Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 20

In this chapter, Hezekiah recovers from a terminal illness and shows all his treasures to the Babylonians.

I want to start off by reminding my readers that Hezekiah is a "righteous king", he is the guy who literally tore down the altars of Baal and by all regards, it appears that he legitimately sought to follow the LORD and bring Israel back into their proper covenant relationship with God.  With that context, I think Hezekiah's tears and prayer in verses 2-3 are sincere.  As much as any other sinful person, Hezekiah really did seek the LORD.

With that context, Hezekiah is faced not just with a physical illness, but with a prophecy from Isaiah that he was going to die and not live.  Hezekiah seems to strive against the impossible, petitioning the LORD in spite of a message from God that he was going to die.  It says that Isaiah had barely left the royal palace when the LORD spoke to him and said that Hezekiah would indeed be healed and would live out another 15 years.

I think this is really important to understand, because this is something that many people misunderstand about the bible and more broadly, misunderstand about prophecy in general: a prophecy is not a guarantee.  Many prophecies are conditional, and God doesn't always state those conditions clearly.  Oftentimes, this is true about what I would call "positive prophecies", where God prophesies something good.  In most cases, the prophecy is something that we are supposed to take hold of, to work towards.  There are some exceptions, but in a lot of cases prophecies are supposed to set our direction and vision; they are not intended to be a statement of what will happen in the future regardless of our response.  Guiding our response is one of the most important aspects of a prophecy: if a prophecy were a guarantee about the future regardless of our response, why would God bother telling us?  He could simply do what he wants in our life and just "make it happen".  There would be no point in telling us about it in advance except perhaps as a demonstration of his power over the world.  But there are plenty of other ways God could do that through miracles of many kinds.

However, a lot of people take prophecies as a guarantee and then do nothing to work towards that vision.  They get promises about good things in the future, assume they will happen regardless of anything else, and in so many cases are disappointed and confused when it doesn't happen.  If there were one thing I would encourage people to do it's that if you have a prophecy, pray into it.  If you see an opportunity to step into a prophecy, take it.  Prophecies from God should encourage boldness and faith; they should be taken as an encouragement from God that if we move in a certain direction, he will move with us.  We should engage with prophecies actively through our words and actions, not passively waiting for them to happen.

In this case, Hezekiah gets a negative prophecy (declaring something bad would happen to him) and this also is not guaranteed.  In the case of positive prophecies, we should respond by embracing what God says, and in the case of negative prophecies we should respond by seeking to avert what God says.  In both cases, we are not supposed to respond with human effort, wisdom or power.  We are supposed to respond by drawing closer to God and, in faith, trusting that God will bless us as we pursue his will in our lives.  This is exactly what Hezekiah does when he responds in prayer, and that is why God reversed the illness and death that Isaiah had prophesied.  Of course, Hezekiah has an entire lifetime of devotion to God before this, so there is no hypocrisy in Hezekiah's prayer.

In verses 8-11 when Isaiah gives Hezekiah a sign of his healing, my readers should understand that the "stairway of Ahaz" refers to an early sundial built by Ahaz.  When Hezekiah says it's easy for the shadow to go forward ten steps and hard to go back ten steps, that's because "going forward" refers to the natural progression of time.  For it to go backwards means that the shadow reverses the direction it normally goes (i.e. the earth's rotation was reversed).  Hence why it is hard for the shadow to go backwards.  This is similar to the miracle when the sun stopped in Joshua 10:12-14.  We can also regard the shadow traveling backwards as a metaphor for the reversal of the "shadow" of death on Hezekiah's life.

In the final part of the chapter, we learn for the first time about the emerging Babylonian empire.  In the last few chapters, the Assyrians have been the prime antagonist, destroying Israel and besieging Jerusalem.  Even in this chapter, v. 6 tells us that God would protect Hezekiah from the Assyrians.  From the story, we can tell that the Babylonians are allied with Judah; this is why Merodach-Baladan sends an envoy and a gift to Hezekiah after Hezekiah recovers from his illness.  Politically, we can understand the alliance between Babylon and Judah is primarily because they are both resisting the dominant Assyrians.  The Babylonians are by no means the most powerful empire right now, which makes Isaiah's prophecy in verses 16-18 all the more surprising.  Not only is Babylon going to emerge as the next superpower, they are going to betray and destroy their erstwhile ally.  Just as the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, the Babylonians will bring the end for the southern kingdom of Judah.

