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Hezekiah’s Passover and Situation Ethics

From Issue: R&R – Issue 44 #1

One pervasive cultural phenomenon in American society is the predilection to be averse to law, restriction, and limitation. “Freedom” gradually has come to be conceptualized as freedom from restraint. Those who do not embrace a lax, casual, and open attitude toward moral value and ethical behavior are labeled “intolerant” and “mean-spirited.” Even within Christian circles, stressing the need to conform strictly to the will of God in all matters of faith and practice can cause one to be labeled a “fundamentalist.” He is set aside as an immature and pharisaical misfit who simply has never “grown” to the point of grasping the grace of Jesus. He is “judgmental,” “negative,” and lacks “compassion.” And, yes, he is a “legalist.”

Listening carefully to the majority of those who bandy about the term “legalistic,” it is soon apparent that they understand the term to refer to too much attention to legal detail. In the 1960s, Joseph Fletcher, the “Father of Situation Ethics,” pinpointed the prevailing notion of “legalism”:

In this ethical strategy the “situational variables” are taken into consideration, but the circumstances are always subordinated to predetermined general “laws” of morality. Legalistic ethics treats many of its rules idolatrously by making them into absolutes.… In this kind of morality, properly labeled as legalism or law ethics, obedience to prefabricated “rules of conduct” is more important than freedom to make responsible decisions.1

It would be difficult to underestimate the cataclysmic consequences of this thinking on the moral fiber of human civilization.

Typical of the widespread misconception that “legalism” has to do with giving too much attention to complete obedience, is the illustration given by a preacher, college professor, and prominent marriage and family therapist in a university lecture titled “Getting Ahead: Taking Your Family With You”:

I found out when you’re dialing numbers…you have to dial about eighteen numbers to get started, and then you have to dial eighteen more—you know what I’m talking about? And if you miss, what? If you miss one—just one—you say ugly things to yourself, don’t you? Because you know you blew it again. It is amazing how legalistic the telephone company is.2

In other words, if God imparts, say, 10 laws to human beings, He would be guilty of being “legalistic” if He expected all 10 of them to be obeyed.

The very idea that obedience to God’s laws would one day be viewed as negative by those who profess adherence to Christianity, and then for this obedience to be denounced as “legalism,” is utterly incomprehensible. If such thinking were to take root throughout Christendom and throughout the nation, one would expect society’s standards of morality to be shaken at their very foundation, eliciting a corresponding widespread relaxation of moral behavior. Is this not precisely what has happened to American civilization in the last 60 years? And, in turn, this cultural trait has exerted a profound influence on Christendom.

2 Chronicles 30

One incident appealed to in an effort to find biblical sanction for the notion that “seeker sincerity” takes precedence over divinely-stipulated ritual3 took place in the waning years of the 8th century B.C. when 25-year-old Hezekiah ascended the throne of Judah. Hezekiah immediately spawned a restoration movement, instituting sweeping reforms that were calculated to bring the nation back into harmony with the written will of God. One goal was to reinstate observance of the Passover. For those who recognize that obedience to God in every particular is enjoined by God throughout the Bible (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:12-13; 30:16; 32:46; Ecclesiastes 12:13; John 14:15; Romans 6:16; 1 John 5:3), what happened on this occasion must surely raise eyebrows:

For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary.” And the Lord listened to Hezekiah and healed the people (2 Chronicles 30:18-20, emp. added).

The reader is left with the impression that a number of individuals from the northern tribes ate the Passover in direct violation of the Law of Moses and yet were “excused” or accepted, despite their disobedience, on the basis of their earnest, sincere hearts. On this basis, some have further concluded that this incident proves that full compliance with Bible directives (like water immersion as opposed to sprinkling for baptism) is flexible and optional (i.e., will not affect salvation status) when the “seeker” is genuine and sincere.

