Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan.
“And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”
The sheep of the Good Shepherd face many frightening experiences in the course of their earthly pilgrimage. After all, the path of the sheep leads through the valley of the shadow of death. Many and varied are the occasions in which the sheep are afraid.
Jehoshaphat feared! With good reason! A great army of Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites had joined forces and marched secretly against Jerusalem. Together they were a “great multitude.”
Jehoshaphat and all Judah were caught by surprise. Notice the placement of “behold” in the message brought to Jehoshaphat. Yes, it was a surprise that such a great army would be against Judah at this time, but it was especially a surprise where they were discovered. They were already in Engedi, which is approximately fifteen miles from Jerusalem. Jehoshaphat had an army, but it was scattered throughout the kingdom. Those detached in Jerusalem certainly did not match in number that of the foe, which was poised to attack Jerusalem.
Militarily, Judah and Jehoshaphat were already defeated. The situation was hopeless. There was no time to prepare the city for adequate defense, nor was there time for Jehoshaphat to gather his army from the reaches of Judah. The enemy could not lose, in terms of numbers, preparation, surprise, and initiative.
The devil is always at work, striving to deceive God’s elect. We ought not be surprised at the attacks of the evil one. Yet we often are. Here Satan was attacking the nation as a whole on especially two fronts. (He was, at the same time, working to discourage spiritually each individual elect in Judah.) First, the devil was seeking to destroy the line of David in Jehoshaphat in order to prevent the coming of the Son of David, the Messiah God had promised. And secondly, the devil was seeking to tempt Jehoshaphat and Judah to despair of God’s mercy and care. He always wants God’s children to think or feel that God has forgotten them and that His mercy is gone forever.
The possibility of despairing of God’s mercy was real for Jehoshaphat and Judah. Not only did defeat seem to be a certain eventuality (just a matter of time), but what was especially confusing and hurtful for Jehoshaphat and Judah was who was opposing them. Their attackers were their physical relatives. Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot, and the inhabitants of Mount Seir were descendants of Esau. When something is said or done by a relative, it hurts much worse than when said or done by a stranger. Historically Judah and Israel had only treated these nations well. Israel went around these very same nations “when they came out of the land of Egypt,” for “they turned from them, and destroyed them not” (10). This hurt! And in their hurt, Jehoshaphat and Judah were inclined to think that God had forgotten His mercy toward them.
God was certainly present in this surprise attack. He was subjecting His children to a great difficulty in order to test and to strengthen their faith. It is worthy of noting that this trial was not occasioned by a specific sin on the part of Judah or Jehoshaphat. Sometimes that is the case, but not this time. In fact, Scripture is clear that, under Jehoshaphat’s good spiritual leadership, Judah was doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. Jehoshaphat began his reign by seeking Jehovah, which was at the very same time that Ahab was instituting Baal worship in the northern kingdom (II Chron. 17:3, 4). As a leader who was concerned for those under his care, he sent Levites throughout Judah to give instruction in God’s law (II Chron. 17:7-9). Later he sent judges into parts of the kingdom, admonishing them to do right in the fear of Jehovah (II Chron. 19:4-7, 9-11). And then “it came to pass after this” (II Chron. 20:1).
God does not want His children to be spiritually at ease. So He tries His own. His trials are opportunities for us to seek Him and to learn not to lean on our own understanding. By means of the trials He calls us to be urgent and constant in our cries for help from Him because we see Him as our rock, shelter, strength, high tower. God gives us His blessed friendship, and He calls us to return it by looking at Him, seeking and calling upon Him—by loving Him.
While we often seek only to be delivered from His chastening trials, God’s goal in all of His chastening is our seeking Him in the midst of the trial. He tries us so that we, at every moment of the trial, look up to and at Him.
Jehoshaphat responded to the news of the near presence of such a great army by being afraid (3a). This is very understandable. When faced with such an enemy and such hopelessness, it is normal to be afraid. Jehoshaphat looked around, and his fears increased as he imagined what would be the inevitable death of all the children in Jerusalem. His initial thought about God made him think that God was angry. Jehoshaphat feared.