The destruction of Jerusalem will come to be known as the Babylonian exile.  This is one of the pivotal moments in biblical history for many reasons.  Besides the various political consequences, it also has significant religious and theological consequences.  The Babylonians destroy the temple and exile most of the people of Judah to Babylon.  This disrupts the temple sacrifices, which means that the priests and rabbis needed to figure out how to follow the Law when they were living in a nation where many ordinances were no longer possible to obey.  Indeed, this is a similar situation to modern Judaism where temple sacrifices are no longer performed and Passover lambs are no longer slaughtered.  This is a tremendous shift, and I'll discuss it in more detail in later chapters.

For now, what I want to focus on is Hezekiah's response.  Hezekiah says to himself that because these disasters will occur in a later generation and not in his own time, that he is glad with Isaiah's prophecy.  This is a tragic counterpoint to the earlier prophecy we had in this very same chapter.  In verse 1, Isaiah prophesies that Hezekiah would die.  Hezekiah prays and God changes his mind and heals Hezekiah.  There is a negative prophecy, Hezekiah engages with it and God relents.  In verses 16-19, there is another negative prophecy directed at Hezekiah's children.  His wealth would be taken by the Babylonians and his descendants would be taken as slaves, but observe Hezekiah's response.  Hezekiah accepts the prophecy.  We can imagine God saying, "is the destruction of your nation okay with you?  Very well, it shall be done according to your will".  Hezekiah did not challenge or pray against the destruction he is warned about.  He does not repent, he does not turn to the LORD to get this prophecy reversed.  Even though Hezekiah was a godly man in many respects, here he shows a damning selfishness when he prays for his own life but does not pray for the lives of his heirs and his people.  In both cases, the prophecies are stated unconditionally, and in my opinion Hezekiah's prayers could have reversed both prophecies.  In the end, he only prays against one so he gets to live another 15 years, but the second prophecy comes true and his nation is destroyed.

How much better would things have been for Israel if Hezekiah had prayed against the destruction of his people and allowed himself to die from that illness!  Hezekiah's shortsightedness is painful.  Indeed, Hezekiah's own son Manasseh is one of the most evil, violent and idolatrous kings in Judah's history.  While I think this is very surprising for such a godly man to have such an evil son, on the other hand verse 19 clearly tells us that Hezekiah is only concerned about his own generation and his own life.  If Hezekiah will not pray for his descendants, then why should his son be a godly man?  Hezekiah shows that in his heart, he is not investing in the next generation.  In that vacuum, it actually makes sense that godless evil should take its place in Manasseh's heart.

In the next chapter, we will learn more about Manasseh's reign.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 19

In this chapter, God rescues Jerusalem from the Assyrians.

In the context of the previous chapter, this chapter is straightforward to read and understand.  It begins with Hezekiah in distress.  He knows that his nation has no strength to resist the Assyrians, so he is counting on the LORD to destroy his enemies.  In particular, in 2 Kings 18:32-35, the envoy of Assyria basically says that the LORD is like all the gods of all the other nations that had been destroyed, so the LORD would have no power to resist the Assyrians.  Hezekiah hopes that when the LORD hears how he is being slandered, that he would resist the Assyrians.  It becomes a question of whether God has the power to defend his name and his reputation against the strength of the Assyrians.  The chapter ends with the answer to this question, which is yes (v. 35-37).  That's basically the short version of what happens.

