Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Uzziah’s name means ‘Jehovah is my strength’ and his naming points to worthy spiritual ambitions for the child – a lesson to all God-fearing parents. So, in the phrase ‘marvellously helped till he became strong’, the Chronicler makes a word-play on his other name, Azariah (‘Jehovah is my help’). For the purposes of this paper, it is convenient to focus on the account of Uzziah’s reign given in 2 Chronicles chapter 26, cp. 2 Kgs. 15. 1-7.
He is the third of three kings who made a good beginning, but met a sad end: Joash, Ahaziah, and Uzziah. We need grace from God so to progress in godliness that we will be able to say at the end with Paul, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’, 2 Tim. 4. 7.
Early Promise, vv. 1-5
Uzziah came to the throne of Judah at the tender age of sixteen, a popular choice, 2 Chr. 26. 1. The first five verses of the chapter summarize some of the most significant aspects of his early reign. In reckoning his fifty-two years (791 to 740 BC), we must allow for extensive co-regencies at either end of it. Prosperity and strength were the hallmarks of his rule, for God helped him, vv. 7, 13, 15. The lesson for us is that progress in our spiritual life is never accidental; rather, ‘he set himself to seek God’. As with Joash and Jehoiada, Uzziah had an able spiritual guide in the godly Zechariah. The psalmist could say, ‘I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts’, Ps. 119. 63. The phrase ‘as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper’, v. 5, reminds us that godliness must be a constant pursuit, not a fund of spiritual capital which, once accumulated will, allow us to sit back and coast. It also hints at later tragedy.
In the cryptic statement ‘he built Eloth’, v. 2,1 we see just how enterprising Uzziah was. This is the Red Sea port of Elath, 2 Kgs. 14. 22, which he liberated from the Edomites. That it was a gateway to international trade, especially the East, points to the far-sighted strategic thinking of the king. There are times when assemblies need to have their thinking and horizons enlarged to better fulfil their responsibilities in the gospel, cp. John 17. 18.
Great Prosperity, vv. 6-15
Uzziah was a man of many talents, and this positive period of his life is highlighted by the catchword ‘strong’, vv. 8, 15. First, with respect to foreign affairs, there are clear echoes of Solomon’s prowess and achievements when we read that he subjugated the Philistines, Arabians, Mehunims, and Ammonites. Hence, it is asserted that ‘he became exceedingly strong’, cp. v. 15. No doubt he benefitted from the dormant state of the Assyrian empire, something that would change markedly towards the end of his reign with the rise of the expansionist Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC).
In spiritual experience there are perennial enemies to be engaged with, no less real because they require warfare in the spiritual realm where, as in the case of Uzziah, our strength is to be found in God alone, Eph. 6. 10-16; 2 Cor. 10. 4.
However, good leaders must not simply wage war against enemies; he was equally careful to strengthen the home defences, 2 Chr. 26. 9, 15. He realized what a treasure Judah possessed in the land that had been given to them as a sacred trust from God, and therefore had extensive interests in farming and viticulture, v. 10. Military success abroad needed to be matched by strengthening the home defences and ensuring that the people’s food supply was secure. Accordingly he built towers to defend Jerusalem, strengthening the city’s defences at the weakest points. Beyond the city, in the hill country and the plain, he provided water for his herds and towers for their protection from raiders. A number of his key officers are named, lest we should think from the narrative that all this was accomplished single-handedly.
In this phase of Uzziah’s reign we see the blessings of a shepherd-king ruling in the best traditions of David and Solomon. The lessons for leadership today are plain. Strong in the Lord, he sought to strengthen his people, cp. 2 Tim. 2. 1f. He wanted them to be well defended and fed, and we can see a parallel in Paul’s concerns as he took his leave of the church at Ephesus, Acts 20. 27-32. Moreover, he was concerned to foster an environment in which others could serve effectively and realize their individual callings, whether they were sailors, soldiers, farmers, or defenders. Similarly, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, Eph. 4. 11-12 ESV. The important point is that these vital gifts do not monopolize the church’s ministry, but rather nurture and enable others so that they in turn can exercise their gifts for the edification of all. No wonder Uzziah’s fame spread abroad! How we need such far-sighted leaders today!
