Untitled Ramblings

Have you ever felt like Hezekiah? You know, the twelfth king of Judah. In 2 Kings 18, we read that, from the moment Hezekiah came to power, he was different. He did the right thing in God’s eyes (vs 3); tore down the pagan idols that had sprung up across the land during his predecessors’ tenure (vs 4); destroyed the bronze snake, which had originally served as a practical sign of faith when the people looked to it and the Lord healed them but later became just another idol (vs 4); and in vs 5, we read, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord God of Israel; not one of the kings of Judah was like him, either before him or after him. He remained faithful to Yahweh and did not turn from following Him but kept the commands the Lord had commanded Moses.” This was a clear departure from the pattern set by Hezekiah’s predecessors, and it resulted in the Lord blessing Hezekiah’s kingdom: Judah lived in prosperity and security as far as Gaza.

But then the Assyrians came.

At first, the Assyrian army marched against the northern kingdom of Israel, four years after Hezekiah came to power, besieging the capital city of Samaria and capturing it “at the end of three years,” during Hezekiah’s sixth year. Assyrian policy was that all conquered peoples should be deported from their lands and resettled in foreign territories. It served the double purpose of completing the humiliation and breaking the conquered’s will to defend their homes. We learn in vs 11 that the conquered Israelites were resettled in Halah near the Habor River and in the cities of the Medes in modern Iran.

2 Kings 18:12 says that God allowed this to happen to the northern kingdom “because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord their God but violated His covenant – all He had commanded Moses the servant of the Lord. They did not listen, and they did not obey.” It would be interesting to explore the implications of that statement at some point, but that will have to wait until another time.

For awhile after the northern kingdom was conquered, the Assyrians seemed content. In reality, they were expanding their borders in other directions and dealing with some other stuff (e.g., the transition from Shalmaneser to Sargon, and then to Sennacherib), but in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, they returned with a vengeance. 2 Kings 18:13 reports that the Assyrian armies launched the ancient equivalent of a blitzkrieg, attacking and capturing all of Judah’s fortified cities. And in vs 14, Hezekiah, desperate to stop the onslaught and salvage whatever he could of his kingdom, sent messengers to Sennacherib requesting terms for surrender. The terms were not good: Sennacherib demanded 11 tons of silver and a ton of gold. In today’s market, that amounted to $5 million of silver and $10 million of gold.

Despite Hezekiah’s military and economic success, which were meager in the grand scheme of things, this was an astronomical sum. The king was forced to empty the temple coffers and even strip the gold from its doors and doorposts to come up with enough. Whether or not he was successful in scraping together the full amount, though, Sennacherib was not pleased.

I suppose that’s to be expected. Just as a schoolyard bully is never satisfied with his mark’s lunch money, Sennacherib expected more. So he sent his army and its generals to harass Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem. The chief of these, the Rabshakeh, began immediately to mock and belittle Hezekiah and the Lord within earshot of the city, trumpeting all the successes of the Assyrians over men and gods.

To their credit, the people in 2 Kings 18:36 kept silent per Hezekiah’s orders. But the Rabshakeh’s words had to be demoralizing, to say the least.

What happens next, though, grabs me. Hezekiah tore his clothes and covered himself in sackcloth, entering a period of very public mourning and grief. For the king to do this before the people was an incredible act of humiliation. If the Rabshakeh’s words were demoralizing, I dare say seeing their leader so distraught as to tear his clothes and don sackcloth must have been utterly defeating for the people of Judah. And then, as though that wasn’t enough, the king retreated into the temple and called for Isaiah the prophet.

If there is one thing I’ve learned after more than a decade of ministry, it’s that people rarely call the pastor – or the prophet – until things are on the verge. In fact, generally speaking, people tend to wait until they are over the edge and gravity is just starting to take hold before they finally call, expecting the pastor to have some miracle cure to reel them back in.

Hezekiah was there.

But calmly, Isaiah reassured the king. To paraphrase the prophet, he said, “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got Sennacherib and his buddies. You just keep doing what you’re doing.”

And astoundingly, that worked! The Rabshakeh received word that the Sennacherib had left Lachish to fight against Libnah and bit off more than he could chew, so he raced with his army to help, abandoning Jerusalem and Judah in the process.

But not before sending one final letter to Hezekiah, warning the king to not view his withdrawal as a victory: he would be back, and when he returned, there would be no saving Jerusalem.

I imagine that, if I had been in Hezekiah’s shoes, despite Isaiah’s confidence and the Assyrians’ withdrawal, I would have been distressed by this letter. I mean, it would have been one thing had God wiped out the Assyrian army before it left so that the threat was blatantly idle, or multiplied Judah’s army and armaments and such so that they could at least stand a chance against the bad guys.

But neither of those things happened. And the reality was that there was now this great army looming, somewhere, and there was no way to know what would appease them or even when they were coming to collect.

Left with no other options, Hezekiah took the letter from the messengers, read it, and went immediately to the temple, where he spread the whole letter out before the Lord. He then prayed, firstly recognizing God as real and distinct and omnipotent. He pleaded with the Lord to pay attention to the situation he and his kingdom were in and to notice the way Sennacherib mocked Him. He acknowledged the gravity of the situation: “Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated the nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire” (2 Kings 19:17-18a). But he also recognized a key difference: the God of Israel – the God Hezekiah followed and served – was real, whereas those other nations’ gods were merely “made by human hands – wood and stone.” And finally, Hezekiah made his ask: “Now, Lord our God, please save us from his hand so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God – You alone.”

It wasn’t grandiose or even, really, elegant. It was a simple request: please save us. And it was tied directly into God’s purposes for Israel. He had chosen the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out of all the other nations on earth to demonstrate His power and so draw the whole human race back to Himself. Now, that chosen people was threatened with, seemingly, no escape. There was no way Judah could refortify all the cities, rebuild their army, or even amass another tribute before the Assyrians returned. It would take years to accomplish these things!

But isn’t that just exactly the situation God loves? How many times in Scripture did He push people to the end of themselves and beyond so that they were compelled to rely on Him? Noah may have been able to build a boat, but bring all the animals to it? Moses may have been able to rally the Israelites (doubful), but convince the pharaoh to let them go? Part the Red Sea? Joshua may have been a phenomenal military commander, but could he have orchestrated five key armies joining together so that Israel could defeat them all in one decisive battle? Gideon against the Midianite armies? David against Goliath, the Philistines, Saul, and more? Jonah in Ninevah? The apostles against the Sanhedrin? Saul into Paul? Ninety-five-year-old John to exile and hard labor on Patmos?

This morning, I don’t know your situation. Maybe you can’t keep going the same way you’ve been going. Jesus commanded people to repent and leave lives of sin. But what if you know you’re following closely? Or there seems to be no way you can get to where you need to be?

Well, then, I suppose it’s time to lay the situation out before the Lord and let Him do His thing.

Lord God of Israel who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are God – You alone – of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. Listen closely, Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, lord, and see. Hear the words that Sennacherib has sent to mock the living God. Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated the nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made by human hands – wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. Now, Lord our God, please save us from his hand so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God – You alone. -2 Kings 19:15-19 HCSB

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