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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Land of the House of Omri--Part 1
Psalm 146
I Kings 16

In the official inscriptions of the ancient kingdom of Assyria, archaeologists have discovered a phrase that names a character from the Old Testament. That phrase refers to a kingdom, and it calls that kingdom “the house of Omri.” Who was Omri—O-M-R-I--Omri? Did Omri have a famous family?

Well, fame is a relative thing. About 3000 years ago in the hills of Samaria, Omri was pretty well known. He was the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel. He moved the capital of the kingdom from Tirzah to a new city he built called Samaria. He reigned for about twelve years and seems to have built some buildings. He was mediocre in his ability to maintain good relationships with neighboring kingdoms. He seems to have solidified one relationship with a strategic marriage for his son. Elsewhere he lost some cities to Syria and took some cities from Moab. And he got his name into the records of Assyria, a kingdom on the rise toward a becoming a great empire. His successors as King of Israel would ultimately have to face a reckoning with Assyria, and it would be their downfall.

But what I’ve just told you is much more than the book of 1 Kings bothers to tell us about Omri. Omri is one more in a series of rulers who are most memorable in the Bible for the way they went wrong. Of course, that is the overall story line of the entire period of kings in Israel and Judah. Some people began to demand a king. Samuel tried to stop them, and he warned them it would not be good for them. Against God’s true purpose for Israel, God let them have a king, and what follows is one sad example after another of why we need to understand what Psalm 146 is saying: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans will perish.”

Let’s think back across that history. God selected Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, as the first king. He had the look of a leader. He showed an inclination toward godliness as was manifested when he joined up with the traveling prophets. He took up the task of leadership with confidence. Pretty soon he was fighting wars. The longer he stayed in office, the more he worried about who might be trying to take over his place as king. This concern seems to have pushed him toward depression and maybe even mental illness. He could not figure out that the best thing he had going for him was a friendship with young David. Instead, he let the waves of public opinion rock him back and forth. It’s a tragic story, but not an isolated incident of failure on the throne.

Saul was replaced by David after his death. Sometimes the Bible makes it seem that under David everything was great. But closer attention to the story shows us it was not. David’s leadership was tied up with his effective use of violence. God did not want him to build the temple because of his violent ways. Moreover, while he seems to have started out with the blessing of the people and of God, David quickly dissipated his political capital and his divine favor. He decided that being king put him above the law. He stole a man’s wife and killed the man. He did not maintain a harmonious household. The household disagreements poured over into political factions, and the land became divided and went into civil war. Although we see David repenting of sin and seeking to reconcile the divisions, even on his deathbed he plotted revenge.

His successor Solomon is praised for his wisdom, but where is the wisdom in having so many wives and concubines? He sounds more like a rich, powerful man out of control. Some of his marriages were for political alliances, and these brought the powerful influences of other kingdoms and other faiths into the land. Although Solomon is revered for building a temple to the God of Israel, he also built temples to the gods of the neighboring kingdoms. And the way he built so many fine buildings was by drafting the people to do forced labor for the kingdom. It was hard to raise your crops and keep your animals if you had to spend months away from home building fancy buildings for the king’s wives to live in or for the priests of foreign gods to practice their religion. People were angry by the time Solomon died.

One of the popular critics of Solomon’s policies, Jereboam, helped to split the kingdom into north and south, and he became king of the northern tribes. He went back to the wilderness precedent of erecting a golden calf as a symbol of the throne of god. He mixed up the gods of the land with the worship of the God of Israel. His was the first of many disastrous kingships in the northern kingdom. His son and successor, Nadab, was murdered on the battlefied by another northerner, Baasha, and then the whole family was rounded up and slaughtered. Baasha did not know how to stay out of fights, and he had plenty of trouble with his neighbors. When he died, his son Elah succeeded him. That’s where 1 Kings chapter 16 picks up.

I would hate to be Elah in the history books. The Bible gives us one fact about his life. While a war was going on somewhere else, he was back at home with half the army in the capital. And he was drinking himself stupid with his buddies. In that state of inebriation, he probably never knew what hit him. The commander of the troops in the capital came to the place where he was drunk and assassinated him. The kingdom went into chaos. Zimri, his assassin, proclaimed himself the new king. Then he did just like Elah’s father had done. He rounded up the whole family of Elah and executed them.

