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Trade Paperback
320 pages
Feb 2005
Bethany House

Gods and Kings

by Lynn Austin

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Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king....Unlike David his father,he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. --2 CHRONICLES 28:1 (NIV)

The rumble of voices and tramping feet awakened him. Hezekiah sat up in bed, his heart pounding, and for the first time in his short life he was terrified. Overnight his safe, quiet world in the king’s palace had vanished, and he listened with mounting panic as the commotion in the hallway outside his room grew louder, closer. Men’s voices shouted orders. Doors opened and closed. Children cried out in fear.

He turned to his older brother, Eliab, in the bed next to his and saw that he was also awake. Hezekiah scrambled off his bed and climbed in beside him. “Eliab,” he whispered, “What’s going on? Who’s out there?”

Eliab shook his head, clutching the bedcovers. “I-I don’t know.” They huddled in the darkness, staring at the door, waiting.

In the distance, the mournful cry of a shofar trumpeted an alarm over the sleeping city of Jerusalem as the sound of footsteps thundered up the hallway, approaching Hezekiah’s room.

“I’m scared,” he said, swallowing back tears. “I want Mama.”

Suddenly the door opened, and soldiers, armed with swords and spears, poured into the room, pulling Hezekiah and Eliab off the bed. Hezekiah was powerless to stop them. His body went stiff with fear as they stripped off his nightclothes and forced a white linen garment over his head. The soldiers’ hands felt cold and rough as they dressed him and tied on his sandals. The palace servants always treated him gently, smiling and making up little games as they helped him get dressed. But none of the soldiers spoke, and their cold silence terrified him. They dressed Eliab the same way, then hustled them out of the room.

More soldiers and a dozen priests in flowing robes crowded the hallway. In the flickering torchlight, Hezekiah saw his half-brothers dressed in the same white garments, huddled together, whimpering softly. His uncle Maaseiah stood over them, armed with a sword.

“These are all of the king’s sons,” he told the priests. “Let’s get on with it. My troops have a long march ahead.”

“Everything is prepared, my lord,” a priest replied.

But before any of them had a chance to move, Hezekiah heard his mother shouting as she ran up the hall from the king’s harem. “No, wait! Stop!” She was in her bare feet and was wrapping her outer garment around her as she ran. Her dark hair flowed uncombed down her back. Hezekiah tried to squirm free to go to her, but one of the soldiers held him back.

“What are you doing?” she cried. “Where are you taking my sons?”

“King Ahaz is holding a special sacrifice before the army marches,” Uncle Maaseiah said. “Our northern border is under attack.”

“What does that have to do with my children? They’re only babies.” She hugged her robes tightly around herself and shivered.

“Ahaz wants all of his sons to take part.” Uncle Maaseiah signaled to his soldiers, and they quickly moved across the hallway to block her path. But not before Hezekiah saw all the color drain from her face.

“No! Wait!” she cried. “What kind of sacrifice?”

Uncle Maaseiah turned his back on her and motioned to his men. “Let’s get on with it.”

Hezekiah’s mother began to scream, and the sound filled him with terror. He could hear her fighting desperately to get past the wall of men, to reach him and Eliab, but the soldiers held her back.

“Mama!” Hezekiah cried out. “I want Mama!” He struggled to go to her but one of the men picked him up as if he weighed nothing at all. Hezekiah wanted to fight but he felt limp with terror, and the soldier who held him was much too strong. His mother’s screams faded in the distance behind them as the soldier carried Hezekiah through the maze of corridors and down the palace stairs to the courtyard.

Outside, the sky had begun to lighten as the sun rose behind the Judean hills. A huge crowd of people stood waiting in the palace courtyard, spilling over into the street outside the gate. A brisk wind whipped Hezekiah’s tunic against his legs as the soldier lowered him to the ground. The thin fabric offered no warmth against the morning chill, and Hezekiah shivered with cold and fear. He had never seen so many soldiers before, lined up in even rows, their swords gleaming as they stood at attention before his father, the king.

