Chapter 8-2 Hezekiah: Faith And Weakness
Hezekiah and faith go together. “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel: so that after him there was none like him among all the kings” (2 Kings 18:5). There was no king like him for his faith / trust [note a similar rubric used about Josiah in 2 Kings 23:25, in relation to Josiah’s obedience to the Law]. Josiah was the most obedient king; Hezekiah was the most faith-ful. But 2 Kings 18:6 goes on to say that this faith was “for” or because Hezekiah was obedient to God’s commandments. Here we see the upward spiral in the spiritual life, and how each aspect of spirituality reinforces others. His obedience reinforced his faith; indeed the entire Law of Moses wasn’t designed as a hopeless obstacle course, it was “holy, just and good” and was intended to lead people to faith, especially in the Messiah to come.
2 Kings 18:14 “I have sinned” suggests Hezekiah took false guilt; lack of faith in God often is related to false guilt. Faith in God’s opinion and perspective on us saves us from such false guilt. Even worse, Hezekiah treated Sennacherib as God, addressing him with the language of confession and repentance which should be directed only to God. By doing so, he believed in Sennacherib as God. And whenever we let people give us false guilt, we are effectively believing in them as God rather than in the one true God. Hezekiah then stripped the temple of its gold, representing faith, and gave it to the Assyrians. It was a sad blip on the screen in Hezekiah’s life of faith. The way he has to deal with the prophet Isaiah through messengers soon afterwards may suggest an estrangement between Hezekiah and Isaiah- exactly because of this.
After this lapse of faith in paying off Sennacherib, it became harder for Hezekiah to show faith again. Now it was going to be really hard to rebel against him and refuse the payments. I take the comment in 2 Kings 18:7 that Hezekiah rebelled against Assyria and refused to serve / worship him as part of a summary of what Hezekiah did in his life. He refused any longer to serve Sennacherib as God, but decided to serve Yahweh alone. This rebellion against Sennacherib is singled out as the most noteworthy thing he did. He had submitted to Assyria, paid what they asked, made an agreement with them. And then he broke it, and so the Assyrians sent their army against Hezekiah. If this isn’t the correct reconstruction, then we have the scenario of Hezekiah sending money to Assyria as they requested, but then them coming and invading anyway. In every other case of gold being given to buy off Israel’s enemies, it seems the bargain was stuck to, at least in the short term.
So Hezekiah paid all the wealth of Judah to Assyria and entered an agreement with them. And it seems he impoverished Judah yet more by then making some arrangement with Egypt to throw off the Assyrian domination (2 Kings 18:21,24). Hezekiah really did mess up. But then he breaks the agreement with Assyria, inevitably provoking an Assyrian invasion of his now impoverished country. He must’ve been almost alone in this. Because doing this made no human sense; his cabinet and people would’ve surely been against it. Following our conscience often puts us in situations like this.
But Hezekiah was determined to live by faith. It would seem from Rabshakeh’s words to the people of Jerusalem that Hezekiah had begun a ‘Trust in God!’ campaign: “Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD by saying, ‘The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria'... do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us” (2 Kings 18:30,32). “The Lord will deliver us” therefore appears to have been a catchcry of Hezekiah to all the people. Jerusalem was surrounded by her strong enemies, whom Hezekiah had sorely provoked by faithlessly siding with Egypt against them and then in faith towards God breaking off his agreement with the Assyrians. So now Hezekiah was driven to throw himself upon God for a miracle. His utter confidence is recognized by God, when He speaks of how the faithful remnant in Jerusalem- the “virgin daughter of Zion”- had despised Assyria, laughed her to scorn, and wagged her head at Assyria (2 Kings 19:21). That would’ve required an extraordinary level of faith to do that. Hezekiah wasn’t just hoping for the best, using prayer as a last resort, a kind of back up insurance policy after doing all he could. This was the prayer and faith of utter confidence, believing that things that are not are in fact, and being so sure they will come about that this faith actually affects our feelings. Hezekiah felt confident, superior to the Assyrians, all the feelings that come from knowing that one is in a far stronger position. This is a challenge in our self-assessment. To what extent does our confidence in faith affect our emotions and feelings?
It seems that when Hezekiah said “The Lord will surely deliver us”, he said it with such confidence that the people were inclined to share his faith. Several times, Rabshakeh picks up this word “deliver” and mocks that no other nation had been ‘delivered’ from Assyria, so why should Judah be. It seems Hezekiah took this catchword from Isaiah’s earlier prophecy of Is. 31:5, where he had stated that “Like birds hovering, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it”. Hezekiah had heard those words of the Lord; and he believed them, even when they appeared to have no human chance of fulfilment. We too need to cling on to just one verse of Scripture and believe it. Of course we try to excuse our lack of faith by spiritualizing it away, wondering whether it can really apply to me, here, today. Hezekiah must’ve gone through the same. But it seems he ceased upon that one verse... and clung to it. This is where our faith in the Bible as God’s word isn’t merely a painless academic assent to a proposition. To believe God’s word is true demands an awful lot from us.
