Isaiah 32: 1-8
“The King Reigns in Righteousness”
Have you ever longed for a new leader, who would reign in righteousness, a leader who would appoint others to rule in justice? Perhaps you have lost hope that such leaders can arise in our present day. Isaiah was a prophet in Judah during the reigns of four kings. Full of pride, King Uzziah forgot the limitations of his office as King. He entered the temple to burn incense on the altar, a duty of the office of priest. Azariah, the priest, along with 80 priests confronted King Uzziah reminding him that such an action did not belong to his office. King Uzziah became angry at this confrontation. As he held the incense censer in his hand, the priests watched in horror as leprosy broke out on the King’s forehead. Such a disease rendered Uzziah unclean and the priests, charged with maintaining the ceremonial purity of the temple quarantined their king in a separate house preventing his entrance into the temple. King Uzziah suffered leprosy until the day of his death, never entering the temple again. Undoubtedly, Isaiah longed for a righteous king, who knew his rightful place as a servant of God.
Uzziah’s son, Jotham reigned for 16 years and was for the most part a good king. However, his reign had little spiritual impact upon Judah. In Isaiah 32:1-8 righteous and just leadership transforms the entire community. The citizens protected by the righteous and just leaders gain knowledge and freedom of speech. True honor adorns the entire community as crime and folly disappear. Falsity evaporates and the poor are fed and heard. And so, Isaiah, after 16 years of Jotham’s reign, was left wanting a holy society, the justice of the king informing the behavior of his subjects.
Jotham’s goodness did not rub off on his son, Ahaz, who also reigned Judah for 16 years. He promoted syncretistic worship, even erecting an altar to an idol inside the temple of Yahweh. He sacrificed his own son in a pagan ritual. He died at age 36. His son, Hezekiah reigned for 29 years and is one of the finest kings of Judah’s history. He purged Judah of idolatry and protected Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion. His history shows his close relationship to Yahweh, the one true God who blessed Hezekiah and used him as his instrument for the good of his people. John Calvin and many biblical scholars who have followed into the present believe Isaiah’s prophecy in our text to be a reference to Hezekiah. During the 16 disappointing years of King Ahaz’s reign, Isaiah would have received this vision and message of a righteous and just government for the good of Judah. Alec Motyer suggests that Isaiah 28-37 convinces us that God actually rules and controls world history. While the prophet ultimately places our eyes of faith upon Jesus, the Suffering Servant and Prince of Peace and upon the horizon of the new heavens and new earth, along the way, he shows us God working out his righteousness and justice as he wills.
Christians have been criticized for being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But such a criticism cannot be leveled against the God of the Bible. From Eden to Sinai, from Jerusalem to Babylon, from Ephesus to Rome, God is working to redeem his people, the gospel proclaimed, adorned by the good works of his followers. In the days of Isaiah, God was kind to give to Judah, who deserved nothing but divine punishment for her idolatry and selfishness, the righteous king Hezekiah.
Walter Brueggemann correctly places Isaiah’s announcement in (1) into the context of God’s covenant promise to King David of a Son who would reign upon his throne forever. The faithful remnant of Judah would have kept this hope of an eternally righteous and just king alive. Solomon disappointed; Jotham disappointed; Hezekiah might be the one! He prayed for an extension of his life and God told Isaiah to deliver this message to Hezekiah: “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you…I will add 15 years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria.” Judah may have thought: This is the promised king! God has miraculously extended his life! Perhaps Hezekiah will reign forever! But after 29 years of righteous and just rule, Hezekiah died of natural causes at age 54.
On the one hand, Hezekiah’s life points us to Jesus, the true Son of David who reigns upon his throne forever in the heavenly Jerusalem. On the other hand, Hezekiah’s life reminds us that God is actively ruling for the good of his people as history unfolds. Which of us would not be grateful to God for 29 years of righteous and just leadership in our day? God is good in giving to us earthly leaders from time to time, who are just and merciful, who walk humbly with God. Ultimately, God is good in giving to us Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the only Head of the Church and the only comfort and hope we have in this life and the next.
In Chapter 28:1 Isaiah writes, “Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim….” In Chapter 29:1 he writes, “Ah, Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped….yet I will distress Ariel….” In Chapter 30:1 Isaiah writes, “Ah, stubborn children, who carry out a plan, but not mine…” In Chapter 31:1 he writes, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses….” Brueggemann describes “a radical newness from God,” in Chapter 32:1 where Isaiah writes, “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness….” John Calvin notes, that a righteous king, like Jotham, is ineffective if he does not appoint godly ministers and counselors to serve in his government. But Hezekiah appoints princes who rule in justice. Since the days of the wisdom of Solomon ruling for all the world to see, no other king reformed and expanded God’s rule in Jerusalem like Hezekiah.
Take note of the results of good government. First of all, righteousness produces justice. Righteousness is not merely the personal holiness of a leader, or for that matter any follower of God. Righteousness is expressed in justice, real executions of authority for the good of all citizens, especially the poor and oppressed, as Isaiah emphasizes. This is the difference between Jotham and his grandson, Hezekiah. This is the difference between a person who merely says, “I am a Christian,” and the one who lives like Christ. Solomon, who prayed for wisdom also wrote Psalm 72, which begins with his prayer: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!”
Secondly, good government provides protection. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” “The Lord is a strong and mighty tower, the righteous run in and are glad!” Good government is God’s instrumental protection. Hezekiah and every leader under him provided a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, water and shade in the wilderness. God is our rock and every leader who serves in his name is a welcome and saving shade from the blistering sun of the desert. You may reflect, “God has never given to us such a leader in our nation!” Between Solomon and Hezekiah, Judah suffered mostly under wicked and compromised kings for 250 years. That is the entire span of our nation’s existence! Jesus and his apostles never enjoyed one term of righteous government. In western civilization, during the Medieval Period, when the church and state were bonded together in power and authority, the poor and the oppressed had little justice or respite from the blistering sun of kings, princes, popes and priests. Is God actually in control of the affairs of this world? Why does he only now and then raise up a righteous ruler who appoints princes who do justice? God, in every generation is driving us to cling to Jesus Christ, the true Son of David, who rules and reigns upon his throne forever. Solomon prays in Psalm 72, “May the poor and the needy children fear you while the sun endures.”
We must put our trust in God who alone “is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” Jesus died on the cross in the place of failed leaders and sinful citizens. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to rule and reign over all the rulers and nations of the world. Our first action is to trust in him. Our prayers include requests for righteous rulers who will work his justice in our world.
The third result of good government found in (3-4) is that we are able to make sense of what God is doing in our world and we are able to distinctly speak about it. When injustice rules, we find it difficult to understand what God is doing. But when God raises up a king like Hezekiah who appoints princes to do justice, then it becomes easier for us to see God at work in our world. Today, we are tiring of the problem of theodicy: “If God is good and just, why is there so much evil and destruction in this world?” Let us pray for righteous leaders. Let us work for justice. Let us walk humbly with God. Let us trust God to give to us a shade from the blistering sun.
The fourth result of good government found in (5-8) is that moral sanity is restored. The perverted flip-flop of good and evil is overturned so that once again good is good, and evil is evil. So many of the heroes of our day are fools. So much sin is rewarded as freedom of choice and as authentic living. So many religious leaders are presenting caricatures of a weak and pliable God. So little help for the poor is extended. So many leaders take office to better themselves and thus are, as Isaiah says, “scoundrels.” So much injustice rolls down from the highest courts of appeal. But when God establishes a good government then this is all reversed.
In this section, Isaiah uses the term, “noble” three times to describe good government. Brueggemann correctly observes that “noble” is not positively defined in the immediate context but we discover what it means as the antithesis to the fool. He writes, “We conclude that ‘the nobles’ practice theological virtue, speak truth about Yahweh, feed the hungry and nourish the thirsty, and care for the poor, even intervening in judicial processes in their behalf.” This is what Isaiah means by “noble.”
