Two Prayers, Two Answers, and an Ominous Ending

How did God hear Hezekiah’s prayers for forgiveness and salvation? Only through the fulfillment of God’s promise to his father David: the Son of David who would sit on his father’s throne forever, whose kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom. Jesus the Messiah would teach us that he is the One who saves his people from sin.

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 18:3-7; Isaiah 37:14-20, Isa 38:1-39:8 (text)
July 31, 2011

Hezekiah's sickness and the sundial shadow reversing

Hezekiah's sickness and the sundial shadow reversing

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy is the first half of the book, opening with Isaiah’s commission from the Lord to prophesy not only against the proud and rebellious kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but also against the kingdoms surrounding God’s people, particularly Assyria. Chapters 34-35 finally summarize Isaiah’s prophecy against all the nations. Then in Chapters 36-37, Isaiah gives a historical background to the events in Chapters 38-39, which in turn introduce the second half of the book, Chapters 40-66.

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The history of the divided monarchy showed a people disobedient to God’s revealed will during times of crises. The first crisis occurred during the reign of King Pekah when the northern kingdom was threatened by the powerful Assyrian empire. Against God’s command and instead of trusting in the Lord, Pekah allied with Syria, which resulted in disaster. In 722 B.C., Assyria conquered and destroyed Samaria the capital city, and exiled its inhabitants.

The second crisis developed when Assyria turned its focus on the southern kingdom. Again, instead of trusting in the Lord’s “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16), King Hezekiah allied himself with Egypt against King Sennacherib. In response, Sennacherib invaded the southern kingdom, destroying most of its cities, and finally coming up to Jerusalem its capital city. In 701 B.C., the situation seemed hopeless. Hezekiah saw that the Assyrians “have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire” (Isa 37:18-19). The Assyrian messenger even mocked the God of Israel, “Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (Isa 36:20).

Faced with this hopeless reality, Hezekiah finally turned towards God, praying for the salvation of his kingdom. In humility and repentance, he sought a word from the Lord through Isaiah. In response, the Lord promised salvation, “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard … [Sennacherib will] return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land … I will defend this city to save it” (Isa 37:6, 35).

In those days, another heavy blow hit Hezekiah. This time, it was not concerning his nation, but a deathly illness. The word from the Lord was, “You shall die, you shall not recover” (Isa 38:1). Hezekiah wept bitterly after hearing this news, and pleaded to God to spare him. The Lord’s response was more than he asked for: Hezekiah’s life would be extended 15 more years, and the city will be saved.

Both of Hezekiah’s prayers during a time of great distress were answered with God’s faithfulness. But after the twofold crisis passed, he again showed more trust in man than in God, committing a sin that would have fatal consequences to God’s people long after he died.

This afternoon, we will compare and contrast Hezekiah’s two prayers in crisis and his foolish action after the crisis: (1) A God-Centered Prayer; (2) A Self-Centered Prayer; and (3) Unfaithfulness After the Lord’s Faithful Answers.

A God-Centered Prayer

Hezekiah was one of the few godly kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. His tenure was summarized in 2 Kings 18:3-7, “[He] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord … trusted in the Lord … held fast to the Lord.” He was a reformer millennia before the Protestant Reformation. He removed idols from the land, including Moses’s bronze serpent that became an idol. He was faithful to the covenant that God made with Moses. For this faithfulness, “the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered.”

Yet, when the Assyrian crisis came, his sinfulness showed. He trusted the power of Egypt more than the Lord’s mighty arm. But in his prayer for his kingdom’s deliverance, he showed that in spite of sin, he did not forget the Lord. What was his prayer like?

First, he showed reverence and adoration for God, “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.” The Lord is the Almighty God of the heavenly hosts. Yahweh is not only the God of Israel, but is the God of all the nations of the earth. More than that, he is the Creator and Sovereign of all heaven and earth, more powerful than the mighty Assyrian king. If there is one who could save Israel, it is the Almighty God of the universe.

