Today in chapter 20 we round off the account of King Hezekiah of Judah. These events happened over 700 years before Jesus' time. The Two Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were slowly self-destructing as they abandoned God and God allowed other nations to overpower them. And when I say these events happened, I do mean it. The end of the chapter mentions Hezekiah's pool and tunnel that he built to bring water into the city, essentially as a siege defence, and we can check out photographs of them. Nowadays you can go and walk in Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem. It was discovered a few years back with an inscription inside name-dropping him. So it's good to remember that this is true history.
But of course the narrative books of the bible aren't just historical records. The writers are also making a point to their readers, so as the writer of 2 Kings lays out the history of God's people he also wants his readers to understand why these things happened. And it turns out he's been using a story-telling device in the history of Hezekiah that we expect more in films or TV dramas. How often does a drama start with some startling scene - a death or something - only for the next scene to feature the deceased walking around. Just as we're wondering what's going on, a little caption appears... 'Three days earlier...' Then we know that we need to watch everything in the knowledge that that final scene is what we're headed for. That's kind of what's been happening in chapters 18-20. The strange thing about the events of chapter 20 is that they actually come before the whole confrontation with Assyria in chapters 18-19. Chronologically, chapter 20 actually fits into Hezekiah's story early in chapter 18, round about the time that the Assyrians were laying siege to Samaria in the northern kingdom of Israel.
How do we know that? Two details from our reading:
In 20v6 God promises to deliver Hezekiah and Jerusalem from the Assyrians, which we saw him do in chapters 18-19. And then in 20v13, Hezekiah shows some Babylonian diplomats around his treasuries, which must have happened before the bit of chapter 18 when he sends the whole lot to the Assyrians as a bribe to persuade them to leave him alone.
So we've rewound a few years in the life of Hezekiah to before the siege of Jerusalem. And it's almost like the writer wants us to see that Hezekiah has his limits. Yes, in chapters 18-20 he was a hero, the major achievement of his reign was to stand up to the Assyrians, turning to God for help and watching God deliver his people, but the faith he needed to do that came from this earlier incident, and although Hezekiah was a king like David, he wasn't the true David that God had promised would come.
So in chapter 20, before the coming national crisis, Hezekiah first faces a personal crisis. God had two lessons for Hezekiah to learn that he would need later as he faced the Assyrians. These are the big lessons of Hezekiah's reign and still vital lessons for every Christian today: Trust God and Trust God Alone. We'll take 2 Kings 20 in two halves, one for each of our two points, which are:
God is powerful and compassionate, so trust him; and,
God is rightly jealous, so trust him alone.
1) God is powerful and compassionate, so trust him
1In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."
Hezekiah is in bed. He's got a skin condition – a boil or an abscess or something like that, presumably infected, maybe the infection has passed into his bloodstream but whatever the details, he's now at death's door. He probably suspected that already but it was still probably good to know. It was actually kind to lay out the truth to him so that he could prepare himself and, to use an business term, prepare his handover. We get his reaction in v2.
2Hezekiah turned his face to the wall [to get come sort of privacy and solitude] and prayed to the Lord, 3"Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
Hezekiah prays. And it's a strange prayer. He prays that God would 'remember' him, meaning 'be kind to him', because of his own faithfulness and devotion. It's not quite clear what we should make of this prayer. Obviously he can't mean that he's been sinlessly perfect. He could mean that he's been obedient to God's covenant. That's certainly what his introduction in chapter 18 said about him:
He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. […] [He] trusted in the Lord […]. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.
But even so the prayer does have a ring of trusting in his own performance. It seems like this is Hezekiah at less than his best. Nonetheless there's an immediate answer. Isaiah has hardly left the building before he gets the message to turn back with different news. V5:
5"Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, 'This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. 6I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.'"
What an answer to prayer! Straight away there's a reversal; that's how quickly God can act if it's his will to do so. God is powerful. And why did God respond this way? 'I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.' God is compassionate.
We might think it's odd that God seems to change his mind here. He seems to backtrack. But this is in a pattern of a lot of prophecy in the Old Testament, particularly messages to individuals: it sounds like it's set in stone, but it's actually a compassionate prompt to turn to God, whether in repentance or reliance or something else. That's what Hezekiah does, and God now promises not death but deliverance, not a funeral service but a celebration service, not mourning but worship. In fact you could make a note to read some of Hezekiah's worship in Isaiah 38. And it's more than just a promise of quick healing. It's a promise of fifteen more years of life, and not just that but that God will deliver him and his city from Assyria, and because of the strange chronology we've already seen that in chapter 19.