It is quite surprising that those who wish to relax biblical rigidity in the practice of their religion would appeal to an Old Testament text. After all, these same antinomians often have been known to denigrate the Old Testament as legalistic and lacking grace. They have insisted that God was nit-picky and strict in requiring absolute obedience under the Mosaic system, but He has altered His treatment of people in the New Testament era. They claim that Jesus brought grace and people no longer have to be so concerned about legal detail. But having detected an obscure verse inconspicuously tucked away in the history of Judah that appears to give aid and comfort to their illegalistic propensities, they are eager to brandish it as a sure weapon of offense.

However, this hasty and premature assessment of a single passage pits itself against, not only the entirety of the rest of the Bible, but against the context of the passage itself. The general context is one of restoration—going back to the Word of God, reinstating pure Mosaic religion, and recovering and reinstituting the practice of correct procedures and stipulations with regard to the Temple and its seasonal observances. If the whole point of the general context is to get the people to obey God’s precise directions, why would the same context also intend to convey that disobeying God’s laws is permissible?

The Context

As a matter of fact, God anticipated the circumstances of this incident when He spoke to Moses centuries earlier. Observance of the Passover was first enjoined upon the Israelites shortly before their exit from Egypt (Exodus 12). A year later, while at Sinai, the Passover injunction was renewed (Leviticus 23:5-8; Numbers 9:1-5). However, on this latter occasion, Moses was faced with a special circumstance that required clarification from God:

Now there were certain men who were defiled by a human corpse, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and Aaron that day. And those men said to him, “We became defiled by a human corpse. Why are we kept from presenting the offering of the Lord at its appointed time among the children of Israel?” And Moses said to them, “Stand still, that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.” Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If anyone of you or your posterity is unclean because of a corpse, or is far away on a journey, he may still keep the Lord’s Passover. On the fourteenth day of the second month, at twilight, they may keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it’” (Numbers 9:6-12).

This legal description contains two significant features of Passover observance that show that God built into His own Passover regulation certain exceptions to the general rule. First, if a person had recently come into contact with a corpse, that person was exempt from observing the Passover on the regularly scheduled 14th day of the first month but could instead observe it exactly one month later—on the 14th day of the second month. Coming into contact with a corpse caused the individual to be ceremonially unclean (cf. Numbers 5:2; 19:11). When this occurred so near to the approach of Passover that appropriate “decontamination” procedures could not be completed in time for the 14th day of the first month, a God-ordained postponement was permissible.4

But what if a person just happened to be unclean on the 14th day of both months? It is evident that such an individual would be excused from observing the Passover for that year. This corollary follows from verse 13: “But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the Lord at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.”

A second exception to Passover observance was made for the individual who was “far away on a journey.” This stipulation implied that a person conceivably could be detained, incapacitated, or otherwise prevented from appearing and observing the Passover in Jerusalem. In Hezekiah’s day, the northern tribes had been similarly “detained,” i.e., were in the process of being taken into captivity by the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 30:6; cf. 2 Kings 17:6). Many of them had, in fact, chosen simply to cease their practice of Mosaic religion. But for those who were willing to reinstate their obedience to God, the exceptions provided in the Law of Moses were designed to offer accommodation.

Observe, however, that due to the past apostasy and negligence on the part of the southern kingdom, and though Hezekiah enacted an immediate reformation when he ascended the throne, repairs to the Temple and purification procedures were not completed until the 16th day of the first month (2 Chronicles 29:17). Thus the first legal observance time for the Passover (i.e., the 14th day of the first month) had already passed. The deadline for the second and final observance for the year (i.e., the 14th day of the second month) was approaching (2 Chronicles 30:2,15). Time was of the essence! Priests and Levites worked feverishly to achieve the mandatory ritual cleansings for themselves and the people (2 Chronicles 29:34; 30:3). However, despite their valiant efforts to accomplish the feat, their attempts to meet the deadline were about to fall short:

For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had charge of the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean, to sanctify them to the Lord. For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written (2 Chronicles 30:17-18).