But God is not only a God out there somewhere in the heavens. He is God who dwells among his people, enthroned between the cherubim at each end of the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The feet of God rested on the mercy-seat (Ezek 1:22-28; Ps 99:1-5), representing the Lord’s love, grace and mercy to his people with whom he dwells. This is similar to the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” God is not a god who observes the world “from a distance,” too busy to get involved in the details of our lives. Who is it that we pray to? It is the living, merciful God who is the almighty Creator who is in control of every single atom in the universe. Wouldn’t trusting this providential God give you all the faith and confidence that he hears your prayers and he is able to act on them?

Secondly, note that Hezekiah humbled himself before God. He tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth (Isa 37:1-2), expressing humility and repentance before a holy God, as he confessed his unbelief and lack of trust in the Lord. When we come to God, we acknowledge that we are sinners, confessing our sins, because we know that God does not hear the prayers of unrepentant sinners (Psa 66:18). Thus, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we also petition God, “Forgive us our trespasses.”

Our prayers of course consist also of supplications and petitions, and in desperate times, we often forget everything else except our petitions. We forget words of adoration, worship and praise. We forget to confess our sins, and go straight into a litany of our many needs. We focus on ourselves. Hezekiah’s first prayer is not focused on his desperate situation, but on the honor and glory of the Lord, because the Assyrians mocked the Lord as one who is as powerless as the idol-gods of the nations they have conquered. His chief concern was, How could God be glorified in this desperate situation?

Only after giving worship, praise and thanksgiving to God does Hezekiah make his petition known to God: “O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” That was the last portion of his prayer, and the shortest. And even in his petition, his desire was that the name of the Lord be vindicated among all the peoples of the earth. In the Lord’s Prayer, personal petitions are also short: provision for daily needs, forgiveness of sins, and protection from temptation and evil.

How did God respond to Hezekiah’s prayer?

The Lord sent Isaiah to the king with his answer, “Because you have prayed to me … I will defend this city to save it.” Concerning Sennacherib, God delivered this judgment, “Because you have raged against me … I will turn you back on the way by which you came” (Isa 37:29). As always, God was true to his word. In one night, God struck dead 185,000 of the Assyrian army. They retreated back to their homeland, and Sennacherib himself was assassinated by his own sons while he prayed to his idol-god in their temple.

God vindicated his own name against the idol-god of the Assyrians. The irony here is intentional. At the beginning of Chapter 37, Hezekiah went to the house of the Lord and found salvation. At the end of the chapter, Sennacherib went to the temple of his idol-god and found death. Truly, the Lord answers faithfulness with faithfulness!

A Self-Centered Prayer

After God spared Jerusalem, it would have been great to end Hezekiah’s story in Chapter 37 on a high note, “And King Hezekiah and his kingdom lived happily ever after.” But the Bible is not a fairy tale, and instead, the following chapter begins again on a down note: Hezekiah was terminally ill and will not recover (Isa 38:1). As he lay on his deathbed, he wept bitterly at the news from Isaiah. Why was this news so depressing to him?

First, 2 Kings 18:2 gives us a time frame for Hezekiah’s life and tenure. He was 25 years old when he became king and he reigned for 29 years, so he lived a total of 54 years. Subtracting the 15 years that the Lord added to his life after his deathly sickness, he would have been only 39 when became terminally ill. Perhaps this is why he said, “In the middle of my day I must depart” (Isa 38:10). Who wants to die at the good young age of 39? Our brother-in-law Renato was only 51 when he died almost a month ago, and we considered him “too young to die.”

Second, Hezekiah at that time did not have a son to inherit his throne. His son Manasseh was born after God extended his life. It would have been the end of Judah’s dynasty, and Hezekiah would go down in history as the last of his family’s line. His untimely death would not only be a personal tragedy, but also a disaster for a kingdom that has no rightful heir to the throne. Not only that, what about God’s promise to King David of an heir who would sit on his throne forever? If there was no heir, God would have broken his own covenant promise.

Hezekiah responded to this prophetic announcement by praying a psalm of lament and that the Lord would have mercy upon him and spare his life. His psalm in verses 10-20 divides into three parts. In verses 10-15, we read the anguish of his impending death, “I moan … my eyes are weary … the bitterness of my soul.” But after this sorrow, in verses 16-19, he has words of hope of deliverance from death and sin, “but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.” Finally, like many psalms of lament, Hezekiah concludes his prayer in verse 20 with his own confession of faith and assurance of salvation, “The Lord will save me.”