King Ahaz wore the crown of Judah on his head and the royal robes embroidered with the symbol of the house of David. He was a large, round-bellied man, whose voice always sounded loud and angry. Everyone in the palace cowered before him, and Hezekiah had learned to fear him, too. He couldn’t imagine why his father would order him and his brothers from their beds at dawn to stand with all these soldiers. As Hezekiah stood shivering in the windy courtyard, the tension in the air, the solemn look on every face, filled him with dread.

The assembly began to march, led by King Ahaz and Uncle Maaseiah. The city elders and nobles followed close behind, then the escort of soldiers and priests began to move. One of the soldiers gripped Hezekiah’s shoulder and pushed him forward with all the other young princes of Judah. But instead of climbing the steep hill behind the palace to the Temple of Yahweh where the king usually offered his sacrifices, the procession wound down the hill through the narrow city streets.

They passed the spacious, dressed-stone mansions of the nobility, then marched through the market area, now quiet and deserted, the booths shuttered, the colorful awnings rolled up for the night. Hezekiah saw people watching the procession from their rooftops and peering from behind latticed windows. As the street narrowed, the soldiers squeezed closer and their swords pressed against Hezekiah’s side. Where were they taking him? What was going to happen to him? Twice he stumbled as he missed a stair in the street, but the soldiers quickly gripped his arms and pulled him to his feet.

They finally reached the massive gate on the southern wall of Jerusalem and passed down the ramp, out of the city. Now the silent dawn began to echo with the beat of drums pounding in the distance. Hezekiah saw a craggy wall of cliffs, dark and foreboding, guarding the entrance to the Valley of Hinnom. As the procession turned into the narrow valley, he glimpsed a column of smoke billowing high into the air ahead of him, carried aloft by the wind.

The priests who marched beside Hezekiah began to chant, “Molech ... Molech ... Molech.” The men in the procession joined in, chanting louder and louder to the throbbing beat of the drums. “MOLECH ... MOLECH ... MOLECH!”

Suddenly the wall of soldiers parted, and Hezekiah caught his first glimpse of Molech. He knew he wasn’t dreaming. He knew the monster was real because he never could have imagined anything so horrible. Molech stared down at him from a throne of brass as the fire in the pit beneath the hollow statue blazed with a loud roar. Tongues of flame licked around the edges of his open mouth. His arms reached out as if waiting to be filled, forming a steep incline that ended in his open, waiting mouth.

Hezekiah’s instincts screamed at him to run, but his legs buckled beneath him as if made of water. He couldn’t move. One of the soldiers picked him up and carried him up the steps of the platform that stood in front of the monster’s outstretched arms.

“MOLECH ... MOLECH ... MOLECH ...” the crowd chanted to the pounding rhythm of drums. Hezekiah’s heart throbbed in his ears as he huddled beside his brother Eliab. The billowing smoke made his eyes water. The heat burned his face.

The chief priest faced Molech with his arms raised, pleading with the god in a frenzied cry, but the chanting crowd and the noise of the flames drowned out his words. When his prayer ended, the priest lowered his arms and turned around. Hezekiah saw the cold, intent look on the man’s face and he tried to back away, but one of Molech’s priests gripped his arms. He couldn’t escape.

“Which one is the king’s firstborn?” the chief priest asked.

Uncle Maaseiah’s signet ring flashed in the firelight as he laid his hand on Eliab’s head. “This one.”

The priest grabbed Eliab and lifted him high in the air. Hezekiah watched in horror as the man tossed his brother into the monster’s waiting arms. Eliab rolled down the incline toward the open mouth, clawing at the brazen arms to try to stop his fall, but the metal was hot and polished smooth. He couldn’t hold on. Eliab’s pitiful screams wailed above the roar of the flames and the pounding drums, even after he had fallen over the rim and Molech had devoured him. His cries, coming from the depths of the flames, lasted only an instant though it felt like a lifetime.

Then a terrible stench, unlike any Hezekiah had smelled before, filled his nostrils and throat until he gagged. His stomach turned inside out, and he retched, as if trying to vomit out the memory, as well.

But the nightmare didn’t end with Eliab’s death. Other noblemen and city officials offered their sons to the priest and he tossed them, one after the other, into Molech’s arms. They rolled helplessly, down into the flames as Eliab had. Hezekiah cowered in a heap on the platform and covered his face to escape the sight. But the horror of this day was engraved on his soul. He began to scream ... and he didn’t think he would ever be able to stop.

