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.

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