Uni and I have been reading in 2 Chronicles, the brief bios of the kings of Judah, from Solomon to the collapse of the Kingdom. It's not exactly the most encouraging book in the Bible; like most history it has its ups and downs. Each king is rated with words such as "________ did good in the sight of the LORD,' or "_________ did evil in the sight of the LORD." A few (out of many) samples:
"... when the kingdom of Rehoboam was established and strong ... he and all Israel with him forsook the Law of the LORD" (12:1).
"And Asa did good and right in the sight of the LORD his God, for he removed the foreign altars and high places, tore down the pillars, cut down the asherim poles and commanded Judah to seek the LORD God of their fathers and to observe the Law and Commandment" (14:2-4).
"And the LORD was with Jehoshaphat ... he did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in His commandments ..." (17:3, 4). "He walked in the way of his father Asa and did not depart from it, doing what was right in the sight of the LORD" (20:32).
"Ahaziah was 22 years old when he became king ... his mother was his counsel to do evil(!) ... and he did evil in the sight of the LORD ... " (22:2-4).
And on and on. We read encouraging accounts about a king, how he tore down idols and led a great religious revival and a return to the true worship of the LORD. But then the next king would lead the people astray into idolatry and the worship of Baal, even human sacrifice.
But these accounts are given only from the perspective of the kings. What about the people themselves? Was their faith dependent on the yoyo-ing faith of whomever sat on the throne? I suspect that though there are occasional accounts of revival among the people, the popular religion of the people of Judah was little affected by that of the kings. Of course they outwardly conformed -- after all Judah was an absolute monarchy!
There is evidence that the popular religion may have been a syncretism of idolatry and worship of the LORD. Archaeology has turned up little shrines and idols -- even of Yahweh. And of course there were the railings of the prophets. There are also strong indications in the text itself:
"However the high places were not removed; the people still did not direct their hearts toward the God of their fathers" (20:33).
"... they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers" (24:24).
"... but the people continued acting corruptly" (27:2).
"... the people continued sacrificing at the high places, but only to the LORD their God" (33:17).
Apparently, while great changes were going on at the top, the people were not always affected, whether for good or evil. They continued on in their syncretistic religion, and even their worship of the LORD was not always tied to that of the priesthood and the temple. Sure, they did a lot of religious things when required to. We read that under Asa:
"They entered into the covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and soul. and whoever wouldn't seek the LORD God of Israel would be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman" (15:12, 13).
Who in his right mind "wouldn't seek the LORD"?
Could it be possible that one of the reasons that the Old Covenant Kingdom eventually failed was that its religion was a top-down religion? It was forced on people from the top, but the reality didn't always trickle down. This method was not only the norm under the Old Covenant, but unfortunately it has also been tried many times by those living under the New Covenant: the medieval Catholic Church, the Puritans' "City on a Hill", many of our hierarchically bound Protestant Denominations, even the "Moral Majority" and other groups on the religious right, and also in many individual churches.
But New Covenant can't be imposed from the top by kings or religious authorities. It starts in the heart as the LORD promised through Jeremiah:
"... I will put my Law within them and will write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they will be My people. And they'll no longer need to teach each other and say to each other, 'Know the LORD', for they'll all know Me, from the least to the greatest, declares the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:33, 34). It's an inward work of the Spirit of God.
Jesus didn't come to impose Himself from the top down, He "emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave. ... He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8). He didn't choose kings and priests in order to enlist their aid in spreading His Kingdom. He rather started by putting Himself at the bottom and choosing normal common working people and even society's outcasts to build His Kingdom with.
"You know that those who are supposed to rule the nations lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them, but it is not thus with you ... ” (Mark 10:45).