Faith and Folly

Author: Ray C. Stedman

Christians sometimes jokingly quote what are purported to be verses of Scripture, such as, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," "God helps those who help themselves," etc. When they are asked for a reference, they reply, "The book of Hezekiah." There is no such book in the Bible, of course, but Chapters 36-39 of the book of Isaiah are the closest thing to it.

These chapters are a prose account of the fading of Assyria from the biblical scene and the rise of the nation Babylon. Assyria was the main threat to Israel in the first half of this book, while in the second half. Babylon becomes Israel's prime enemy. This occurs in the reign of Hezekiah, a godly king of Israel, who is here confronted with three attacks that most Christians will confront at one time or another. Hezekiah faced an armed attack by Assyria; he suffered a dangerous illness; and he faced a subtle threat from the ambassadors of Babylon. Let us see what we can learn from these three circumstances.

The first attack on the king is found in Chapter 36.

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field. And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hezekiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. (Isaiah 36:1-3 RSV)

This invasion was the final thrust of the Assyrians to take control of Judah, immortalized in Lord Byron's poem,

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
His cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold.
The sheen of his spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

I hope you are following in your Bibles at home these great lessons from the book of Isaiah. We must move so swiftly through them that there is much I am passing over, but do read the full account at home.

According to this account, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, was personally involved in the siege of Lachish, a city west of Jerusalem, while he detached a part of his army, under his general, Rabshakeh, to besiege Jerusalem. The general takes his stand at an historic spot, the very place where, 40 years before, God had told Isaiah to stand when he gave to Hezekiah's father, Ahaz, the sign of the virgin's son. Rabshakeh seems to be puzzled by the resistance of the Jews and their seeming confidence that he will fail in his efforts to take the city, as the next verses point out.

And the Rabshakeh said to them, "Say to Hezekiah, 'Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this confidence of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me?'" (Isaiah 36:4-5 RSV)

Notice the puzzlement in his words. He goes on to list what he thinks to be their resources.

'Behold, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him.' (Isaiah 36:6 RSV)

Egypt would be no help to them, he says. Then, remembering that Israel was a religious nation, he asks was it Jehovah they were relying on? He reminds Hezekiah that the king himself had ordered the destruction of many of the high altars around Jerusalem that were dedicated to the worship of Jehovah. What the pagan general failed to realize, of course, was that those altars were built in opposition to God's word, that the only place he was to be worshipped was in the temple in Jerusalem. Hezekiah himself had torn down these rival altars.

Next, Rabshakeh suggests that Hezekiah is perhaps counting on his own army to withstand the Assyrian attack. He offers the king a wager which he feels he cannot lose, saying sarcastically, "l will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders upon them." Thus, in words dripping with irony, he points out the weakness of Judah from a military viewpoint. Finally, Rabshakeh returns to the idea that Israel is depending upon God for deliverance, saying in verse 10:

"Moreover, is it without the Lord that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it." (Isaiah 36:10a RSV)

He may very well have been referring to the prophecies which Isaiah had already made concerning an Assyrian attack. In any event he is here claiming God's support for his attack upon Judah.

Here we have a vivid picture of the world's attack upon a believer. Assyria, as we have already noted, is a picture of the violence and the anger of the world directed against faith. You perhaps have experienced this contempt. You may have been subjected to it at work. You may have run into it at school from an atheistic professor who heaped ridicule on Christianity, making you feel like two cents before the class. This anger can be carried to extremes.

We think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young Lutheran pastor who withstood the Nazis during the Second World War, finally giving his life in his defense of the faith. Even at this moment hundreds of thousands of Christians are facing ridicule and shame, even threat to their lives, by the attack of the world upon their faith.

When the official deputation tried to quiet Rabshakeh, and thus limit his impact on the listening Jews, he responds by becoming even more insulting.

Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshekah, "Pray, speak to your servants in Aramaic [not in Hebrew as he had been doing], for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." But the Rabshakeh said, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?" (Isaiah 36:11-12 RSV)

These insulting words depict the imminent scenes of famine as Rabshekah, laying siege to the city, reduces it to these terrible conditions. This also pictures the impact the world oftentimes has upon Christians in its attack upon their faith. Such contempt can have a demoralizing effect.

But, despite the appeal made to him, the Rabshekah goes on to urge the people loudly -- and in Hebrew -- to not let Hezekiah deceive them, to not let him "make you rely on the Lord," to not "listen" to him, and to "beware lest Hezekiah deceive you." First, he says, Hezekiah cannot deliver them; he is powerless. Second, he charges, Hezekiah's faith is groundless; it is nothing but words. Third, he promises that Assyria w ill treat them kindly and give them a prosperous land if they will but surrender. Finally, he implies that the God they depend on is, in his estimation, as powerless as the gods of the cities the Assyrians have already overcome. The Israelites respond to this with silence.

But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king's command was, "Do not answer him." Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna, the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. (Isaiah 36:21-22 RSV)

Silence may be the best response to such insulting verbal attack. And, more than silence, with sackcloth, as we see in the opening verse of Chapter 37.