Due to the sheer number that needed to be cleansed (“multitude”—vs. 18), and due to the increased numbers resulting from the influx from the apostate northern tribes (vs. 17), those yet unclean proceeded to partake of the Passover meal in violation of Mosaic injunction. Was this clear violation of God’s Word acceptable to God? That is, did He overlook, compromise, or brush aside His own instructions? Did He intend to leave the impression that strict obedience to His commands is optional if inconvenient? Will God save and accept those who, out of ignorance or neglect, fail to comply with His stated prerequisites for salvation—as long as their hearts are seeking Him?

To answer in the affirmative to these questions is to place a single passage in contradiction to a host of other Old and New Testament passages that discredit and invalidate such a conclusion (e.g., Leviticus 10:1-3; 1 Samuel 13:12-14; 15:22; 2 Samuel 6:1-8; 1 Chronicles 15:11-15; 2 Chronicles 26:16-18; Hebrews 10:28-31; 12:25). David made this point clear when his efforts to transport the Ark of the Covenant back to its rightful location were thwarted by God. His insightful, decisive conclusion on the fiasco ought to ring loudly in the ears of the liberal element in the Church today: “we did not consult Him about the proper order” (1 Chronicles 15:13, NKJV; “We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way,” NIV; “we did not seek him according to the rule,” ESV). Similarly, Jeroboam’s adjustment of divinely-stipulated worship protocol, specifically the change in month, was condemned as “devised in his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33).

Likewise, the immediate text contains visible evidence to the contrary as well. In the first place, the whole point of Hezekiah’s restoration movement was to bring the nation back to complete compliance with the details of the Law of Moses. Second, observe in the context how frequent are the allusions to the fact that strict adherence to God’s detailed specifications was mandatory: “at the words of the Lord” (29:15); “the commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (29:25); “set in order” (29:35); “in the prescribed manner” (30:5); “at the word of the Lord” (30:12); “according to the Law of Moses” (30:16). If obeying details does not matter, why even have a restoration? To what were they trying to restore the people—except a careful compliance with God’s instructions pertaining to Temple ritual?

Third, the context also indicates that a number of details were strictly observed in harmony with Mosaic injunction: the specific day, i.e., the 14th day of the second month (vs. 15; Numbers 9:11), the specific place, i.e., Jerusalem (vs. 1; Deuteronomy 6:5-6), the slaughter of the Passover lambs (vs. 15; Deuteronomy 16:2), roasting the meat as opposed to eating it raw or boiling it (vs. 15; Exodus 12:9; Deuteronomy 16:7), and the sprinkling of the blood by the priests (vs. 16; 35:11). If God is not overly concerned with details, why would He not show comparable flexibility on these items? Why would God insist that He be obeyed on some details and not on others? Isn’t one detail as important or unimportant as another? By today’s unbiblical notion, all their attention to detail was “legalistic.”

The Grammar

But there is another factor to consider. Due to the fact that Hebrew verbs do not indicate time or tense, but rather simply completed or incomplete action, English translations sometimes have difficulty reflecting the subtleties of the grammar, in this case, the ambiguity of the tense. The text could just as easily be translated to convey the idea that the people were in the process of eating or had even completed their eating before Hezekiah prayed to God on their behalf, requesting His forgiveness for their infraction.5 In other words, thousands—perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands—of people were present at the Passover observance. There was no way for Hezekiah personally to oversee the condition of every participant. The text clearly states that those who had not completed cleansing procedures prior to eating the Passover were from among the estranged and alienated northern tribes (vs. 18)—who had been long neglectful of Mosaic institutions. It is logical to assume in such a case that, as conscientious as Hezekiah was shown to be, as soon as he learned of their violation, he would have confronted the offenders, rebuked them for their violation of the law, urged them to repent, and then he would have prayed to God on their behalf.6

