Sunday’s sermon: Huldah: Woman of Reproach and Redemption

Text used – 2 Kings 22:11-20

The video of our service this week comes from our Facebook Live stream.

 

  • When I was in college at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I was a religious studies major.
    • A lot of the time it was really interesting → studying religion from an academic standpoint at a secular, state university as opposed to some private, faith-based institution
      • Degree program was made up a wide variety of requirements:
        • Intro to World Religions at the beginning (basic 100-level course)
        • Capstone course/project at the end
        • In the middle – roughly 30 more credits
          • So many credits of what were then called “Western religions” and “Non-Western religions” (since been reorganized into “Monotheistic religions” and “Asian religions”)[1]
          • So many credits devoted to more specific topics – e.g.s:
            • Religion and Morality
            • The Holocaust
            • Psychology of Religion
            • The Problem of Evil
            • Critiques of God
    • Like I said, it was a really interesting course of study. And most of the time, I picked the courses for my next semester based on the course description and my requirements. But there was one overriding factor that always steered me toward a course: the professor. In particular, I made sure to take any and every course I could from one specific professor: Dr. Charlene Burns.
      • My advisor
      • The only professor I ever went back to visit after I graduated
      • Now a professor emerita (which makes me sort of sad!)
      • When it came to her classes, Charlene was the best. Her classes were always interesting, and the sheer volume of information that Charlene could impart if you were paying attention was staggering! Her knowledge was vast and far-reaching, and the way she presented it also made it feel essential – like everything that she was saying was something I just had to know. (The only time I’ve ever taken notes faster and more furiously was during my doctrine class in seminary!) Charlene’s classes were always the best … but they were not
        • High amount of work, especially when it came to essay exams and final papers
        • High expectations for both the amount of work and the quality of work that she required
        • Every course that Charlene taught was worth every minute and every page. That’s why I signed up for them … all of them. (Seriously … I don’t think I missed a single topic that she taught.) That’s why I loved her classes. But they also took work serious work. And that’s why I also dreaded them just a tiny little bit … because I knew that the amount of effort I was going to need to get through her courses was significant.
    • In this way, Charlene was sort of my Huldah. Her classes were never easy, but they were essential. And in today’s Scripture reading, we meet the prophetess Huldah – a woman who imparts a particular word from God to King Josiah in particular and the people of Israel as a whole.
      • Word that is essential
      • BUT word that is far from easy
  • First, BACKGROUND → In order to truly get into Huldah’s story, we need to understand what led up to it.
    • Last week: King David and Bathsheba → King Solomon (son of David and Bathsheba) → Solomon = known as Israel’s wisest king and one of its most righteous kings → King Solomon ruled a united kingdom of Israel … but he was the last king to rule such a kingdom. → united kingdom of Israel splits into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah directly after Solomon’s death[2]
    • Following this split, both kingdoms of Israel and Judah have issues within their monarchies.
      • Kings who chose to worship foreign gods
      • Kings who did all manner of evil things
      • Kings who made tenuous and unseemly alliances with foreign nations
      • Kings who led the people of Israel away from God in one way after another
      • And because of this inattentiveness and unfaithfulness, northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians around 723 BCE.
    • Nearly a century after the fall of the northern kingdom, we come to Josiah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.
      • King from 640-609 BCE → ascended to the throne at age 8 when his father, Amon, was killed → But Josiah’s lineage wasn’t exactly squeaky clean either – text: [Amon] did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes, just as his father Manasseh had done. He walked in all the ways his father had walked. He worshipped the same worthless idols his father had worshipped, bowing down to them. He deserted his ancestors’ God, the Lord – he didn’t walk in the Lord’s way. Amon’s officials plotted against him and assassinated the king in his palace. The people of the land then executed all those who had plotted against King Amon and made his son Josiah the next king.[3]
      • Thankfully, Josiah was not like his father or his grandfather. Josiah was a righteous king – a king who did walk in the Lord’s way. → enacted religious reform among the people that included renovating the Temple that Solomon had built generations before
        • As part of those renovations, a scroll was found → Josiah sends his royal secretary, Shaphan, to see the high priest, Hilkiah, about some financial matters → when Shaphan arrives, Hilkiah tells him he’s found a scroll … and not just any scroll. This is what they call the “Instruction scroll.” Scholars believe this to have been a previously long-lost version of the book of Deuteronomy – one of the five Hebrew books of the Law. This is a big deal! → contents of Deuteronomy
          • Mostly instructions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai
          • Includes the last days of Moses’ life and a record of his final words
          • Includes historical accounts of the people’s time wandering in the wilderness
          • Also includes some looking forward into the time when the people of Israel will inhabit the land of Canaan
  • So as I said, finding this scroll after centuries was a big deal! And part of the reason it was such a big deal was because the people of Israel had fallen so far away from God’s instructions for right and holy living laid out in these instructions. This is clear in Josiah’s reaction to hearing the words of this scroll read out for the first time – beginning of our reading for this morning: As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes.[4] → Josiah is so distraught by how far his people have strayed that he embodies his distress with the traditional mourning ritual of tearing his clothes. And then he sends the high priest Hilkiah, his secretary Shaphan, and some other advisors for some essential information – text: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning the contents of this scroll that has been found. The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us.”[5]
