[This is the prepared text for a message given to the UCG congregation in The Dalles, Oregon, on Sabbath, March 6, 2021.]
The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles have long been neglected by readers of the Bible. It is not hard to understand why. While 1 and 2 Samuel and Kings tell the story of rulers and the history of ancient Israel from the point of view of prophets, 1 and 2 Chronicles tells the story of ancient Israel and Judah from the point of view of priests and Levites. The same is true of the book of Ezra, and why it is a less easily remembered book than Nehemiah. It is not hard to understand why the perspective of prophets is more exciting than that of priests and Levites who engage in the ordinary liturgy and rituals of the temple system of worship. Yet there are insights that we can gain when we look at the behavior of the priests and Levites and their patterns of worship, and I would like to examine of those patterns today. Specifically, I would like to discuss the pattern of Passover observance in the book of 2 Chronicles and Ezra and how it demonstrates the periods of faithfulness and obedience in ancient Israel. The details of this Passover observance tell us a lot about God’s priorities in our worship.
Before I begin that discussion, though, I would like to begin with a bit of a detour. For those of us who, like me, are deeply fascinated with biblical history, studying a subject like this one and talking about it comes easily and naturally. Most people, though, tend to think of such matters as literally ancient history and need more reason to talk about it than the fact that the history exists in the Bible. Let us therefore spend a little bit of time talking about why the Passover of the Old Testament matters to us and why it mattered to God that it was kept faithfully. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 provides perhaps the most elegant and straightforward reason why the Passover matters to believers today. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 reads: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Christ is our Passover, as Paul says, so that which speaks about Passover, no matter how ancient and no matter how remote from our own experience, also speaks about Christ as well. As Paul states later on in 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The ancient history of the Old Testament are written for examples and with a symbolic importance in that they look forward to Jesus Christ, and it is with this perspective that we will discuss the pattern of Passover observance in 2 Chronicles and Ezra.
Of the three passages in the Old Testament historical works that talk about the observance of the Passover, the first occurs in 2 Chronicles 30:1-27, an account that takes up the whole chapter of 2 Chronicles 30. Let us first read out the entire chapter, and then we will comment on different aspects of this that reveal the sort of details that are most important about this particular Passover observance, why it was notable enough to be recorded in the pages of scripture, and why it matters for us today: “And Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel. For the king and his leaders and all the assembly in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month. For they could not keep it at the regular time, because a sufficient number of priests had not consecrated themselves, nor had the people gathered together at Jerusalem. And the matter pleased the king and all the assembly. So they resolved to make a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem, since they had not done it for a long time in the prescribed manner. Then the runners went throughout all Israel and Judah with the letters from the king and his leaders, and spoke according to the command of the king: “Children of Israel, return to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; then He will return to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. And do not be like your fathers and your brethren, who trespassed against the Lord God of their fathers, so that He gave them up to desolation, as you see. Now do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord; and enter His sanctuary, which He has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, that the fierceness of His wrath may turn away from you. For if you return to the Lord, your brethren and your children will be treated with compassion by those who lead them captive, so that they may come back to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn His face from you if you return to Him.” So the runners passed from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun; but they laughed at them and mocked them. Nevertheless some from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. Also the hand of God was on Judah to give them singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and the leaders, at the word of the Lord. Now many people, a very great assembly, gathered at Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month. They arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and they took away all the incense altars and cast them into the Brook Kidron. Then they slaughtered the Passover lambs on the fourteenth day of the second month. The priests and the Levites were ashamed, and sanctified themselves, and brought the burnt offerings to the house of the Lord. They stood in their place according to their custom, according to the Law of Moses the man of God; the priests sprinkled the blood received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had charge of the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean, to sanctify them to the Lord. For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary.” And the Lord listened to Hezekiah and healed the people. So the children of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness; and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing to the Lord, accompanied by loud instruments. And Hezekiah gave encouragement to all the Levites who taught the good knowledge of the Lord; and they ate throughout the feast seven days, offering peace offerings and making confession to the Lord God of their fathers. Then the whole assembly agreed to keep the feast another seven days, and they kept it another seven days with gladness. For Hezekiah king of Judah gave to the assembly a thousand bulls and seven thousand sheep, and the leaders gave to the assembly a thousand bulls and ten thousand sheep; and a great number of priests sanctified themselves. The whole assembly of Judah rejoiced, also the priests and Levites, all the assembly that came from Israel, the sojourners who came from the land of Israel, and those who dwelt in Judah. So there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. Then the priests, the Levites, arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; and their prayer came up to His holy dwelling place, to heaven.”