Rabshakeh confirmed the threatened destruction of Jerusalem with a letter. Hezekiah took this “before the Lord”. His first response was not to turn to Egypt; he’d learnt the wrongness of that. He went to the house of the Lord. Whilst we are always in God’s presence, there is surely a sense in which coming into His presence through prayer is drawing yet closer to Him. And so it was with the special presence of YHWH in the temple at that time. Hezekiah was aware that YHWH ‘dwells between the cherubim” (2 Kings 19:15). Presumably standing before the ark, Hezekiah “spread out” the letter (2 Kings 19:14). The Hebrew word translated ‘spread out’ is the same as that usually used about how the wings of the cherubim were ‘spread out’ over the ark (Ex. 25:20; 37:9). It’s also the word used in Solomon’s prophecy of how repentant people would spread out their hands in the temple at the time of the punishment for their sins, and receive forgiveness and help: “Whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing his own affliction and his own sorrow and stretching out his hands in this house, then hear from heaven your dwelling place and forgive” (2 Chron. 6:29,30). And Hezekiah would also have been only too aware of Isaiah’s judgment against Judah of a few years earlier: “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Is. 1:15). But Hezekiah summoned his faith in God’s forgiveness, and spread out his hands as he spread out the letter. He showed his deep repentance, and his faith in forgiveness to such an extent that he was bold enough to ask God for deliverance. Faith in forgiveness of our sins is perhaps one of the hardest things to believe in- strangely enough, seeing that God delights in forgiveness.
So Hezekiah ‘spread out’ the letter before the Lord. Perhaps he even placed it upon the top of the ark, beneath the spread out wings of the cherubim, upon the blood-sprinkled mercy seat or atonement cover, symbolizing the future work of the Lord Jesus. He brought the situation before the presence of God. He asks God to open His eyes and see (2 Kings 19:16). I take this as a tacit recognition from Hezekiah that God had turned away His eyes from Judah and Hezekiah personally because of their sin. But Hezekiah believed in the promises of forgiveness, and asks God to therefore respond to the awful situation they were in.
He believed that the cherubim-Angels would take note of that letter. And it’s significant that God’s response was to send an Angel to destroy the Assyrians. It may help us to focus our faith in prayers by being aware of the way that God responds to prayer through sending out Angels. He is enthroned, as Hezekiah put it, upon the cherubim. Another stimulus to faith is to reflect how God is creator of Heaven and earth (2 Kings 19:15). Believing that the cosmos was created and didn’t evolve from nothing isn’t a painless academic decision which we take somewhere within our brain cells. To believe God is the creator means that we believe that nothing in the life of this planet or our own lives is therefore too hard for Him to do.
Hezekiah’s faith was also strengthened by having the right motives: “Save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone” (2 Kings 19:19). This is alluded to by the Lord in His prayer just before His death: “That the world may know” (Jn. 17:23). Hezekiah’s prayer for the Assyrian destruction was in fact so that the Gentile nations around Judah would come to know Yahweh, to accept Him. What finer motivation! This was no selfish shriek for help.
It’s surely significant that Hezekiah is stated to be Judah’s most faith-ful King, and yet he had a major lack of faith when he cut off the gold of the temple and gave it to the Assyrians; and he asks God to give him a sign that the promised healing was really going to happen. Indeed the whole nature of the dialogue seems to indicate a man of somewhat faltering faith, needing every encouragement:
“Then Isaiah told the king's attendants to put on his boil a paste made of figs, and he would get well. King Hezekiah asked, "What is the sign to prove that the LORD will heal me and that three days later I will be able to go to the Temple?" Isaiah replied, "The LORD will give you a sign to prove that he will keep his promise. Now, would you prefer to have the shadow on the stairway go forward ten steps or go back ten steps?" Hezekiah answered, "It's easy to have the shadow go forward ten steps! Have it go back ten steps." (2 Kings 20:7-10). Firstly, Hezekiah asks for a sign “to prove” that God’s predicted cure of him was going to happen. And when given the option of the shadow of the sun jumping forward by ten degrees, he almost mocks that as too ‘easy’. Yet this is the man with the accolade that no King believed in God like he did. Perhaps he reached his heights of faith through having these low moments. ‘Putting God to the test’ as it seems Hezekiah did is seen in Scripture as not fully believing in Him (Num. 14:20-24; Dt. 6:16; Is. 7:12; Lk. 11:33-36). Maybe God left Hezekiah to test him in the matter of the ambassadors from Babylon as a kind of response- ‘You put me to the test, I’ll put you to the test’ (2 Chron. 32:31). Let’s remember that in Bible characters like Hezekiah, we are reading only a few cameos of their lives. Most of his life history, his inner thoughts, are unknown to us. But God’s summary statement was that he was the most believing King of Judah. So when we read cameos from his life that reflect a weakened faith, we surely have little option but to conclude that somehow in the Divine economy, low points of faith lead a person to higher and stronger ones. And we can all take a lot of comfort from that conclusion as we survey our own lives.