Studies in the Book of Kings 2 Kings 20:1-21


2 Kings 20:1-21

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Interestingly as, for example, with the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, so in Kings you frequently have a narrative that is doubled somewhere else in the Old Testament; very often in Chronicles. This is particularly true of the latter part of 2 Kings after Israel, the northern kingdom, is out of the picture and we read only of the kings of the southern kingdom, the kings of Judah. The history we are about to read is reported not only in 2 Chronicles 32 but also in Isaiah 38-39.

Text Comment

v.1      “In those days” we learn in v. 6 was at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib. So hard on the heels of one magnificent deliverance, the destruction of Sennacherib’s army by the angel of the Lord, came one still more personal to Hezekiah himself. This happened in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign. He would eventually reign 29 years as we read in 18:1. There is some question about the chronology here. We will get to that in a moment.

v.2       There is some sense of sulking here, as the NIV has it. We wish for a bit more manliness on Hezekiah’s part and more faith in the goodness and justice of the Lord.

v.3       Now that statement on Hezekiah’s part, that argument that he made in his prayer, nowadays tends to bother Christian readers of the Bible perhaps in a way that it did not a generation or more ago. The simple fact of the matter is that sort of assertion of faithfulness to God is commonplace in the Bible. It is found repeatedly in the Psalms. Moses says as much as Hezekiah does here, so does David, Nehemiah, and the Apostle Paul. In such cases no claim is being made to sinlessness. These men knew they were sinners, they knew how often they had let the Lord down, how often they had broken one of the commandments in thought, word or deed, but they also could honestly say that they were the Lord’s men, had lived as the Lord’s men, and had served his cause. And, of course, the Bible explicitly tells us that their claims to righteous living were true. In Hezekiah’s case we read that already in 18:3-8 and the Lord’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer, as we will soon read, seems to confirm that its argument weighed with the Lord. When the Lord promises to tell his disciples “Well done, good and faithful servant,” he is certainly not saying that they were without sin. He is saying they lived faithful lives. There is such a thing as a faithful, Christian life. We never want to read the Bible in such a way as to begin to doubt that it’s possible to live a faithful life before the Lord. Multitudes of God’s people have lived such lives.

v.4       Isaiah had delivered his message to the king and left the palace, but he had not even got as far as through the middle court – the area between the palace and the temple – before Hezekiah’s prayer had been offered, heard, and answered. So the prophet was told to turn around and give Hezekiah a new message.

v.5       “The third day” amounts to “the day after tomorrow.”

v.6       So Hezekiah’s healing became emblematic of the deliverance of the city and of the nation from the Assyrian invasion and siege.

v.7       We learn later that the disease Hezekiah was suffering from originated from a boil. Figs were thought to have medicinal properties but, of course, the Lord had already promised a cure. As sometimes in the Lord’s miracles of healing there is an outward act that accompanies the divine work. Think of the mud the Lord daubed on the blind man’s eyes and so on. No one is entirely sure why the Lord used those artifices but he did. Here it is a poultice designed to draw poison from the lesion. It may be that the Lord actually empowered that particular remedy and made it the instrument of healing.

v.8       Even after the Lord’s promise, Hezekiah isn’t entirelyconvinced. He is like Gideon wanting a sign.

v.11     It isn’t actually any easier to advance the shadow than to draw it back, but it may seem so!

v.12     Merodach-baladan wasn’t just a really kind guy who was always sending get well notes to friends that he knew in high places, he was the king of Babylon from 721-710 B.C. and again for six months in 703-702 B.C. The siege of Jerusalem by the Assryians, remember, occurred in 701 B.C. So this visit was either made during Merodach-baladan’s second stint on the throne and so just before the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem or he had already been deposed and he was now scheming to regain power with the help of others. According to Josephus the Babylonian’s purpose was to secure Hezekiah’s support for an anti-Assyrian coalition. He would have known, of course, that Hezekiah was virtually the only king in the Levant who had stood up to the Assyrians and resisted their advance. The Babylonians were already challenging their Assyrian overlords and, of course, would in some years defeat them and become the new great empire of the ANE world. It is possible that Hezekiah himself had some hopes of Babylonian support in his resistance to Assyria, hopes that were eventually dashed. [Wiseman, 288; Leithart, 259]