There is a lot to unpackage here, so let us begin by summarizing what it is that this chapter discusses. The chapter begins with Hezekiah starting religious reforms in Judah and seeking to combine with these religious reforms efforts to gather loyalty and unity with believers among the remnant of Assyria that are under direct Assyrian rule. Most of the Israelites were not responsive to the message, but some of them were and came to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Because of the lateness of the effort at cleansing the priests and Levites in order to conduct the Passover sacrifices and engage in the liturgy of the festival of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, they did so in the second month of the year rather than the first month. This particular festival was also marked by the people of Judah putting away the altars of false worship that had proliferated in the area under the reign of Hezekiah’s wicked father Ahaz. Interestingly enough, the newness of following God’s ways meant that many of the worshipers had not sanctified themselves sufficiently to sacrifice the Passover lambs themselves. Interestingly enough, a major part of the delay of the Passover from the first to the second month was the fact that many of the priests had not sanctified themselves as well.
One of the most telling aspects of this particular story about the Passover is that the story is full of details about the mercy of God to those who do not meet the technical standards of behavior that is required for God’s Holy Days. The importance that God placed on the observance of the Passover can be determined by the fact that God put up with an awful lot just to praise and bless the people of Judah and Israel who worshipped His Passover, albeit in an imperfect fashion. We have already noted that he put up with the priests not being sufficiently cleansed to celebrate the Passover in the first month, so that they had to do it in the second month. We also noted that even with an extra month to prepare that many of the brethren themselves had not cleansed themselves, and so they had to let the Levites slaughter the animals instead of doing it themselves. On top of that many of the brethren who came from Israel did not cleanse themselves before taking the Passover, and thus put themselves at risk of divine judgment, but Hezekiah prayed to God that they would be healed and spared and so they were. God was willing to forgive and overlook a lot of delays and failures of people to prepare just for them to repent and to turn to His ways and to celebrate His Passover in devoted if imperfect fashion. That tells you a lot about how important keeping the Passover is to God.
Indeed, 2 Chronicles 30 goes into considerable detail just how important the Passover was and what message was being given to those who celebrated this Passover. Hezekiah’s message to the remnant of Israel that was left behind under Assyrian captivity was that by observing the Passover that God would have mercy on them and that He would cause the Assyrians to look upon them with favor and graciousness, if they would return from their wicked ways to follow Him. The Levites taught, the people sacrificed and rejoiced, and all sought to reconcile with God and learn and obey His ways, and at the end of the festival they were so overjoyed that they all agreed to celebrate the Days of Unleavened Bread for an additional seven days beyond that which was required. When a festival is so good you want to and agree to keep it for another week, that is definitely a sign that someone is doing something right and that they see the blessings of what they are doing after such a long period of disobedience.