Jehoshaphat’s fear was the occasion for him to “set himself to seek” Jehovah (3b). He was not paralyzed by his fear. Instead, his fearing spurred him to the grace enabling activity of a living faith. Notice that Jehoshaphat did not merely seek the Lord, but he “set himself” to seek the Lord. This means that the king became firmly resolved to focus on one thing. This is a holy determination that would allow nothing to distract him.
The activity that Jehoshaphat was determined to do was to “seek” the Lord. While this Hebrew word speaks of a seeking with care, or enquiring with diligence, it also refers to the activity of frequenting a place. Jehoshaphat was determined to look only to and on “Jehovah.” Instead of calling his generals together in a counsel of war in order to scheme a way out of this trouble, Jehoshaphat was resolved to do the continual action of looking up to the unchangeable, ever-faithful God, who had revealed Himself in the promised Messiah. Those whom God chastens are to turn to Him. It is from the hand that holds the rod that we are to expect deliverance. So Jehoshaphat called all Judah to turn to God in fasting and prayer.
We seek Jehovah by praying. Seek the Lord while He may be found and call upon Him while He is near (Is. 55:6). When God calls us to seek His face, then our soul responds, “Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek” (Ps. 27:8). Every test that God sends His people is so that we learn to seek Him. Instead of trusting in ourselves or seeking the help of man, we are to be on our knees seeking only Him and His grace. That is how Jehoshaphat began his prayer: “O Jehovah God of our fathers, art not thou God in heaven?” In the names Jehoshaphat used to address God (“Jehovah” and “God of our fathers”), he was reminding himself and Judah of the relationship God had established with them. This was very assuring. Then he directed their thoughts to what it means that God is God: “art not thou God in heaven?… and in thine hand is there not power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee?” (6). What a way to begin a prayer!
The activity of seeking the Lord means that we are considering the promises He gives His children in His Word. Learn from the Scriptures the promises that God has made to His children and then pray them. In his prayer, Jehoshaphat recalled how God had driven out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan and given it to Israel. How, therefore, could God let them be driven out of the land now (7, 8)? He also recalled the promise made at the dedication of the temple (I Kings 8:37) that “when evil cometh upon us” and “we stand before this house, and in thy presence … and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help” (9). Jehoshaphat also prayed about the history of Israel in not destroying Moab, Ammon, and Edom when they were entering Canaan (10, 11). To seek Jehovah is to pray His own Word.
When we seek Jehovah, then “our eyes are upon thee” (12). This is the best way to respond to the trials He sends. When we feel surrounded by the enemy, then we must look up to our covenant God in prayer, for prayer puts us into covenant fellowship with the living God. When we seek Jehovah, then we see the unchanging, ever faithful God, who never ceases to give mercy.
The people of Jerusalem and Judah who could respond did so immediately. They “gathered themselves together, to ask help of Jehovah.” They “came to seek Jehovah” too. During Jehoshaphat’s reign, he and the people had been sincerely seeking God, striving to do what was right. Now, under trial, they knew that they ought not do anything less. They were called to do the same thing they had been doing—but with greater fervency. Not despair. Not think that it would do no good. Rather, the same grace that drew them to seek the Lord before the trial is what they now seek of the Lord so that they might respond properly.
They gathered together in the court of the temple, looking to Jehovah. What a striking sight: a pleading king, a quiet, humbled crowd of people! And not just men, but “their little ones, their wives, and their children” (13)! Most touching was the presence of their dependents and their little children, making their silent appeal to their heavenly Father. They stood in humble and submissive expectancy.
This is the result God was seeking in this trial. While we want deliverance from a problem, God wants His children to seek Him, to put their eyes on Him, to look up! While we are pleased with answers to our prayers, God is pleased with our praying.
Jehoshaphat set the tone by setting himself to seek Jehovah. He made a resolution to respond to God’s rod by seeking God. And when we set our eyes on Jehovah, then we have every reason to sing His praises: “Praise Jehovah, for his mercy endureth for ever” (21). Pray! And then sing!