In fact, this passage parallels precisely the circumstances that often characterized Israelite history. The Israelites often deviated from divine protocol, only to have intercession made for them by Moses or some other faithful leader of the people. For example, on the day after the rebellion of Korah, the congregation asserted itself against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the tragic events of the previous day. God instigated a plague against the people. Aaron implemented atonement procedures that eventually stayed the plague—but not before over 14,000 people died (Numbers 16:41-49). On another occasion, worship violations led to another divinely-implemented plague against the population. Once again, a valiant leader, Phinehas, acted quickly to minimize punishment, but not before 24,000 died (Numbers 25:1-13). These incidents reflect affinity with Hezekiah’s Passover, in that those who ate the Passover in violation of the law—though apparently sincere—were nevertheless susceptible to divine retribution (“wrath upon them from the Lord”7), perhaps in the form of not just spiritual, but physical, plague. Indeed, Hezekiah “believed the threatened plague to be a reality.”8 Due to their sin, they certainly “had cause to fear disease and even death”9—as the law warned (Leviticus 15:31). Hezekiah’s intervention, like those by Aaron and Phinehas, meant that the Lord “healed the people” (vs. 20).10 Indeed, the Hebrew word translated “healed” is “the strict word for physical healing.”11

Summary

Those who attempt to justify disobedience today misapply this incident from Old Testament history. The practice of Judaism entailed certain logistical features that share no comparison with the practice of New Testament Christianity. For example, the Passover involved a particular place on Earth (Jerusalem), a particular time/day once a year (14th day of Nisan), and specific rituals tied to specific men who qualified as priests. Consequently, a Jew could theoretically find himself in a predicament, through no fault of his own, that would legally disqualify him from observing the Passover. How is this circumstance parallel to whether baptism is immersion or sprinkling, or whether instrumental music may be used in Christian worship, wherein individuals have either failed to study and come to knowledge of what God requires, or they have chosen to reject New Testament teaching on the subject? If the Ethiopian Eunuch could learn the truth in short-order and ask the question, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36), people today can do the same, and will have no excuse for failing to comply with God’s will on the matter—Hezekiah’s Passover notwithstanding.

A fairer analogy with this Old Testament text would be the situation wherein a Christian traveling to worship on Sunday (in compliance with mandatory assembling with the church—Hebrews 10:25; Matthew 6:33) experiences a mechanical breakdown with his automobile, physically preventing him from arriving at the assembly in time to observe the Lord’s Supper. Or an automobile accident or serious illness might prevent assembling. These scenarios come closer to matching the variables of 2 Chronicles 30 wherein Christians (versus non-Christians) are logistically hampered from compliance.

In any case, the Bible teaches with great clarity that one must be immersed in water prior to receiving forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38; 10:47-48; 18:8; 22:16). Until one complies with this divinely-designated prerequisite to salvation, God is powerless to apply the blood of Christ to the believer’s sin-stained spirit (Romans 1:16; John 3:5; Romans 6:3-4; Revelation 1:5). Will God make exceptions to His own requirements? Only if He contradicts what He has already said in His Word (cf. “except” in John 3:5). Another way to ask the question is: Can God forgive a person without the blood of Christ? The unqualified response to that question from Scripture is: no. Only through the blood of Christ may sin be forgiven (1 Peter 1:2,18-19; Acts 20:28).12

God Has Not Changed

God has always required that man approach him “in truth,” i.e., according to the divine directives that He revealed to man. The only worship that has ever been acceptable to God has been that worship which has been undertaken with (1) a proper attitude, frame of mind, and disposition conducive to spirituality, and (2) faithfulness to the specific “legal” requirements that God pinpointed as the proper external acts to be performed. God has never accepted one without the other. He has, in fact, always required both—the right action along with the right attitude. Study carefully Table 1 below.13

PASSAGEATTITUDEACTION
John 4:24SpiritTruth
Joshua 24:14SincerityTruth
Ecclesiastes 12:13Fear GodKeep Commands
Acts 10:35Fear HimWork Righteousness
James 2:17FaithWorks
1 John 3:18Word & TongueDeed & Truth
Deuteronomy 10:12-13Fear/Love—HeartWalk/Ways
Romans 1:9With my SpiritIn the Gospel

It is a grave mistake to attempt to pit God’s Word against itself. To emphasize one dimension of obedience over the other is to hamper one’s acceptance by God. Bible history is replete with instances of those who possessed one without the other and were unacceptable to God. The Pharisees (Matthew 23:3), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:2-4), and the people of Amos’ day (Amos 5:21-24) engaged in the external forms—but were unacceptable because of their insincerity. On the other hand, Paul (Acts 22:3; 23:1), Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), and Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6) all demonstrated genuine motives—but were unacceptable to God because of their failure to observe the correct legal forms.