John Calvin working from the Hebrew and Latin texts, uses the term “liberal” in place of the term “noble.” Indeed the term describes our freedom to do God’s right and good in our world. He wrote: “There are indeed many occurrences which retard the progress of our liberality. We find in men strange ingratitude, so that what we give appears to be ill bestowed. Many are too greedy, and, like horse-leeches, suck the blood of others. But let us remember this saying, and listen to Paul’s exhortation “not to be weary in well-doing;” for the Lord exhorts us not to momentary liberality, but to that which shall endure during the whole course of our life.”
Were it not for the coming of Jesus Christ, the hope of the nations, our miserable life experience and the long periods between God’s gifts of occasional leaders who are righteous and just, would be sufficient to drive us to agnosticism or escapism. Isaiah’s prophecy is driving towards epic presentations of the Suffering Servant and the glorious King, our Messiah, Jesus Christ, who shall put all things right. His reign of righteousness and justice knows no limits. Put your trust in him.
Isaiah 32: 9-20
“The King Rules Against Complacency”
Complacency is usually the sin of those who enjoy a secure and comfortable life. To be complacent means that we are unaware of potential danger, that we are unreflective concerning our behavior and life mission because we are self-satisfied, secure and comfortable in our present situation. In Isaiah’s day Judah enjoyed economic and cultural flourishing. Instead of using her wealth, ingenuity and creativity for the mission of God, her citizens lived in luxury and ease, blind to the grievous nature of their idols and lifestyles. As the Guide in C. S. Lewis’ “Pilgrim’s Regress,” says, “security is mortals’ greatest enemy.”
Isaiah is a master of painting images in our minds to help us grasp the gravity of our situation. He chooses as his image of complacency “women who are at ease.” In my mind a picture of a woman on a chaise lounge takes shape. A servant girl is sitting at a stool at her feet giving her a pedicure. Another servant girl stands at her head shading her with a palm branch. Another servant girl sits on a stool next to her peeling grapes and plopping them between her painted lips. Isaiah describes these “women at ease” as “complacent daughters.” These women have no idea of the dangers of the invading Assyrian armies to the north in Israel and surrounding nations. They are oblivious to the dangers of erecting altars in Jerusalem to foreign gods. They are deaf to the cries of the poor in their streets and blind to the plight of oppressed refugees streaming into the holy city.
These “women who are at ease” stand for every male and female member of Judah who have forgotten that their lives and security are to be used for the glory of Yahweh their one, true God and covenant Lord. Isaiah would have known the wisdom of the Proverbs, including the woman of Proverbs 31 who is industrious, buying and selling land and bartering in the marketplace and at the same time managing the affairs of her household and estate. Such an ideal woman is using her wealth, ingenuity and creativity toward productive and God-glorifying ends. In contrast to such an ideal woman, Isaiah presents to us these “women who are at ease.” They have not a care in life because they care not for anything but their own comfort in life.
Isaiah does not intend to be sexist. He could have chosen to describe men playing Backgammon, smoking hookahs and drinking mint tea caring little for the urchins on the sidewalks of their cafes. Indeed, such a picture is the more common one in the Middle East when it comes to idleness, not to mention complacency. Middle Eastern women are known for their industry and perseverance. And so, Isaiah chooses to mention “women who are at ease” to describe a community who has plummeted into the very depth of complacency. Not only are the men idle and apathetic, unaware of the dangers on their borders, but also the women are complacent.
Isaiah has a little speech to deliver to these women perched on their divans. In little more than a year, these women will shudder when the grape harvest fails. God graciously gave to his covenant people the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, yielding grapes, figs, olives and grain. The ten northern tribes divided from Judah, following Jeroboam into syncretistic worship and civil war. Judah retained outward compliance to God’s law, especially in preserving temple worship in Jerusalem and so, she developed a smug spirituality thinking herself to be faithful to the covenant unlike Israel, her brothers to the north. Judah slipped into outward conformity to God’s law while her heart strayed far from true worship and life. As long as a family in Judah kept the Sabbath and the feasts, then it could live comfortably and securely. As long as a family of Judah tithed then it did not have to worry about helping a neighbor in need or a foreign alien newly arrived as a refugee of the Assyrian invasions. But in a little more than a year, God would remove his blessing of a fruitful harvest to wake up his covenant people dragging them off of their chaise lounges and into the fray of fear.
In his little speech Isaiah paints a second image of women stripping their gowns replacing them with sackcloth waste down. They beat their bare breasts as they mourn their economic crisis. This crisis is first detected in the fields where the grape harvest has failed due to a lack of responsible and diligent labor – the weeds thus choke the vines and no fruit matures. The economic crisis is then realized in the joyous houses of the exultant city of Jerusalem, where everyone’s economy is tied ultimately to its agrarian base. No house is untouched – even the palace of the king suffers this economic crisis. Families leave the city turned ghost town, the haunt of wild donkeys and untended flocks.
The kings of Judah attempted to keep the Assyrians at bay by paying tribute. With the harvest failed, the tribute could not be paid. King Hezekiah refused to pay tribute to Sennacherib. In the fourth year of Sennacherib the Assyrians invaded Judah, the Egyptians failed to come to Hezekiah’s aid. Now everyone was off of their divans desperately trying to preserve the comforts now fragile. Sennacherib was furious maintaining the siege against Jerusalem. Hezekiah stripped the temple doors and treasury of its precious metal, paying Sennacherib 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold. Sennacherib received the tribute but continued his siege. The prophet Isaiah spoke to Hezekiah encouraging him to not give in to his fear but to stand courageously against Sennacherib. Hezekiah entered the temple to pray to God for deliverance. Isaiah then prophesies the fall of Sennacherib. God answered Hezekiah’s prayer. The Angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.
This miraculous victory was not the beginning of the Messianic kingdom Judah had hoped for but it was merely a hint of the Messianic kingdom coming in the distant future at the coming of the Son of Man, the incarnated Son of God, Jesus Christ. The fall of Sennacherib was God’s mercy towards his people in the days of Isaiah, a calm before the Babylonian storm. Babylon would conquer the Assyrian empire and then destroy Jerusalem.
In (15) Isaiah’s speech takes a sharp turn from judgment to glory. Who is the agent of restoration? What is the cause of blessing returning to God’s people? What converts the wilderness to a fruitful field as large and lush as a vast forest? Nothing less than the Spirit of God poured out upon his people.
Notice the results of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the people of God. The restored fruitful field is justice and righteousness. Isaiah returns to his theme of Chapter 32:1-8. Good government is executed by a righteous ruler who appoints leaders who do justice. We often think of God’s Spirit working miracles in our world – like the Angel of the Lord striking down Hezekiah’s enemies. Certainly God works such miracles of salvation. But the Holy Spirit also comes upon a community of God’s people to establish righteousness and justice through them.
First of all make note: A complacent community does not care for righteousness and justice, but for comfort and pleasure. The Holy Spirit removes such complacency and instrumentally restores righteousness and justice through God’s people. Secondly, note in (17) that the effect of this restored righteousness is peace. Complacent lifestyles appear peaceful but they are false peace, pirated benefits of a righteousness of the past. Complacent Christians are like the lazy second generation living off the hard work of the first generation that amassed a fortune. Complacency is the pretense of peace.
Thirdly, Isaiah writes that the result of this righteousness is “quietness and trust forever.” The term “quietness” means, “at rest,” a true resting in God. The complacent person is at rest upon his own accomplishments and estate bereft of a realistic assessment of the world around him. The follower of God is at rest upon an infinitely holy and loving God with his divine perspective of this complicated and destructive world spinning toward God’s redemption and restoration. The term “trust” means faith experienced. We believe that God is our Savior and Restorer, who has kept every last one of his promises in the past and who is not slow in working toward putting all things right in the future. Our present lives unfold in confidence in God and so we are not unnerved or frazzled by the dangers around us. This is what it means to trust in God. Isaiah says that the result of this divine righteousness restored is eternal, “quietness and trust forever.”
Followers of God, friends of Jesus, Holy Spirit filled Christians: The Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Lord calls us to leave our divans of complacency. The Son of God did not choose to remain in the luxuries of heaven at ease, basking in the glory of his Father, but rather, he chose to descend into the miseries of this world, to accept his Father’s mission to die on the cross for our sins. This is the end of Christian complacency. Jesus rose from the grave so that we might have newness of life – not to squander it on our chaise lounges while the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but to do the work of the Great Commission – making disciples of the nations. Do you long for righteousness to return to our community? Make disciples of your neighbors. Do you long for justice to be administered in our courts and in our streets? “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Isaiah is correct: such a transformation of us from complacency to active faith happens when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us.
