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Finishing Well… Or, Not So Much

MORNING MESSAGE: John Cline

Text: 2 Kings 20; 2 Chronicles 32:22-33; Isaiah 38,39,40  

Reader: Shannon Robertson

The apostle Paul, aware that he was nearing the end of his life as he was in prison awaiting the execution that the Roman emperor had sentenced him to because of his refusal to worship Caesar or Roman gods but only Jesus, wrote to encourage his spiritual son, Timothy:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Paul was a role model for Timothy, and for us, of a good, decent, faithful man and servant of the Lord’s. In our sermon series through the kings of the divided nations of Israel and Judah, there was only one king who could approach Paul in such credentials, that being King Hezekiah, a king who the Old Testament writers claimed was above all other kings in faithfulness to the Lord, one who was powerfully effective in the decisions he made for the well-being of his nation of Judah. However, unlike Paul, Hezekiah did not finish the race of life well, but with a whimper, as he let pride take him over. To pick up where we left off last Sunday, YHWH God has saved the city of Jerusalem by wiping out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers who had laid siege to the city preparing to attack it, an event which archaeologists, btw,  have recently stated has their support as being historically accurate.

So, the Lord saved Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all others. He took care of themon every side. Many brought offerings to Jerusalem for the Lord and valuable gifts for Hezekiah king of Judah. From then on, he was highly regarded by all the nations. (2 Chronicles 32:22,23)

Picking up on that theme, the Bible tells us a little later on:

Hezekiah had very great wealth and honor, and he made treasuries for his silver and gold and for his precious stones, spices, shields and all kinds of valuables. He also made buildings to store the harvest of grain, new wine and olive oil; and he made stalls for various kinds of cattle, and pens for the flocks. He built villages and acquired great numbers of flocks and herds, for God had given him very great riches. It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon Spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David. He succeeded in everything he undertook. (2nd Chronicles 32:27-30)

Hezekiah was an outstanding leader. For example, the tunnel that he had built, in which the workers started underground at one end, and at the Gihon Spring at the other end, which had the tunnel workers amazingly meet in the middle, deep underground, was an engineering marvel for its day. Next time you go to Jerusalem, take a walk through it, as Brad and Andrea Guthrie did. During his fine Lenten Devotional a few months ago on Hezekiah, we saw a photo Andrea took of Brad getting wet in the watery tunnel. Sadly, all of his accomplishments puffed up Hezekiah’s ego, and bad things came to him as a result.        

In 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 turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, 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. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him:“Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler 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. I 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.’” (2 Kings 20:1-6)

Historians, studying the diseases of that day, believe that Hezekiah was suffering from a type of bubonic plague that caused boils on a person’s body. The prophet Isaiah, lacking in what we would call “good bedside manners”, was blunt with Hezekiah: “You will not recover. You will die, so put your house in order.” Hezekiah responded with a painfully self-indulgent, spiritually immature prayer. It is found in its totality in Isaiah 38 if you want to read it on your own time, but, taking some of its sentences verbatim, here is what Hezekiah said to God, “Woe is me. In the very prime of life, I have to leave. Whatever time I have left is spent in death’s waiting room. No more glimpses of God in the land of the living, no more meetings with my neighbors, no more rubbing shoulders with friends. This body I inhabit is taken down and packed away like a camper’s tent. Like a weaver, I’ve rolled up the carpet of my life as God cuts me free of the loom and at day’s end sweeps up the scraps and pieces. I cry for help until morning. Like a lion, God pummels and pounds me, relentlessly finishing me off. I squawk like a doomed hen, moan like a dove. My eyes ache from looking up for help: “Master, I’m in trouble! Get me out of this!” But what’s the use? God himself gave me the word. He’s done it to me.”  Hezekiah does eventually change his tune somewhat from being only about his woes to expressing gratitude to God for the gift of life itself: “It’s the living—live men, live women—who thank you, just as I’m doing right now.” If I heard such a self-indulgent prayer, I would probably just raise my eyebrows in response, but God was gracious and told Isaiah:

“Go, tell Hezekiah, ‘I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I 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.’” (Isaiah 38:5,6)

This event is one of the very few Old Testament stories written about in three places. But we can read about it in 2 Kings 20, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 38 and 39. Three good news items for Hezekiah to absorb: God would heal him, He would give him 15 more years of life, and God would also save Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. We read,

Then Isaiah said, “Prepare a poultice of figs.” They did so and applied it to the boil, and he recovered. (2 Kings 20:7)

Instead of responding by expressing gratitude, however, Hezekiah demanded a sign from God that would prove the healing was real. To make such a demand in the face of God’s graciousness did not reveal true spiritual maturity or leadership.