After this assassination and usurping of the throne, the people began to rally around popular leaders. The part of the army that had been off at war chose Omri to be the new king. Omri took the army off the battlefield and marched back to the capital. When Zimri, the assassin who was claiming to be king, saw the troops arrayed against him, he gave up hope. After being king for only seven days, he set fire to the palace and burned it and himself in it. So Omri claimed to be the new king.

But he could not fully claim it yet. Even though the army was backing him, about half the people of the northern kingdom were backing another fellow, Tibni, for king. Putting the dates from 1 Kings 16 together, it seems that for four years, two people claiming to be king were locked in a struggle for power. Finally, Omri’s party overcame Tibni’s party, and Tibni’s death let Omri reign unchallenged for the next eight years until his death. What inheritance did he leave the kingdom of Israel? He left them his successor, his son Ahab, who led the people down many wrong paths.

Omri came to power in the midst of war, in the wake of assassinations, and when the country was divided. I Kings says that half the people backed Omri and the other half backed Tibni. Omri and Tibni battled it out in an intractable struggle for four years. Then Omri got the undisputed title, and Tibni went to the grave.

This does not sound so unfamiliar to me. Half the country was for one leader, the other half for another. The controversy went on for four years, and finally one of them emerged the victor over the other. It sounds like the last six years of U. S. politics. This country’s voting populace is so evenly divided between two parties that every election ends up with a dispute over who won. And with the margin of victory so narrow, who knows what people are willing to do to sway a few votes. Some try to intimidate voters to keep them from going out to vote. Others use mailings or phone calls to lie about where and when the vote is taking place. Some throw out perfectly good ballots that could hurt their party’s cause. Others take election results to court. Many of us wonder whether the coming use of electronic voting machines will bring an end to having our vote count if the machines can be programmed to ignore our decisions and mark ballots for whomever pays the programmers the best price. We face uncertainty, conflict, and division. So did the people who ended up with Omri as their king.

It was that chaotic reign that the Assyrians recorded as their name for the northern kingdom of Israel. Even after Omri’s descendents lost the throne, the Assyrians called this kingdom “the house of Omri.” They did not call it the house of Jereboam. They did not call it the house of Baasha. They did not call it the house of Jehu, even though Jehu was the one who unseated and executed the family of Ahab, son of Omri. So forever in the archives of Assyrian history, the northern kingdom has been known for a king whose reign was built on chaos and civil conflict.

The Psalmist’s words are an important reminder for those of us who find ourselves living in the house of Omri today. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. As Samuel warned, and Jeremiah reminded, depending on armies and violence and putting one person in charge over everyone is a bad plan that is bound to fail. One person is not capable of exercising that much power. Armies and violence produce more armies and violence. Autocratic leaders become self-centered and self-serving. They help their friends while everyone else pays the price. They talk as if they are for the people when behind the scenes they are robbing them of their prosperity and their dignity.

In our day leaders are promoting the use of torture, putting the energy companies in charge of the energy policy, taking away the right of habeus corpus, allowing unlimited imprisonment without charges, imprisonment without the right to communicate with a lawyer, allowing wiretapping of citizens without probable cause or a warrant, spending billions on a war of aggression while leaving hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims to fend for themselves, creating education policies designed to shift billions of dollars to private companies. In these times of chaos and division, leaders can manipulate the system to the great disadvantage of the common people.

This is the world we have been living in. We have been living in the house of Omri. And do not be fooled. It has not changed overnight. One day of voting did not transform a troubled and broken system into the Kingdom of God. When Saul died and David took his place, the problems did not go away. Solomon may have tried to be a uniter and not a divider, but when his son took power, the country split and civil war ensued. One election did not remove the dangers and turn the U. S. into the land of eternal happiness. For generations after Omri’s reign, people still called the northern kingdom of Israel “the house of Omri.” And when they stopped calling it that, it was because the kingdom had been defeated, destroyed, and deported.

To be continued . . .

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