* * *

Abijah’s son finally fell asleep, his small body warm and slack in her arms. For the first time all day, his grip on her loosened. But Abijah’s clasp on Hezekiah didn’t relax as she sat by the window and gazed into the evening sky.

Eliab was dead. Her son, her firstborn, gone forever. Her mind refused to comprehend it, even though her heart felt as if it had been torn out of her, leaving her body cold and hollow. Abijah’s grief so overwhelmed her that she knew the pain would never fade as long as she lived. Her son never should have died. His life had been cruelly taken much too soon. And his own father had murdered him.

Her arms tightened protectively around Hezekiah. She wouldn’t let him die the way Eliab had. She would protect him from Ahaz no matter what it took—but how? She had neither weapons nor the skill to use them.

Abijah had guessed where the soldiers were taking her children and what would happen to Eliab, but she had been powerless to save him. The guards had ignored her screams and pleas, restraining her long after the procession disappeared from the palace courtyard. She had heard Molech’s drums in the distance, but she couldn’t break free to help her child. When the sacrifice was over, Eliab was dead, and Hezekiah continued to scream, too young to comprehend the reason for the horror he had witnessed. Nor could Abijah comprehend it herself. All she could do was cling to her remaining son and weep, promising him that he was safe, that she would protect him. But she didn’t know how she would keep that promise.

“Why don’t you lay him down now, my lady?” her servant Deborah said. “You’ve been holding him all day.” Deborah reached to lift Hezekiah from Abijah’s arms, but she hugged him close.

“No—not yet. I need to hold him.” Abijah longed for someone to hold and comfort her, to feel someone’s loving arms surrounding her. But the only things that surrounded her were stone walls. They were warmed by fires in the brazier and on the hearth, decorated with tapestries and carpets that gave the appearance of comfort and warmth, but Abijah knew it was all a facade. Beneath their elegant surfaces, the walls, like her life, were as cold and hard as stone.

“Please, Lady Abijah—you need to eat something,” Deborah begged. “There’s some fruit here and some bread.”

Abijah glanced at the tray, then shook her head. “I don’t want food.” She bit her lip and tasted salty tears. How could she eat when her life had been shattered like a bowl hurled to the floor? She would never be whole again.

“Starving yourself won’t bring Eliab back, my lady.”

Abijah’s grief overflowed once again when she heard her son’s name. “Oh, Eliab,” she wept. “My beautiful child ...”

Everything about her firstborn had been unforgettable: the first time she’d felt life moving inside her; the first time she’d given birth and held him in her arms; his first steps; his first words. Her son Eliab. He had been King Ahaz’s firstborn as well, the future king of Judah. His young life had been so full of hope and promise.

“I never even kissed him good-bye....” She bent to kiss Hezekiah, and her tears fell into his curly auburn hair.

“My lady, you should put him in his own bed now,” the servant said. “You need to change your robe and comb your hair.”

Abijah looked down at the front of her robe, which she had torn in her grief. She wouldn’t comb her hair, wouldn’t bathe or put on perfumes. How could she when Eliab was dead?

“No,” she said quietly. “Let me mourn for my son.”

“But you know you aren’t allowed to mourn. It’s not as if Eliab got sick and died, or—”

“I will mourn for my son!” she repeated. But there would be no mourners to wail with her, no funeral procession or prayers for the dead, no grave to mark the place where her child lay.

“His death was honorable, my lady—a glorious sacrifice to be celebrated,” Deborah insisted. Abijah stared at her in disbelief.

“What kind of mother could celebrate her child’s death? And what kind of father would kill his own child to save himself? Only a monster could do such a thing.” She could see that her words had shocked the servant, but she didn’t care. She looked down at her sleeping son again. “And only a monster would force his other children to watch.”

“You’d better be careful what you say,” Deborah said, her voice a near-whisper. “Your husband is the king.”

“Oh, I know that well enough,” Abijah said bitterly. “I was promised to the royal house of King David on the day I was born. All my life my father told me I would marry a king someday—as if that was a great honor. I would carry kings in my womb. I was blessed among women.” She paused and fingered her torn garment. “But look at the price I’ve paid for that honor. My son is dead. And I’m married to a man I will hate until the day I die.”

