Unanxious Heroes for Uncertain Times: Huldah
2 Kings 22.10-20
The shadows were growing longer in the classroom of the prophet Huldah.
The prophet had just dismissed the classroom of women who had come to her to listen to her teachings about what it meant to be a follower of Yahweh. As she blew out the lamps and prepared to shut down for the evening, she sat in the growing gloom of night.
Like her contemporaries, Jeremiah and Zephaniah, Huldah was a prophet. What that meant was not always clear to her students, or most people. For many, being a prophet means that people like Huldah could magically tell the future. Huldah laughed whenever she heard that, because she knew better. Being a prophet is more about telling the truth than telling the future.
When her students asked how she could know things were going to happen in the future, she would reply with the story of candied dates. A mother once brought home a bag of candied dates from the market and set it at the table. While she busied herself with preparations for the meal, her young child began eying those dates. He planned his chance to jump up on the table and grab the bag. When she started to go outside for a few minutes, it was like magic…she swept by the table and grabbed the dates and took them with her, like she could tell the future and knew what was going to happen. The child was amazed! Of course, like any parent she simply knew the situation…and deeply knew the people involved. That is what a prophet does, taught Huldah. She or he knows the situation, knows God, and knows the people. Spending her days centered upon the teachings of Yahweh did not give her magical powers, but it did make it clear to her to see what was coming.
Which is why she sat heavily in the growing darkness. For in that darkening room, Huldah knew that the gears were already in motion for a time of destruction. Again, it didn’t take a future-teller to read the situation, the people, and the voice of God. The basic message of all of God’s prophets through all of time is this: if society doesn’t care for the least, the lowest, the poor, the weak, it will self-destruct. It will fall apart. When the people begin to worship the idols of power and prestige and virility and violence, and ignore the cries of the hurting, society crumbles from the inside out. It was the message of Torah and the message of the prophets who pointed back to Torah again and again. Love God. Love the people. All the people. It was the message that Huldah had preached again and again, to the women and any of the men who would listen. She would not stop delivering that word.
She and her contemporaries tried their best to get the people to understand where they were going wrong. But her spirit and her words fell on deaf ears. Competing political and cultural ideologies drowned out her words again and again. Why would they listen to her? The economy was too good. Unemployment was too low. The Israelites’ relative standing in the world order was too great. The people were too comfortable. Why listen to God if you don’t really need God…or at least don’t think that you do. During many of the stories of God’s people, we read of the bad times. But Huldah knew that sometimes the worst times are the times that look the best on the surface.
Which is why her heart sunk as she thought of the ways that the Israelites had failed to love God and love all the people. With a heavy heart, she turned her gaze out the window toward the residence of the king. Her heart lightened just a moment, for she had started to see signs of a turning. Signs of hope….
Meanwhile, in the courts of the king, there was indeed a turning. The family tree of the King Josiah had strong healthy branches, and diseased and rotting ones, too. Josiah’s great-grandfather was the wise King Hezekiah. He had seen the failures of the kings of Judah before him, and vowed to do better. He began to turn the people’s hearts back toward the love of God and the love of others. His reign of nearly twenty years helped remind the people who Yahweh was and who they were meant to be.
He handed the throne to his son Manasseh and in a matter of just a few years, all of his good had been undone. He fell prey to the ideologies of power and prestige and virility and violence that was symbolized by the worship of the Baals. His reign became a testimony to everything that the Torah and Yahweh stood against. By the end of his 55-year reign, it was said that “Manasseh shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem with it from one end to another.” Manasseh handed the throne to his own son, Amon, who continued the ways of his father. Again, the ways of violence were causing the society to crumble in on itself, to the point that after only two years, Amon’s own servants conspired against him and killed him in his house.
The people had lost their way. In an attempt to continue the broken and depraved life to which they had become accustomed, they placed Amon’s eight-year-old son Josiah on the throne. And for 18 years, it was unclear what kind of king he would truly become. But in that 18th year, everything started to change. It began with the sense that the Temple of the Lord must be restored. Whether it was the sight of crumbling wall and a leaking roof, or the stories of his great-grandfather’s legacy, or simply the still, small voice of Yahweh speaking to his heart, Josiah knew that this had to be done. He began a capital campaign and started to raise the money for the construction and choose carpenters and masons and builders to do the work. When it was time to start, he sent the court secretary into the Temple to count how much money was there, to pay the contractors. The secretary went to the high priest and got the numbers he needed. But on the way out the door, the priest stopped him. “Oh, I almost forgot. When I went into count the money, I also found this book. The king might be interested in it.” The secretary came back to the king and went over the numbers with him and told him how much money there was, and on the way out the door, he said, “Oh, I almost forgot. The priest also found this book. He thought you might be interested in it.”
