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Grown-Up Bible Stories

The End of the Boy King

The king lay alone, far from the admiring crowds that had filled and shaped his life. He lay alone, sick, defeated, and suffering. He was royalty, yes, but at the moment, he was mostly a hurting human.

Other famous kings of the Jewish nation sought the God of their fathers at such times. But for Joash, God wasn’t really an option. He’d lost his faith among the crowds of admirers who’d thronged him.

Ironically, Joash had almost been thrown into faith as an infant. He’d been raised, not in the royal palace, but in the temple of God by a priestly relative. How a member of the royal family wound up in such circumstances is a story in its own right.

Today we think of Israel as a unified country. That is true, but we think of modern Israel. Things were a bit more complicated in ancient Israel. The Hebrew nation split into two countries after the death of its third king. The old royal family ruled the smaller kingdom, Judah. They retained power because of God’s promise of an enduring dynasty to their patriarch, King David. To the north, the larger part of the nation retained the name Israel, but failed to achieve political stability. Revolt and military coup marked the rest of the northern kingdom’s history. Understandably, tension dogged the relationship between Judah and Israel. This tension sometimes boiled over into open warfare. It also led to the development of a new idolatrous religion as Israel attempted to keep its subjects from worshipping at the temple in Judah.

Joash’s great grandfather, King Jehoshaphat, succeeded in normalizing relations between the two countries. To do so, this God fearing man forged a friendship with Israel’s famous evil king, Ahab the son of Omri. Obviously, when a man of God allies himself with a murderer and an idolater some very important issues have to be brushed aside. Jehoshapat not only ignored the spiritual issues--he also followed an ancient political custom and arranged a marriage between his son Jehoram and Ahab’s daughter Athaliah.

When Jehoram died, his son Ahaziah became king. Ahaziah naturally remained friendly with his mother’s family up in Israel. He died when a visit to his cousin, the king of Israel, coincided with a successful military coup.

Back in Judah, his mother, Athaliah, considered the situation. Her family had been totally wiped out in Israel. Ahaziah‘s death also meant that Judah was without a king. With her family tragedy came the chance of a lifetime. She ordered the executions of the entire royal family. It isn’t clear Biblically if the purge included women or only males, but whatever her own fate, Ahaziah’s widow managed to save her infant son, Joash. The baby prince disappeared almost under the noses of his grandmother’s executioners.

It so happened that Joash’s mother had married the king and her sister had married the leading priest from the temple of God. The brother-in-law was a respected and respectable man named Jehoiada. While Athaliah assumed that little Joash had drowned in his own blood, the baby came to live in the temple. The little prince was under the care of the high priest in quarters too holy for Athaliah‘s army to enter.

Jehoiada had charge of the only remaining male descendant of the house of David. He had control over a small army of temple guards. He had the respect of the people. Of all the people in Judah, he had the ability to make a king. He also had the courage to try.

Jehoiada used the means available to him, the weekly Sabbath observance. In addition to sacrifices and prayers, the Sabbath included a changing of the guard among the temple security force. Only on one particular Sabbath, the leading priest issued an order. The incoming guard shift was to enter the temple as usual. The outgoing detail were to ignore the normal departure protocol and hang around.

With this double guard standing watch, Jehoiada brought out his now seven-year-old nephew and stood him by a pillar. He then proclaimed what the people had thought impossible. The little guy standing in the temple was a descendant of David. He was the only survivor in the royal line it is true, but he was both a royal and a survivor. God’s promise of an enduring royal family remained intact. It is doubtful if everyone there recognized it, but the family of the future Messiah had just missed extermination by one little boy.

The official ceremony followed. Joash the son of Ahaziah, Joash the seven-year-old foster son of the priest, Joash who should have been dead, became king. The assembled worshippers erupted. Today’s street demonstrations come to mind. Only in this case it wasn’t a protest. It was a party. True, it was Sabbath in the temple. The party was hardly wild, but the celebration did grow noisy. Joash, from day one, was the subject of an admiring crowd.

His grandmother heard the racket and came to check out the situation. She shouted, “Treason!” [Quotes not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a Bible reference.] Instead of rallying the people, she found herself pushed out of the city and executed. Joash’s rival was gone. He was king and king securely.

Obviously, Joash didn’t do a lot of reigning at first. It is probable that Jehoiada acted as the power behind the throne intellectually as well as spiritually. But Jehoiada remained a priest. Joash sat as king for the admiring multitudes.

Children’s Sunday school teachers tell another story about Joash. Vandals had damaged the temple, and resources were short for repairing it. When the priests refused to use funds received from the people for building maintenance, Joash and Jehoiada put a chest with a hole in the lid at the entrance of the temple. The worshippers put their donations there, and Jehoiada saw that the resources went to the treasury. These offerings eventually funded the needed repairs. It is a true historical story that sounds a bit like a big coin bank to a preschooler.

The historical record goes beyond refurbishing the temple, even if that’s where Sunday school teachers begin to back off. The rest of the story is just a bit more sordid than what we like to tell children.

Jehoiada died. He died in honor. A grieving nation placed this priest’s grave among the tombs of the kings.