“Don’t say such a thing. Someone might overhear and—”

“I don’t care! I hate him! Nothing can change that.”

“You don’t mean it, Lady Abijah. It’s only your grief speaking. You live a privileged life here in the palace.”

“I live like a royal prisoner.” Her rooms in the harem were among the best in the palace, with tall windows that overlooked the courtyard on one side, and a balcony with a magnificent view of the city on the other. Every furnishing in the room was beautiful: the tables and lampstands overlaid with ivory and gold, the couches beautifully carved and cushioned. Magnificent tapestries decorated all the walls, and her bed was perfumed and draped in silk. But the harem’s splendor and luxury were for the king’s sake, not hers. And like gilding over rotten wood, the decorations couldn’t alter Abijah’s unhappiness.

She had never questioned her destiny, never had any hopes or dreams of her own. Why should she dream when her life had been clearly laid out from birth and there was never a possibility that it could be different? Her father, Zechariah, had promised her to the house of David, and her life had proceeded in its orderly course toward that goal, like stars moving across the sky through their appointed seasons. Her wedding to Ahaz led to the purpose for which she’d been born; Eliab’s birth fulfilled it.

Abijah remembered being glad to leave home. She had longed to flee from her father’s melancholy, to escape the sight of him drinking himself into a stupor every night while her mother struggled to hide his secret. During the day, he had somehow managed to carry out his tasks—serving in the Temple, teaching students his vast knowledge of the Torah, debating the complexities of Yahweh’s Law. He had hidden his drunkenness so well that few people ever guessed that his life had crumbled when King Uzziah died. Abijah had been relieved to leave home and move to the palace. But she’d had no idea that she had married an idolater. Or that one day he would sacrifice her son.

“I wish I had never married Ahaz,” Abijah murmured. “I wish—”

She stopped, afraid to voice her wish out loud. But she knew that her life would have taken a different course if she had married Uriah. The high priest of Yahweh’s Temple never would have sacrificed his firstborn son to Molech. Uriah had been a fixture in her household as she was growing up, her father’s brightest pupil, studying for a future as high priest. When she remembered him now, she realized that Uriah had always loved her, had always treated her with tenderness. She had taken that love for granted, imagining that Ahaz would look at her the same way. But King Ahaz had never looked at her with anything but lust. Not long after she’d spoken her wedding vows, she’d given up hope for any love or companionship. She was Ahaz’s property, to be used for his pleasure and to produce his heir—nothing more. Her sons had become her very life.

“My children came from my body, Deborah—my pain and blood and tears. When they took Eliab, they took part of me. And I couldn’t stop them. My husband decided to kill my son, and there was nothing I could do about it. But I won’t let him take Hezekiah,” she said, gripping him tightly. “I promised him I would protect him, and I’ll die before I break that promise.”

The servant knelt on the floor in front of her, pleading with her. “Please don’t do something you’ll be sorry for, my lady.”

“I’m already sorry that I’ve let other people tell me what to do and think and feel all my life. It’s time I decided for myself.”

She turned to gaze through the window again but night had fallen and with it, darkness and fear. This night would never end for Abijah, even when the sun rose in the morning, unless she found a way to protect her child.

Deborah touched her hand. “You need to change your clothes, my lady,” she said gently. “You can’t let the king see you in mourning. What if he comes to your chambers tonight?”

Abijah would kill him. She hated him enough to do it. If Ahaz came tonight she would take a knife and plunge it straight through his heart. Let him suffer some of the pain she felt. But even though she wished it, Abijah knew it would be a foolish thing to do. She would forfeit her own life if she murdered the king, and then what would become of Hezekiah?

“Maybe I can make Ahaz hate me as much as I hate him,” she murmured aloud. “Maybe then he’ll banish my son and me.”

“No,” Deborah said. “The king would punish you by taking your son away from you. You would never see him again.”

Abijah knew that Deborah was right. And if Ahaz took Hezekiah away from her, Abijah would have no reason to live.

