I have a few questions
2Kings 20: I’ve just added fifteen yours to your life.
This incident gives us a lot to think about. Hezekiah’s sick and Isaiah comes to him with the news that God says he won’t recover. When Hezekiah pleads with the Lord, Isaiah returns with the news that God has heard his prayer and is going to add 15 years to his life. Also, Isaiah orders medicinal help in the form of a fig plaster. Hezekiah (foolishly brave if you ask me) asks for some kind of sign and Isaiah offers him a choice of the shadow on the sundial moving forward or backward. The king says, “Back” and that’s just what happens. As I said, there’s a lot to think about here. For instance, there’s the fig plaster. Did God give Isaiah a remedy for the illness or is Isaiah just having those caring for Hezekiah do something to bring relief until the healing takes place? These days the church often prays that God will “direct the surgeon’s hands” as an operation is performed. Is that similar to Isaiah saying God will heal but then ordering medicine as well? Then there’s the shadow of the sundial. When this happens it’s seen as a miracle, but now, with our knowledge of the nature of the world, it stands as one of the greatest miracles of the Bible. Talking about “moving heaven and earth” to accomplish something takes on a whole new meaning when I read this account! Then there’s the 15 years. Hezekiah, by my math, is probably 39 years young when this happens. The 15 years will take him all the way to the ripe old age of 54. His broken heart at the prospect of dying in the prime of his life is a very human response. The additional 15 years basically gives him a “normal” life span for that day and age. Is it reasonable for a person to plead with God for more time, a longer life? At what point does a person say, “God’s will be done – I’m ready to go if he chooses to take me”? We see in the story that later on, when emissaries from distant Babylon visit that Hezekiah foolishly shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Isaiah tells him that he’s made a major mistake that will result in his own descendants being carried off as captives. Hezekiah more or less brushes it off. Had he died would this chain of events still happen? Does God answer one prayer that opens the way for disaster later on? Sorry, but I don’t have the answers. However, as you can see, I have plenty of questions!
Take Away: Some issues in the Bible that don’t make or break our faith are fun to think about.
God on the world stage
2Kings 19: Did it never occur to you that I’m behind all this?
If Sennacherib’s threatening letter to Hezekiah is intended to frighten him, it’s a great success. However, in his fear Hezekiah runs, not away, but straight to God. Soon thereafter he receives an answer. As Hezekiah has spoken to God, now God has spoken to his man, Isaiah. Part of the message from God is directed to Hezekiah but part is addressed to Sennacherib, king of Assyria. God isn’t pleased with him and he’s about to take action against him. One of the statements in particular draws our attention today. God tells this powerful heathen king, this enemy of his people, that he’s been using Sennacherib for his own purposes. This must have been seen by him as an unbelievably naïve word out of Judah. Tiny and powerless Judah says that their God has been behind his military successes of this world superpower. It would have been absolutely laughable except for the fact that on that very night a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers die without Judah lifting a finger against them. Here are some things to consider. First, I see that God used a heathen king for his own purposes. Just because a nation has success in some area it doesn’t mean that God is smiling on them and is pleased with them. Second, God moves quite comfortably in the international arena. As one of his people I need to be careful I don’t play, to use a baseball term, “small ball” all the time. I serve a God who’s interested in, and working through, events that are global in scale. Finally, no nation is bigger than God. Even if the whole world falls under the command of some conqueror, ultimately God remains Sovereign. Leaders of powerful nations had better remember that.
Take Away: Whether we recognize it or not the Lord is Sovereign; not only over our lives, but around the world and throughout the universe.
What to do after God answers
2Kings 19: And Hezekiah prayed — oh, how he prayed!
Through Isaiah Hezekiah receives an encouraging word from the Lord. God is at work even as Sennacherib issues his threat against Judah. Things are going to be okay because God says they’ll be okay. Soon thereafter Sennacherib has to turn his attention to another battle line, but before doing so, he sends Hezekiah another message which is intended to scare him witless. Whether it succeeds in scaring him or not, I do not know, but it certainly gets his attention. Rather than running and hiding, Hezekiah goes to prayer. Taking the letter from the King of Assyria to the Temple he spreads it out before God and begins pouring his heart out to the Lord. The answer comes sooner and not later. A messenger arrives from Isaiah with word that God has heard his plea, and that God has an answer for Sennacherib; an answer that should scare him witless! Well, this all makes for good biblical drama; fine devotional reading from which I can glean lessons to apply to my life. However, today I’m reminded that on this day so long ago this isn’t just a story from out of a Book as far as Hezekiah is concerned. There’s a real and powerful enemy who intends to kill him and massacre his people. When I see him going to pray I see a man desperate beyond words, and when I hear God answer him through Isaiah, I know that the story isn’t all wrapped up with a neat bow at that point. Now that Hezekiah is hearing from God he must do what may be the hardest part of all: he must believe. It’s one thing to read stuff like this in the Old Testament but another to see it really work in our lives. What do I do when a sad doctor is saying that there’s nothing else to be done, yet some uncertain messenger from God is saying otherwise? Even when I want to believe it isn’t all that easy. Hezekiah cries out to God and God answers. The rest of the story is that, when God answers, Hezekiah believes.
Take Away: Believing takes effort and is an act of the will. We choose to believe.
What to do when you face a giant
2Kings 19: Maybe God, your God, won’t let him get by with such talk.
Even though Hezekiah has tried to mend relations with Sennacherib king of Assyria it’s too late. Having whipped into shape several other countries that attempted to break away, Sennacherib returns his attention to Judah. A representative is sent, not to broker a deal, but to call for complete surrender. That representative is named Rabshaketh and, in an attempt to frighten the people of Jerusalem into rebellion against Hezekiah he not only insults Hezekiah and his small army, but he insults the God Hezekiah serves. This situation is filled with military, political, and historical elements but we read the story from a spiritual viewpoint. Earlier Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, yielded to Assyria and even installed a new altar at the Temple modeled on one used for idol worship in Damascus. When Hezekiah comes to power he not only refuses to pay tribute, but he gets rid of that altar and all the shrines and altars to the pagan gods. Even when he agrees to resume paying tribute to Sennacherib, his removal of the pagan altar is seen as a refusal to be the lap dog to Sennacherib. Because of that, the insults by Rabshaketh focus on God Jehovah. Now, Hezekiah faces absolute destruction from the giant Assyrian army. He turns to the man of God, Isaiah, asking for prayer and direction. He thinks that perhaps God will take up his cause, especially in light of the way Rabshaketh has insulted the Almighty. Facing the impossible, he turns to the One who specializes in doing the impossible. And, he isn’t disappointed.
Take Away: We don’t want to make enemies but to, instead, live in peace with all people. However, if we have to make enemies, let’s make them for the right reasons.
Crushing the serpent
2Kings 18: He pulverized the ancient bronze serpent that Moses had made.
It’s such a pleasure to meet Hezekiah, king of Judah. After reading the pitiful record of most of the kings of Israel and Judah it’s a breath of fresh air to read, “In God’s opinion he was a good king.” It’s good to know that it’s possible to do that which is pleasing to the Lord and see that the he isn’t setting impossibly high standards just to make us jump a little higher as we try in vain to reach something that’s forever out of reach. Hezekiah proves that God’s standard is within our grasp and that it’s made possible by the help of none other than the Lord, Himself. From the beginning Hezekiah gets off on the right foot. For centuries kings of Judah have tolerated the fertility shrines that the people want. Even when there’s a revival of the Jehovah worship these shrines remain. Not so under Hezekiah. He gets rid of them all. Then we see that he gets rid of something else. Generations earlier, during an infestation of poisonous snakes, the Lord directs Moses to make a bronze snake. That snake becomes their salvation, a symbol of the mercy of God. These days, though, that old bronze snake has become just another idol. People are actually making sacrifices to it! Hezekiah does the unthinkable: he destroys this important historical artifact, grinding it to nothing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the old bronze serpent. It’s just a statue with historical significance. It’s their use of it that’s objectionable. Better to destroy a bit of their history and serve God in the here and now. I wonder what the “bronze serpents” are in my nation, in my church, and in my life. Whatever they are, and no matter what value they were in the past, it’s better to “pulverize” them than let them come between God and me.
Take Away: Remember the great movements of the Lord in years gone by but don’t worship them. God is the God of the present.
When the church isn’t at church
2Kings 17: They don’t really worship God.
After defeating and exiling Israel the king of Assyria relocates other people from under his rule to the now empty land. At first, these settlers ignore Jehovah God, but it becomes apparent that the Almighty is not going to allow that. A priest is brought back to teach them how to worship God. However, they only add worshiping the God of the exiled people to their list of gods to worship. In fact, we’re told, they don’t really worship God at all. How do we know that? The writer proves his point by saying that they don’t take seriously what God says about how to live and what to believe. Apparently, just doing the right things in a worship service isn’t sufficient so far as God is concerned. He’s just as interested in how people live, how they relate to one another, and what they really believe as he is with whether or not they can put on a proper worship service. What I do outside of church is just as important to God as what I do inside the church.
Take Away: Worship is defined as much by what I do outside the church as what I do inside it.
Guilty as charged
2Kings 17: In the end, God spoke a final No to Israel and turned his back on them.
Second Kings 17 is a long chapter that burdens the reader with a heavier and heavier weight of despair and condemnation as its read. These are painful words: “God was fed up” – “God had had enough,” – “God spoke a final ‘No’.” There’s the feeling of hearing a guilty verdict read in a courtroom. The evidence for conviction is overwhelming and the conclusion is obvious. God’s only choice is to turn his back and to declare “no” to them and their sin as they’ve declared “no” to him. Reading this chapter not only condemns the people of ancient Israel and justifies God in his abandonment of them, but it also frightens me. How far can a nation push God? How many of his blessings can it forget? How many of his Laws can it break before the Almighty is fed up? My nation is foolishly testing the patience of God right now. Second Kings 17 is not before us as just some dusty old history lesson. It’s a warning that we’d better heed.
Take Away: If we say “no” often enough, the Lord will take us at our word.
The nation that ignores God
2Kings 17: They lived a “nothing” life and became “nothings.”
The 17th chapter of Second Kings is the epitaph of the Kingdom of Israel. After centuries of ups and mostly downs they exhaust the patience of God. The Lord hands them over to their enemies and the citizens are removed from their beloved land to live in exile the rest of their days. God’s verdict is clearly stated: “the exile came about because of sin…they had accumulated a long list of evil actions and God was fed up…God said, ‘Don’t!’ but they did it anyway.” For decades it has appeared that they can brush God Jehovah off and do things their own way. They’ve behaved as though his Commandments are mere suggestions that don’t really apply. Traveling that road has brought them to its only possible destination and now they’ve arrived: “they lived a ‘nothing’ life and became ‘nothings.'” What happens to a nation that’s been abundantly blessed by God but persistently chooses to ignore him and his ways? This chapter ought to really frighten us.
Take Away: The future is dim for a nation that ignores the Lord and his blessings.
Put that altar right back where you found it
2Kings 16: The old bronze Altar that signaled the presence of God he displaced from its central place.
The march of the kings of Israel and Judah continues as I read through this book of Kings. A few get passing marks, although no one earns an “A.” Most, though, are viewed as failures. Ahaz of Judah is singled out as an example of major failure. We’re told that he put his own son to death in a pagan “passing through the fire” ritual. When the country is under attack he never considers calling out to God. Instead, he pays the king of Assyria a “king’s ransom” to rescue him from his enemies. Much of the payment comes from stripping the Temple of its gold and silver. Once the war is over, Ahaz visits his new master in Damascus. The altar of pagan worship there really impresses him, so he has a copy of it made. He moves off to the side the old Altar that has served for many generations as the place for sacrificing to the Lord God and replaces it with his “new and improved version.” Of course, this isn’t told in praise of Ahaz. Instead, it’s told as an example of his spiritual failure. Today, I am not thinking so much about replacing the old church pews with new chairs or even replacing the old altars (mourner’s benches) with something more modern. Rather, I’m thinking that there are some basic elements to our relationship with the Lord that can’t be “upgraded.” Consider, for instance, the spiritual basic of prayer. It’s irreplaceable. We talk a lot about the importance of prayer and for good reason; it’s as central to spiritual life as is breathing to physical life. It’s not that big of a deal to change the type of songs we sing to something more modern, or to add some new technology to assist in worship. However, it’s a big deal to downgrade the importance of a spiritual discipline like prayer or the reading of the Word. We mustn’t push these fundamentals off to the side to make room for some new worship “innovation.”
Take Away: Be sure to keep central things central.
Nothing special, just life
2Kings 15: He was king for fifty-two years in Jerusalem.
The stories of the twin kingdoms are told in parallel but they’re very different stories. Judah is rather stable with kings generally ranked as “good with some failures” while kings of Israel receive failing marks. Because of that, God blesses Judah with consistency of leadership that’s lacking in Israel. In fact, Israel’s throne at this time has the feel of a revolving door. There are numerous assassinations and one fellow, Shallum, only manages to hold the throne for a month. Meanwhile, Azariah and his son Jotham, rule Judah for 68 years. Judah isn’t perfect, but there’s a spiritual, God-connected element that’s missing from Israel and during this period of their histories one place we see it is in the stories of their kings. While intrigue and subterfuge make for the best stories, I think most citizens will say that peace, security, and prosperity make for the best lives. Israel might be more often talked about in the region but Judah’s the better place to call home. Thank God for the blessing of living, more often than not, a life that doesn’t make the headlines.
Take Away: We tend to take common, day to day life for granted; but we shouldn’t.