“The King Ransoms Unto Everlasting Joy”
The Bible supplies us with various presentations of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death on the cross, which satisfied God’s wrath for sin and frees us from guilt, shame and death. We remember the apostle John’s words, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The gospel is the promise of new and eternal life made good in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The apostle John records in his Gospel Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The gospel is salvation from self, sin, death and the devil. The apostle Paul writes in his Epistle to the Church at Rome: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of salvation to all those who believe…. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” The gospel is the declaration that God will restore all creation to its original glory. In John’s Revelation, Jesus says, “Behold, I am making all things new… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” It is this gospel presentation of the restoration of all things that Isaiah proclaims in Chapter 35 to Judah on the eve of her Babylonian Captivity.
The gospel is good news for the earth. The apostle Paul describes in Romans 8 the whole creation groaning like a pregnant woman in labor, awaiting the eradication of the common curse. Isaiah captures that transforming moment when the drought-ridden wilderness rejoices as it blossoms in new life. The crocus mentioned in (1) is one of the first blooms of the spring announcing a season of new life. On that Final Day when God shall judge the world and put all things right, the earth will rejoice with joy and singing. Just like a pregnant woman suffering the pains of childbirth, whose contorted face instantly turns to joy when the baby is born and is placed in her arms, so the groaning creation will transform to eternal bliss.
The glory of Lebanon in (2) is an image of the lush cedar forests of Lebanon, the envy of the arid regions surrounding it. When God restores his creation, the whole earth will become lush. The majesty of Carmel is also an image of this restoration. Situated as one of the higher elevations, a magnate for rain clouds forming off of the Mediterranean Sea, Mt. Carmel is green compared to the arid regions surrounding it. Sharon was a fertile and populous field on the coast south of Mt. Carmel and north of present day Haifa. “The Rose of Sharon,” is an enigmatic reference to Messiah. Both Mt. Carmel and Sharon were part of northern Israel and so, Isaiah informs Judah of a restoration that will also transform her estranged brother tribes to the north.
These transformed geographic regions “shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” If the earth sees God’s glory on the Final Day, then certainly the chief of God’s creation, humanity shall see his glory and majesty. This gospel promise strikes a holy longing in all our hearts. We seek to be good stewards of all creation and when our efforts seem bleak we long for a global transformation that only God can perform.
Tim Keller has said, “The purpose of salvation is to renew creation. That this world is a good in itself. That God loves and cares for his creation, the material creation.” John Stott said, “God deliberately humbled himself to make a divine-human partnership necessary” in order to take care of the planet.” Both men have extensively preached the gospel of the cross, resurrection, and freedom from self, sin, death and the devil. In these quotations they now emphasize the restoration of the whole creation a glorious and invigorating part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah now turns in (3) to the chief of God’s creation, humanity, made in his image though weak and worn by the common curse and original sin born out in all sorts of actual evil. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” We are not only sinful but we are also miserably weak. We have tried to slay the dragon. We have ardently attempted to save our families, our economy and the planet. We are exhausted and feeble. The gospel of restoration is good news for us.
God commands Isaiah to preach this gospel to Judah in her weak condition: “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come to save you!” For God, salvation is all encompassing. It is his restoration of the whole creation. His vengeance and recompense will not only fall upon human sins that destroy marriages and congregations. But it will also fall upon those who destroy his creation. Certainly, God is intent upon saving sinful souls of miserable human beings. In the end, he shall not only liberate a covenant community of some from every tongue, tribe and nation, but he shall also liberate his whole groaning creation. The Psalmist says, “The earth belongs to the Lord and all the fullness thereof!” God takes good care of his property and in the end he shall restore his earth.
Two of my neighbors have recently returned from visiting their son in Shanghai. They told me that their eyes burned and their throats ached from the smog so thick they could see it between the skyscrapers. I thought to myself, “Just like Los Angeles in the 1970’s or Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century.” Several weeks past my family walked along the East Esplanade downtown Portland along the Willamette. One of my children said, “The water is dirty.” I said, “You should have seen it in my childhood before Governor Tom McCall cleaned it up. In your lifetime fishermen have caught steelhead under the Morrison Bridge!” I also said, “You should see the Ganges.” A growing number of people are alarmed with the iceberg recently broken free from the Peterson Glacier. While we are seeking to be good stewards of the environment we must remember that in the end, God will be the champion of restoration. Jesus says, “Behold! I am making all things new!”
Through Isaiah God promised to save Judah from her Babylonian Captivity. But the greater restoration in view and promised in Chapter 35 is the final restoration that shall be global on the Final and Great Day of the Lord. It is not merely a material restoration but amazingly it is a spiritual restoration. In (5) God’s promise is sight for the blind and hearing for the deaf! Jesus performed such miracles and as he did so, he proclaimed an end to spiritual blindness and deafness. For God, gospel restoration is all encompassing – it is material and spiritual. For God, such a distinction between the material and the spiritual is non-essential. In the new heavens and new earth, there are no blind and deaf people. There are no lame and mute people. With the saving of our souls God shall also glorify our bodies. Immediately upon faith professed in Christ Jesus, our souls are redeemed and in the end our bodies shall be transformed.
In (8) God promises to build a highway, the Way of Holiness. This is an image of God’s moral restoration of our world. Those who walk on the Way of Holiness will be morally pure. The Way of Holiness belongs to everyone who walks upon it! In other words, God freely gives moral purity to us! If a person is foolish, unable on his own to discern moral direction, then he shall nevertheless be morally pure as he walks upon this highway. Never again shall we fools go astray. This is truly good news. How often have we strayed? How often have we charted a course for our lives and landed in messy trouble? How often have we become morally compromised? When God restores all creation, we fools shall never again stray. Thanks be to God!
For God, gospel restoration is all encompassing. These promises of moral purity are placed in Isaiah’s prophecy between statements of the restoration of creation. Isaiah speaks of the haunts of jackals transformed into a lush and verdant land. Then he speaks of the Way of Holiness. Then he returns to the restoration of the lower forms of creation. There is no lion or other ravenous beast hunting humans on the Way of Holiness. As Isaiah writes elsewhere, the lion lays down with the lamb and a child plays next to the hole of the cobra. These are descriptions of the new heavens and the new earth, the restoration of all creation.
Finally in (10) Isaiah speaks of our destination upon the Way of Holiness. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion.” Certainly the remnant of Judah freed from Babylon would remember this promise and sing as they traveled back to Jerusalem perched upon the earthly Mt. Zion. But Isaiah would have seen this return as a hint to a greater restoration. His prophecy saw beyond Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of all creation. What God was showing him was what Abraham was looking for in his day, a heavenly city. The author of the New Testament book, Hebrews, saw clearly and wrote, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant….” It is to this glorious end that the Way of Holiness leads us.
It is the ransomed of the Lord who return to this heavenly Zion. Those of us who were imprisoned by self, sin, death and the devil are bought with the precious ransom price of Jesus’ blood. We are placed upon the Way of Holiness. We take this path into the heavenly Zion and are forever freed from sorrow and sighing. Everlasting joy is upon our heads and the song of Moses and of the Lamb is forever upon our lips of praise. The joy of Judah returning from Babylon was indeed a wonderful concert of praise. Our praise of God this morning is indeed a sweet expression of our hope in Jesus. None of these concerts of praise shall compare with the songs of Ascent God shall hear as we stream through the gates of heaven.
“The King Tests His People’s Trust in Him”
One of God’s precious gifts he bestowed upon Judah in the days of her wickedness, was King Hezekiah, a forerunner of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Unlike the evil and compromised kings before him, King Hezekiah restored true worship of the one, true God in the temple at Jerusalem. He cared for the needs of his people and he restored justice to the courts and to the streets of the holy city. During the reign of Hezekiah, God tested Judah’s trust in him. God not only showers a plethora of gifts upon us but he also brings trials into our lives to test our trust in him.