“Let me comb your hair now,” Deborah begged, “and change your gown. If King Ahaz comes tonight ...”

Abijah recoiled at the thought of sleeping with Ahaz after he’d murdered Eliab. But then another thought occurred to her. Instead of earning Ahaz’s hatred, maybe she should try to win his love. If her only weapons were her beauty and desirability, maybe she could use them to earn her husband’s trust and influence his decisions. It might be the only way to protect Hezekiah from him. But how could she ever pretend to love Ahaz when she hated him so fiercely?

Hezekiah stirred in his sleep as a sob shuddered through him. Abijah looked down at him and rocked him gently. He was all she had left. Eliab was gone. And Abijah had promised Hezekiah that she would do whatever it took to save his life. If that meant feigning love for a man she hated, she would do it—for Hezekiah’s sake.

“All right, Deborah,” she said quietly. “I’ll change my robe now. And you may comb my hair.”

* * *

Zechariah stared at the empty wineskin through bleary eyes. He had consumed its entire contents in an effort to forget, but he hadn’t forgotten. Vivid images of Molech’s sacrifice played over and over in his mind, and they ended the same way every time. Innocent children burned to death in the flames, and Zechariah did nothing to stop it. He stood there, watching, and he didn’t try to stop the king from sacrificing his firstborn son.

Zechariah had awakened to the sound of shofars that morning and had followed the procession to the Valley of Hinnom. But as he had watched the king and the city elders sacrifice their children to Molech, cowardice had paralyzed his limbs and sealed his lips. He knew God’s Law. He was a Levite, responsible for teaching the Law to the king and to all the people. But Zechariah had remained silent.

When the carnage finally ended, he had wandered back to the city in a daze and stumbled into this inn, seeking refuge in the familiar, numbing power of wine. But even if he drank a reservoir full of wine he knew he could never erase the memory of those children—his own grandson, Eliab—being thrown into the idol’s fire. And Zechariah had done nothing to save him. He covered his face with trembling hands, but the image refused to disappear. Why hadn’t God’s judgment fallen on him? He was the guilty one. He was the one who should have been punished, not an innocent child—not his own flesh and blood.

Night fell, customers came and went, but Zechariah ignored the noise and gaiety all around him. No one seemed to notice him, alone with his wine and his torment. Gradually the inn emptied as the other revelers went home. The innkeeper swept the stone floor and snuffed out the oil lamps for the night. Only Zechariah remained. He had tried to drink himself senseless, but the images had become more intense, not less. Now he was terrified to move. He couldn’t go back and undo the mistakes he had made in his life, and he didn’t want to compound his guilt by making still more. And so he sat, wishing he had died instead of Eliab.

“Zechariah ... Zechariah, my friend.”

He looked up to see his friend Hilkiah extending a hand to him, his eyes soft with pity. “Come on, Zechariah—the innkeeper wants to close. He asked me to walk you home.”

Hilkiah didn’t say again, but he could have. How many times, night after night, year after year, had the innkeeper sent for Hilkiah—Zechariah’s only friend? Too many to count. Zechariah lowered his head until his forehead rested on the table.

“Leave me here,” he said with a groan.

“You know I won’t do that. You need to go home.”

Hilkiah gripped him beneath his arms, grunting as he strained to lift him. The little merchant was short and plump, and he lacked the strength to get Zechariah to his feet. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying. Zechariah braced his palms against the table and struggled to stand. The room whirled and swayed.

“Easy, now,” Hilkiah soothed. “Take it slow ...” Zechariah saw him leave a small pile of silver on the table and nod to the innkeeper. Then Hilkiah wrapped his arm around Zechariah’s waist and guided him through the door.

Outside, a sliver of moon and a few faint stars provided the only light. The streets were shadowy and still as Hilkiah led him through the central market district and up the hill. The square stone houses lay clustered and stacked on top of each other, with one man’s door looking down on his neighbor’s roof. The houses, built from the native beige limestone, seemed gilded in the moonlight. Zechariah leaned heavily on his friend as they labored uphill, even though Hilkiah’s balding head barely reached Zechariah’s shoulders.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” Hilkiah asked gently. “You’re a servant of Yahweh—blessed be His name.”