The second occasion for the Passover to be mentioned in 2 Chronicles takes place in 2 Chronicles 35:1-19. This particular passage takes up the first part of the chapter and gives an account that is in many ways similar to that of 2 Chronicles 30 but with some differences as well. We will read the entire passage of 2 Chronicle 35:1-19 and then comment on it some: “Now Josiah kept a Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and they slaughtered the Passover lambs on the fourteenth day of the first month. And he set the priests in their duties and encouraged them for the service of the house of the Lord. Then he said to the Levites who taught all Israel, who were holy to the Lord: “Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. It shall no longer be a burden on your shoulders. Now serve the Lord your God and His people Israel. Prepare yourselves according to your fathers’ houses, according to your divisions, following the written instruction of David king of Israel and the written instruction of Solomon his son. And stand in the holy place according to the divisions of the fathers’ houses of your brethren the lay people, and according to the division of the father’s house of the Levites. So slaughter the Passover offerings, consecrate yourselves, and prepare them for your brethren, that they may do according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses.” Then Josiah gave the lay people lambs and young goats from the flock, all for Passover offerings for all who were present, to the number of thirty thousand, as well as three thousand cattle; these were from the king’s possessions. And his leaders gave willingly to the people, to the priests, and to the Levites. Hilkiah, Zechariah, and Jehiel, rulers of the house of God, gave to the priests for the Passover offering two thousand six hundred from the flock, and three hundred cattle. Also Conaniah, his brothers Shemaiah and Nethanel, and Hashabiah and Jeiel and Jozabad, chief of the Levites, gave to the Levites for Passover offerings five thousand from the flock and five hundred cattle. So the service was prepared, and the priests stood in their places, and the Levites in their divisions, according to the king’s command. And they slaughtered the Passover offerings; and the priests sprinkled the blood with their hands, while the Levites skinned the animals. Then they removed the burnt offerings that they might give them to the divisions of the fathers’ houses of the lay people, to offer to the Lord, as it is written in the Book of Moses. And so they did with the cattle. Also they roasted the Passover offerings with fire according to the ordinance; but the other holy offerings they boiled in pots, in caldrons, and in pans, and divided them quickly among all the lay people. Then afterward they prepared portions for themselves and for the priests, because the priests, the sons of Aaron, were busy in offering burnt offerings and fat until night; therefore the Levites prepared portions for themselves and for the priests, the sons of Aaron. And the singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their places, according to the command of David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer. Also the gatekeepers were at each gate; they did not have to leave their position, because their brethren the Levites prepared portions for them. So all the service of the Lord was prepared the same day, to keep the Passover and to offer burnt offerings on the altar of the Lord, according to the command of King Josiah. And the children of Israel who were present kept the Passover at that time, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days. There had been no Passover kept in Israel like that since the days of Samuel the prophet; and none of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as Josiah kept, with the priests and the Levites, all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah this Passover was kept.”
This particular Passover has fewer details provided than the account in 2 Chronicles 30, but there are some notable aspects of it as well. One of the things that stands out in this account is the generosity that was provided to the various people involved. The king provided generously from his own flocks, as did the various leader, so that keeping the Passover was not a burden to the people of the land. Additionally, there is special attention given here to the Levites and to their service. In contrast to the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread kept during Hezekiah’s time, it was kept as proscribed in the first month (instead of the second month), and the orders of the priests and Levites were properly arranged, not only in terms of preaching and teaching and sacrificing, but also the Levite musicians as well as the Levitical gatekeepers. Indeed, the spirit of generosity was present to such an extent that the gatekeepers did not even have to leave their position because their fellow Levites prepared their portion for them. It is also worthy of note that Josiah encouraged the priests and Levites in a similar fashion to the encouragement that Hezekiah gave the priests and Levites of his time. We often think of the Passover as a solemn service, and so it is, but it is also a time of encouragement. We should not feel depressed that we have sins to be forgiven of as much as we ought to feel encouraged that God has provided a means for us to return to Him and to have our sins forgiven by the blood of the perfect Passover lamb. It is well that Hezekiah and Josiah never forgot to keep this encouragement in mind.