v.13     This was apparently before Hezekiah had to strip Jerusalem of its wealth in his failed effort to buy peace from the Assyrians. Isaiah, of course, consistently condemned efforts to secure peace for Israel or Judah by alliances with pagan empires. Now it seems from statements already made in the chapter that this particular healing and the promise of the lengthening of Hezekiah’s life may have come before the destruction of the Assyrian army by the Angel of the Lord. If that were the case, it would mean that Hezekiah had not yet stripped the nation’s wealth to pay tribute to Assyria in hopes of buying Sennacherib’s removal from Judah which as we found out in the last chapter did not in fact do the trick. Clearly Hezekiah here was proud of his wealth and enjoyed the opportunity to display it to people who would be duly impressed. That suggests that all of the gold and silver, 10 tons of silver and 1 on of gold that would later be sent to Assyria was still in the treasure houses of Jerusalem. If all of this happened after the siege, then he would have shown them what he had, but it would have been considerably less than what he had had shortly before. In any case, Hezekiah showed himself enamored of his own greatness, not the Lord’s!

v.15     Hezekiah still hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that he had done a very foolish thing: even when the question was asked he was happy to answer it.

v.18     Isaiah effectively warned Hezekiah that such an alliance as Hezekiah was obviously contemplating with the Babylonian’s and the human calculation that lay behind it would not save Judah. What is more, the human cost of Babylonian rule would be just as terrible as that of Assyrian. Perhaps Isaiah was also saying that Judah couldn’t count on a second supernatural deliverance such as the Lord was about to grant her against the Assyrians.

v.19     Hezekiah’s response is terribly disappointing. There is in this reply no repentance for his foolish pride, no consideration of the welfare of anyone besides himself, including members of his own family who had been cursed because of Hezekiah’s sin, and, unlike his prayer in 19:14-19, no concern for the honor of the Lord.

v.20     The tunnel was discovered in 1880 and is a remarkable piece of engineering. Near the lower entrance was found carved into the wall in a Hebrew script this description of the process by which the tunnel was cut by workers using hand tools, working from each end and meeting in the middle.

“When (the tunnel) was driven through while (the quarrymen were swinging their) axes, each man towards the other and, while there were still three cubits to be cut through (there was heard) the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was a crevice (?) on the right…and when the tunnel was (finally) driven through, the quarrymen hewed each towards the other, axe against axe. Then the waters flowed from the Spring to the Pool for 1,200 cubits and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.” [That last means that they were 100 cubits [that is, 150 feet] under ground during much of the course of the tunneling. The tunnel’s height is from 1 to 3.5 meters – tourists can walk only through the lower reaches of the tunnel – and its width is about 60 centimeters. It is a bit eerie as you are touching rock on both sides as you walk through the water covering your feet.]

v.21     Given that Manasseh would prove one of Judah’s worst kings, if not the worst, those last words are a jarring conclusion to the summary of Hezekiah’s reign.

Just as we did not expect David’s reign, which began with such great promise, to end as miserably as it did; just as we did not expect Solomon’s reign, begun so famously well to end as famously badly as it did; just as we didn’t expect Asa’s reign, begun in faithfulness to the Lord and victory over Judah’s enemies, to end in ignominy, so we did not expect the reign of  Hezekiah, Judah’s best king, to end in such disappointment and failure. And, believe me, a son like Manasseh represents an immense failure. Manasseh was to make Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s two sons, seem saints in comparison. And, remember, Manasseh came into his adulthood in the latter years, the last 15 years, of his father’s life, precisely the time when Hezekiah was living more like any other ANE monarch rather than a servant of the God of Abraham.

