For ancient Israel, few things were as horrific and shameful as the exile. However, this was not equally true for all the people. The Lord used the exile to honor the poor.
When God Doesn’t Forgive
Before we get to that, a few observations from 2 Kings are worth noting. By 2 Kings 23, Israel has filled its cup with widespread unfaithfulness and idolatry. The infamous reigns of kings like Manasseh and Amon had provoked the Lord. Now, Josiah assumed the throne and brought reform, following Hilkiah’s discovery of the Law (22:3-20). The writer of 2 Kings commends Josiah with high praise:
Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. (23:25)
With this momentous declaration, what should we expect next? National restoration? Deliverance from oppressors? Nope.
Second Kings 23:26-27 adds,
Still, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. The Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
To the surprise of some contemporary readers, it turns out that repentance doesn’t guarantee God will relent from displaying wrath. In this account, repentance does not remove all consequences.
What happens next? The Lord allows King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to overthrow Jerusalem. 2 Kings 24:3-4 says,
Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon.
The last line could hardly be more poignant.
Poor and Rich, Honored and Shamed
The same fate did not fall on all people in the same way. Not at all.
In 24:14, the writer tells us,
“[Nebuchadnezzar] carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land.”
Why Nebuchadnezzar left the poorest people behind is no mystery. From his perspective, what value do they have? They are neither educated nor are they cultural power brokers.
Those who lack status and are shamed by the elites and, in essence, Nebuchadnezzar, are granted to stay in their homeland. The poor are honored in the most peculiar of ways. Scroll down a few verses. Verse 20 says,
“Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah so angered the Lord that he expelled them from his presence” (24:20).
What does this suggest?
Implicitly, it’s the poor who remain in God’s presence. Amid the shame of exile, the Lord honors the poor by granting them his presence and the privilege of remaining in the land.
Does God continue to work in this way? How are the poor spared of certain hardships because they are social pariahs? How might the Lord bless the poor and marginalized precisely when the social elites are brought low?
Honor-shame reversal. This is how the Lord works again and again.
Interested in other reflections on how honor and shame influence Scripture? Check out Seeking God’s Face: Practical Reflections on Honor and Shame in Scripture, which I introduce here.