The apostle Peter in his first letter to the church takes up this great theme of God testing his people, bringing trials into their lives to deepen their trust in him. One of his concluding statements is, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” During the reign of King Hezekiah, God sent the Assyrian king, Sennacherib to test Judah’s trust in God alone. In 705 B.C. Sennacherib was attempting to build a worldwide empire. He was met with resistance from surrounding nations, and so, he marshaled his army to conquer them. He invaded Judah and 46 fortified cities fell, their citizens deported. Some of Judah was deported to the capital of Assyria, but many were sold to other conquered nations not only as a reward for submission but also as a reminder of what would happen to them if they rebelled. Most likely, Sennacherib had no idea that he was an instrument of the one, true God, testing the trust of his people in Judah.
To conquer Judah, Sennacherib must conquer Jerusalem. “The Rabshakeh,” means “the royal cup bearer,” a title in Sennacherib’s day for a high royal official. Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh was in Lachish, a site 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Assyria was to the far north of Jerusalem and so this comment of Isaiah helps us to understand Sennacherib’s complete surrounding and isolating of Jerusalem. None of us today have been so severely tested in our trust of God as Judah was in the days of Hezekiah. Dr. John Bright, an American Bible Historian who died in 1995, uncovered at Lachish a pit full of the remains of 1,500 people, slain in the days of Sennacherib. From this site, the Rabshakeh with a large army marched to Jerusalem to meet King Hezekiah at the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. It was at this very location that Isaiah had met Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, to call him to put his trust in the Lord God. Now, a second time, at the very same location God calls his people to put their trust in him. This second time, he did not speak through his prophet, but through an emissary of a wicked tyrant.
At times we wonder why seemingly obscure details are recorded in the Holy Scriptures, for example, these seemingly obscure references to “the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.” Try to use your GPS to find such a site! The point of these details is to drive home to us the ongoing work of God, not once, but twice, even many times, to deepen our trust in him alone. This past June my daughter Sophia flew to Philadelphia to visit my brother Stephen and his family. They took Sophia on a walking tour of the sites where our nation was founded. She photographed a placard which reads: On this site, nothing happened.” What happens at any given site is what makes it historically significant. Before us today in Isaiah is a site of significance. God meets his people to test their trust, to call them to follow him no matter what the world hurls at them.
In (4-10) The Rabshakeh addresses Hezekiah in the typical fashion of an invading army’s parley. Alec Motyer writes: “The Rabshekeh’s clever speech develops four themes: reliance upon Egypt is a no-hope position; trust in the Lord as a solution is ruled out because the Lord has been alienated by the reduction of his places of worship; even if Hezekiah had armaments as a gift he has not got the manpower; and Assyria has divine authority for its attack.”
The Rabshakeh delivers the words of the great king of Assyria. He begins with the matter of trust: “On what do you rest this trust of yours?” What he most likely blind to is that he is actually speaking for God, the great King over all the earth, who says to us today, “On what do you rest this trust of yours?” Are you trusting in mere words? Are you trusting in your ability to talk your way out of a predicament? Are you trusting in the power of war? Are you trusting in your own strength or in the strength of your family and friends? In the strength of our great nation? If so, why not put your trust in the greatest of human powers of your day? The king of Assyria says, “Put your trust in me.” He is tempting Judah to end her rebellion against him. God never tempts us but he does test us. The apostle James writes to us: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness… Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
King Hezekiah tried to win the help of Egypt against Assyria but Egypt failed to respond. Hezekiah stripped the temple doors of gold and silver then emptied the temple treasury to pay tribute to Sennacherib, but this also failed to stop the invasion. Now his emissaries stood before the Rabshakeh calling them to put their trust in the great king of Assyria. Do we trust in money to fix our problems? We must trust in God as we encounter trials and as we suffer.
One of King Hezekiah’s greatest accomplishments was his closing of the many local worship sites scattered throughout Judah. Originally these sites had the good purpose of bringing instruction and worship close to home so that Judah would not merely have its annual feasts in Jerusalem, so that those who could not make it to the temple to worship twice annually could worship on a weekly basis. But over time much of the syncretism and falsity of religion crept into these local sites of worship. And so, Hezekiah reformed the worship of Yahweh calling everyone to the temple to worship in spirit and in truth. The Rabshekeh cleverly twists this reform, presenting it as a reduction of worship of Yahweh, something that God, who desires his worship to pervade the world, would consider to be an insult deserving his judgment. This is a powerful polemic testing the trust of God’s people. This is an attempt to undermine trust in God by undermining trust in God’s good king Hezekiah.
Finally, the Rabshakeh calls Judah to trust in the great king of Assyria who not only has the most powerful army but who also has, supposedly, divine authority to conquer the world. This comes close to the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness to bow down to him and in return the devil giving to him the nations of the world. The difference is that the king of Assyria was not promising anything but the saving of Judah’s skin. It is a most cleverly deceptive speech. Just like the devil, the Rabshakeh mixes truth with lie. It is ultimately true that God commissioned Sennacherib to invade Judah. But the lie is that God did so for the glory of Assyria, so that Judah would trust in Sennacherib as the great king. God sent Sennacherib so that Judah would trust in God alone.
Hezekiah’s emissaries request that the Rabshakeh speak in Aramaic instead of in Hebrew so that Judah’s soldiers on the wall close by would not understand his damaging speech. The Assyrians were not ignorant barbarians. They were schooled in the languages of the nations they were conquering. The Rabshakeh gets ugly and speaking in Hebrew begins to describe in the worst of expressions what a siege of Jerusalem will mean for these soldiers. He then returns to his main theme: Trust in Assyria; do not trust in God or in his king Hezekiah. “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you!” What will Hezekiah tell you? “The Lord will deliver you!” Here is the well-worn battle cry of those who oppose the one, true God. If we have yet to encounter such an attack, we shall surely in our lifetime to some degree hear this cry of Satan: “God is against you and he will not come to your aid. Trust in me and abandon God!” Look at (16): the evil opposition promises to us everything that God has given to us in his Promised Land. All we have to do is to abandon God’s promises and find peace, prosperity and comfort in the foreign land of slavery.
Isaiah records for us a great moment in the history of Judah. Hezekiah’s emissaries do not give in to the Rabshekah’s temptation. They obey Hezekiah, who had told them, “Do not answer him.” They return to Hezekiah within the walls of Jerusalem, their clothes torn, reporting the words of the Rabshekeh. It is for the king to decide such grave matters. It is for God’s king to respond to the forces of evil, who threaten his people. So often, when faced with temptation and attacks, we respond with our own voices, with our own venom. In times such as these, it is best for us to be silent, to return to our king and report to him our predicaments. To do so is to trust in God alone. We must wait for him to tell us how to respond.
In our trials, let us go to Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Let us report to him our troubles. What will he say to us? He will say the same as he said to the apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He will remind us that on the cross he crushed the serpent’s head. He will remind us that in his resurrection from the grave he conquered sin, death and Satan once for all. He will remind us that the battle belongs to the Lord, who has ascended to the throne of God from where he rules and reigns over all the earth. Put your trust in him and you will never be shaken.
Isaiah 37: 1-13
“The King Tests His People’s Trust in Him, Part Two”
One of God’s greatest gifts to the nation of Judah was King Hezekiah. During his reign God tested Judah’s trust in him by unleashing the King of Assyria’s army against Jerusalem. Sennacherib, King of Assyria, sent his emissary, a high royal official, known as the Rabshakeh, to demand Judah’s trust in the great king of Assyria in place of God. King Hezekiah’s emissaries, meeting with the Rabshakeh do not say a word in response but instead tear their clothes, returning to King Hezekiah in his palace. As soon as King Hezekiah heard their report, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the Lord.
The tearing of the clothes replacing them with sackcloth was a custom of grief and dismay. A person completely ruined would practice this custom. A person repenting of his sins would also do so. A person expressing true humility and complete trust in God in the midst of a crisis would also tear his clothes and put on sackcloth, a coarse fabric of woven goat or camel hair – a most humble and uncomfortable clothing. Both King Hezekiah and his emissaries appear to express true humility and trust in God during their crisis. King Hezekiah tears his clothes then enters the house of the Lord to pray.
