"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Powerful Answers to Prayer in Judah - A Monumental Request

See 2 Kings 17-19, 2 Chronicles 32, & Isaiah 36-37.

The northern kingdom has fallen.  The Assyria armies have taken Samaria. 

Something like these words no doubt reached the ears of King Hezekiah of Judah, and their reception would excite a definite measure of concern for his tiny kingdom.  Hoshea, king of Israel, had defied Assyria years before, and quickly found himself imprisoned and his kingdom besieged.  Three gaunt and bleak years passed before Israel succumbed and was carried into distant exile - such was the strong and settled resolve of the Assyrian host.

Hezekiah, a king rare and conspicuous in his humble servitude of the one true God, a man blessed with manifold successes by the Lord, had also defied Assyrian rule and refused to pay tribute.  For three tenuous years, Israel had absorbed Assyria's martial energies - for three fleeting years, Hezekiah's defiance was suffered by the Assyrians as Israel's resistance wore away.  Now this buffer was dashed to pieces and swept away.  What would come now?  We gather from Isaiah 28 that, against the wishes of the Lord, the rulers of Judah treated with Egypt in a bid for greater military strength, but the next eight years were met with an ominous silence from Assyria.

We have received reports, my lord, that Sennacherib has fielded a vast army and they are moving along southward along the coast.1  It is impossible to discern their objective at this point.
The Assyrian host has shifted its advance eastward.  Even now they are crossing into Judah.

It is as we feared.  Our fortified cities are being overrun.

Lachish has been sacked.

Mareshah cannot hold.

Adullum is under attack.

We have lost Hebron.

There are no free strongholds left in Judah, except Jerusalem.

The southwestern region of Judah was by no means the soft underbelly of the country, militarily speaking.  It had been strengthened extensively by Rehoboam (2 Chron. 11:5-12) and others, but it may as well have been shored up with straw as King Sennacherib gobbled up city after city.  If there was an alliance with Egypt during this time, Egypt did not stir.  Hezekiah stood alone in a shrinking territory.  He could not fight Sennacherib on equal terms, and Judah's weakness was showing day by day - she was dying.  The noose was tightening.  The Assyrians could push to Jerusalem in mere days, and there was nowhere to retreat.  The councillors stood silent; the generals were grim.  What can we do?  What remains to be done?  Send to Sennacherib; tell him we have erred in defying him.  Offer him anything, anything, and beg that he might desist in his bloody campaign. 

Sennacherib demanded 30 talents of gold, and 300 of silver.  Alas that Hezekiah's forebears had trodden this same dolorous path several times before (2 Kings 12:18, 16:8), and Judah's treasuries lay emaciated.  This total could not be extracted from them.  Hezekiah conceded to empty the house of his Lord of its silver articles, but even then, he wanted for gold.  There is gold on the doors and doorposts of the temple.  Let it be stripped off.  How his heart must have grieved to make this pronouncement, as he himself had clad the temple in such splendor!  The gold that he had dedicated to his holy, precious God, he now freely took back in order to fearfully deliver it to a pagan king who lived in utter defiance of God.

Twice Hezekiah had conceived plans to save his land apart from faith in the intervening hand of the Lord, and the first, his alliance with Egypt, had come to nothing.  His hope in the second would also prove disastrous as an envoy of Sennacherib came to Jerusalem, demanding Hezekiah's surrender, in spite of the painful tribute that had been proffered.  There is nothing to save you.  Other nations have beseeched their gods, and their gods have all utterly failed them.  So it will be with Judah. 

No earthly recourse lay at hand - no alliance, no armies, no wealth, no negotiations could intervene.  Hezekiah's hands were finally emptied.  Such times are often used by the Lord, are they not?  In the face of our faithless acts, He will at times systematically remove all options until we are obliged in helplessness to remember Him and to look to Him.  For Hezekiah, the temple of the Lord (which now stood stripped bare - not by Judah's enemies, but sadly by his own decree) became his place of refuge, and he prayed earnestly and humbly to his Lord.  O Lord, the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth.  Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see; and listen to the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God.  Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have devastated 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. So they have destroyed them.  Now, O Lord our God, I pray, deliver us from his hand that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, O Lord, are God. (2 Kings 19:15-19)

This is a very comely prayer indeed, and we must note several features in passing.  First, it does not reproach the Lord with any note of sourness, as in "Why have You not labored with me in the plans I have made?"  Where it could be accusatory, it is instead worshipful:  it acknowledges wholeheartedly God's unique and independent sovereignty over all things.  Neither is it presumptuous; its requests are not demands.  Finally, it transcends the immediate circumstances and looks ultimately not at the plight of God's people, but at the glory of God's name.  Hezekiah words righteously importune, "Vindicate Your holy name, O Lord," and not "Vindicate Your obviously deserving people, O Lord."

This is not a formula by which we unlock the power of God to work on our behalf, of course.  Our omniscient God cannot be coerced by any means.  Rather, this is a mindset whereby we submit ourselves to the perfect will of the living God.  If His mighty hand moves on our behalf, we are glad; if, for reasons all His own, it does not stir, we are not offended.  We wait confidently on His good pleasure. 

The Lord did not hesitate to send His answer through Isaiah:  God had purposed from before time to give Assyria its strength for toppling cities and kings; however, their rebellion against Him had made them worthy of defeat, and the time had come.  The Lord declared that He would lead Sennacherib back to his own land, and furthermore, that he would neither set foot in Jerusalem, nor lay siege to it, nor fire arrows into it, nor assault it.

To put it more bluntly, after Hezekiah had exhausted his own paltry options, to absolutely no avail, he humbled himself before the Lord, and the Lord responded that He would surely deal with Assyria, and in such a way that Judah would not by any stretch be able to claim any part in that victory.  Assyria would be turned aside even before it could move upon Jerusalem.  Assyria's strength and Judah's helplessness would both contribute to God's amazing glory in this matter.

Hezekiah's prayer to God prompted Him to unveil yet another brilliant gem of glory as well.  God raised up the Assyrians and allowed them to perpetrate their massive conquests.  In so doing, he used them to show the falseness of local idols throughout the region as city after city was overthrown, despite the prayers offered to gods of man's handiwork.  How incredible, then, that God should bring these overwhelming conquerors, these idol-killers, against Himself, and use their efforts to demonstrate beyond doubt that He is very real, and insurmountably powerful, and always sovereign!  Hezekiah's prayer brought an incredibly glorious answer from the Lord of glory Himself!

Most are familiar with the particular form that this glorious response took - in the span of a single night, the Lord Himself, the pre-incarnate Christ, came and simply killed 185,000 from Sennacherib's army - specifically all the valiant men and all the leaders.  This constitutes more soldiers than the entire Allied force that invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944.  It is more soldiers than those who fought at Gettysburg - on both sides.  Our search, and indeed, Sennacherib's search, for an explanation apart from divine intervention, is definitively confounded.  This was an act of God - pure, divine, and simple.  Judah was saved by the Almighty on that day, and Sennacherib quickly withdrew, never to return.

How wondrous it is that such a response should come after a prayer given by an imperfect man who had acted faithlessly not so long before!  I need hardly mention the incredible trove of grace, patience, power, and authority that this event reveals within our God, but I would urge you to consider this wonder, to rejoice at it, and to marvel at how strongly our God responds to prayers from people not unlike ourselves.  We will, I think, find both glad adoration and steadfast prayer close at hand as we do so.

1 So says the Beitzel's New Moody Atlas of the Bible in its various maps of this campaign.


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