This is a dismal story told too many times in Holy Scripture for us not to take seriously as a warning to believers. To be sure there is some encouragement here and we ought to note the encouragement. We learn here as we learn from the lives of Moses, David, Solomon and others that the Bible never supposes that believers are perfect people, that they never stumble, even that they never do serious wrong and serious harm to the interests and fortunes of the kingdom of God. As we read in James, “we all stumble in many ways.” [3:2] That is something we all must remember and take to heart. We are not separated from the rest of the world because we don’t sin – our sin is what makes us like the rest of the world – we are different because we have been forgiven our sins and because we have begun to live righteously, certainly not perfectly, but righteously. It is this fact about us – that we remain sinners – that should be the foundation of our sympathy with them when others sin, and our humility before one another. But take note: while the fact that all sin is the unbeliever’s bed of roses it is the believer’s bed of pain. The unbeliever says “everybody sins so my sin is no big deal.” The believer wonders why he has not been able to rise above the rest given all that Christ has done for him and given to him. While one excuses himself by observing the failures of others, the Christian condemns himself for not being sufficiently different as Christ has enabled him to be.

What is more, there is this encouragement: the fact of our sinfulness does not nullify the usefulness and fruitfulness of our lives. We can do very important, very valuable things for the kingdom of God even as the sinners we are and remain. The narrator does not hide Hezekiah’s very significant failings, but his general verdict on Hezekiah’s life and reign is positive.

But encouragement is surely not the main point here. Rather we have a sober warning. It isn’t the bit of the cry-baby that Hezekiah appears to be in v. 2 or the failure of faith that asked for a sign after the promise of healing and a longer life had been made that should concern us so much. Those are failures to be sure. But they are nothing compared to his failure with the Babylonians – his proud and vainglorious boasting in his accomplishments – and, still more and far worse, his attitude to the Lord’s promised judgment thereafter. The fact is, his astonishingly selfish answer to the Lord’s promise of judgment through Isaiah dovetails neatly with his work as a parent and as a king – for he was responsible not only for his own reign but for preparing the next king of Judah – a work that he neglected because he was all about himself and all about his own peace and prosperity. In other words, his indifference to the Lord’s interests in the future of the kingdom of Judah is precisely the same fault and failure as his indifference to the spiritual nurture of his son, and only virtually complete indifference to that nurture can account for a son whose commitments were the virtual reverse of those of his father. His interest in the reputation of the Lord expressed so beautifully in his prayer regarding the Assyrian invasion in 19:14-19 seems to have deserted him. We have a different Hezekiah in chapter 20 than we had in chapter 19. That is the only way it would be possible for Israel’s best king to raise Israel’s worst.

Who was it that committed these sins against God, against his son, and against his nation? Who was it whose pride ruined the latter years of his reign? It was Hezekiah, the man who had been slated to die and then who had his life extended for fifteen years by the miraculous intervention of God, a healing he could not attribute to natural causes after watching the shadow move backward up the stairs! Many commentators wonder if it would have been far better if the Lord had just allowed Hezekiah to die as he first had said he was going to do. Had that been the case, we would certainly think better of Hezekiah today!

If there were a man in the world at that moment who should not have been troubled by the sin of pride, it was Hezekiah, king of Judah and Jerusalem. Did the healing come before or after the lifting of the siege? We do not know for sure. But if it came before, very shortly thereafter Hezekiah was to witness Jerusalem’s deliverance from the marauding Assyrian army, again by the hand of the Lord. Once that occurred he should have died of shame just thinking about how he had spoken after Isaiah rebuked him for his boastful behavior before the Babylonians and it should have been one of the great intentions of his life to be sure that Manasseh understood from whence cometh Israel’s help.

We can, I suppose, understand relatively easily David’s sin with Bathsheba. He was a ladies’ man and had always attracted beautiful women. He already had a number of wives, always a bad thing for a man who is in position to command the attention of women. Bathsheba was beautiful; we are told that. All of that is no excuse, but it is certainly easy to understand. But what we can’t figure in David’s behavior is his treatment of a loyal captain in his army. We would never have imagined that David would have been so disloyal to Uriah, one of senior officers, a man whom David had commanded in combat himself. And we would never have thought or imagined David could stoop to the unmanly, disreputable way in which he arranged for Uriah’s murder. If anyone else had done such a thing and it had been reported to David the King, David would have executed him on the spot and done so with an outraged sense of military honor and loyalty. David was a soldier’s soldier. But he failed God in a terrible way at just this point. David’s sin catches us by surprise.