Joash no longer had Jehoiada’s religious power behind him. What happened now would be up to the king alone. From time immemorial , a period of spiritual testing has accompanied the transition from one generation to the next. Will the new generation be true to the values and beliefs of the old one? If not, what will happen? Those issues may prove the most difficult for the people at the margins, those who either conform outwardly to religious forms they don‘t like or those who have never really taken God seriously. For others, it’s a matter of social pressure. For popular people, an admiring crowd can become its own religion.

In ancient times, faith in God was a matter of constant temptation, even without generational changes. While God’s people believed there was only one real God, the world around them didn’t. It was widely thought that sacrificing to stone and metal images of various deities would lead to health and prosperity. Since God was a bit harder to predict, the alternate religions always had an appeal.

Such idolatry sounds far-fetched today, but it isn’t really. We’ve just found other substitutes for God. We call them science, intellect, freedom, etc. but in the end, we expect our needs to be met and our eternity rendered unfrightening by means we and our neighbors can control ourselves. Now as then, there are always a lot of people suggesting that the God of Jehoiada really isn’t the only alternative. In fact, there have always been many who claimed that He isn’t even the best alternative.

Joash’s test came in the form of public opinion. It wasn’t exactly a crowd that sought out the famous temple king. It was a somewhat smaller group, but that group were distinguished. The Judean noblemen stroked the ego of the man who was accustomed to a doting public. Of course, the nobles didn’t do it just because they liked the guy. They had a request. In effect, “Oh great and marvelous king. Your judgment is like that of God. Would you please let us expand our religion to include the gods who will make us healthy, wealthy, and wise?” My wording is obviously somewhat modernized, but you get the idea.

The king who was king because an admiring crowd in the temple accepted him listened. The man who had been all but an idol from childhood wavered in the faith that had saved his life. He turned his face as it were away from the temple where he had made his place in history and looked deep into the religions of his violent neighbors.

The king had his spiritual look. He found no new evidence. He already knew the solid record of those who had triumphed by trusting God. He had his own memories of having his life saved and his reign secured through faith in God. But there was also a lot of anecdotal evidence for the other gods. Besides, outside of Judah, everybody worshipped idols. Within Judah, the regional leaders were saying everybody wanted to worship idols. It was a struggle between a God who had made lone men powerful and the gods trusted by a king’s admiring public.

The king chose. Idolatry became legal. We have every reason to suspect that idolatry became his personal practice. The boy made king in God’s power in God’s temple by God’s man left God for the competition.

Of course everybody didn’t go for the idolatry thing. There were holdouts for the God of Israel. His own cousins, Jehoiada’s sons, had followed their father into the priesthood and were among those holding fast to the old ways. The living God chose to speak through one of these cousins, Zechariah. Zechariah spoke in front of the hypocritical crowds who still showed up at God’s temple. He spoke God’s message in front of his royal cousin. He spoke with the authority of a priest. He also spoke with the authority of a prophet, a man who had heard directly from God. His message contained a rebuke to the unfaithful and a call to come back to the God they’d left.

Zechariah was a foster brother to the king. Joash had likely known the priest from boyhood. Zechariah’s father had taken Joash in at risk of his own life. He’d taken political risks to make this little orphan boy a king. Joash owed a lot to Jehoiada and his outspoken son.

He owed them a lot. But he instantly pronounced the death sentence on the priest who’d dared to defy the crowd. Zechariah died under a hail of rocks thrown by the king’s admiring multitude. As he died, he said, “May God look at what’s happening and judge my case.”

The crowds that admired the king had their way. They worshipped the gods they chose. They killed the man of God who tried to stop them. It all seemed as it should be. Only, the God of Jehoiada and Zechariah had looked. He had looked and He had judged and He had pronounced sentence, all unheard by Joash and his fans.

The sentence came in the form of an enemy army. The idols who’d replaced God didn’t stop the invaders. The enemy did its murderous, exploitative work and left. As they left, Joash, the admiration of the nation, lay sick in bed. We aren’t told if the enemy wounded him or if he caught infection in an unsanitary besieged city. The record only states that the enemy left him a very sick man.

So the king lay suffering alone. Sure he had servants, but illness is always a lonely place. The public were shut out. He lay alone needing divine help and having only the inanimate statues he’d chosen over the living God. He was sick. Medical science could hardly even be said to be in its infancy at that early point in history. His servants could do their best to make him comfortable, but his life was in the hands of the God he’d rejected.

God took His protection away from the sickbed. Two rebellious servants came in. They came with weapons. The weapons of the day were primitive, but they were effective. When the servants left, Joash the former boy wonder lay dead.

Jehoiada’s body remained buried among the kings. The man who’d preferred the will of the people to the will of God was buried elsewhere. The admiring crowds Joash had led away from God didn’t care anymore.


A lot of us can look back to God-fearing parents, teachers, and ministers. These people have shaped us and nurtured our faith. Yet, along with this blessing comes a risk. Is that faith their faith or ours? When they’re gone, or even when we’re away from their influence, will we still be followers of God, or will we follow the examples of the other people who crowd our lives? Will the God of our mentors still be our only God, or will we find the charm of the competition too strong? Will we end strong, or will we go out in disgrace like Judah’s famous boy king?

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

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