But God doesn't say that he'll do it because of Hezekiah's faithfulness and devotion, but, v6, for his own sake and for the sake of David. In other words, for God's reputation and because of his faithfulness to David and David's descendants. God's glory is God's main concern and rightly so. V7:
7Then Isaiah said, "Prepare a poultice of figs." They did so and applied it to the boil, and he recovered.
Hezekiah gets a fruity compress on his abscess. There are plenty of references from that time about the healing goodness of figs, but I doubt that the figs alone cured his septicaemia. Here we've got divine healing and medical treatment going hand in hand. Did God heal or did the medicine heal? Answer: yes! But it seems that Hezekiah didn't entirely trust the figs either. Look at V8:
"What will be the sign that the Lord will heal me and that I will go up to the temple of the Lord on the third day from now?"
He's thinking, 'You know what, I know figs are good for me and all that, but I'm feeling pretty rough and a minute ago you told me to phone the on-call solicitor to come and review my will; I'm not sure figs are going to cut it here!' Again, this seems to be Hezekiah not entirely at his best, not trusting the 100% record of God's word. But with God's authority, Isaiah offers him a choice of signs, v9:
"This is the Lord's sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: Shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or shall it go back ten steps?"
'You're lying here in your bed this morning looking out the window and as the sun rises in the sky the shadow of the palace wall slides down that staircase outside. Your sign is that the shadow can either fast-forward down ten steps or rewind back up ten steps. What do you fancy?'
v10: 'It's going to go down the steps anyway as the day goes on, so I'd be more amazed to see it rewind and go back up.' And in v11 that is exactly what happens. And it's fitting – the shadow is going down like Hezekiah but then it's rewound, just like Hezekiah getting his extra fifteen years. Hezekiah needed to learn that God is powerful and compassionate, so [he could] trust him.
We see this again in Jesus when he walked the earth 700 years later. Again and again Jesus reversed sickness and death, acting with the power and compassion we would expect from the son of God. And as he cared for people and healed them, he also called on them to turn to God, and then he died to open up the way to do that. We can trust him.
The lesson isn't that God always turns our sickness to health or our trouble to joy but that his power and compassion are with us and for us. Even in the death announcement of v1 there was compassion – Hezekiah being prompted to trust God all the more. As God's people today we won't be spared distress but we don't need to give up. Often God's goodness is packaged in hard circumstances.
And if you or another Christian is facing imminently, like Hezekiah at the start of this chapter, you will find this little booklet from our online bookstall called 'On My Way To Heaven' very helpful for drawing out how we can trust in God's power and compassion even in very difficult circumstances.
So trust God. That was the first lesson that Hezekiah needed to learn in personal crisis, before leading God's people in national crisis against Assyria. The second lesson was this:
2) God is rightly jealous, so trust him alone
Just to explain, obviously jealousy isn't something we think of as a good thing, but it is how God is described in the bible. In fact in Exodus he even says that his name is capital-J 'Jealous'. But we're not talking about envy or coveting… God's jealousy is right jealousy. His jealousy for his people is the jealousy of a loving husband for his wife. If God wasn't jealous for his people he'd just be apathetic, like a husband who doesn't care where his wife is or who she's with or why she's out so late so often. God is rightly jealous. Look at v12:
12At that time Merodach-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of Hezekiah's illness.
So finally in 2 Kings some people are getting along! This Babylonian prince, Merodach-Baladan, sends some messengers all the way to Jerusalem with gifts and get-well-soon cards. By the by, Merodach-Baladan is his Hebrew name; the Babylonian version contains two hyphens and is even less pronouncable. But he's obviously a kind-hearted chap.