Zechariah halted as he tried to grasp Hilkiah’s words. Why had he become a staggering drunkard? He was a servant in Yahweh’s Temple, he wore holy garments, offered holy sacrifices. He was ... Then, like a cloud blotting out the moon, the image of himself serving as a Levite vanished. He let out a soft moan.

“What happened to me? I was a holy man, but now ... now ...” He thought about the way he had once lived his life and the way he lived it now, and the gulf between the two seemed so enormous that he wondered how he had ever crossed it. Nor could he imagine crossing back and becoming, once again, a holy man. He lowered his head and tugged his beard in despair.

“I don’t deserve to live anymore. I deserve to die!” His voice echoed through the quiet streets. Zechariah waited, yearning for God to strike him dead in payment for his sins, but nothing happened. “Why doesn’t God punish me, Hilkiah? Why do little children have to die instead? I’m the one who deserves it!”

A dog began to bark, and someone lit a lamp in a nearby window. Hilkiah nudged him forward. “Come on. You’ll wake up the whole city. You need to go home.”

“I served in the Temple of Solomon,” Zechariah said as they started walking again.

“Yes, I know, my friend. Come on.”

“I’m a Levite. I can recite all of my ancestors back to Levi, son of Jacob.”

“Not tonight,” Hilkiah said, patting his shoulder. “It’s late. Maybe another time.”

“I was chief among all the other Levites.... I taught Yahweh’s holy law....” He suddenly felt a need to talk about his former life, as if it might help him discover how he had crossed the gulf to this other world, where kings sacrificed innocent children to idols.

“God gave me wisdom and understanding from the time I was very young,” he rambled, “and so King Uzziah sent for me when he wanted to learn God’s law. Me! I taught him to fear Yahweh and—”

He stumbled over a loose brick in the street and lost the flow of his thoughts. The night fell silent except for their labored breathing as they ascended the hill. The houses became larger and more lavish the higher they climbed, and Zechariah recalled that one of the largest was Hilkiah’s. His family had supplied the fine linen for the Temple garments and rich embroidered cloth for royalty for many generations. But Hilkiah steered him past his own house, and they continued climbing until they reached the gates to King Ahaz’s palace. Only the Temple of Yahweh on the hill above stood higher than the palace.

Zechariah halted to catch his breath. He remembered when he used to live in that palace. He’d been an important man, a man of power and authority. How many years ago was it? He had once commanded the nation, second only to King Uzziah.

“My daughter is married to the king,” he said suddenly.

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Hilkiah was trying to catch his breath, as well.

“King Uzziah told me—he promised me—if I ever had a daughter, she would marry into the royal house of King David. Can you imagine that? Before my daughter was even born she—”

Zechariah stopped. His daughter was Eliab’s mother. Eliab had burned to death. It was all Zechariah’s fault. “Yahweh, I’m so sorry!” he groaned. “Oh, Eliab, my child ... I’m sorry!” He tried to sink to his knees but Hilkiah pulled him upright.

“No, no, my friend. Stand up. Come on.” He kept Zechariah moving, dragging him up the hill away from the palace, but the memories pursued him.

“I turned my back on God,” Zechariah said with horror. “Slowly, slowly ... year after year. Eating at the king’s table, drinking his wine, listening to all the flattery ... slowly ... until one day ...” He shook his head. “One day God was a stranger to me.”

That was how he had crossed the gulf. Zechariah remembered now. Not in one great leap, but so gradually that he hadn’t noticed the downward slope, hadn’t realized how far he had separated himself from God until it was too late. He had lived to please himself instead of God all those years, giving little more than lip service to His holy laws. And now when Zechariah cried out to God, his numberless sins swallowed up his prayers before they reached heaven. His guilt filled the yawning gulf between him and God.

“I’m so sorry....” he moaned.

“Shh ... shh ...” the little merchant soothed. “Never mind, now. You’re almost home, my friend. See? There’s the Temple.”

“Leave me here, Hilkiah. I know the way.”

The merchant clicked his tongue. “How can I leave you here? You’ll never make it home by yourself. Come on.”

