CHRONICLES FOR POSTMODERN PEOPLE
It is not without reason that Chronicles has been called the neglected book of the OT. However, on the positive side there is resurgence of interest in the book among evangelical scholars, which I believe, could be of major significance for us all in the near future.
For this reason I am going to try and summarize some of the present thinking about the book.
Before beginning I should point out that one of the reasons the book has been neglected is because its title was changed when it was translated into Greek. In Hebrew it was called “dibere hayyamin” (“the events of the days”) which is exactly what it is, a comprehensive interpretation of the events of the days that comprised the narrative of the OT.
However, the translators of the LXX for some reason changed the title to “paraleipomena” (“the things left out”) and this had a great impact on how we came to see the message of the book. It came to be regarded as a supplement to 2 Samuel and Kings which was to totally misinterpret the nature of the book
Jerome, in the fourth century suggested we abandon the Greek name and adopt the name “Chronicles”, which is of course, much nearer to the original Hebrew title—“Chronicles” in the sense of a narrative of the whole of redemptive history up to the time it was written.
However, despite the name change, the book has continued to be neglected and it is still regarded by many as a supplement to 2 Samuel and Kings. In fact in some editions of the Bible, sections of 2 Chronicles containing details of the temple are in a smaller font, indicating to the reader that they are of secondary importance and can be omitted if desired.
So, unfortunately we continue to see Chronicles as “the things left out” rather than “the events of the days”. However, as I said, there is a resurgence of interest in the book and scholars are once again recognizing its importance and centrality in the overall scheme of biblical revelation.
Some brief background material might be helpful before I go any further. Forgive me if this is all familiar to you, but I have to admit that I am also among those that have relegated the book to the backwater of scripture study.
As far as we know the book was written around 400 BC and was addressed to the remnant that had returned from exile. It still stands as the last book in the Hebrew OT. As Christians we conclude the OT with Malachi, but the Jews conclude it (rightly I believe) with Chronicles, and this is of significance, and becomes clear as we grasp the structure of the book.
Unfortunately, we know nothing about the author except that he has the most astonishing grasp of the OT, both quoting and alluding to virtually the whole OT corpus, much like John does with Revelation. The last book of the NT therefore somewhat paralleling the last book of the OT (and interestingly, the temple is the climax of them both).
The two volumes were originally one and contain 65 chapters, making it the longest book in the OT with the exception of Genesis (which has fewer chapters but a longer text). And this alone should alert us as to Chronicles’ importance in the overall scheme of things.
I, for one, was amazed to discover that there is more about the kingdom of God in Chronicles than any other OT book, except Daniel. The difference is that the chronicler uses history to illuminate the nature of the Kingdom, whereas Daniel leans heavily on an apocalyptic presentation of the kingdom.
For many years I was also among those who viewed Chronicles as another version of 2 Samuel and Kings as both narratives begin with the death of Saul and end with the destruction of the temple and the exile. However, many commentators rightly point out that there is no reason for a second history (Chronicles) when we already have one in Samuel and Kings covering the same period of time.
For this reason scholars do not see Chronicles as simply another history, but rather as a book that stands apart in its attempt to interpret the OT from beginning to end. It is the only OT book that attempts to do this and standing at the end of the Hebrew bible it becomes a statement of what the previous 37 books are all about. It is a unique contribution the OT that tremendously enriches our understanding of everything that comes before it.
First, in getting to grips with its overall structure, it is important to grasp that he uses two diagnostic tools. The first is a genealogy that runs from chs. 1–9 and the other is a narrative running from ch.10 through to the end of the book (2 Ch 36).
In and of itself the genealogy, the longest in the Bible, is a unique document that deserves our attention—even though its listing of some 1,166 names is rather daunting, to say the least.
It begins with Adam (which in itself is significant, because if we simply want a genealogy of Israel we only need go back to Abraham, as Matthew does in his genealogy) and then the chronicler moves from Adam through many millennia to the period in which the chronicler himself lived. However, the genealogy is not simply a family tree, or even a record of the Messianic line, it is a means of telling history and doing theology on behalf of the exiles who have returned. As genealogies are so foreign to us, but are an important mechanism of condensing both history and theology, I will say more about how they function in the future.
However, unlike the genealogy, which spans thousands of years, the narrative (running from 1 Chron. 10—2 Chron. 36), much to our surprise, only deals with a fraction of the time span covered by the genealogy—about 400 years of Israel’s history. It appears that his method is to take a 400 year slice of Israel’s history and uses it as an interpretive grid to help us understand the whole meta narrative of the OT.
It is a bold thing to do, and his point seems to be that if you understand this segment of Israel’s history (from the death of Saul to the destruction of the temple), you have a template that will enable you to understand and interpret the remainder. Surprisingly he has almost nothing to say
about Abraham, the Patriarchs, and Moses, which would seem to be the obvious starting point for any narrative of Israel, and this makes his choice of the death of Saul as his starting point all the more intriguing.
