The first reading from Monday’s Mass (of the 12th week of the year) describes a crucial, crushing moment in the history of ancient Israel: the loss of the Northern Kingdom and the destruction and deportation of what came to be called the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, occupied the whole land [of Israel] and attacked Samaria, which he besieged for three years. In the ninth year … the king of Assyria took Samaria [which was then part of Israel] and deported the children of Israel to Assyria, setting them in Halah, at the Habor, a river of Gozan, and the cities of the Medes (2 Kings 17:5-6).
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had divided from the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 930 B.C. as a result of the bitterness following the tail end of Solomon’s reign and the reign of his successor Rehoboam. The tribes that formed the Northern Kingdom were Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Mannasseh, Napthtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. (Some from Levi were also settled there.) The survivors of the war were largely deported to Assyria and were “lost” by virtue of intermarrying with the people there. Though some debate the use of the term “lost,” claiming that there were people who escaped deportation or who fled to the South, as an identifiable group they were lost.
After the loss of the Northern Kingdom, only the tribes of Judah (and Benjamin) in the south remained. In effect, the tribe of Benjamin was absorbed into Judah.
Why had this come about? How had a nation blessed by God lost that blessing? Sacred Scripture, a prophetic declaration and interpretation of reality, provides this answer:
This came about because the children of Israel sinned against the LORD, their God, who had brought them up from the land of Egypt, from under the domination of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and because they venerated other gods. They followed the rites of the nations
whom the LORD had cleared out of the way of the children of Israel and the kings of Israel whom they set up (2 Kings 17:7-8).
These consequences did not come without warning. The Book of Deuteronomy (Dt 28:15-68) had long ago warned of what would happen if they broke their covenant bond with the Lord. The text is too lengthy to reproduce here, but the consequences described are frightening, and are exactly what did happen to Israel in 721 B.C. and Judah in 587 B.C. In addition to this ancient warning there were more contemporaneous warnings from the prophets:
And though the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and seer, “Give up your evil ways and keep my commandments and statutes, in accordance with the entire law which I enjoined on your fathers and which I sent you by my servants the prophets,”
they did not listen, but were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who had not believed in the LORD, their God. They rejected his statutes, the covenant which he had made with their fathers, and the warnings which he had given them, till, in his great anger against Israel, the LORD put them away out of his sight. Only the tribe of Judah was left (2 Kings 17:13-15a, 18).
Even after all of this, Judah did not learn its lesson either, falling deeper and deeper into infidelity and sin. The Babylonians conquered Judah in 587 B.C., leading to the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the Ark.
Stories like these may seem distant, but their elements are sadly familiar to us in times like these, in which there has been a decrease in obedience to God’s laws and a great falling away from the faith. This is true in our nation, our culture, and even to a degree within the Church, where vast numbers have fallen away. St. Paul described them as those who will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears … will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires (2 Tim 4:3). He also described them as similar to Demas, [who] in his love of this world, has deserted me (2 Tim 4:10).
Yes, these are difficult times, times of pruning and purification in the Church and times of great judgment on the once-Christian West. As St. Paul says, the Old Testament stories are lessons and warnings for us: Now these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall (1 Cor 10:11-12).
There are distorted ideas of mercy today based on the belief that God will never punish; He will never say, “Enough!” But that is not mercy at all. For if the iniquity of our times continues unabated, many more will be lost. The body count and sorrow stemming from abortion, euthanasia, war, sexual confusion, greed, and hatred will grow ever higher. At some point, God applies a painful—though necessary—end to prideful, unrepentant iniquity.
Do not say, “I have sinned, yet what has happened to me? for the LORD is slow to anger!” Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin upon sin. Do not say, “His mercy is great; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; his wrath comes to rest on the wicked. Do not delay turning back to the LORD, do not put it off day after day. For suddenly his wrath will come forth; at the time of vengeance, you will perish (Sirach 5:4-7).
Therefore, heed the lessons of these ancient stories. We live in presumptuous times, in which many (who know better in the depths of their conscience) rationalize their sin and recast God as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love precludes punishment or judgment. But such a notion of love in incomplete, for love rejoices in the truth not in what is evil and harmful. God has more in mind than merely our own “happiness.” He is thinking of other people and future generations as well. He is patient and waits for our repentance, but He is no pushover. There comes a time when even the finest vineyards must be plowed under if they yield but sour grapes.
His mercy waits, but His judgment will not be delayed forever.
This song says,
We have sinned, O Lord, and we have walked not in thy ways; but return,
O Lord, and we shall return; make thy face shine upon us, and we shall be safe