Our present culture has not given to us such a custom through which we can outwardly display humility and trust, let alone grief and dismay. Our culture is proud and thus rife with denial. We have developed customs to express victory, accomplishment and happiness – the high five is widely practiced – we teach our toddlers to high five, but few of us know how to express humility, trust, repentance, grief and dismay. If someone weeps publicly, we feel most uncomfortable and our consolations are often veiled attempts to stop the crying. Though we do not share with Hezekiah the customs of his day, we do share his spiritual disciplines including prayer. No matter what customs we develop, we who follow the one true God of the Bible know that we are to pray in times of trouble. We know that to trust in God during crisis includes praying to him. Prayer is not a custom. It is relational engagement.
King Hezekiah is a beautiful gift from God to his people. His father, King Ahaz, entered the temple to erect an idol at the altar of Yahweh the one, true God. He sacrificed one of his sons to a pagan god. Hezekiah’s grandfather, King Uzziah, entered the temple attempting to usurp the duties of the office of priest. He tried to offer the incense, which only a priest could offer. As king he thought that he could do anything he pleased. But his grandson, King Hezekiah, entered the temple to pray. He entered the temple to express his grief, dismay, humility, and his trust in God alone.
King Hezekiah sent his servants and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah. Both his father and grandfather had ignored Isaiah as prophet, but Hezekiah honored him. In this moment of national crisis, all three offices instituted by God to serve his people were engaged – prophet, priest and king – all humbly trusting God. This was a fine and great moment in the history of Judah. King Hezekiah knows the duties and privileges of his office and he knows the duties and privileges of the other two offices. The King of Assyria has spoken like a god through his spokesperson, the Rabshakeh. This is a battle of the word, of opposing messages. Sennacherib says, “Trust me.” King Hezekiah rightly assesses this to be a matter for the spokesperson of God, his prophet Isaiah. King Hezekiah goes to the temple to pray as a leader and model among his people. As he prays, he represents the plights of his people, appealing to God’s justice. The priest also represents the people, offering their sacrifices to God appealing to divine mercy for atonement and forgiveness. The prophet is the officer who speaks God’s word to the people. Therefore, King Hezekiah, wishing to hear from God, consults his prophet, Isaiah.
King Hezekiah delivers a message to the prophet Isaiah. His brief message shows that he knows how to speak plainly, accurately and at the same time poetically and powerfully. He says, “This is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace.” Judah was on the brink of disaster. The invading King had rebuked her for trusting in God and in Hezekiah. All of her villages had been conquered and the Assyrians were approaching Jerusalem. Hezekiah poetically describes Judah’s weakness, her exhaustion and inability to do anything about the Assyrian invasion. Judah, the pregnant mother languishing too long in labor, has no energy left to push her baby forth into daylight. She is spent and on the brink of death. Hezekiah is respectful and humble as a king delivering a message to God’s prophet. In (4) he is far from dogmatic, merely suggesting what might be the response of God. It is for the prophet, to whom God speaks, to tell the king God’s response to the Rabshakeh’s clever speech. But Hezekiah as king will describe his assessment of the Rabshakeh’s speech – it is mockery of the living God! Finally, Hezekiah refers to the faithful members of Judah as the “remnant,” the smaller and remaining portion. Hezekiah is ever mindful that God sees his faithful few and that he hears what wicked kings say against his divine authority.
The prophet Isaiah delivers God’s message to Hezekiah and it teaches us how to trust in God. Firstly, Isaiah, a true prophet, says, “Thus says the Lord.” Our trust in God is founded upon his word. Our God is the God who speaks and his word is reliable and true. In your moment of crisis or in the midst of prolonged suffering has a well-meaning friend ever said to you, “Just trust in God.” You haven’t a clue what it means to do so. From Isaiah’s words we learn that the first thing trust in God means is our believing the words God has spoken.
Secondly, Isaiah delivers God’s words, “Do not be afraid because of the words you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” It is not much help for someone to tell me, “Do not be afraid,” especially if that person is thousands of miles away talking to me on the phone, completely safe from my present predicament. But God says, “Do not be afraid for I am with you and this present crisis is not only your crisis but it is also my crisis.” Notice that God pits his words against the words of the enemy – “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do not be afraid’ because of the words you have heard…” The second lesson in trusting God thus is to not fear the words of men. God says, “The words that have disturbed you are words against me…they have reviled me…” God is present with us in our times of trouble. Our trouble is his trouble. The God who speaks is the God who is present with us in our sufferings. Do not fear the words of those who seek to harm you for they speak against God.
Thirdly, God says through Isaiah, “I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.” God is in control of all the details of this world. Those who believe themselves to be in control, like the king of Assyria, argue against divine sovereignty. They argue that the circumstances around us prove that they are in control and that God is limited but they have no idea of the unlimited options at God’s disposal to work his holy will and his redemptive plan. What the king of Assyria missed is God’s ability and right to put a spirit in him to reverse his human plans. The king of Assyria had no idea that God could start a rumor that would return him to his own land. He had no idea that God could arrange his death by sword, not in a foreign field but in his own land. Sometimes with hindsight we marvel at how God has worked out the details of our lives for his glory and our redemption. Rarely do we see divine sovereignty with foresight. Trusting in God is connected to faith in our sovereign God who controls spirits, rumors and swords – all the elements and aspects of this world.
Talk to the senior members of our congregation and you will discover a deeper trust in God than the younger members presently experience. Anyone who perseveres in following Jesus gains the experience of trusting God day-by-day, moment-by-moment, crisis- by-crisis.
In (8-13) Hezekiah’s trust in God is sorely tested. What did his world look like? The great king of Assyria was busy conquering every little nation and village victorious at every turn. Whether it be an inconsequential town like Libnah or the substantive challenge from the nation Cush, no one was a match for the great king of Assyria. This prideful king who built one of the world greatest empires seeks to undermine Hezekiah’s trust in God: “Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you….” Look at the list of defeated nations and kings. You are next in line. Later in his prophecy Isaiah will tell us about the Suffering Servant in whose mouth there is no deceit. The incarnate Son of God, Messiah of the world would enter this world as the Word of God, worthy of our trust. He would give his life on the cross, suffering its shame and scorn, suffering death itself in the place of all of us who are deceitful and who lack trust. The enemy says, “Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you.” Our response should be: “There is no deceit in our God. He is worthy of our trust.”
When those who oppose God attack our trust in God, remember the lessons of Isaiah 37:
1) Our God speaks and his word is reliable.
2) Do not fear the words of men; these human words are in opposition to God’s reliable words. God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” A mere human being says, “Where is your God? If he were present and vested in you, then you would not be suffering through this present crisis.” Such clear opposition to God’s word should be renounced. Do not fear the words of mere men who directly oppose the words of God.
3) With hindsight see how God is the sovereign controller of all the details of this world working out his holy will and redemptive plan. Adjust your foresight accordingly. This is what it means to trust in God.
Isaiah 37: 14-38
“The King Destroys the Enemy of his People”
Before us today is one of the more enlightening narratives in the Bible presenting the primacy and power of prayer. King Hezekiah is swift to pray. The Assyrian armies are approaching Jerusalem. They have conquered the surrounding nations and nearly every village in Judah. Assyria is truly a world empire and so its King Sennacherib declares himself to be a god. From a human perspective, there is no hope for Jerusalem, the capital of a little nation of obscure people. It is in this context that King Hezekiah enters the temple to pray.
From his prayer we learn how to pray. Our first lesson is to pray first in any crisis. Our second lesson is to acknowledge in our prayers that God is engaged in the spiritual battles we face. Hezekiah addresses his prayer to “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel.” “O Lord of hosts” is the name of God referring to his command of the angelic armies of heaven come to earth to save God’s people. Through prayer we engage in spiritual warfare by submitting to our commander and chief, God, who is the Lord of hosts. The battle belongs to the Lord of hosts! Hezekiah’s God is the God who belongs to his people – he is the God of Israel. Prayer is our sensing and acknowledging that God belongs to us and we belong to God. Prayer is our sensing and acknowledging that God is powerfully present with us – he is the commander and chief of the angelic forces waging war against evil in this world.