And the same is true of Hezekiah. This man of faith, this man who had defied the Assyrians because of his faith in God, this man who had reformed Judah’s worship in ways no one had even attempted since the days of Solomon 200 years before, this man whose faith had been rewarded with miraculous healing, thought that the Babylonians were more important than God! Surely not Hezekiah! Of all people surely not Hezekiah! Yes; Hezekiah.

There is no sin, absolutely none that we cannot commit when tempted and, I suppose, the Devil is most interested in our committing those sins that are the very repudiation of the acts of righteousness that we have performed before, even noted for performing before. A man’s righteousness is rendered unimpressive when he fails at precisely that point at which he was admired before.

Think of Peter, just hours after having pledged his undying loyalty to the Lord Jesus, denying him three times in the courtyard of the high priest. No wonder the Lord Jesus warned his disciples that very night “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” Here is reason to watch and pray: Hezekiah committed the sins we might well have thought were the sins he, of all people, was least likely to commit.

Nowadays in our circles, in sermons on sanctification or the Christian life, we are very likely to be reminded of God’s grace, of the Lord’s standing near to help his people, and of the power that he bestows upon his people to enable them to surmount the temptations of life. And all of that is absolutely true and essential to any wise and faithful approach to Christian living. It is where we begin and must begin in thinking about our own obedience: It is what we must continue to remember as we practice our obedience. Christ’s obedience for us, before our obedience for him; the Holy Spirit’s presence in us before our walking in step with the Holy Spirit. Christ’s obedience for us, in our place, and the Holy Spirit’s presence in our hearts to work in us what is pleasing to God. These are the foundations of our motivation, our confidence, and our determination. We must never think we can live a truly righteous life in our own strength or that the method of our sanctification is not the same as our justification: viz. an active faith in God.

But as often as the Bible stresses these facts, so often does it also stress our responsibility to be careful stewards of God’s grace, not to receive it in vain as Paul says, and to take steps to put on godliness in the fear of the Lord, to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. It is not either/or, it is both/and, for we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling precisely because God is in us to will and to work his good pleasure. That both/and is everywhere the Bible’s doctrine of the Christian life, not just Paul’s.

Hezekiah had received God’s grace in spades. He had obeyed the Lord and served him faithfully and well. God’s grace had no doubt made a powerful impression upon his soul at the time he had received it. Surely that sudden death that rendered the Assyrian army unmanned and sent it homeward with its tail between its legs had made an impression on Hezekiah. No doubt Hezekiah could have told you for the rest of his days where he was and what he thought when he received that news. And now come his healing and the promise of a longer life and the great sign to confirm the promise. The grace of God should have motivated him and empowered him to still further and higher obedience. But alas it did not. Why? Because he grew lax; because he grew spiritually lazy, the temptation to which we are all subject all the time. It is what happened to David. Remember when he fell? It was in the spring when kings go out to battle. David was a king, but though his army did, he did not go out to battle. The narrator mentions that fact first in 2 Samuel 11 because it is the explanation for all that follows. He stayed in Jerusalem and pleased himself when he should have been at the head of his troops. The terrible mess that David made would never have occurred if he had only kept at his obedience, the obedience which he had made the great focus of his life up to that point. But he took some days off and look what happened: adultery, murder, and the destruction of his home. What David failed to do was to watch and pray that he enter not into temptation.

Hezekiah was a man of prayer and a man of faithful action, but those emissaries from Babylon turned his head. He wasn’t taking care; he wasn’t remembering God’s grace to him; he wasn’t alert, he wasn’t watching, he wasn’t praying, he wasn’t thinking about the obedience he owed to the Lord. Giving those envoys the tour of his wealth his head began to expand. He had made it. Here he was being courted by some far away potentate. And before you know it Hezekiah’s faith was in ruins around his feet and his son was growing up in a home that no longer recommended the life of faith or an inflexible loyalty to the Lord that had been characteristic of that home up to that point.

The last thing you say to those you love, if you are aware that it is the last thing you will say to them – if you realize that they will remember this as the last thing you said – I say the last thing will be something you think of the greatest importance. And what was Jesus’ last word to his disciples? “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation!” He had the opportunity, unlike any other man, to say a last word twice. After the forty days he gave them another memorable last word:“Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Put those two last words together and you have the biblical method of the Christian life: 1) an active stewardship of God’s grace – “Watch and pray” – and 2) confidence in the presence of the Lord to help us as we look to him. Resisting temptation and trusting the Lord for success. Or as Oliver Cromwell had it: “trust the Lord and keep your powder dry!”