This chapter has the first reference to the prophet Isaiah.  We have seen many prophets before, but Isaiah is different because he is also a biblical author, the writer of the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah is the first "major prophet", which is a term that applies to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.  They are called major prophets because they wrote longer books, not because they are considered more important than the other prophets (mainly the so-called "minor prophets").  I'm going to talk about Isaiah a LOT more when we get to his book, for now I'm just pointing out Isaiah to my readers because is going to reemerge as one of the most significant authors in the bible and he issues a lot of major prophecies about the coming Messiah.  Most of the other prophets throughout the histories (the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles) are figures who were important in their time but do not have much significance in later biblical history.  In fact, the book of Isaiah itself contains a copy of this story (of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem), which is substantially identical to the story in this chapter.

In this chapter, Isaiah is operating very similarly to the other prophets we have seen.  He is serving as a representative of the LORD, bearing messages from the LORD to the king in response to the king's prayers and humility.  The LORD's response is exactly what we should expect: he is going to drive away the king of Assyria because he wants to demonstrate his supremacy over merely human forces, especially those that would mock him or belittle him.  While Hezekiah certainly demonstrates humility here, it is perhaps even more so the pride of the Assyrians that causes God to overthrow them.

Verses 9-13 are interesting because it is after Sennacherib hears a report that the Egyptians are marching out to attack him (Assyria and Egypt clashed frequently) that he sends a second time to the men of Jerusalem threatening them and demanding their surrender.

This time, rather than sending his officials to the prophet, Hezekiah gets even more desperate and goes himself to the temple.  This is a great example of why God would choose to honor Hezekiah: in the midst of dire circumstances, his response is to go to the temple in prayer.  I'm reminded of 1 Samuel 13:5-9, when Saul was tested.  When the enemy gathered at Michmash and his own men were scattering, and the prophet was late, Saul had to decide where his allegiance was going to rest.  Was he going to depend on human strength and wisdom or on God?  Saul chose human strength and wisdom, and so he perished.  In 1 Samuel 30:6, David found himself similarly tested when his wives and children were stolen by Amalekite raiders, his own men were contemplating stoning him, and he had nowhere to turn.  Would he depend on his own strength or upon God?  David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.

Hezekiah now finds himself in a similar place.  The Assyrians are gathering around his walls, Sennacherib is threatening him, and Hezekiah has nowhere to flee, so instead of running away, he goes up: he ascends the temple mount and goes to the LORD for deliverance in his time of need.  We saw Ahaz construct an altar to a foreign god when he was in distress (2 Kings 16:10), so Ahaz turned to other gods.  Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, turns to the living God for deliverance and boy does he get saved.  This time, Isaiah sends a response to Hezekiah even when Hezekiah did not send to Isaiah, and this time the response is in poetic form.  Isaiah's response (implicitly referring to Sennacherib) criticizes Sennacherib's pride, when the great king of Assyria sees himself rising above the mountains and drinking the water of foreign lands.  Verse 25 tells us that God actually planned for Sennacherib to arise: Sennacherib is a tool in the LORD's hands, and yet in his pride he thinks of himself as the great king and power, greater than the God who made him, and because of that pride he must be brought low.

After Isaiah's prophecy concludes, God promptly answers by killing the Assyrians and later Sennacherib is assassinated by his own sons.  As a brief historical sidenote, there are independent historical sources that confirm Sennacherib was, in fact, assassinated by one of his sons, though these sources differ on exactly which son did it.  So the majority of this chapter (as it relates to Sennacherib's campaign against Judah and his later death) are historical facts that can be independently verified.  Of course, none of the non-biblical sources mention the LORD or the Hebrew God in any way, but I still think it's really cool to have parts of the biblical text so closely mirrored by Assyrian and Babylonian records.

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 18

In this chapter, Hezekiah reigns over Judah and faces the threat of the Assyrians.

This chapter begins with some of the best news we have seen since Solomon built the temple.  Verse 3 tells us that Hezekiah is a king just like David and he follows the LORD without reservation.  This is remarkable.  Every king since Solomon had something against them, some area where they did not fully submit to the LORD's leadership.  Even Joash, the last revival king we saw in 2 Kings 12, "did not remove the high places" (2 Kings 12:3).  The kings of Israel are consistently worse, but even the kings of Judah never quite fully extricate themselves from the idolatry that permeates their society, which is physically symbolized by the "high places", the hilltops where pagan priests would lead the people of Israel and Judah into worshiping other gods like Baal and the local deities of the area.  Remarkably, Hezekiah breaks free from this influence, tears down the high places, and forces the entire nation to worship the LORD.

