In stark contrast with the Uzzah story in 1 Chronicles 13, I do not remember any lessons on Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30 in my younger years growing up in Churches of Christ. There may have been some but they did not make an impression on me that I can remember. The Uzzah example, however, was invoked repeatedly when talking about obedience but I do not recall any application of Hezekiah’s Passover. Even when restoration was the homiletic theme, it would be Josiah’s Passover that got the attention and was established as the model of Israelite restorationism rather than Hezekiah’s.
Perhaps this is because a close reading of 2 Chronicles 30 generates problems for a strong patternistic restorationism. Hezekiah’s Passover does not follow the pattern of the Torah in every detail though it does follow the law where he could. Hezekiah is concerned about obedience. But his obedience in this text is not precision obedience even though the Chronicler characterizes Hezekiah’s as an obedient King (cf. 2 Chronicles 31:20-21). He was an obedient King even though he did not follow the pattern precisely.
- Hezekiah does not observe the Passover when the Torah calendar dictates.
- Hezekiah celebrates the Passover in the wrong month.
- Hezekaih permits unclean people to eat the Passover while they are yet unclean.
- Hezekiah adds an extra week to the Passover celebration.
The most striking piece of this story is that unclean people eat the Passover. Numbers 9, which many call into play here, only permits clean people to eat the Passover in the second month when they were unclean in the first month. It does not authorize a wholesale movement of the Passover to the second month and it certainly does not permit unclean people to eat the Passover. In fact, Numbers 9 is an exception given so that the unclean have opportunity to become clean that they might eat the Passover. In 2 Chronicles 30 unclean people–they are yet unclean–actually eat the Passover. What makes Hezekiah think he can permit this? Why he did not fear that he would be struck down–or at least the people who ate struck down–like Uzzah? This is a clear violation of the Torah and the Chronicler even highlights its unauthorized character by noting that they ate “contrary to what was written.”
This is very similar language to Nadab and Abihu, and it is certainly language that reminds us of Uzzah who touched the ark when such touching was explicitly forbidden. The Torah explicitly forbids anyone to eat a sacrificial meal (e.g., the Passover) unclean. Is this not arrogance–to eat in a way that violates an explicit law of God? Indeed, they ate even when they knew it was forbidden to do so.
Hezekiah’s understanding of God included a perceptive insight into his mercy. “God is gracious and compasionate” (the only time those two words appear together in Chronicles) according to the letter sent to all Israel (2 Chronicles 30:9). God will receive seekers: if they return to him, he returns to them. It is this fundamental conception of God that grounds Hezekiah’s prayer for those who ate “contrary to what was written.” He bases his prayer on the point that God is good and that God receives those who seek him with their hearts. This is the key theological point. It is the goodness of God that is at stake here and the theological basis for Hezekiah’s prayer.
In Down in the River to Pray, Greg Taylor and I offered an analogy to baptism. Concerning Hezekiah’s prayer, we wrote:
But Hezekiah prays for the people. The prayer appeals to the gracious promise of God in 2 Chronicles 6-7 (especially 7:14). God accepts anyone who seeks him “even though” they do not seek him “in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” The critical point is orientation—those “who set theirs heart to seek God” (2 Chron. 30:19). This phrase combines two extremely important words in Chronicles: “heart” and “seeking.” The two terms are linked in 1 Chronicles 16:10; 22:19; 28:9; 2 Chronicles 11:16; 12:14; 15:12,15; 19:3; 22:9; 30:19 and 31:21. “Seek” (translating two Hebrew synonyms) appears fifty-four times in Chronicles (the most in biblical literature) and “heart” (translating two Hebrew synonyms) appears sixty-four times (only Jeremiah and Psalms use it more often). God seeks hearts that seek him. God takes the initiative and he seeks out those hearts that yearn for him and trust him (cf. Heb. 11:6; Matt. 6:33; John 4:23-24).
Hezekiah prays for the forgiveness of those who violated the divine ritual out of a heart that sought God. The guiding principle of forgiveness is two fold: (1) the goodness of God who seeks a people for himself (1 Chron. 28:9; 29:14-17) and (2) the orientation of the heart toward God. Hezekiah roots his prayer in God’s forgiving nature; he appeals to God’s heart. Those whose hearts seek God are received, even though they transgress his ritual prescriptions, because God is “good.”
And we draw the further conclusion–based in part on Hezekiah’s Passover but also other considersations:
God seeks hearts that seek him, and God transforms people who seek him. God is not the supervisor of technicalities who denies mercy to those who seek him but have mistaken his rituals through ignorance, weakness or other non-rebellious circumstances. God values the transformed life above all else. We must not deny mercy to those whose transformed lives God values simply because they have not conformed to our understanding of a divine ritual. God is not the “God of technicalities.”
Therefore, the bottom line is that God values a transformed life more than he values baptism. This does not render baptism unimportant, unnecessary or meaningless. Baptism is God’s transforming work, but God values the goal of baptism more than baptism itself. God will work toward the goal even when baptism is misunderstood and misapplied as long as the heart seeks God and does not neglect or rebel against what they believe God requires.
Of course, this does not mean that unlawful rituals of approaching God are now made lawful (any more than unclean people eating the Passover became the subsequent standard in Israel). But it does mean that when sincere (wholeheartedness) people seek God, even in imperfect ways and unauthorized modes of ritual, God receives them. If God receives unclean Israelites when they knowlingly eat contrary to what is written in the light of their heart-felt seeking and yearning for God, why would we not think that God would receive people that seek him who ignorantly and mistakenly approach him through a form of baptism which they believe is biblical but nevertheless contrary to what is written? God is still good and God still seeks those who seek him even when they do it imperfectly.
Why is Hezekiah’s unauthorized Passover blessed by God (God heard his people–2 Chronicles 30:27) rather than judged like God judged David’s unholy procession in the death of Uzzah? In the Chronicler’s theology it is connected with the point that God hears and heals hearts that seek him–hearts that humbly approach God seeking his grace. David’s unholy procession was manipulative as well as unauthorized and God “broke out” against Uzzah because he did what was forbidden. But Hezekiah’s Passover was God-honoring even though it was unauthorized and God healed those who did what was forbidden.
Why is Hezekiah considered obedient “in everything” when everything he did was not precisely according to the pattern of the Torah? 2 Chronicles 31:21–so characteristic of the Chronicler–provides the answer. He was obedient because “he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly.” He sought God with his heart just as the unclearn Passover worshippers sought God with their hearts. The divine response is grace, mercy and blessing. Hezekiah “prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21), prayers were “heard” (2 Chronicles 30:20, 27) and the people were “healed” (2 Chronicles 30:20). It was not their precision obedience that gained God’s favor. On the contrary, God sought and received those whose hearts sought him.
It seems to me that we have reason to believe that is still true today because God is still “good” and “pardons everyone who set[s] his heart on seeking God”….even when they are not perfect or precise in their obedience.