Secondly, the chronicler is very selective in what historical events he mentions in the narrative, because he has a specific goal in mind. Unlike Samuel and Kings which are simply telling history, he is seeking to reveal a theme that is embedded in that history, which he believes is the interpretive key to everything that came before it.
An example of his selectivity is that he leaves out the chapters in on David’s adultery and murder, the chapters concerning the civil war started by Absolom, and the record of Solomon’s multiple marriages and his going after other gods in his old age.
However, this is not a cover up as we might expect, simply because everyone already knew these things from Samuel and Kings. His purpose is not to hide truth but to reveal it. His goal is not to write a history, but to draw lessons from history. His interest is in the underlying meaning of events, rather than in the events themselves. His intention is to illustrate principles rather than discuss personalities
Perhaps a parallel would be that if we were to write a book on the foreign policy of the Clinton administration we would not necessarily mention the president’s infidelities simply because these events have no bearing on this issue at hand.
Thirdly, the epicenter of the narrative (and this cannot be emphasized enough) is the temple, which is a paradigm of the kingdom of God. And this is why he gives so much space to David and Solomon, the temple builders, devoting 28 chapters of the book to these two kings, and a mere 26 chapters on the remaining 38 kings.
The commentators all agree that everything in the narrative is either moving towards the construction and dedication of the temple (the pinnacle of the book) or after the death of Solomon, away from it, through the divided kingdom, and on to its final destruction by the Babylonians.
Even such incidents as David’s military conquests and the exploits of his mighty men are recorded only because they are used by God to establish the peace, which was (according to Deuteronomy) a necessary precondition for the construction of the temple. According to Romans the Kingdom of God is righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. If the temple is a historical paradigm of the kingdom, the reign of God, then obviously if it is to model what the kingdom represents, David has to establish righteousness, joy, and peace in the land before it can be built.
Many scholars see Chronicles as a book totally devoted to the construction and dedication of the temple. However, I follow Martin Selman who would want to modify this and say it is a book devoted to the kingdom of God of which the temple is a paradigm. I will have more to say about this in the future as I believe it is crucial not only for our understanding of the temple itself, but for our understanding of how the kingdom of God can function today, not only in the church, but
also as the dynamic in the transformation of society at large. (This one of the unique contributions of the book)
Fourthly, when reading every page of Chronicles we must constantly remember the audience to whom the book is addressed. They are the remnant who had the courage to return beginning in 538 B.C. but have nothing of the glories that the chronicler is describing: everything has been swept away and the land is desolated. Add to this the fact that:
a) Only a fraction of the nation had returned (in our Lord’s day there were still twice as many Jews in Babylon as there were in Palestine)
b) They only had a tiny piece of land around Jerusalem
c) Samaria was the regional capital
d) They were just a cog in the vast imperial wheel of the mighty Persian Empire, a backwater and a province of no particular importance to their Persian overlords
e) They had no Davidic king, the glories of David and Solomon which the chronicler describes in great detail have vanished, and Zerubabal, although from the house of David is a governor and denied the status of kingship.
f) They did now have a temple of sorts, but it was nothing compared to Solomon’s (there was no ark of the covenant, no shekinah glory, no fire from heaven to ignite the altar, and the old men who had seen the former structure wept with disappointment when they saw it)
g) In addition, God was silent and the age of classical prophecy had passed away.
The long and short of it all is that they are now a people who are in danger of loosing their way. They had made the trip back, but the promises of a glorious return spoken of by the prophets had not been fulfilled.
They urgently need to understand afresh who they were and why God raised them up and so the chronicler is preaching their history, reiterating the meta-narrative and giving them the big picture. He is both explaining what the OT is all about and applying it to their situation. They needed hope, they needed navigation lights and they needed a trajectory for the future.
For this reason, it is a perfect ending to the OT for a people in waiting. The big picture now holds them firm as they seek to rebuild the ruined cities and reconstitute a nation that will become the womb into which the Messiah will be born.
Perhaps I should add that we are also in a day when an understanding of the meta-narrative is needed as never before. Western society has lost its way, and although the Post Modernists insist that there is no meta narrative, many ordinary folk recognize that we desperately need an anchor that will tell us how we became who we are, and how we redeem a civilization that is collapsing all around us.
In this sense Chronicles is a very contemporary book as the people of God (yet alone society at large) are always in danger of loosing their way. We also need navigation lights and a trajectory for the future, if we are to fulfill the purpose for which God raised us up. And like the returned exiles, Chronicles can have a unique roll in such a process of rediscovery and realignment.
I don’t have time now, but in future segments I will try and identify some of the chronicler’s insights and apply them to our role in the church in mission, and the ongoing transformation of society.