The price of godliness everywhere in the Bible is effort: constant watchfulness, the cultivation of graces, the spirit of prayer in exercise, and meditation on the Word of God and applying that Word to one’s soul day by day. Otherwise, the temptations will come and we won’t recognize them or resist them until it is too late; they will have gained a foothold and we will find ourselves unable to dislodge them.

Wednesday afternoon I had come home a few hours early from the office to mow my lawn so that it wouldn’t get too long before I could mow it again. I was going to St. Louis for a few days for the wedding of Jack and Diane Collins’ daughter Joy. I was hurrying to get everything done before prayer meeting when the phone rang. I ran inside, already peeved at the interruption, and became only more so when the woman identified herself as calling from Franciscan Health for LaVerne Rayburn. “Hah,” I thought, I can dispense with this easily enough. “She isn’t here, I replied.” A true statement. “Alright; we’ll call later.” I congratulated myself on my escape. It was only as I was walking back outside that I realized that they were probably calling about mother’s appointment, about her medical care, about what she needed to do next. I was immediately ashamed of myself. I don’t want to be a person like that, short-tempered, selfish, thoughtless of others, only interested in myself. But that is how I had behaved. And that is how I would always behave unless I was counteracting my temptation to selfishness beforehand, systematically, intentionally, and constantly.

I’ve told some of you before of one of my few claims to fame. The janitor in the church of my upbringing was a man named Arly Crockett. Arly had a son named Ivory and Ivory was a famous track star in those days. I met him once so if you want to shake my hand after the service I’ll let you do it for a small sum. In fact, I checked the internet the other day to learn if it were still true that he had run the fastest 100 yard dash in recorded history. His time is still listed as the fastest though it was equaled by two other runners. The 100 yard dash is seldom run any longer, having been replaced by the 100 meters so that time is likely to stand for a long time. Ivory’s race, in which he covered the distance in 9 seconds flat, was hand-timed and so not official, but at the time, he was, as they used to say, “The world’s fastest human.” It took a long time to prepare to run so fast. It took hard work to train his body to run for those few moments as fast as it could possibly run. That race was won beforehand, in the months and the years of preparation.

Nine seconds. Not a very long time. How long do you think it took David to succumb to the temptation that Bathsheba presented as he stood on the palace porch looking down at her bathing? Nine seconds? Or less? How long do you suppose it took to unman Hezekiah and ruin the later years of his reign and the life of his son Manasseh? When those emissaries arrived and Hezekiah began to think about what he was going to do and how much he was going to enjoy it. Did he catch himself for just a moment and think, “Well I probably shouldn’t do that.”? Nine seconds? Five seconds, fifteen seconds? A few more; a few less?

You never know when the emissaries will arrive. That is the problem. So you have to be ready for them at any moment. “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” That is what the Savior thought it essential to say to his disciples just before he went to his death. He knew we would remember those words, uttered when they were, just moments before his arrest. “Watch and pray…” You can forget God’s grace, you will forget how overwhelmed you were by it when it delivered you, unless you take steps to ensure that you do not. “Watch and pray….” Do you think you are beyond needing this advice? Paul knew better. “If you think you are standing,” he said, “take heed lest you fall.” “Watch and pray…” Everyday, all of us this prayer: Lord, keep me steadfast! And this resolve: not a moment, not an inch to my flesh, to the Devil, to the world.

The grace of God was given in spades to Hezekiah; Christ was dramatically the helper of this man; gift upon gift was lavished upon him. Grace, yes; Christ; yes; a present helper; absolutely. From these facts come the motivation and the power. But you must remember them, apply them, put them to use, argue them to yourself. God’s grace to Hezekiah great as it was, and this is the great lesson for you and me,  didn’t prevent his sin or Judah’s eventual destruction. It was Hezekiah’s failure to watch and pray, to persevere and keep at this life of trusting and obeying the Lord.

There is something relentless about the Christian life and about true godliness; something relentless, it is a life in which one can never relax. You can rejoice, but never relax!