The Overthrow of Athaliah (2 Chron. 23:1-15)

23:1-3 Let us be clear about the family relationships involved in this scenario. Athaliah was the stepmother of Jehosheba (22:11), who was married to Jehoiada, the high priest. Thus, she was Jehoiada’s mother-in-law as well as Joash’s grandmother. In picturing what follows, we may also want to take cognizance of the fact that Jehoiada was over ninety years old at this time since he would die sometime during the second half of Joash’s forty-year reign at the age of one hundred and thirty.

Jehoiada waited for the right moment. It is probably fair to say that he would only have one chance at a successful coup against Athaliah. If it failed, he and all of his supporters, not to mention Joash, would undoubtedly be executed, so he needed to get it right the one and only time he attempted to overthrow the queen. Should Athaliah escape, she would still be vacating the throne to Joash. That scenario would not have been optimal, but it would still go into the "success" column. An execution of the one who had ascended the throne due to her expertise at executing competitors would leave things clearer and more aesthetically rounded out.

First of all, Jehoiada lined up support from all over the country of Judah. He recruited both military leaders, commanders of units of a hundred, and Levites, so that he had both the secular and religious sides represented. The Levites in particular would have responded well to an invitation to join a conspiracy that would result in the reestablishment of true worship. When enough people were on board, Jehoiada held a meeting in the one place in the entire kingdom that was safe: the temple of God. As the high priest, this was his place of work; the Levites had a natural reason to be there; and Queen Athaliah did not make it a regular practice to worship God at the temple.

Little King Joash

Jehoiada addressed his co-conspirators with the fundamental premise: The throne of Judah belonged to the descendants of David, and the person who was rightfully entitled to this privilege was Joash, the son of the previous king, Ahaziah. This, Jehoiada reminded them, is God’s own promise.

23:4-7 Whatever the outcome of this coup was going to be, no objective was more important than to keep the young king safe. Even if the plot should fail for the moment, as long as Joash stayed alive, not all was lost, but if he should get killed, there was no possibility at any second chance. Consequently, Jehoiada commanded all of the assembled men to set a heavy guard around the temple premises where the coronation would take place.

Jehoiada made use of the change in shifts for the Levites. As some of them were ostensibly going off duty, and some were coming on duty, there would be a convenient amassing of personnel, which would not immediately arouse suspicion. But he did not have the present shift actually “clock out”; they were consecrated already and so could stay right within the sacred precincts. The others were positioned in three details: a third were deployed around the doors, a third were set up to guard the main (foundation) gate, and a third were stationed right at the palace of the queen, which stood next to the temple. No order could have been simpler than Jehoiada’s directive to all of these men, namely that anyone trying to enter the temple would be killed immediately. The Levites in the temple had the additional charge to protect the boy by surrounding him with their bodies with their weapons drawn.

23:8-11> The deployment went just as Jehoiada wanted it. The Levites already had weapons (v. 7); if nothing else, there was a supply of knives on hand intended to be used for the animal sacrifices. In addition, Jehoiada, who knew every nook and cranny of the temple complex, found some spears and shields going all the way back to the time of David, and he outfitted the men with those. Apparently previous raiders of the temple, such as Pharaoh Shishak or the Philistines, either did not know of the existence of these weapons or did not consider them valuable enough to seize. Now they came in very handy for Jehoiada and the conspirators.

Having secured the temple on the outside and the inside, Jehoiada went ahead with the coronation ceremony for Joash. The seven-year old boy, having been kept in seclusion for his entire life, suddenly found himself surrounded by a horde of armed Levites in the middle of the sacred precinct. Considering how anxious Jehoiada had shown himself to keep the plot a secret and to complete the deed before it could be stopped, it seems unlikely that he would have given Joash much time at all to find out what was going on, let alone to comprehend it. The point now was to get him crowned; explanations could come later.

Jehoiada placed a crown on the boy’s head and presented him with a copy of the covenant. Although it is tempting to think that this was a scroll of the divine law, exhorting the new king to govern in godly fashion, it probably was something a little more prosaic. Just a few verses ago (v. 3), we saw that Jehoiada and his supporters had made a covenant specifically to make Joash king, and this must be the covenant referred to. It was not so much a constitution as a coronation certificate.

Our text specifies that it was Jehoiada and his sons who carried out this coronation ceremony. Although we are given no names at this point, there is a good chance that one of these sons was Zechariah, who would find himself at this same spot later, receiving some very different treatment from the one whom he had just acclaimed as king.

The priests finished the ceremony by anointing Joash and proclaiming his kingship at the top of their voices. “Long live the king!” they shouted, and now there was no further need for secrecy. Everyone started to join in the cheering, and what just a few seconds ago had been a quiet rite carried out in deep concealment now turned into a noisy riot, loud enough to wake the neighbors.

Athaliah's End

23:12-15 Well, at least one particular neighbor heard the din: That, of course was Athaliah, daughter of Jezebel, widow of Jehoram-of-the-bowels, grandmother of the kids she slaughtered, etc. etc., etc. Queen Athaliah would probably not have been used to public displays of any sort in her vicinity. Despots tend to diffuse an aura of fear that keeps people silent around them, lest some uncalculated remark be construed (or misconstrued, perhaps even intentionally) as subversive. So, hearing the racket emanating from the temple next door, she rushed over. At this point, the order to kill anyone who tried to enter the temple had either been rescinded or was being ignored since everyone wanted to be as close to the action as possible. Even though there was a throng surrounding the temple, the queen managed to get close enough to be able to see for herself the cause of all of this shouting.

After six years in power, Athaliah must have felt relatively secure in her position. She had murdered all conceivable rivals; no one had come forward to challenge her (that we know of); and she may have felt that by this time she had life-long tenure. What a shock for her to step into the temple court and to be greeted by that incredible display!

There was a little shrimp of a boy, standing right next to one of the pillars at the entrance of the temple. And he was wearing a crown. And there was a crowd--a huge crowd--bowing before him, hailing him as the king. And there were officials and army officers and priests and Levites and many more common people, and everyone was having a coronation party. And there were bands and brass ensembles and choirs, making music and singing at the tops of their voices, and everyone was facing this child who was standing there with glazed eyes and incomprehension on his face, and they were all calling him “the king.” And nobody seemed to be paying any attention to her.

If Athaliah had had time later to think about what she might have done, it might have occurred to her that it would have been in her best interest to back out of the temple as quietly as she possibly could, sprint back over to the palace, and attempt a surreptitious getaway. Presumably, she might even have had some guards, who had remained loyal to her, who might have assisted her flight. If only she could have kept her presence undetected. . . . But that is not what she did, and she never had time to reflect on the matter later. Athaliah followed her instinct and screeched out “Treason! Treason!”

Only then, having called attention to herself, did Athaliah attempt an escape to the palace. But this was exactly what Jehoiada wanted her to do. He had not intended to shed any human blood within the temple itself, and--if at all possible--he wanted to get to her before she had a chance to assemble guards around her. The priest’s officers caught up with her right outside of the palace and executed her immediately. The illegitimate ruler was dead, and the throne once again belonged to the family of David.

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