Conclusion

Hezekiah’s Passover does not offer justification for violating specific worship regulations laid down by God’s Law. Nor does it offer justification for concluding that a person whose heart is turned toward God and Christ, but who has not complied with the prerequisites to salvation, i.e., belief, repentance, confession, and baptism for the remission of sins (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38; 22:16; John 8:24; Romans 10:9-10), may be saved. Those who seek to justify or excuse sprinkling for baptism, should look again at the Passover of Hezekiah’s day and ask themselves a question: Why would anyone wish to defend an action today on the basis of an action that stands as a historically long-term violation of the law, confessed to be a sin, a sin that had to be presented to God, and for which pardon had to be secured?

Endnotes

1 Joseph Fletcher, (1967), Moral Responsibility (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press), p. 31, emp. added.

2 Paul Faulkner (1992), “Getting Ahead: Taking Your Family With You,” Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship, Cassette Tape (Henderson, TN: FHU), emp. added.

3 E.g., Rubel Shelly and John York (2003), The Jesus Proposal (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood); John Hicks and Greg Taylor (2004), Down in the River to Pray (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood).

4 NOTE: The theory that “ritualistic details” of God’s Word may be set aside, when a person is sincerely seeking from the heart, conflicts with the fact that God reconfirmed the necessity of complying with four legal details: (1) The alternate day had to be the 14th day of the second month—as opposed to just any day selected by the worshipper. As Keil observed: “The postponement of the Passover until the second month in special circumstances was provided for by the law, but the transfer of the celebration to another day of the month was not. Such a transfer would have been an illegal and arbitrary innovation, which we cannot suppose Hezekiah capable of [C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 3:455, emp. added]; (2) Only unleavened bread and bitter herbs were to be eaten (vs. 11); (3) none of the food was to be left until morning (vs. 12); and (4) The lamb’s bones were not to be broken (vs. 12). Apparently, God’s law is sufficiently inflexible as to disallow humans from excusing themselves from strict obedience. This truth is further demonstrated by the fact that, after articulating the exception to the general rule, God immediately reiterated the essentiality of meticulous compliance with His law: “But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the Lord at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin” (Numbers 9:13). The foreigner was likewise required to comply (vs. 14). Observe: if the liberal was correct in his assessment of Deity, such legal details would have been waved aside and God would have simply said: “These stipulations are optional. Don’t sweat the small stuff!”]

5 Willem VanGemeren, ed. (1997), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 4:1061.

6 To suggest that Hezekiah prayed for those who were ceremonially unclean before they ate the Passover, in order to get forgiveness before the sin was committed, is to suggest that the Medieval Catholic practice of selling indulgences was right!

7 Matthew Henry, (no date), Commentary on the Whole Bible: Joshua to Esther (New York: Fleming H. Revell), 2:1003.

8 George Williams (1960), The Student’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel), sixth edition, p. 254.

9 Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (no date), A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 282; cf. Edward Curtis and Albert Madsen (1910), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Chronicles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 475.

10 cf. VanGemeren, 3:1163-1164.

11 P.C. Barker (1950), The Pulpit Commentary: II Chronicles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 361.

12 Dave Miller (2019), Baptism & the Greek Made Simple (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), https://apologeticspress.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Baptism-and-the-Greek-Web.pdf.

13 Taken from Dave Miller (1996), Piloting the Strait (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications), pp. 184-185.


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