This second prayer is obviously inward and self-centered, in contrast to his God-centered, God-honoring prayer in Chapter 37. He appeals to the Lord for mercy based on his “faithful walk” and “good deeds” (Isa 38:3). This is not unusual; David once prayed, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering” (Psa 26:1). Are these selfish prayers? Not at all, because David and Hezekiah were both covenant believers who were blameless before the Lord. They were simply claiming God’s promises to his covenant people who walk blameless before God (Gen 17:1).

Hezekiah’s thoughts became inward, accepting but lamenting his impending death, because God has spoken (Isa 38:15).It is only at the end of his prayer that he gives thanks, “The Lord will save me.” But the Lord saved Hezekiah and his kingdom, not because of his faithfulness, but “for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And we will see in the events of the next chapter that his claim of faithfulness and obedience to the Lord is not the whole story of his reign.

What was God’s response to his prayer? “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.” The Lord will even show a sign that he will fulfill his promise: the sundial’s shadow on the palace’s steps will move backwards ten steps instead of forward. God will show a supernatural sign to assure Hezekiah that he alone could do what no other human being could do: a miraculous deliverance from sure death.

Unfaithful After the Lord’s Faithful Answers

Hezekiah receiving the Babylonian envoys

Hezekiah receiving the Babylonian envoys

Like Chapter 37, Chapter 38 ends with Hezekiah’s recovery from his terminal illness. Again, his biography should have ended here on a high note and a happy-ever-after epilogue. But the rest of the story follows in the next chapter, with ominous overtones.

Chapter 39 begins with the mention of Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon, sending envoys to Judah. Babylon most probably heard of Sennacherib’s downfall, and Hezekiah’s deliverance from death. This would have been a great time to form an alliance with Hezekiah against a weakened Assyrian empire. Hezekiah was delighted to be given such honor as a visit by ambassadors from the great empire to the east. He “welcomed them gladly,” and in our culture, this means that Hezekiah “wined and dined” his honored visitors.

What else did Hezekiah do? He showed that he was greatly honored and flattered by the visit by giving the envoys a tour of the palace. He showed them the majestic house of the king and all the treasures of gold, silver, spices, oil, and even his army’s weaponry. Perhaps by showing his economic and military power, Hezekiah wanted to be Babylon’s major partner in defeating the Assyrians. But in so doing, he also invited the Babylonians to covet his kingdom. He did not realize that the arrival of the Babylonians was another test of his heart (2 Chron 32:31).

Isaiah foresaw danger in this foolish naiveté by Hezekiah in showing enthusiasm and unguarded friendship to the Babylonians. The prophet foretells that since Hezekiah was so eager to show his treasures to the Babylonians, all his treasures would be plundered by the Babylonians. The people would be taken away, including Hezekiah’s own descendants who will be made eunuchs to serve as slaves of the king of Babylon. This would endanger even the successor to David’s throne. About 115 years later, in 586 B.C., Babylon conquered the southern kingdom, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, and exiled most of the people to different parts of the empire, fulfilling Isaiah’s oracle. All of these curses fell upon Judah because of the wickedness of Manasseh and the kings after him and the people (2 Kings 24:3-4).1

What was Hezekiah’s reaction to this prophecy? He confidently says to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” How can he say this when Isaiah is prophesying his kingdom’s destruction? It is because he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.” It was as if he was saying, “I don’t care what happens after I die, as long as during my watch, my kingdom enjoys peace and prosperity.” How irresponsible, uncaring and shortsighted!

Conclusion

Reformed Presbyterians regard prayer, together with the Word and sacraments, as “outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154). As well, Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 116 says that through prayer, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.” Hezekiah’s two prayers answer several frequently asked questions about the nature and purpose of prayer, in addition to being a “means of grace.”