The third lesson is to acknowledge God’s peculiar and authoritative position – he is enthroned above the glorious and powerful angels of heaven. Any of us would be scared out of our wits if we encountered one angel face to face, let alone catch a glimpse of God who is enthroned above the cherubim. He is the great king enthroned. His kingdom is not merely a future hope but a powerful rule in the present. He is the Creator and he is the King and God of all the nations of the earth. He is God alone. As we pray we not only articulate the uniqueness of God’s nature and office but we sense it to be real and powerfully present.
The fourth lesson is to ask God to be aware of our plights and crisis even though we know he sees and knows all things. Hezekiah knows that God’s eye is infinite and eternal. He knows that God’s ears don’t miss one whispered word in the universe. He knows that God is mindful of the wicked deeds of kings and the petty sins of the common man. Nevertheless, from a human perspective embroiled in the sufferings and troubles of this world, doubting whether or not God is active in restraining evil, Hezekiah prays – “Incline your ear, O Lord…open your eyes…see and hear!” In my life time a very few people have said to me, “I don’t pray because God already knows everything and he is sovereign and so he will take care of the world in his own time and in his own way. He doesn’t need me to pray about it.” But Hezekiah does pray to an all-knowing God because Hezekiah needed to pray expressions of his human perspective and his great need for God to invade with his help. God is not learning anything by Hezekiah praying – but Hezekiah is drawing close to God adjusting his human perspective to the divine perspective as he prays. He and God are in this plight together as Hezekiah prays. Sennacherib is not only against Hezekiah but he has opposed God. He has mocked the living God. He has laid waste the nations. He has destroyed their idols presenting himself as a god. God has come so close entering Hezekiah’s context sharing it and so Hezekiah prays asking God to rise to his lofty omniscience to grasp the divine perspective. This means that Hezekiah and all of us who pray tell God regularly in our prayers what he already knows.
The fifth lesson is that we make our requests in light of an evangelistic purpose. Hezekiah asks God to save Jerusalem so that the nations of the world might know that he is the one, true God. Do you think of your prayers for God to fix your problems in isolation from God saving the world? Hezekiah melds these two together in his prayer. Certainly in his situation, Jerusalem was a city set on a hill whose light could not be hidden. But its light had grown dim and compromised. Judah had forsaken God but had God forsaken Judah? Hezekiah appeals to the faithfulness of God and to the evangelistic purposes of God. Save us and in doing so, make Jerusalem a gospel proclamation. We should pray, “Lord, do not let the doors of our sister congregation close! Provide for her so that Oregon might know that you are God alone.” We should pray, “Lord, heal our brother and sister of their cancer so that Beaverton might know that you are God alone.” How about praying, “Lord, increase my personal wealth so that I can invest in gospel proclamation here and abroad.” We learn to pray this way from Hezekiah who prayed in (20), “So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.”
In (21) the prophet Isaiah delivers to King Hezekiah God’s response to his prayers. We realize that prayer is a dialogue. Andrew Murray wrote, “Prayer is not monologue, but dialogue; God’s voice is its most essential part. Listening to God’s voice is the secret of the assurance that He will listen to mine.” When you pray, do you expect God to answer? God actually answers Hezekiah’s prayer and he delivers a formal word answer through his prophet Isaiah! This is an amazing text on prayer!
The first part of God’s answer is to acknowledge the relationship between Hezekiah’s prayer and his answer: “Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him….” E.M. Bounds wrote concerning Isaiah’s prophecy, “God has ordained prayer as a means whereby He will do things through men as they pray, which He would not otherwise do. Prayer is a specific divine appointment, an ordinance of heaven, whereby God purposes to carry out His gracious designs on earth and to execute and make efficient the plan of salvation.” D.A. Carson is correct in listing prayer as one of the indicators that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are maintained together in the biblical narrative. You can read his helpful article, “A Sovereign and Personal God” online at Monergism. Carson explains that God as a Person drawing near to his children ordains prayer and other human responsibilities through which he works his sovereign will.
The remainder of our text is God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer. Let us give our attention to what God says against this tyrant, Imperial king who has usurped the position of God in this world. In (23-25) God aligns himself with his people in Jerusalem. They are the virgin daughter of Zion and he is the Holy One of Israel. Judah is not merely a little nation, easy pickings for the Assyrian Empire – she belongs to the Holy One of Israel. She is the bride of God’s Son the King of Zion. When we pray, the Holy Spirit reminds us of our human obscurity but also of God’s cherishing and valuing of us! We are precious in his sight and no enemy shall violate our marriage to God. In the fullness of time God sent his Son, our Lord Jesus to die for the purification of his pure and spotless bride, the church, that is, the children of God through faith in every generation. God speaks such words in direct opposition to the boasting of the kings of this earth.
In (26-29) God reminds the King of Assyria that God alone orders history. The infinite God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass and it is God alone who has raised up the King of Assyria as his instrument to bring judgment upon the nations of the Fertile Crescent, including his chosen people, Israel and Judah. The Assyrian army was notorious for inserting hooks in its prisoners noses, dragging them behind their mounted horses. In response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God says in (29) that he will put a hook in the King of Assyria’s nose. The reason for this punishment is the king’s complacency, in other words, his assumption that he is the sovereign controller of his empire’s victories.
In (30-32) God declares that Assyria will occupy Judah, eating its crops for three seasons, but Assyria will not completely conquer Judah. God will preserve a remnant of faithful followers unscathed by the swords and hooks of the Assyrians. In (30) we read that this remnant “shall take root downward and bear fruit upward.” The remnant is a healthy and fruitful planting of God. No enemy of God and his people can uproot the planting of God. No evil force can prevent the fruitfulness of the kingdom of God. This is true in these last days to a greater degree and on a global scale. The kingdom of God is advancing globally and nothing, not even the kingdom of darkness can kill the harvest of God.
In (32) God declares the liberation of his remnant and hints that it will happen through the Babylonian Captivity. The King of Assyria built a great empire short of conquering Jerusalem. The Assyrian Empire would be overthrown by the Babylonians, who would destroy Jerusalem taking captives from Judah to Babylon for approximately 70 years. The Babylonians would be kinder to Judah than the Assyrians and through this captivity, God would preserve his remnant in Babylon, returning faithful followers to rebuild Jerusalem and to wait for the coming of Messiah.
In (33-35) God declares that the Assyrian king will lay siege to Jerusalem but fail to conquer the holy city. God will defend his city “for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” What a beautiful declaration of God’s solidarity with his people through his solidarity to his covenant with David, that on his throne he would set a Son of David to rule forever.
It is one thing for God to send a message in answer to our prayers promising to protect us in our trials. But does God actually answer our prayers? Does he ever deliver on his promises? We pray through our sufferings and we read the Bible searching for promises and reassurances of God’s love, but does God ever actually deliver? All through the night God’s people pray and in the morning they arise to discover that God has delivered an answer to prayer! During the night the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. The king of Assyria retreated home. His own sons killed him by the sword as he worshipped in the temple of his god, Nisroch, just as God has said would happen. God answered the prayers of King Hezekiah, who worshipped in the temple of the God who answers our prayers today. Thanks be to God!
“The King Answers Prayer and Restores”
The great King of Judah, the main character in Isaiah’s prophecy is none other than Yahweh the God of Judah. He is the great King over all the earth! God appointed King Hezekiah as his vice-regent, his human representative to rule Judah in one of her rare moments of faith and obedience in the waning years prior to the Babylonian Captivity. Hezekiah was a man of prayer. Early in his reign Hezekiah purged the temple of idolatry calling delinquent Judah to keep the Passover Feast. A great assembly gathered and Hezekiah prayed, “May the good Lord pardon everyone.” God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and healed his people.
With the king of Assyria preparing to lay siege to Jerusalem, Hezekiah entered the temple to pray for God’s deliverance. God sent his prophet Isaiah to deliver his answer to Hezekiah’s prayer. 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were found dead in the field and the king of Assyria retreated home where his two sons killed him as he worshipped in the temple of his god.
