. This is perhaps a God-given metaphor for us too, in order that his beloved church will be united. Are we working for unity amongst God’s people? He also encouraged them to eat some food, giving thanks to God for his provision – which is perhaps something we should all do more regularly even if we are not being shipwrecked!
The sailors did their best to steady the ship and to run it aground in as shallow a depth as possible, but to no avail. Miraculously, God had appointed a God-fearing centurion who protected the prisoners from being killed by his men to prevent their escape. Miraculously too, every man found a suitable piece of flotsam to hold onto and arrive on dry-ish land. They were in Malta.
2 KINGS 16 and 17
Since the reign of Uzziah, which started so promisingly and ended so sadly, there had been two more kings – Uzziah’s son and his grandson. We see also in 2 Chronicles 27 that Jotham, the son, had begun to reign whilst Uzziah was in the later stages of his leprosy, and he simply continued after his father’s death. He was a good man and a godly king, who acted justly and with a respect for the Temple – unlike his father! He walked with God and became enormously powerful as a result – have you noticed that this is a recurring theme in the historical books of the Bible? After a short reign of only 16 years, he died and rested with his ancestors in the City of David.
Today’s chapter reveals Jotham’s son, Ahaz, who was a nasty piece of work and the only king about whom the Bible does not mention a single redeeming feature! His godly father must have wondered how he had managed to produce such a wicked child; it is a fact of parenthood that we can make great efforts to instil our values and our faith into our children, but in the end, we cannot impose these things on them. They, as adults, will make their own choices and God will one day hold them accountable for those choices, rather than us. We can be good examples to them, and we can pray for them, but it is their lives to live and their opportunities to take advantage of – or to squander. Ahaz made idols to facilitate the worship of Baal. He was so committed to the worship of this false god that he even sacrificed one or more of his own children in the fire to ingratiate himself further to Baal. He was the first Israelite king to do this. In fact, there was no limit to the depths of depravity that Ahaz was prepared to sink to.
God punished him and punished Judah by handing them over to more powerful kings and their armies: particularly the kings of Syria and of Israel to the north. A hundred and twenty thousand Jewish soldiers were killed, and two hundred thousand wives and children taken into captivity by Israel. It is almost refreshing to read that a prophet from Israel and some of the more upright Israelite officials with a conscience rebuked the marauding army and persuaded them to set free these prisoners and allow them to return home to Judah. Ahaz did not learn his lesson, however, and was next negotiating a treaty with the king of Assyria to provide protection for him and his country – paying for the Assyrian’s favour by plundering God’s temple in Jerusalem.
God humbled Judah even further, because of Ahaz’s wickedness; it is a sober lesson that a nation will pay for the crimes of its king, and a church will fall because of the shortcomings of its leaders. Leaders must set an example by being an example; if they are faithless then famine will often come into the land. Similarly, poor leaders also cause a church to become poor – materially and spiritually.
In the end, Ahaz even closed the Temple entirely, removing all its furnishings to pay for his bribes to foreign kings and building altars in the surrounding towns instead. He had a replica of a pagan altar – seen in Damascus – made to replace the bronze altar in Jerusalem. God was not pleased! Eventually Ahaz died and was given a non-royal burial in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, up north, Hoshea was king of Israel; he was of approximately the same moral calibre as Ahaz and was adept at double-crossing the various kings of the stronger nations around him. But this high-risk strategy soon ended and Hoshea was captured and imprisoned. Samaria itself was invaded and the city laid siege to for three years before it inevitably gave way. In his rage, the king of Assyria deported the entire population of Israel to various scattered parts of the empire, to prevent them ever becoming a coherent nation again; they never did! In 2 Kings 17: 7-23, it reads like the sentence of a court, passing judgement upon a convicted defendant.
As far as the Lord was concerned, that was the end! But a strange sequel occurred in the empty land of Israel: the people that the Assyrian king chose to resettle the towns of Samaria were even more complete pagans and idolaters than the Israelites who had left. God sent lions among as both a punishment and as a warning, so they petitioned the king of Assyria who specially returned one of the priests of the Lord to the land of Samaria to teach the new population what the ‘local god’ required of them. He did a mediocre job – but possibly just enough to improve the situation slightly – and the new population ended up about as bad as the ejected Israelites had been, with their mixture of worship of the Lord and worship of a range of other ‘gods’ and their idols too. The writer of 2 Kings ends by saying “To this day, their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did.”
So, Samaria became completely a foreign, pagan country to their neighbours, Judah. They were neither related by blood, nor by a true faith in the one true God. This situation persisted even when the exiled Jews (from Judah) returned to their homeland many centuries later. It persisted right up to the time of Jesus too, and the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was clear for all to see in the gospels. The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ – as told by Jesus himself – would have caused shock and outrage in the mind of an orthodox Jew, who would have been mortified and offended that a Jewish rabbi such as Jesus would ever dare to use the Samaritans in a positive light in his teaching. We have little concept of the offence that Jesus deliberately caused; in twenty-first century Britain, the nearest concept would probably be ‘The Good Paedophile’!