What makes this even more remarkable is that Hezekiah is the son of Ahaz, who in 2 Kings 16 brought Judah into some of the greatest spiritual darkness that they have ever seen.  Ahaz built an altar to another god and placed it in the temple courtyard and instituted Baal worship throughout the nation.  It's shocking to see such a remarkably evil, idolatrous father produce such a remarkably faithful, devoted son, where the father served Baal and the son served the LORD.  Once again I find myself asking, "where did Hezekiah's faith come from?"  Was he not raised by his father into the worship of Baal?  Was he not corrupted by the pagan influences in Judah's society and culture to follow these other gods?  How did Hezekiah persevere through the formative years of his childhood and become such a man after God's heart?  As a sign of the corruption in Judah, even the bronze serpent that the LORD made to deliver Israel from the "fiery serpents" (Num 21:6-9) itself became an idol and had to be destroyed.  Isn't it amazing how God's previous acts of deliverance could become the idols of a future generation?  They worshiped God's tools, his creation, rather than the creator; they worshiped the act of salvation rather than the savior.  I think this is a grim warning to our hearts, that we keep our minds and emotions fixed on the one who saves.  We need to remember the things that God has done, and God ordains many memorials of his past salvation; but we need to stay focused on the God who performed those things rather than honoring the memorials themselves.  It is God who makes them sacred.

I asked similar questions about Abraham (who came from an idolatrous society), Moses (who was raised in the Egyptian royal court) and many others.  How did they men come by such great faith?  This is more than a historical question to me: I want to learn how to live like these people, and foremost in my mind is that I want to learn how to become like them so that in turn I can emulate the deeds that they performed.  Unfortunately, the histories of these men's lives do not give us a thorough answer.  As it regards Hezekiah, we know very little about his childhood or life before ascending to the throne, by which time he had already cultivated a significant faith in God.  With all that in mind, what we do get to read is how Hezekiah reacted to the circumstances of his reign, and hopefully we can learn how to follow God to studying Hezekiah's example.

In 2 Kings 16:7, Judah had sworn to serve the Assyrians in exchange for protection from Israel and Aram.  This is the context for verse 7 of this chapter which tells us that Hezekiah revolted against Assyria, most likely meaning that he stopped paying tribute to Assyria and would resist the Assyrians if they moved an army through Judah's territory.  This chapter does not give us any indication if Hezekiah's revolt was at the LORD's command or Hezekiah's own idea.  What we do know is that Hezekiah sought to follow the LORD, so we can reasonably expect that the LORD will protect Hezekiah and deliver him from any challenges to his rule.

After smashing through Israel, destroying Samaria and deporting the Israelites to foreign lands, the king of Assyria next marches upon Judah and captures many of their towns.  Even though Israel and Judah are about the same in terms of military capabilities, the king of Judah is devoted to the LORD and the king of Israel was not.  Israel was destroyed because (as verse 12 tells us) they had not obeyed the covenant.  Hezekiah's obedience to God's covenant will be his salvation even when his army stands no chance against the Assyrians.

Verse 14 tells us that Sennacherib sent a message to Hezekiah from the town of Lachish, which is a major city in Judah.  This is interesting because in the British Museum in London there is an artifact called the Lachish relief, which is a carved stone mural taken from the ancient Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh.  This mural depicts the Assyrian siege of Lachish, the battles, breaking through the city wall and the subsequent deportation into slavery and execution of the survivors.  It was most likely created by Sennacherib as a celebration of his victory over Judah at Lachish.  Of course, since it is basically Assyrian propaganda, it is only natural that the king would laud his own victory at Lachish and omit his subsequent failure to capture Jerusalem (which we will observe in the next chapter), but I nevertheless find the Lachish relief to be remarkably congruent with the biblical text here.