In Isaiah 38, the narrative of King Hezekiah’s reign continues and this time we find Hezekiah praying for his own healing. He had fallen terminally ill. The prophet Isaiah visited Hezekiah to say: “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” And so, Hezekiah prayed: “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” Then Hezekiah wept bitterly. Hezekiah had a boil, one of the symptoms of his terminal illness. Such a skin condition would prevent his entering the temple to worship. Undoubtedly, Hezekiah remembered his grandfather, King Uzziah, who broke out with leprosy as he arrogantly lit incense in the temple. The priests expelled him from the temple according to the laws preventing unclean person from temple worship. King Uzziah never entered the temple again for the remainder of his life. And so King Hezekiah wept bitterly at the thought of his being barred from the temple in his unclean condition.
This past Sunday from Isaiah 37 we learned that God answers prayer. We discussed how the biblical text maintains both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. We discussed how prayer is the intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In prayer we do not change God’s mind or derail his one and only plan to restore all creation and to redeem humanity, but rather we enter into the will of God who executes his ordained plans through our prayers. In Isaiah 38 we read of God answering Hezekiah’s prayer once again. God sends his prophet Isaiah to Hezekiah with a second message: “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life.”
First note: How gracious is God to answer our prayers and to see our tears! We are often aware of God seeing our sins. But God also sees our tears. He is lovingly mindful of our sufferings and our frailties. As Hezekiah’s father, King David sang in Psalm 103: “He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. Earlier in this Psalm David blesses the Lord God, “who forgives all your iniquities and heals all your diseases.” In his hour of critical illness, God did not say to Hezekiah, “Thus says the Lord, the God of your grandfather Uzziah, that most arrogant king whom I struck with leprosy….” He says to Hezekiah in his suffering, “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, to whom I promised a Son upon his throne forever.”
Secondly note: God’s word and plans do not change but God does schedule his word and plans for his purposes and often the result is surprising reversals. God said to Hezekiah, “You will surely die.” Hezekiah prays and then God says to him: “I have heard your prayer and I will give to you 15 more years.” It was God’s plan to bring Hezekiah to the brink of death, to suffer an illness that would surely end his life should it ravish his body unchecked. It was God’s plan for Hezekiah to pray for healing. It was God’s plan to answer Hezekiah’s prayer granting him 15 more years. In (6) God reminds Hezekiah that he has answered his former prayer for the protection of Jerusalem against the king of Assyria.
Perhaps you have heard that Hezekiah should have never prayed for God’s healing. Popular Bible teaching says that the 15-year extension of Hezekiah’s life was nothing more than God’s permissive will and that it led to King Hezekiah’s future sins of pride. In 2 Chronicles 32 we read, “In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death, and he prayed to the Lord, and he answered him and gave him a sign. But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem.” It is sadly true: Hezekiah was not a perfect person. He reverted to the pride of his grandfather Uzziah. The result of his pride was that Judah and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. But the Chronicler continues in the very next sentence: “But Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah.” Unlike his grandfather, Hezekiah repented of his pride and so all of the biblical accounts of Hezekiah end with these words: “Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah and his good deeds, behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz, in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel. And Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the upper part of the tombs of the sons of David, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did him honor at his death.” Hezekiah finished well. His extended 15 years were a blessing and gift from our gracious God. In these final years, Hezekiah, the praying king became the repenting king.
Let us return to Isaiah 38 and thirdly note: God in his mercy at times gives to us signs to help us in believing that he will answer our prayers. At times we are so weak in our sufferings and grief that God is pleased to help us along with a sign or two. The sign he offers to Hezekiah at least captures our curiosity. Our minds first run to the natural science of the sign – is it possible for the earth to reverse its spinning so that the sunlight on the steps of Ahaz would move back ten steps? For those of us who believe and trust the biblical text declaring the absolute sovereignty of God over his creation, the answer is “yes.” In the days of Joshua, God made the sun stand still during a great battle. Would not such a suspension of nature result in cataclysm? I’m certain that it would if God did not prevent it.
There are at least two other elements of this sign that seem to be more prominently in view. Firstly, Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, the builder of these palace steps, refused God’s offer of a sign in his days when the Samarians were threatening Jerusalem. Ahaz sounded pious: “I will not ask you for a sign; I will not put the Lord God to the test.” But in reality Ahaz was not interested in God let alone his signs. In response God said, “I will give you the sign of the son called Immanuel, born of a virgin.” God’s sign to Hezekiah is directly related to Ahaz’s refusal of God’s sign. Those of us who follow God through our sufferings humbly receive any sign of God.
The second element of this curious sign is directly connected to God’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer. As Walter Brueggemann explains in his commentary on Isaiah: “both sign and answer to prayer concern time. The oracle of God adds fifteen years to the life of the king; the sign adds time to daylight before the sun sets. The natural act is taken as a signal that Yahweh can indeed disrupt the normal flow of time in order to fulfill a quite specific promise.”
Just as God invited Ahaz to choose a sign, so we read in 2 Kings 20: “And Isaiah said, “This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” And Isaiah the prophet called to the Lord, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz.” Hezekiah, unlike his father, desired to see a sign from God – Isaiah gave him a choice between two miracles – the speeding of time forward or the rolling back of time – and Hezekiah chose the one that would in his view be clearly a divine miracle. He desired to see with his very own eyes the mysteries of divine sovereignty.
In (9-20) Isaiah records a writing of Hezekiah, which he penned after God healed him. Both the content and the language are beautiful and it strikes me that we should take up the pen more to remember God’s answer to our prayers and to express in beautiful language the mysteries of God graciously invading our lives. In (10-12) Hezekiah describes his coming to terms with his terminal illness. He is resigned to die and he views his life as an unfinished tapestry “cut off from the loom,” the beautifully woven threads unraveling. Like Job, he acknowledges that it is God who brings his and every life to an end. In (13-14) he divulges his worldview stamped by the Psalmist who suffers and prays during the night but then discovers joy in the morning. With this hope Hezekiah “calms” himself throughout the night. But in the morning he does not find joy but feels as if a lion is breaking all his bones! He cries, “my eyes are weary with looking upward.” He has lost hope in God! This hurls him into what we call today depression. He calls it “oppression.” He is too low to bolster his spirit and so he prays, “O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety.” Often in depression we not only lose hope but we can become suicidal and we no longer trust ourselves and so we must pray to God, “be my pledge of safety!”
In (15) Hezekiah is brutally honest, just like Job was in his suffering saying, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” But Hezekiah is not quite ready to say “blessed be the name of the Lord!” He says, “God has spoken to me, and he himself has done it!” God has said, “You shall surely die!” and Hezekiah feels the pains of death crushing his bones. His whole life seems like a slow and painful walk. He can’t remember skipping as a child. In his pain he can’t remember the euphoria of praying in the temple and receiving amazing answers to prayers, like the great king of Assyria retreating and dying in his pagan temple. Hezekiah’s soul is bitter – it is wholly informed by the pain and suffering of the lion-crushing destruction of the common curse. In (16) Hezekiah says to God, “My suffering is common among human experience. Not only is my body dying but my spirit is broken. My life is ruined.” He prays, “O restore me to health and make me live.” For Hezekiah life is more than a healthy body; it is a spirit liberated from the tyranny of human experience.
In (17) Hezekiah reflects on God’s miraculous healing in answer to his prayer and how this has transformed his spirit from bitterness to joy. Hezekiah acknowledges that it is God’s love for him that has moved God to rescue his life. Notice: Hezekiah testifies to God lifting him out of the pit of destruction by casting away all of his sins! What a turn in the reflection! Hezekiah is not focused any longer upon the healing of his body but upon the greater work of God removing his sins! It is difficult for us students of the Gospels not to remember the lame man, who was let down through the roof by his friends, begging for healing. Jesus says to him: “You sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees accuse Jesus of blasphemy, for only God can forgive sins and so Jesus says, “So that you know that I have authority to forgive sins, I say, ‘Arise from your bed and walk!’”
In (18-20) Hezekiah returns his thanks and praise to God who saved him. The dead do not thank and praise God but the living do and they tell their children about the God who answers prayers and who heals and saves those who call out to him for help. Hezekiah promises to enter the temple to express in music his thanksgiving and praise.