Now, we've not seen much of Babylon recently in Kings. Babylon is over in the west, near modern Baghdad; Jerusalem and Judah over by the Med. And the Babylonians also have an Assyrian headache. Assyria's much stronger than Babylon at this point and keeps it suppressed most of the time. So maybe there's more to this envoy from Babylon than a simple get-well-soon message. It seems like Babylon is looking for allies. Who can Babylon team up with against Assyria? Perhaps Judah? What sort of resources does Judah have? What could Hezekiah bring to an alliance? V13:
13Hezekiah received the messengers and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine oil—his armoury and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
When was the last time you replied to a get-well-soon message with a copy of your bank statement?! Hezekiah's flattered. 'You've come to see me? You want an alliance with me?' Everybody wants to be popular. Merodach-Baladan has sent you a friend-request on Facebook. @PrinceOfBabylon is now following you on Twitter. 'Me?' Hezekiah's pride moves him to show these visitors everything he owns. It's also pretty naïve to let them take the Treasury Tour with their clipboards and tick-lists. He seems to be thinking, 'The Assyrians are laying siege to Samaria… maybe these Babylonians are the sort of people I can trust to help me keep them at arm's length.' Isaiah's not impressed, v14:
[…] "What did those men say, and where did they come from?"
[…] "They came from Babylon."
[…] "What did they see in your palace?"
"They saw everything […] There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them."
16Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, "Hear the word of the Lord: 17The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. 18And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon."
You think it's the Babylonians that will help you against Assyria? Don't you remember the message from God that I brought to you on your death-bed? Remember, with the figs and the whole shadow going back up the steps thing? Don't you remember what God said? "I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David." Ringing any bells? But here you are, flirting with Babylon, doubting God's promise. So now God says, 'I will defend you against Assyria, but the time will come when Babylon will rout Judah. Everything of value will be carted off and some of your own descendents too.'
This is a disaster. Hezekiah has really dropped the ball. Instead of politely refusing to be drawn into earthly alliances with pagan nations, he decided to try trusting them, leaning on them and not on God. But God is rightly jealous. He doesn't need help. He certainly doesn't need idol-worshipping allies. And now he's going to exile his people in Babylon to highlight their sin and their faithlessness.
Not that it's all Hezekiah's fault. The kings who follow him will play their part in bringing the exile to reality. This prophecy of Isaiah's is like the death-notice in v1, except in the kings that followed Hezekiah there would be very little turning of faces to walls, very little seeking God's mercy in prayer. More on that next week.
Hezekiah's reaction is pretty odd, v19:
19"The word of the Lord you have spoken is good," Hezekiah replied. For he thought, "Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?"
It seems pretty self-centred, as if he's saying, 'Well, that's okay, just so long as it doesn't happen to me.' Just so long as it's not on my record in the annals of the kings of Judah. Just so long as it's not me being castrated to serve in the palace in Babylon. Or maybe he recognises that God could have brought judgement immediately. Maybe he sees that the delay is itself a form of mercy, like the extra fifteen years of his life. Maybe he has learned that second lesson: that God is right to be jealous and so he should have trusted him alone. That remains our lesson:
God is rightly jealous, so trust him alone
Like Hezekiah, we're inconsistent and weak in our obedience and faith. Like Hezekiah, we're tempted to spread out our trust. We're hesitant to put all our eggs in the one basket. We doubt that God will come through for us, that he will look after us and fulfil us. Every extra day of Hezekiah's life testified to God's power and compassion. Every extra day of Hezekiah's life stood as a marker of God's promise to defend his people against Assyria. Yet he doubted God.
We need ask God to generate in us a right fear and a right trust in him that drives us to pray for his help to stand firm in him alone. And we need to look to Jesus. Every extra day of Jesus' life brought him one closer to the cross. He wasn't offered an alliance with Babylon. At his temptation he was offered an alliance with Satan. The prize wasn't just safety but glory – all the kingdoms of the world. And even knowing what it meant to refuse, even knowing the suffering that would come from trusting God alone, Jesus turned him down flat.
Closing out this chapter, verses 20-21 sum up Hezekiah's reign. It's not the standard format of the summaries in 2 Kings. This one prompts us to find out and remember the things he achieved. That's very unusual in 2 Kings. Hezekiah gets a stand-out summary because he was a stand-out king. He did what was right, like David, and is highly commended, but even he was inconsistent and weak in his obedience and faith. He's not the David that is to come – he's not the fulfilment of God's promise to David that we read in Acts, that a descendent of his would sit on the throne forever. For that true king, for that true David, we need someone who was utterly and completely consistent in obedience and faith. We need Jesus, who trusted and obeyed the Father completely and perfectly, even at the darkest hour of his crucifixion. And we'll remember him in a few minutes with Holy Communion.