In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jumpin’ Jehosephat! That’s the way I said it when I was a kid, because that’s the way Yosemite Sam said it on the Saturday morning cartoons: Jumpin’ Jehosephat! I had no idea then what it meant. It was just a big word that sounded cool, and you could use it pretty much whenever and however you wanted. Surprised? Jumpin’ Jehoseohat! Angry? Jumpin’ Jehosephat! Happy? Jumpin’ Jehosephat!
It was years before I learned that Jehoshaphat was a ninth century B.C. king of Judah, a good king — which was pretty rare — and one who followed in the righteous ways of his ancestor David and his father Asa. But the Jumpin’ part? Well, I’ve never really figured that out. I’ve read the biblical texts closely looking for something that might explain it, but to no avail. There’s no running, dancing, or jumping to be found in Jehoshaphat’s story.
So, here recently, I did what you do when you are stumped: I googled it. The first recorded use of Jumpin’ Jehosephat is from an 1866 adventure tale — Headless Horseman — written by British author Mayne Reid. It appears as an exclamation with no particular explanation of its origin. Somehow it caught on and entered the culture, particularly the pop culture of television sitcoms. It’s most likely a euphemistic way of implicitly invoking the divine name without explicitly encroaching on its dignity: “Jumpin’ Jehosephat” instead of “Jesus Jehovah,” much like “O Gosh” instead of “O God” or “Jiminy Cricket” instead of “Jesus Christ.”
I’ve been thinking about all of this recently since our Daily Office readings have camped us out in the life of King Jehoshaphat of Judah. The preacher in me, wanting to find some good sermon hook, wants to make something out of Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat: a jump is like a leap and maybe Jehoshaphat made some great leap of faith that I can glom onto for a homily. But, no: Jehoshaphat lived a steadily faithful life — a long obedience in the same direction as Eugene Peterson described such a life. His father Asa had followed the Lord, mainly — not fully, but substantially enough to be considered one of the few righteous kings of Judah. He had even taken action against his own mama for making “a detestable image of Asherah” (ref 2 Chron 15:16). At the very end of his life, Asa went off the rails a bit, looking to Syria for protection instead of the Lord and jailing the seer Hanani for reproving him. And, when he grew seriously ill, Asa refused to call upon the Lord and looked to physicians instead. So, he died. Asa’s latter day failures become something of a cautionary tale for his son Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat begins his reign well:
2 Chronicles 17:3–6 (ESV): 3 The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, 4 but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. 5 Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. 6 His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah.
He appointed officials to take the Book of the Law throughout all the cities of Judah and to teach the people from it. In an act of discernment Jehoshaphat sought out a true prophet of the Lord, even though he then failed to heed the prophet’s warning. He established godly justice.
2 Chronicles 19:5–10 (ESV): He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, 6 and said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment. 7 Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”
8 Moreover, in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the Lord and to decide disputed cases. They had their seat at Jerusalem. 9 And he charged them: “Thus you shall do in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart: 10 whenever a case comes to you from your brothers who live in their cities, concerning bloodshed, law or commandment, statutes or rules, then you shall warn them, that they may not incur guilt before the Lord and wrath may not come upon you and your brothers. Thus you shall do, and you will not incur guilt.
This is a good man: not perfect, but a good man, a righteous king. As I read his story, though, I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for Jehoshaphat to go wrong in the end, as his daddy did. And the opportunity comes, just as it had come for Asa.
2 Chronicles 20:1–3 (ESV): After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. 2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). 3 Then Jehoshaphat was afraid…
This is the moment of decision, the moment in which his father Asa had failed and had sought help from Syria instead of from the Lord. What will the son do? We pick up the story:
2 Chronicles 20:3–4 (ESV): Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.
Jehoshaphat prayed a great prayer — you heard it in our reading this morning — a great prayer remembering the faithfulness of God, confessing his own absolute dependence upon God, and calling out for deliverance from God. And God answered through the words of a Levite prophet:
2 Chronicles 20:15–17 (ESV): Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. 16 Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. 17 You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.”
And so it was that Jehoshaphat learned from the failure of his father. And so it was that Jehoshaphat looked to the Lord. And so it was that the battle was indeed the Lord’s — that Jehoshaphat’s part was to fast and pray and look on in wonder as the Lord fought for his people. I love the way Jehoshaphat stood before the enemy armies:
2 Chronicles 20:20–22 (ESV): And they [Jehoshaphat and the army of Judah] rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. And when they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” 21 And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say,
“Give thanks to the Lord,
for his steadfast love endures forever.”
22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed.
This is even better than following bagpipes and drums into battle! The singers in holy attire — the choir! — led the way. And it was when they began to sing and praise that the Lord acted to deliver his people.
So, what do I make of this story? Taken together, the story of father and son, Asa and Jehoshaphat, lays before us the two ways that Scripture and the Fathers so often talk about: the way of righteousness and the way of disobedience, the way of life and the way of death. And that poses the challenge: choose you this day which way you will walk. Speaking as an elder in the faith myself — that is, as someone who is no longer young — I find it significant that this decision comes to both father and son in the waning days of their reigns and lives, at a time when power may be fading, when personal resources are diminishing. What will you do as your time grows short? When your own power and options are ebbing, can you acknowledge your absolute dependence upon the Lord? Can you believe that, just as he has always been faithful, he will be faithful to the end and beyond? This is an old man’s story and challenge.
But, there’s more here than that. There is the response of leader and people when confronted with insurmountable threat. Well, you can see where I might take this, right? Our country, our world, is a mess. Frankly, the difficulties we face seem to me insurmountable: global pandemic, racism and violence, political and social divisions, economic downturn, natural disasters, climate change, international tensions, and the list goes on. I have never been more pessimistic about the state of the world than I am now; of course, I’ve never been as old as I am now, and this story suggests that might have something to do with my attitude. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pessimistic that humans, in their own power and wisdom, have any chance to solve these problems. That Enlightenment ship has sailed and sunk. But, I am hopeful — as much or more than ever — because Christ is risen victorious and the battle is the Lord’s. Now look: I don’t expect our President — Donald Trump now and whoever will be elected in November — to call for national prayer and fasting and to humble himself publicly before the Lord. Not going to happen. But, I do expect the Church to do these things. I do expect the Church to lead the way, to sing to the Lord and to praise him in holy attire, to go before the nations and say:
Give thanks to the Lord,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
And, when we begin to sing and praise, to bow down and worship, the Lord just might act to deliver us — if not from our problems, then at least in and through them and out the other side. He will act; he has acted. The battle is his, and he is faithful. In fact, we might even be surprised at the wonders we see. Jumpin’ Jehosephat!