And he proceeded to read before the king’s hearing the entire book of the Torah. Lost and left in a closet for more than a generation, the king heard its words and became sick to his stomach. He at once knew that the commands of Yahweh had been ignored for longer than he had been alive. He at once knew a people who were called to love God and love people had lost their way. He at once began to grieve. Josiah tore his clothes in grief as he realized how many years had been lost to the broken ideologies of his father and grandfather. With a humble heart, he knew that things had to change.
He knew he had to at once listen to a prophet of Yahweh, though he feared the worst. He had to hear the words of the Lord. In the years and generations following, it was asked why Josiah didn’t go to one of Huldah’s contemporaries. Perhaps his counselors warned him away from Zephaniah because he was always so negative. Some suggested that Jeremiah was out of town, visiting exiles in Assyria. Still others think that he went to Huldah specifically because she was a woman. That there was a belief that a woman might be more gracious or more lenient. He hoped for a good word. A “nah…that’s okay” from the female prophet.
Apparently, he didn’t know who he was talking to…
Josiah’s messengers appeared as Huldah was in the middle of teaching, sending the students scurrying away. As the courtier began to announce the presence of the royal delegation, Huldah smiled to herself. She wondered how soon it would be before Josiah came around, what would happen if and when he found the Torah.
And yet, Huldah’s response was not the shoulder shrug that the king had hoped for. In fact, before the courtier could finish his introduction, Huldah had wheeled around and pointed her finger in the face of the unfaithful priest. “You tell that man…” Not “the king…” Not “his highness…” Not “the divine and anointed presence of God on earth…” She spat at the delegation, “you tell that man…” And she proceeded to give the most blistering sermon that any of them had ever heard, a mouthful of bad news to the royal delegation. As she preached, she watched them growing whiter and whiter in fear. You see, Huldah had seen this coming. She knew that society was already so unraveled that the self-destruction had begun. So rare were the women and men who loved God and loved people…so plentiful were those who had bought into the ideology of power and prestige, of virility and violence, that to turn that ship around now would be impossible. Huldah tore into them for forsaking the words of the book, for ignoring the commands of Yahweh, for failing to love God and love all the people, and told them they were about to get exactly what they deserved.
As the royal delegation picked up their hats to leave, and began slinking toward the door, Huldah finished her sermon: “Oh, I almost forgot… Give this message to…my king. Because you were penitent…because you humbled your heart and tore your clothes in grief…because you took these words to heart, you will be spared. You will see peace in your days because you are a bringer of peace.”
Thus endeth the lesson of Huldah.
There was hope. Hope for Josiah, hope that this one who humbled his heart could still point a few more in the right direction. Her message meant to support his wisdom and penitence, while not excusing the behavior of the culture and leadership who came before. And it worked: Josiah saw that same hope and led the people back to a life of loving God and loving neighbor. So many of the threads of society were already rotten, and even the work of the king was not enough to save it. But it helped. Hearts were turned back to God, and the Torah from which Huldah preached found new ears. The name Huldah means “duration.” Indeed, her words endured.
In fact, there is a tradition that the burial place of Huldah is in a cave carved into the rock on the Mount of Olives. Almost exactly 650 years later, after the prophecy, the life, and the death of Huldah, a man stood atop that same mountain. He rode down off that mount on a donkey, a symbol that stood in contrast to the ideology of his time. For he, too, had come as a prophet to tell the people that whenever a society fails to care for the vulnerable, the least, the poor, and the marginalized, it will fall in upon itself and self-destruct. Like Huldah, he wept for Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Just like Huldah before him, he spoke words of truth. Just like Huldah, he reminded the people to love God and love neighbor.
Just like in Huldah’s day, the threads of his society were already rotten, and even the work of this prophet were not enough to save a culture given to power and prestige, virility and violence. But it helped. Hearts were turned back to God, and the books of the Torah and the Prophets found new ears.
And so, today, the legacy of Huldah—and of Jesus—reach our ears once again. Will we continue to follow the ways of the kings of old, and the kings of today? Will we follow the idols of power and prestige, virility and violence? Or will we renew our hearts to remember the ways that God has called God’s covenant people from the beginning? Will we again renew our vow to love God and love neighbor? Will we tear our clothes in grief whenever one of the least of these is ignored? Will we cry over our neighbors when they are left alone and hurting?
Let the words of the sermon of Huldah, and the message of Christ, wash over us this day and bring us anew to a life of justice and care. Let us with renewed hearts love God, love neighbor, and serve the world.