Even though Hezekiah follows the LORD, I see verse 16 as a continuation of the general trend of decline that we see in Judah.  Previous kings had taken away the golden shields and at various times emptied out the temple treasuries.  Now we once again see a king of Judah pilfering the temple to bribe a foreign king.

Between v. 16 and 17 I can only imagine that there must be some gap of time.  In v. 16 Hezekiah is paying off Sennacherib with gold and silver, and in the very next verse the Assyrian army is once again marching upon Jerusalem, which seems contradictory.  I could be wrong in my interpretation here, but I would guess that Sennacherib marched against Lachish, took the bribe from Hezekiah, and then after Hezekiah perhaps revolted a second time, has sent an army back down to assail Jerusalem.

This is a pivotal moment in Judah's history: if Jerusalem had been captured here, Judah would have been most likely destroyed in the same way as Israel and probably also deported.  Given that Israel never returns from the Assyrian exile, this could have been the end for Judah as well, and then we would not have had a nation of Israel in the times of Jesus nor would we have modern-day Jews.  This could have been the end for all twelve tribes of Israel.  But instead, we need to view these events in light of the covenant and God's promise that he would keep a lamp for David (1 Kings 15:4, 2 Kings 8:19), a burning light as a memorial.  God responds to David's faithfulness with his own faithfulness, preserving this city in David's memory, but also as a token of his promise to Abraham and even more significantly, because it was through the people of Israel that God planned to bring salvation to all the people on the earth.

The author of Kings devotes two chapters to this story for good reason: this could have been the end for Judah, were it not for God's present salvation for them and plans for a future salvation for all of us.

Interestingly, most of these chapters is not devoted to fighting or scenes of battle, but actually just a lot of talking.  In this chapter, we see Sennacherib's commander threatening the people of Judah, and in the next chapter we see God's response.  It's not like physical battles didn't happen: we know that the Assyrians captured Lachish for instance.  But the author of Kings decided to focus on these speeches instead, because he's trying to make a point: this conflict is primarily a spiritual conflict, not a military conflict.  The results of the physical battle are simply an outflow of the spiritual battle.

A point I would like to reiterate here is the basic assumption in the text that each nation or ethnic group has its own dedicated god and that the results of a military conflict depend on whose god is stronger.  This is a point I have made at least once before, and in this chapter we can see it very clearly in verses 32-35, where the Assyrian officer phrases previous conflicts as if they were conflicts between the king of Assyria and the gods of all these different nations.

There are little details that we can parse out of the speech as well, for instance the hostility between Assyria and Egypt in v. 21, and how the Assyrians and perhaps even the men of Judah thought that they could worship the LORD on the high places (even though it was contrary to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy and the high places were predominantly pagan worship sites).  In verse 25, the king of Assyria falsely claims to have the LORD's support for destroying Jerusalem.

On the whole, there is basically a lot of deceit and misinformation in the officer's speech from verses 19-25, because obviously his intention is to demoralize the city's defenders.

Verse 32 is particularly ironic because the Assyrian commander (Rabshakeh) paints exile as "choosing life".  The phrase "choose life and not death" is perhaps a standard covenantal term, because it is almost identical to Deuteronomy 30:19 when Moses said basically the same thing.  It's possible the author of Kings is making a deliberate allusion to Deuteronomy, but I think it's even more likely that it is some sort of standard covenantal/treaty language that would have been in broad use in their society.

Anyway, the reason why I say that's ironic is because the officer is trying to convince the men of Jerusalem, in the most polite and idealistic way possible, to choose to be exiled out of their homeland.  He does this by claiming that they would have independence (eating from one's own tree) and prosperity (a land of olives and honey), much like what God promised Israel when he brought them into the promised land.  This once again positions the Assyrian offer as a covenantal term, basically offering the men of Judah to save their lives by agreeing to move to a foreign land and serve the Assyrians, similar to how the people of Israel moved to the promised land in order to serve God.  This is basically positioning the Assyrian empire to usurp God's place as lord over Israel and I can tell you right now that the Assyrians were not as good of a master as the Lord God.

The chapter ends with mourning, and in the next chapter we will see God's response through a new character, the prophet Isaiah.