The third and final passage I would like us to examine today takes place after the children of Judah returned from the Babylonian captivity in Ezra 6:19-22. This is by far the briefest of the discussions, and Ezra 6:19-22 reads as follows: “And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean. And they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”
This particular account is the shortest of the three in 2 Chronicles and Ezra, but here too we have some notable details even with the brief account that we are provided. We note that the author of Ezra points out that the matter of ritual purity was not ignored here, and that the Passover lambs were slaughtered for all of those who gathered together in worship and that no one was left out. We can also note that this purity was a matter of considerable fierceness, as the account states that the believers of the time separated themselves from the filth of the nations around them so that they could seek and follow God and His ways. This is a reminder to us that putting away leaven has always been intertwined with the putting away of sin. In addition, let us note that this particular Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread was kept with joy. There is one other detail that stands out as strange, and that is that the author of Ezra notes that the Eternal turned the heart of the king of Assyria towards them, a strange callback to the days of 2 Corinthians 30 and 35 when the Assyrians were ruling over the land, even though by the time of Ezra it was the king of Persia rather than of Assyria who was ruling over the brethren in the promised land.
Let us now, having read the three passages that discuss the role of the Passover in showing the pattern of religious revival that existed periodically in ancient Judah, note some of the elements of this pattern in more detail. First, it is important to note the three times when Passover is noted in these passages. The first of these incidents, in 2 Chronicles 30, takes place during the reign of righteous King Hezekiah. The second of these occasions, in 2 Chronicles 35, takes place during the reign of righteous King Josiah. The third of these Passover celebrations is recorded in Ezra 6, during the time when Ezra returned to Judah and brought about through preaching and instruction a return to obedience to God’s laws and ways once again. It is not coincidental that these three particular times are the three periods of time that show the greatest obedience to God’s laws and ways and the most obedient and godly leadership over Judah after the united kingdom under David and Solomon. While there were a few kings of Judah who were seen as relatively righteous and somewhat conscientious to obedience, Hezekiah and Josiah stand out. Similarly, the righteousness of Nehemiah and Ezra as civil and religious leaders is also well-known and recognized. It is likely that a substantial part of the righteousness that made these people so renown in scripture came from their scrupulous observance of the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread and their understanding of how these days should be kept. And we would not know these details apart from their being included in these works that focus on history from a priestly and Levitical perspective.
It should also strike us as rather interesting, if disappointing, that these periods of Passover observance in the manner prescribed by scripture were very rare. Indeed, the two accounts in 2 Chronicles both go out of their way to point out how long it had been since the children of Israel had kept the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread in such a fashion. 2 Chronicles 30 points all the way back to the days of Joshua, some seven hundred years or so before Hezekiah’s time, and 2 Chronicles 35 points back to the time of David and Solomon some 350 to 400 years before the time of Josiah. These are long gaps of time in the observance of the Passover. It would be as if someone said of our own observance of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread that such a thing had not been done since the days of Elizabeth I, Queen of England, or the days of John Wycliffe, that religious reformer of medieval England. We know that the periods of righteousness in Israel and Judah were rare, but it is hard to understand just how rare they were, such that proper examples had to be pulled from centuries in the past.
Let us also note something that ought to be clear to us from the language of the Bible but that is not often as clear to us or its implications as well understood by us as it should be. Repentance is a deeply political matter. When Israel and Judah were ruled by godly civil and religious leaders–some of them named in the passages that we have read–the people were called to return to obedience to God and to overcome the negative example of the sins of their stubborn and stiff-necked and rebellious fathers, and the nation was blessed with periods of rare obedience to and intimacy with God. These periods of repentance and obedience were few and far between, though. Far more common among Israel were times like our own where instead of being ruled by godly leaders we are ruled by those whose desire to rule over others is only exceeded by their desire not to be ruled over by God and by His ways. We are not ruled over by a Hezekiah, by a Josiah, by an Ezra, or by a Nehemiah. When we look back to these days of religious revival and obedience, we live in a period of disobedience, of social anarchy, and of the inevitable and lamentable consequences of rebellion against God’s way in the curses that have befallen our nation and our world in the present day. Even so, despite the fact that we are not yet ruled by godly leaders, it is not an occasion to despair. The righteous reign of Hezekiah was preceded by the reign of the wicked Ahaz, who aped the religious fashions of the wicked Assyrians and who brought Judah into humiliating subservience to that cruel kingdom. Similarly, the righteous reign of Josiah was preceded by the short but evil reign of his father Amon. Our present period of wickedness may be followed by a period of religious revival that will encourage us and inspire us to a belief that our nation has turned the corner. But these stories of religious revival also ought to remind us that the good times do not last either. Hezekiah’s righteous reign was followed by the long and evil reign of his son Manasseh, and the reign of righteous Josiah was followed by the reign of three wicked sons and one wicked grandson, whose refusal to repent led God to bring Judah into the Babylonian captivity. And it should be noted as well that the period of revival and Ezra and Nehemiah was followed by backsliding that was recorded in the time of Malachi only some fifteen or twenty years later, and then by the long silence of centuries of backsliding and of copying the ways of the heathen in the nations around them.