They passed through the Temple gate and crossed the broad, deserted courtyard. Yahweh’s Temple loomed ahead of them, the white stones bright in the moonlight. Zechariah halted again as another memory came to him with startling force. King Uzziah had wanted to go inside that Temple, into the holy place, where only the descendants of Levi were permitted to go. “The kings of other nations don’t need priests to offer their sacrifices,” Uzziah had insisted. “Why should I need them?”

Zechariah closed his eyes, remembering Uzziah’s arrogance, remembering with shame his own failure to act. He should have known what to tell the king. Zechariah was his trusted advisor, a teacher of God’s holy law. But he didn’t have an answer for Uzziah, didn’t try to stop him. He had allowed the king to take a censer in his hand and walk into the Holy Place where he was forbidden to go. The priests had been the ones who had confronted the king, shouting at him as they ordered him to leave the holy sanctuary. In his pride, King Uzziah refused. But Yahweh saw him—and His judgment had fallen swiftly. There in the Holy Place, Yahweh cursed King Uzziah with leprosy. He fled from the Temple, an outcast for the rest of his life.

“It was my fault that Uzziah died a leper,” Zechariah murmured. “I should have told him not to go inside. I should have stopped him....”

“That was many, many years ago,” Hilkiah said. “Every man in Judah has heard of the terrible fate of King Uzziah—may he rest in peace.”

He nudged Zechariah until he started walking again, steering him in a wide arc around the outer perimeter of the Temple courtyard, away from the holy sanctuary. At last they reached the cluster of buildings on the north side that housed the storerooms, meeting rooms, and the living quarters that had been set aside for the Levites on duty. It was where Zechariah lived, even when he wasn’t on duty. He remembered living in a house with his wife and family after King Uzziah died—after he’d moved out of the palace. But right now he couldn’t recall what had become of his home or why he no longer lived there.

Hilkiah led him to his room and helped him remove his outer robe, then sat him down on his bed to untie his sandals. He gave Zechariah’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Get some sleep, my friend.”

“King Uzziah is dead,” Zechariah mumbled.

“Yes. Yes, he is.”

Zechariah remembered his funeral, his dishonorable burial outside the tomb of the kings. “His son Jotham is dead, too, and now his grandson, Ahaz, is king. He’s married to my daughter. Did you know that?”

Hilkiah nodded. “Yes, you have told me that many times before. Well, good night, my friend. I must go home now.”

Zechariah clutched Hilkiah’s arm to stop him. “Your children, Hilkiah! Where are your children?”

“My son Eliakim is at home,” he replied, gently freeing himself from Zechariah’s grip. “He’s probably sound asleep already.”

Zechariah had to make his friend understand, to stop him from making the same mistakes he had made. “You must diligently teach God’s laws to your son—and to his children after him,” he pleaded. “The Torah commands it. I failed to teach King Uzziah, and now ... now King Ahaz is worse than all of the others. He has heathen altars on every street corner. He even sacrificed his son—” But that memory was too painful for Zechariah to bear, even through a numbing haze of wine. He covered his face with his hands. “It’s all my fault!”

“God of Abraham, what can I do?” Hilkiah whispered.

“I have the answer for King Uzziah now! I know what to tell him!” Zechariah said. “I would tell him that Yahweh commanded us not to worship Him the way other nations worship their gods because they do all kinds of detestable things that the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods!”

“You need to rest—” Hilkiah began, but Zechariah cut him off.

“I followed the procession to the Valley of Hinnom today.”

“No, Zechariah ... you would never take part in—”

“But I did! I went there!” He saw his friend’s horror, but he forced himself to face Hilkiah and confess his sins. “I watched them sacrifice my grandson Eliab to a heathen god, and I remembered what else is written in the Torah: ‘For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Eliab died because of me, Hilkiah. Because I sinned!”

Zechariah lowered his head to his knees, hiding his face in shame. “Punish me, Lord!” he begged. “Not my children. Let me die for my own sins. Let me die!”

He felt Hilkiah’s hand on his shoulder. “Ah, my friend, how can I ever comfort you?” he murmured. “God of Abraham ... how can he ever find peace under such a burden of guilt?”

Excerpted from:
Gods & Kings by Lynn Austin
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764229893
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.