The final two verses are puzzling in their placement. God has already given to Hezekiah the sign of the sunlight retracting ten steps and then he has healed Hezekiah prompting him to write about his experience culminating in his thanksgiving and praise offered to God. It this a recapitulation of the same information or is this a flaw in Isaiah’s editing abilities? I can tell you what I think: Hezekiah concludes his writing with a promise to enter the temple to play his music of thanksgiving and praise. He has one problem: Although God has healed him from his life threatening disease, he still has this persisting boil on his skin, a lingering reminder of the disease. This boil will not end his life but it will prohibit his entrance into the temple. Hezekiah expresses his concern to Isaiah, who recommends a fig poultice to relieve the boil. Hezekiah is haunted by his grandfather, King Uzziah’s ban from the temple for the remainder of his life, and so he needs a sign – he needs to pass inspection with the priest who would admit him to the temple. The disappearance of the boil would be the sign required by the priest.
With the coming of Jesus Christ, his blood shed as the final sacrifice, we have constant and immediate access to God; we are able to offer our thanksgiving and praise without any hindrance. As the author of Hebrews writes: “Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
“Not All Is What It Seems Until God Speaks to Us”
Hezekiah was one of the finest and holy kings in Judah’s history. Nevertheless, he was a mere man with flaws and sins. The nation of Judah was one of the final holdouts against the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had conquered nations greater than Judah but for some reason, they could not conquer Jerusalem. King Hezekiah was a man of prayer and God answered his prayers returning the king of Assyria to his home city where his sons murdered him as he worshipped his pagan god in his temple. The nations swallowed by the Assyrian Empire saw a window of opportunity for liberation. To the northeast of Judah, the Amorites had suffered long under the Assyrian Empire. Their king was merely a puppet of the Great King of Assyria. But when news of the Assyrian king’s death reached Babylon, the Amorite capitol, they began to plot the rise of a new empire to overthrow the Assyrians. Part of the Babylonian plan was to marshal allies and so Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon sent envoys to Jerusalem to win Hezekiah and Judah as allies.
Hezekiah was flying high. God has answered his prayers and Jerusalem survived the Assyrian siege. The Assyrian king was dead and so Hezekiah was poised to participate in the downfall of the Assyrian Empire. The king of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah. They came under the guise of celebrating his amazing recovery from his critical illness. In (2) we read “And Hezekiah welcomed them gladly.” Such a hospitable welcome of Babylonian envoys sends chills down the spine of any of us who know the rest of the story. Babylon would be the next world Empire and it would destroy Jerusalem relocating thousands of the nation of Judah to Babylon. Hezekiah gives the envoys the grand tour. Judah wass a small and relatively insignificant nation but it was wealthy and it had survived the Assyrian siege. Hezekiah caught up in the guised celebration and hospitality of potential allies, shows the envoys the treasure house, the armory, the palace – everything!
The grand tour results in the prophet Isaiah paying the king Hezekiah a visit. Isaiah is kind and polite. He begins by respectfully asking the king three questions: “What did these men say? And from where did they come to you? What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah tells Isaiah – I gave them the grand tour. Then Isaiah delivers a message from God. As we consider God’s message to Hezekiah we learn that not all is what it seems until God speaks to us. We can be people of prayer and yet we can be blind to reality. We can be humble followers of God and yet we can be stumbling down a rabbit trail. Even the best of Judah’s kings, Hezekiah, for a moment, was caught off guard, caught up in a moment of distraction and so God spoke to him jolting him back to reality.
Isaiah delivers God’s message to Hezekiah. In the prophetic address: “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts,” God reminds Hezekiah that it is God, the Commander of the angelic armies of heaven that defeated the Assyrian army during the siege of Jerusalem. Hezekiah’s army awoke in the morning to find 185,000 Assyrians dead in the field and the king running back to Nineveh. The Lord of Hosts, that is the Commander of the Angels won the battle. Hezekiah knew this to be true but he was caught up in the moment of glory showing off the treasury and armory as if the might of men destroyed the might of men. But if there is one lesson pounded home again and again to us as we read Israel’s history, it is this: The battle belongs to the Lord. This is true for us today as individual Christians and for us as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth who sends forth the angels of heaven to the four corners of the earth to gather the elect of God.
Isaiah delivers God’s message to Hezekiah. The second part of the message reminds Hezekiah that all of the wealth and power he showed the Babylonian envoys on the grand tour had been stored up over many years by his forefathers. This is a humbling return to reality for Hezekiah. The battle was not won by him and the wealth of his nation was not amassed by him. Hezekiah had inherited wealth and power from his father, and grandfathers, all wicked men who had compromised the worship of the one true God with the worship of idols. Hezekiah knew this to be true but he had been caught up in a moment of glory showing off the treasury and the armory to the Babylonians. Today we members of the Church must remember that every good and perfect gift comes from above, from God. We may be good stewards of what we have been given, but let us ever remember that what we have are gifts from God.
Isaiah delivers God’s message to Hezekiah. The third part is the pillage of Judah’s wealth. The Babylonians will return and take everything Hezekiah had showed the envoys in the grand tour. Would Hezekiah respond as Job did? “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” Worse than pillage, God tells Hezekiah that the Babylonians would come to take some of Hezekiah’s sons forcing them to be eunuchs in service of the Babylonian king. What a bitter pill to swallow! Hezekiah’s royal line would be cut off by castration and forced to serve a pagan king. Nothing could be worse for a king than to think of his royal line coming to an end. What ever happened to God’s covenant promise to King David of his Son who would rule upon his throne forever? God said “some of your own sons,” not “all of your sons.” And this is good news. Even in the bleakest moments of God’s harsh discipline, God keeps alive his promise of the Son who reigns forever upon the throne of David. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, our Lord Jesus, the Messiah of the nations, to accomplish what Hezekiah failed to do and what his eunuch sons in Babylon could never do.
God delivered his message to Hezekiah and we now read Hezekiah’s response to this divine message. In the past, during times of crisis, Hezekiah faced reality and prayed to God for help. How would this godly king respond to God’s foretelling of Jerusalem’s fall and the Babylonian occupation? In (8) we read, “Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’” Is Hezekiah living in a fantasy world? Why is he so blind to reality? God has just delivered to him a difficult message of pending destruction and Hezekiah says, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” Without Isaiah telling us what Hezekiah was thinking when he said this, we might think that Hezekiah was facing reality in the humble and godly tradition of Job who said while he faced suffering and death, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” But Isaiah tells us that Hezekiah was thinking in a most disappointing way. Isaiah writes, “For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’” Hezekiah was about 39 years old at this point. God healed him and said, “I will add 15 years to your life.” Indeed Hezekiah died at age 54. Perhaps Hezekiah thought that God would extend his life span yet again and that he would live to a ripe old age. Whatever he was thinking, we know that he was only thinking about his personal life, his own security and comfort and not one day or person beyond.
Hezekiah’s response is most disconcerting but we know all too much about it from personal experience. How often have we merely thought of our own time upon this earth? How many of us have seen the bumper sticker on massive RV’s guzzling gas on the highway, “We are spending our children’s inheritance”? How many of us have voted for tax reductions or measures that will fix economic and social problems only for the few years we have remaining? How many of us have failed to think with foresight about our children and grandchildren – what life will be like for them? How many of us have thought, “Once I’m dead and gone, I don’t really care if my sons are forced to be eunuchs in the service of a pagan power? This is how one of the finest kings of Judah thought. These are the thoughts of a man of prayer who received incredible answers to his prayers from an all-powerful and merciful God.
We know the rest of the story. Judah was carted off to Babylon for 70 years. A remnant returned to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son to die on the cross for the sins of Hezekiah and all of us who have failed to face reality and have chosen to live selfishly. Jesus died and rose from the grave to ascend to heaven where he has been enthroned forever. We now have the whole story, what the prophets and even the angels have longed to see. How will we respond? We must remember: Not all is what it seems until God speaks to us. And when God does speak to us, as he has spoken to us in these last days through his Son, we must take it to heart and to obedience: The battle belongs to the Lord. Everything we have is a gift from God. In times of crisis when we receive difficult news from God, we must think of others, putting their interests before our own. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not land us to live in a world of fantasy or selfishness, but to live as stewards of God’s gifts for the good of coming generations until we are gathered to the eternal throne of the Son of David, our Redeemer, Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Amen.