Hezekiah had asked Isaiah, “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?” Isaiah answered, “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?” “It is a simple matter for the shadow to go forward ten steps,” said Hezekiah. “Rather, have it go back ten steps.” Then the prophet Isaiah called on the Lord, and the Lord made the shadow go back the ten steps it had gone down on the stairway of Ahaz. (2 Kings 20:8-11)

The nerve of Hezekiah! God has told him that He would heal him and yet he feels so entitled that it is alright to demand a sign from God? And not just any old sign, but one never seen by anyone before? Scholars comment that this sign was ironically appropriate for Hezekiah in that it involved the shadow of the sundial moving backward, not forward, thus giving more time to the day, just as God had given Hezekiah more time to his life. But this demand for a sign from God is not to be admired or imitated by us. On the question of how this miracle was done, the bible does not say. There are any number of ways that God could have done this miracle, but it seems to have been a localized event only, for unlike other biblical miracles involving the stars, the sun, the moon, and eclipses, etc., there seems to be no evidence that this miracle happened anywhere else on planet earth. God did that miracle only for Hezekiah.

But Hezekiah’s heart was proud, and he did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore, the Lord’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem. Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart, as did the people of Jerusalem; therefore, the Lord’s wrath did not come on them during the days of Hezekiah.         (2nd Chronicles 32:25,26)

How was it that God’s “wrath” did not come on the Jews during Hezekiah’s lifetime? We will hear the explanation of that now.

But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.   (2nd Chronicles 32:31)

When we replace the praise of God on our lives with the praise of humans or of other gods, that is sinful pride. Hezekiah wanted the praise of Babylonians rather than being satisfied with God’s praise, and so we read that revealing phrase, “God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart”. Such a revealing passage for us to consider and apply to our own lives! The fuller story was this:

At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of Hezekiah’s illness. Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, “What did those men say, and where did they come from?” “From a distant land,” Hezekiah replied. “They came from Babylon.” The prophet asked, “What did they see in your palace?” “They saw everything in my palace,” Hezekiah said. “There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.” Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (2 Kings 20:12-18)

The tragic depths of Hezekiah’s spiritual decline as seen in his last 15 years of life are seen in that instead of being grateful to God and mindful of the fact that having God on one’s side is all that he needed in his life, Hezekiah went looking for the praise of others, including unwisely, the praise of Babylonian envoys. Babylon was a rising superpower in that day. Perhaps Hezekiah wished to sway them to thinking favourably of him and his nation of Judah, but his decision to show off Judah’s and his riches would backfire – you never show your hand to your opponent! – and lead to the eventual destruction of Judah, an event that would see Hezekiah’s own flesh and blood humbled, physically mutilated and emasculated by their future Babylonian rulers. Hezekiah didn’t care about that, as is evidenced in the incredulous statement we hear next:

“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?” (2 Kings 20:19)

“Whew, at least I am safe from that disaster!” is what Hezekiah thought. Unreal. Self-centeredness at its fullest. It really is such a head-shaking response. How does one do anything but laugh at it?

The other events of Hezekiah’s reign and his acts of devotion are written in the vision of the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz in the book of the kings of Judah and Israel. Hezekiah rested with his ancestors and was buried on the hill where the tombs of David’s descendants are. All Judah and the people of Jerusalem honored him when he died. And Manasseh his son succeeded him as king. (2 Chronicles 32:32-33)

The self-centeredness of Hezekiah brought bad results, the worst being the future exile of his nation in Babylon, but the second worst being that he was an absolute failure as a father. He did not train his child up “in the way he should go”, as the Bible instructs parents to do. This is seen in the reign of Manasseh his son, who succeeded him as king. Guess what? Just as Hezekiah was the best king Judah ever had (until his final 15 years of life), Manasseh was the worst king, the most evil and sinful king Judah ever had. How is that for a pathetic legacy for a man who started off so well? We will look at Manasseh next Sunday but, for the rest of today’s sermon, we will focus on God’s response to those horrible coming events. In the book of Isaiah, right after horrifying prophecy that the grandsons of Hezekiah would be mutilated and emasculated into becoming eunuchs serving in the Babylonian court, and that the residents of Jerusalem would be torn away from their homes and forced to live as slaves in exile in the nation of Babylon, God reveals in Isaiah 40 that the story of Judah would not end with that disgrace. As you remember, the Messiah would come out of the family line of King David, which included both Hezekiah and Manasseh, as well as those family members taken away into Babylonian exile. God was not about to let that family line end, nor have His people of Judah to suffer forever, thus He said this:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1,2)

Jerusalem would be saved, her hard service completed, her sins paid for, and the Jews would return to their beloved city 70 years after they were taken away into Babylonian exile. The preservation of the line through which the Messiah would come was of such importance at the time of Hezekiah that God gave Isaiah prophetical words about its fulfillment, which would famously be applied to John the Baptist:

A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

(Isaiah 40:3-5)

These words of prophecy were written during the time of Hezekiah! The Messiah Jesus was coming! That has turned out to be good news for everyone!

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint. (Is 40:28-31)

So, let us not be like Hezekiah, a whimper of his former faithful self by the time he died. But let us be like Paul, a person who finished his life well. Let us heed the words of Jesus from Luke 18 and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And, let us be as Isaiah prophesied: a people who place our hope solely in the Lord. When we do, we will have our strength renewed, we will soar through life like majestic eagles, we will not grow weary of life, but run through it, walking and not failing. Let’s be that kind of people for God is with us and Jesus our Messiah has come! Amen.

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