    • 2 really powerful things we need to understand about the way that Josiah phrases his request
      • FIRST = devotion in it → Heb. “ask” (very first part of Josiah’s instruction: “Go and ask the Lord”) = seek out, worship → So even with the first words of his instruction, Josiah is already trying to draw the people back into their covenantal, worshipful relationship with God. He’s asking Hilkiah and the others, not to simply go and voice his question, but to take his very seeking, his very worship to God as well.
      • SECOND = the way Josiah’s words are already echoing the sacred instructions of this newly-discovered scroll → Josiah: “The Lord must be furious with us because our ancestors failed to obey the word of this scroll” – Heb. “obey” = also hear, learn, know → So the people of Israel have failed to hear these words. They’ve failed to keep these words.
        • Harkens back to Deut 6: Israel, listen! Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.[6] → These are the words Josiah has just heard read for the first time in centuries. These are the words that nearly crumbled to dust, long ago forsaken and forgotten. These are the words that Israel was supposed to be reciting daily to their children and their children’s children … the words that were supposed to adorn their cities, their homes, and their very hearts. These are the words that Josiah is already trying to work back into the life and rhythms of the people.
  • And here is where Huldah comes into the story – Huldah, the prophetess.
    • Really interesting that Hilkiah and the rest decide to come to Huldah for this spiritual inquiry because Huldah had some pretty heavy-hitter prophet contemporaries: Jeremiah and Zephaniah (as in the books of Jeremiah and Zephaniah in the Bible) → And yet, without any apparent indecision or hesitation, Hilkiah and the others go directly to Huldah for God’s word regarding this new-found scroll.
    • Also really interesting because Huldah’s a woman! → Throughout this summer series, as we’ve been exploring the stories of women in Scripture, we haven’t yet encountered a lot of women who maintain any kind of power or authority or agency when it comes to their own lives let alone the power and authority and agency required to be considered a conduit for the word of God. And yet, here we have Huldah!
      • Huldah, who is a renowned, fully respected, and fully functioning prophet for God alongside the likes of Jeremiah and Zephaniah
        • Uses all the same “prophet language” that other prophets do, particularly opening phrase “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says” and speaking in the 1st person on God’s behalf
      • Huldah, who holds the ear of the king AND the high priest
      • Huldah, who’s message is not an easy one … but is an essential one
    • Huldah’s words speak of the truth in the words and origins of the text itself → Huldah alone authenticates this new-found scroll as the word of God for the people. Huldah declares it’s real, and she is believed. Immediately and without question. She is believed.
    • Huldah’s words speak of the consequences of the people not following the instructions laid out in this scroll → hard words to hear – text: My anger burns against this place, never to be quenched, because they’ve deserted me and have burned incense to other gods, angering me by everything they have done.[7]
    • And yet, Huldah’s words also speak a redemption of sorts – text (Huldah’s message specifically for Josiah): But also say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to question the Lord: This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says about the message you’ve just heard: Because your heart was broken and you submitted before the Lord when you heard what I said about this place and its citizens – that they will become a horror and a curse – and because you ripped your clothes and cried before me, I have listened to you, declares the Lord. That’s why I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place.[8]Even in the midst of her difficult pronouncements about the people’s sin and the consequences that will come from that sin, Huldah speaks words of redemption … words that seem to echo David’s long-ago words of worship:
      • Ps 51: Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways, and sinners will come back to you. Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation, so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. You don’t want sacrifices. If I gave an entirely burned offering, you wouldn’t be pleased. A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God. You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.[9]
    • And, indeed, Huldah’s prophecy does eventually come to pass. → kingdom of Judah falls to Babylonians not long after this but Josiah is killed in battle before he is forced to witness the destruction of his kingdom and the exile of the people of Israel
  • 3 critical lessons that we can take from Huldah’s story
    • FIRST = reminder that God’s word comes to us through a wide variety of people → from Christa L. McKirkland’s essay on Huldah (in Vindicating the Vixens): God is the one in control throughout Israel and Judah’s history and is still the one in control today. And God chooses to dignify people as vessels to serve plans and purposes much higher than our plans and purposes. … Huldah was willing to be a vessel and conduit for the very words of God.[10]
    • SECOND, Huldah’s words remind us of the power of true and genuine repentance → Before even hearing her words of reproach, King Josiah tore his clothes in repentance. He cried out to God with a truth broken and contrite heart and spirit. And in the face of that genuine return to the God who knew him and loved him, God blessed Josiah with redemption.
    • FINALLY = reminder that, even when we are called to speak truth to a difficult situation, we are still called to speak
      • Famous quote from activist and Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn: “Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” → It couldn’t have been easy to deliver the message God gave Huldah to deliver, especially being a woman in a circle of powerful and authoritative men. But still, she delivered her message with boldness, with clarity, with composure, and with conviction. Maybe her voice shook, but still, she delivered her message. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://catalog.uwec.edu/undergraduate/arts-sciences/philosophy-religious-studies/religious-studies-major-ba-bs/.

[2] Siegfried H. Horn. “Judah & Israel: A Divided Monarchy” from My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judah-israel-a-divided-monarchy/. Accessed July 11, 2021.

[3] 2 Kgs 21:20-24.

[4] 2 Kgs 22:11.

[5] 2 Kgs 22:13.

[6] Deut 6:4-9.

[7] 2 Kgs 22:17.

[8] 2 Kgs 22:18-20.

[9] Ps 51:10-17.

[10] Christa L. McKirkland. “Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 230.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s