The first and most frequently asked question concerns the relationship between God’s sovereignty and prayer: If God is sovereign and has declared everything that will come to pass, why do we still have to pray? The most obvious answer is that Scripture commands us to pray. Jesus commands us to pray (Matt 7:7-8), so did Paul and other New Testament writers (1 Thess 5:16-18; Jas 5:15). Moreover, like Hezekiah, we can give glory and honor to God when we pray. Also, when we pray, we acknowledge our dependence on God for our provisions, and thank him for meeting our needs, “By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6; 1 Thess 5:18; Eph 5:20). As well, we pray that the Lord will preserve us from temptation and evil. Finally, we are to confess our sins to God in prayer.

Another common question concerns praying for healing from sickness or for something that looks like an impossibility. Hezekiah’s two prayers show us that we can pray for healing from even deathly illness. But we also see that Hezekiah faced and accepted reality. The Assyrians were a mighty force that have laid waste all their enemies’ cities and Judah is but another puny kingdom to be trodden along their path. But he prayed, “Lord, save us!” In his deathbed, he knew that he would die because the Lord has spoken it, but he prayed, “Oh restore me to health and make me live!” Yes, we can pray for healing, but we are not to claim healing, for we do not know the mind of God.

“Prayer changes things” is a popular saying, and a related question then arises: Does God change his plans or his mind because of our prayers? False teachers who call themselves Open Theists say so, citing many Biblical prayers that seem to have altered God’s plans and even the course of history (Gen 18:22-33; Exod 32:4; Deut 9:13-29; Amos 7:1-6). With Hezekiah’s deathly illness, “Wasn’t [God] being duplicitous when he initially told Hezekiah that he would not recover? And if … the Lord was certain all along that Hezekiah would, in fact, live fifteen years after this episode, wasn’t it misleading for God to tell him that he was adding fifteen years to his life?”2 But this is impossible, because God is unchangeable and omniscient. He foreknew that Hezekiah would pray in those situations. And he already had ordained what he would do after Hezekiah prayed. From human perspective, we see changes: nations defeated, people healed, evil stopped, and disasters averted. But from God’s omniscient perspective, nothing changes.

Lastly, God uses people as instruments in fulfilling his purposes. He used Sennacherib to fulfill his plan to destroy Assyria and save his people. He used Hezekiah’s prayers to save Judah. He used Babylon to punish his rebellious people, but he also used the Persians to save his remnant who returned to Canaan. His chief purpose in all these? To produce the Messiah, the Christ, from the line of David and Hezekiah, to complete the salvation of his people.

How did God hear Hezekiah’s prayers for forgiveness and salvation? Only through the fulfillment of God’s promise to his father David: the Son of David who would sit on his father’s throne forever, whose kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom. Jesus the Messiah would teach us that he is the One who saves his people from sin through his once for all sacrifice for the forgiveness of all our sins.

Through the preaching of the gospel to all nations, Christ has conquered the “strongman’s” kingdom and is now plundering it of its treasures—captives who are now in the kingdom of heaven. They were deathly ill, without hope, but through the Spirit of Christ, have been translated from death into life, because they trusted in the Son of David rather than the “king of Babylon.”

After his sacrifice, this Savior would be raised from the grave and ascend into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father. But he first taught us how to pray. And when we pray in the Holy Spirit, Christ our Mediator brings our adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplications to his Father’s throne of grace. When he answers our prayers, we then are assured that he hears our prayers and he will save us to the uttermost. Lastly, Christ the King is now leading a procession of these exiles who are now aliens and strangers traveling in a thorny, rocky wilderness on their way back to their heavenly promised land.

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1 Here’s an estimated timeline of the last years of the divided monarchy:

931 B.C.: Solomon dies; Rehoboam becomes king; northern tribes revolt under Jeroboam
735 B.C.: Pekah, king of Israel, allies with Syria against Assyria
722 B.C.: Samaria, capital of northern kingdom (Israel), falls to Assyria
c. 701 B.C.: Hezekiah, king of Judah, allies with Egypt against Assyria; Hezekiah falls deathly ill but God extends his life for 15 more years; Sennacherib fails to conquer Jerusalem and retreats back to Assyria
698 B.C.: Manasseh born to Hezekiah
686 B.C.: Hezekiah dies; Manasseh becomes king
586 B.C.: Jerusalem falls to Babylon; temple destroyed

2 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 82.

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