19 Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. 20 And the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had cast them out of his sight.
21 When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.
24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. – 2 Kings 17:19-28 ESV
The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and as verse 18 indicates, the defeat of the ten northern tribes left only the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet none of this should have come as a surprise. God had repeatedly sent His prophets to warn of the coming fall of Israel. Even the prophets like Micah, who ministered to the southern kingdom of Judah, were ordered to declare God’s words of judgment against Israel’s capital city of Samaria.
“So I, the Lord, will make the city of Samaria
a heap of ruins.
Her streets will be plowed up
for planting vineyards.
I will roll the stones of her walls into the valley below,
exposing her foundations.
All her carved images will be smashed.
All her sacred treasures will be burned.
These things were bought with the money
earned by her prostitution,
and they will now be carried away
to pay prostitutes elsewhere.” – Micah 1:6-7 NLT
And Isaiah, another prophet to the southern kingdom, had also predicted the fall of Samaria.
What sorrow awaits the proud city of Samaria—
the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel.
It sits at the head of a fertile valley,
but its glorious beauty will fade like a flower.
It is the pride of a people
brought down by wine.
For the Lord will send a mighty army against it.
Like a mighty hailstorm and a torrential rain,
they will burst upon it like a surging flood
and smash it to the ground.
The proud city of Samaria—
the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel—
will be trampled beneath its enemies’ feet. – Isaiah 28:1-3 NLT
But God had also sent His prophets directly to the people of Israel. Despite their apostasy and unfaithfulness, He continued to raise up men like Amos, to deliver His message of pending judgment for their sins.
Announce this to the leaders of Philistia
and to the great ones of Egypt:
“Take your seats now on the hills around Samaria,
and witness the chaos and oppression in Israel.”
“My people have forgotten how to do right,”
says the Lord.
“Their fortresses are filled with wealth
taken by theft and violence.
Therefore,” says the Sovereign Lord,
“an enemy is coming!
He will surround them and shatter their defenses.
Then he will plunder all their fortresses.” – Amos 3:9-11 NLT
Hosea was another prophet to the northern kingdom who had also clearly communicated God’s displeasure and His intention to punish them for their rebellion.
…they have deserted the Lord
to worship other gods.
“Wine has robbed my people
of their understanding.
They ask a piece of wood for advice!
They think a stick can tell them the future!
Longing after idols
has made them foolish.
They have played the prostitute,
serving other gods and deserting their God.” – Hosea 10-12 NLT
Decade after decade, the kings of Israel had led the nation down a path of destruction. They had been warned but had refused to listen. And the author of 2 Kings reminds his readers that the Israelites had no one to blame but themselves.
Jeroboam drew Israel away from following the Lord and made them commit a great sin. And the people of Israel persisted in all the evil ways of Jeroboam. They did not turn from these sins until the Lord finally swept them away from his presence, just as all his prophets had warned. – 2 Kings 17:212-23 NLT
The fall of Israel should have been a wake-up call to the people living in Judah. As they witnessed the fall of their northern neighbor, they should have recognized it as the hand of God Almighty. “But even the people of Judah refused to obey the commands of the Lord their God, for they followed the evil practices that Israel had introduced” (2 Kings 17:19 NLT). It was God’s desire that Judah would take notice of Israel’s fall and refuse to follow their example of idolatry and apostasy. The prophet Hosea shared God’s heart when he wrote, “Though you, Israel, are a prostitute, may Judah not be guilty of such things” (Hosea 4:15 NLT).
But the handwriting was on the wall. The fate of Judah was sealed. God knew exactly what was going to happen. The people of Judah would fail to learn from Israel’s mistake.
“The arrogance of Israel testifies against her;
Israel and Ephraim will stumble under their load of guilt.
Judah, too, will fall with them.
When they come with their flocks and herds
to offer sacrifices to the Lord,
they will not find him,
because he has withdrawn from them.
They have betrayed the honor of the Lord,
bearing children that are not his.
Now their false religion will devour them
along with their wealth.” – Hosea 5:5-7 NLT
It would be just a matter of time before Judah experienced a similar fate. While they had enjoyed a limited degree of spiritual success due to the efforts of a few of their kings, they were still guilty of emulating the sins of Israel. A love affair with false gods would continue to plague the nation, leading them to turn their backs on Yahweh. Though they continued to offer their sacrifices at the temple, the day was coming when God would no longer tolerate their hypocritical displays of faithfulness. That is why Hosea wrote, “When they come with their flocks and herds to offer sacrifices to the Lord, they will not find him” (Hosea 5:6 NLT).
It was the prophet Isaiah who declared God’s displeasure and disgust with Judah because their worship of Him was and meaningless. They were just going through the motions.
“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
The people of Judah had ring-side seats to the divine destruction of Israel. After witnessing the fall of their northern neighbor, they must have realized that the king of Assyria would not limit his conquest to the capture of Samaria. He would continue south and they would likely be his next victim.
After having conquered Israel, the Assyrians took many of its citizens as captives. Then they began a repopulation campaign, importing people from other conquered territories like Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. These non-Jews were forcibly relocated into the towns of Samaria, filling the vacancies left by the exiled Israelites. The Assyrians expected these migrant workers to tend the land in order to maintain its production capacities. But God had other plans.
Because these foreigners knew nothing about Yahweh, they continued to worship their own gods. But they were now living on land that belonged to the God of Israel. Just because the people of Israel were gone did not mean that God had vacated the premises. It had been His land all along, and the Israelites had been nothing more than His stewards. In their absence, God was going to protect the integrity of His name and the sacredness of the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was holy land because He had consecrated it and set it apart. And God was not about to let it revert to its former state. When God had given the land to Joshua and the people of Israel, He had tasked them with the removal of all the pagan nations that currently occupied its borders. And He was not about to let the land revert to its former state of pagan idolatry. So, when the new arrivals began to worship their false gods, Yahweh sent lions to attack them. The news of this divinely ordained act of judgment reached the king of Assyria.
“The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.” – 2 Kings 17:26 NLT
Amazingly, the pagan Assyrians recognized the hand of God in all of this. They were more attentive to the actions of Yahweh than the people of Israel had ever been. And the king of Assyria took immediate action.
“Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” – 2 Kings 17:27 NLT
It’s interesting to note that this lone priest was sent to Bethel, one of the two cities where King Jeroboam had placed his golden idols (1 Kings 12:25-30). Perhaps the king of Assyria knew that this town had become a key focal point of pagan worship. It would have made sense for these idol-worshipers to seek out those places within Israel where they could offer sacrifices to their false gods. And because Jeroboam had erected shrines in Bethel and Dan, these would have been attractive destinations for these newly arrived occupants who were looking for something that would remind them of home. So, the priest was sent to Bethel which, in Hebrew, means “house of God.”
This priest was tasked with instructing the new residents in the proper worship of God. Don’t miss the irony in all of this. The people of Israel, who had been chosen by God, had refused to worship Him. So, He had removed them from the land. The king of Assyria sent foreigners to replace the exiled Israelites and then ordered that they be instructed in the proper worship of Yahweh. This pagan king did what none of the kings of Israel had ever done, and it was all the work of God.
But as will become clear, these new converts to Judaism would prove to be no different than the Israelites. Unwilling to give up their idols, they would simply add Yahweh as another option in their arsenal of deities. And the pattern of syncretism and unfaithfulness would continue. The land had new occupants, but it was the same old story. Their worship of God would be nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. Like the Israelites before them, they would just be going through the motions.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson