The least known book of the Bible
Zephaniah 1: I’m going to make a clean sweep of the earth.
Someone has said that this book of Zephaniah is best known for being the least known book of the Bible. I have to confess that it’s pretty much that way for me. I’ve read through the book a few times, usually as part of a read-the-Bible-in-a-year effort. Its three chapters make it less than one day’s reading in such a program. The introduction of the book is somewhat unique because we’re given four generations of Zephaniah’s family tree, concluding with Hezekiah, likely the well-known king of Judah. If that’s so, it helps us see that, unlike Amos and other prophets who speak for the common man, Zephaniah’s royal blood gives him a different perspective and audience. He ministers during the reign of Josiah, possibly, then having influence along with Jeremiah on the young king. Zephaniah is especially focused in on the Day of Judgment that’s coming upon, not only Judah, but upon the whole earth. Why such a day is coming, what will happen when it does, and how to prepare for it is subject matter for his message. Since Zephaniah speaks of not only a contemporary time of judgment but a more distant one as well I can consider his message as not only a historical one, but one that needs to be heard today.
Take Away: Even the most minor of prophets has a major message for us.
Extraordinary favors from God
Isaiah 38: I’ll add fifteen years to your life.
Hezekiah is one of the good guys who trusts in the Lord; a king who has his priorities right. When he gets sick Isaiah visits him and tells Hezekiah that this is it, he needs to prepare to die. Hezekiah prays a simple, trusting prayer that touches the heart of God who grants the king fifteen more years of life. As I read this story I remember that my life is in the hands of God. He has the final say. In Hezekiah’s case, the illness that comes to him is a natural one but God trumps it by granting him a supernatural healing. I know that the Lord doesn’t always do that, even in the lives of people just as good and trusting as Hezekiah. Still, this incident reminds me that I can ask for extraordinary favors from the Lord while trusting him in his wisdom to answer according to his grace.
Take Away: Sometimes, the Lord’s answer is “yes.”
Taking it to the Lord
Isaiah 37: Then he went into the sanctuary of God and spread the letter out before God.
The threat Sennacherib makes to Judah through his general Rabshekah can’t be ignored. King Hezekiah sends representatives to God’s man, Isaiah, to seek a response from the Lord. God doesn’t let Hezekiah down. The Lord has heard the threats and the blasphemy and is going to personally deal with the situation. Not long after that, Sennacherib is called away to deal with a crisis elsewhere in his kingdom. However, before he leaves he sends a letter to Hezekiah, promising that he’ll be back to finish the destruction of Jerusalem just as he promised. Upon receiving that letter Hezekiah takes it to the Temple. There, in the presence of God he opens that scroll and spreads it out before the Lord. He prays, reminding himself and God of the promise the Lord made to take care of Sennacherib and to protect his people. I love what Hezekiah does with that letter. He knows that the Lord has promised to deliver him but that letter and the threat it contains is real. Rather than letting it consume him with fear he takes it to the Lord. This is a lesson I need to learn. What difference might it make if I take that lab report from the doctor that’s causing me concern and lay it out before the Lord when I pray? Or maybe a good course of action is to write out the situation from work that’s worrying me and then lay it out before the Lord? I’m not saying that this is some magical formula for getting the Lord to do what I want him to do. However, I do think that it might serve as a practical reminder to me that God does know about these difficult situations and that he has promised to walk with me through even in them.
Take Away: In the words of the old hymn: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
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.