Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Salvation Belongs To Our God (II Kings 18-20)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve found the book of Kings rather grueling. Sometimes reading the Bible is just plain work, like hiking up a steep mountain where trees and brush obscure any view. I slog through pages I’d quickly skim over if they were in any other book, and it is all I can do to keep one foot moving forward after another. Then, when I least expect it, I come across a vision of such grandeur and glory that it simply takes my breath away.

Hezekiah and Sennacherib may as well be David and Goliath.

The story begins with the aftermath of the fall of the northern kingdom. Judah is quaking at the might of the mighty empire of Assyria at her gates. Pacified for a moment by tribute, new envoys soon arrive with a fell message for the terrified officials of Jerusalem.
Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. … Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
The officials beg the envoy to speak in Aramaic, rather than a language that the people standing on the wall to understand. The emissary responds:
Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?
He then shouts up to the people of Jerusalem:
Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 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. … Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
The terrifying bluster is met with stone silence. Not a single word is spoken. Deep in the citadel, King Hezekiah reacts to the news with a desparate plea to the Lord:
Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.
The prophet Isaiah brings the Lord’s answer:
Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel! By your messengers you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, “With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest lodging place, its most fruitful forest. I dug wells and drank foreign waters, and I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.”

Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown.

But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.
That very night the angel of the Lord kills over a hundred thousand Assyrian soldiers. Sennacherib is forced to return to Nineveh, where he is assassinated by his own sons. Because of David, God once again saves Jerusalem from destruction. Judah comes within an inch of his life, but the Lord has gives him a breath of hope.

Later, Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that he will die of an illness. When the desperate King implores the Lord to change his mind and spare his life, God changes his mind and grants him another fifteen years. Like his kingdom, the king himself has been granted life in the face of the grave.

But Hezekiah is no David. At the end of his life he fathers Manasseh, the most infamously idolatrous King in all the history of Judah. He also exposes all of his palaces and goods to impress ambassadors from Babylon. After the prophet Isaiah warns him that this very country will one day take all of these goods for themselves, Hezekiah is shockingly apathetic:
Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
No tears were spared grieving the impending loss of his own life, but the prophecy of Judah’s fall produces not a sniffle. Where is the compassion of Abraham, who will plead with God for the city of Sodom? Where is the tenacity of Jacob who will hold fast to the Lord until he secures a blessing for him and his offspring? Where is the mercy of Moses who told God that if he wants to reject Israel, he must reject him as well? Where is the agonized cry of David, telling the Lord to spare the sheep and punish his house alone? Hezekiah may have done “what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, but the salvation of the people of God lies in the faithfulness of a greater King.

Hezekiah is another example of a God-wrestler, but it confuses me. He gets his extra 15 years, but the only things we know about them are that he fathers Manasseh and that he shows off to the envoys from Babylon. God gave him what he asked for, but it doesn't seem to have turned out good. Does that add a new dimension to the theology of God-wrestling?

WFO, I've been quite busy of late - but here's a hint as to where I came from: I was born in a twon called Harrismith.

Hi Em,

The most obvious answer, I suppose, is that wrestling with God doesn't guarantee that you are in the right any more than it proves you wrong. In the case of Moses and David, they wrestles with God on behalf of the people. In the case of Jacob, he wrestles in order to obtain the blessing of the Lord on his house and establish the covenant. In the case of Job (at his best), he wrestles to gain wisdom and see righteousness vindicated. In the case of Hezekiah, it really does seem to only be for his own personal benefit as far as I can tell.

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