Disastrous Pride and Punishment, vv. 16-23
It has often been observed that a person’s strength can also become a weakness. In the case of Uzziah, in his strength and resultant fame, he succumbed to pride. ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall’, Prov. 16. 18.
Rulers, both ancient and modern, frequently get to feel so elevated that they begin to think that the laws governing ‘ordinary mortals’ somehow no longer apply to them. Napoleon once said, ‘I am not an ordinary man, and the laws of morals and of custom were never made for me’2. So Uzziah, in his folly, took a censer to offer incense on the golden altar.
What possessed him to do such a thing? Could it be that buoyed up by success at home and growing recognition abroad, he wished, like Egypt’s kings, to make himself high priest, and so embody all civil and religious power? Such an aspiration was common enough among the kings of the ancient world. In the church era, what disaster and apostasy has been brought about by sheer lust for power, in blatant rejection of the servant mindset to which we are called by the Lord and His apostles, Mark 10. 42-45! All of us, no matter how gifted, need to humbly recognize with Paul that all endowments and blessings come from God, 1 Cor. 4. 7. It would have been well with Uzziah if he had remembered the message of his names, that he was powerful precisely because of the Lord’s help.
Whatever the trigger for Uzziah’s recklessness, eighty courageous priests led by Azariah immediately confronted him with the heinous nature of his intrusion into the priestly office. He reacted angrily, and, in resisting, was stricken with leprosy. Realizing that God had judged him, he hurried out of the sacred precincts. His fall was catastrophic, reducing his life to a leper’s existence, dwelling apart in an ‘isolated house’, according to the provisions of the law for lepers, Lev. 13. 46. Far from adding priestly responsibilities to his responsibilities, he lost the executive role and this passed to his son, Jotham, v. 21. Even in death he forfeited burial in the royal tombs, instead he was buried in an adjacent field ‘which belonged to the kings’. The Chronicler thus clarifies the shorter death notice given in 2 Kings.
Perhaps, to some minds, God’s judgement seems severe. There is, however, a solemn biblical principle that those nearest to God are held most responsible for their actions, Luke 12. 47-48; Jas. 3. 1. A Davidic king represented God to men; a priest represented men to God. God intended that these offices be kept distinct, awaiting the time when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would combine them, Zech. 6. 13. Uzziah was judged because he was God’s representative on the throne. Moreover, he should have known the seriousness of his intrusion from the earlier fate that befell Jeroboam the northern king, 1 Kgs. 12. 28 - 13. 5. God judged Jeroboam’s impiety, even though it involved his improvised sanctuary; therefore, how much more serious Uzziah’s trespass in the temple proper!
There are solemn lessons here. Let none of us ever think ourselves to be above the word of God. Rather, let us be content with humbly fulfilling the role God has sovereignly allotted us in His grace, Col. 4. 17. Uzziah’s tragedy remains a beacon of warning concerning the peril of being disqualified, even after rendering sterling service, 1 Cor. 9. 27.
The call of Isaiah came in the year that King Uzziah died, Isa. 6. 1, and, for him, the shattering fate of the leper king powerfully symbolized the spiritual plight of his nation, v. 5. Amidst the harrowing circumstances of the king’s demise, Isaiah gained a vision of a greater and eternal King to whom all earthly monarchs must bow. A promising son of David had fallen, but God’s steadfast promises to David’s house would not ultimately fail, Isa. 6. 1, 13.
- This is a port on the Gulf of Aqaba, identified with the modern resort of Eilat.
- G A Chadwick, The Book of Exodus, Expositors Bible, 1890, pg. 86, quoting the Memoirs of Mme de Rémusat.