Our present evil age seeks to celebrate the worth of progress, of disregarding the wisdom of centuries of hard-won human experience in exchange for untried and unwise social experimentation and a near-total lack of restraint of the baser and more corrupt side of human nature. Nowhere in these periods of religious revival and of obedience to God do we have much celebration of progress. What we do find is a returning to God after long centuries of disobedience and a neglect of God’s Holy Days, repentance from sin and a devotion to moral and ceremonial purity so that we are fit to handle holy things and to assemble before God in an attitude of humility and reverence. It nearly goes without saying that we do not live at present in a day and age where the holy things of God are well regarded, where there is much concern for the orderly worship practices that are commanded in scripture, or whether people care about moral or ceremonial purity to any great degree. 2 Chronicles and Ezra remind us that God cares deeply about such matters, and that godly people therefore care deeply about such matters, and that even if these passages may be obscure to us they are not irrelevant to our own times, but rather serve to demonstrate those qualities that are most clearly lacking from our age and all too frequently from ourselves.
And yet this did not lead the obedient and godly and repentant children of Judah and Israel seen in these passages to fall into despair at the wickedness of humanity or at the recognition of their own need for their sins to be forgiven and for them to be made right before God. On the contrary, these three periods of religious revival recorded in 2 Chronicles and Ezra were times of great joy. The godly believers of this time and their religious and political leadership recognized God as merciful and called upon that mercy to deliver them from judgment. And God was merciful to them. Those leaders acted with great generosity, giving from their own bountiful herds the sheep and oxen and other animals that made up the sacrifices of the Passover that all too many of the ordinary folk of the time simply could not afford. And these solemn and serious festivals were kept with great joy because even if these people did not understand the full implications of what they were doing, they knew enough to now that it was a joyful thing to assemble before God and to learn biblical lessons and sing religious songs and to enjoy the festivals with one’s brothers and sisters in the faith, especially when everyone is doing their part to make the worship services run smoothly.
We have many advantages when we compare ourselves with the believers during these ancient times. Our nation is not yet in captivity, and we are not yet ruled over by the cruel yoke of the heathen as was the case for these believers. We know the symbolism of the Passover, and we know that the lambs that were sacrificed without a blemish for the children of Israel and Judah were a type of the more perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins, paid once and for all. This ought to encourage us to be more generous and more joyful since we have more knowledge of how we are delivered from bondage to sin and death than was the case in the days of the past. And if our times are disorderly and anarchical and our leaders fall far short of the godly standard, we know that there will come a time of godly obedience and of the rule of the righteous that will last first for a thousand years on this earth, and then for all time in the new heavens and new earth yet to come. And our look at the brief periods of godly worship in Judah’s past can help encourage us to look forward to the even greater period of blessing and of obedience that we hope to help bring into existence alongside the returning Jesus Christ, conquering king of a rebellious and wicked planet. And in light of our knowledge of the past as well as our hopes for the future, let us celebrate the upcoming Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread with understanding as well as with great joy.