When King Hezekiah heard it, he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. (Isaiah 37:1 RSV)

Sack cloth symbolizes humility, personal admission to whatever complicity on our part has contributed to the judgment we are facing. Thus King Hezekiah humbles himself, and takes his problem into the house of the Lord. In our experience this could correspond with taking the matter to God in prayer, humbly admitting our failures, agreeing that we have been justified, exposed to threat, and looking to God for help. That is what the king does next. He sends Eliakim and Shebna to Isaiah the prophet, seeking a word from the Lord. How helpful this word is. When you are faced with a threat to your own faith it is wise to act as Hezekiah does here -- personally humble yourself, and seek an answer from the mind of the Lord in his word. Isaiah supplies that answer to the king.

When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, "Say to your master, 'Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.'" (Isaiah 37:5-7 RSV)

Isaiah's word points out to Hezekiah that the king of Assyria had not just attacked Judah but had attacked Jehovah. He had reviled God, and this was God's battle. This is the continual reminder of Scripture to us, "The battle is the Lord's." We are but an instrument in it. The attack we suffer is not so much directed at us as it is against God; thus with patience and with faith we can wait for God to carry on his own battles. This is what happens here, as we read in the next verses.

The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah [a city of Israel]; for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. Now [while he was there] the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, "He has set out to fight against you."[That was the rumor which the prophet had said the king of Assyria would hear.] And when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: 'Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. And shall you be delivered?'" (Isaiah 37:8-11 RSV)

This communication came in the form of a letter to Hezekiah. Clearly, it was intended to keep his heart fearful and anxious. It was a threat for the future, saying that although the king of Assyria was leaving for the moment, he would return again to wreak a terrible vengeance on Judah. Had Hezekiah taken the Assyrian message in that way, he would have lived in constant fear.

It is very important for Christians to understand that God does not want his people to live in fear. Fear is one of the great perils of our day. Anxieties beset us on every hand. We need to hear again the words of Jesus, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow." Again and again our Lord told his disciples, "Fear not." Paul says, "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and a sound mind." It is not within our power to remove these threats to us, but we can meet them with faith. This is what Hezekiah does. Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord.

Have you ever gone into your bedroom, knelt beside your bed, and spread your problem before the Lord? That is the only proper response to a threat to your person or faith. Here is the king's wonderful prayer.

And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: "O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Of a truth, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone; therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou alone art the Lord." (Isaiah 37:15-20 RSV)

Notice how accurate this prayer is. Hezekiah acknowledges the facts as they are. Assyria is a powerful force that had already swept other kingdoms away before it, but these nations were depending on idols to protect them, while Hezekiah's dependence is on the Lord of heaven and earth. To him Hezekiah prays, simply and plainly, for help.

Word comes back immediately from Isaiah. In a beautiful poetic description (Verses 22-29), the prophet sets before us God's view of the king of Assyria and his threat to the nation. Jehovah points out the pride and arrogance of Assyria, but says that the nation is still in his control: he alone permits it to act one way or the other. There is a clear promise of removal. Finally there is a detailed description of deliverance. Verse 33:

"Therefore says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David." (Isaiah 37:33-35 RSV)

Not for Hezekiah's sake would God save the city, but for his own sake and for the promises he made to David. God accomplished this by means of one of the most remarkable miracles of history. Verse 36:

And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, these were all dead bodies. (Isaiah 37:36 RSV)

The King James Version puts that rather quaintly: "and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses." Scripture says an angel of the Lord came into the camp, while history says a plague broke out and this vast army perished in one night. That is how it looks to the historians, but behind this we can discern the invisible hand of God directing the affairs of men. Notice how God's promise was fulfilled exactly as Isaiah had delivered it.

Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home and dwelt at Nineveh. And as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sherezer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esar-haddon his son reigned in his stead. (Isaiah 37:37-38 RSV)

All took place as the God of history had ordained. Chapters 38 and 39 set out two more tests of Hezekiah's faith, the first of which was a personal sickness he suffered. The chronology of these events is important. An investigation of them reveals that this sickness occurred in the midst of the Assyrian invasion, and thus is part of that deliverance which God brought for Hezekiah.

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, "Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover." Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord, and said, "Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in thy sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (Isaiah 38:1-3 RSV)

A careful look at the chronology reveals that Hezekiah was only 39 years old at this point. Verses 10-20 records, after the fact, how he felt during his illness. He begins by describing his sense of despair.

I said, In the noontime of my days
  I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
  for the rest of my years.
I said, I shall not see the Lord
  in the land of the living;
I small look upon man no more
  among the inhabitants of the world. (Isaiah 38:10-11 RSV)

He goes on to describe how deprived he feels, as he despairs of fulfilling the years he should have been granted. Anyone w ho has suffered a serious illness can relate to these words as they express the sense of foreboding one feels during a time of sickness. Now let us read Isaiah's word to the king, found in Verses 4-6:

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city." (Isaiah 38:4-6 RSV)

This wonderful promise to Hezekiah must have come at the time the king of Assyria was assaulting Jerusalem, thus it must be read in conjunction with Chapters 36 and 37. We are told that Hezekiah was granted a reprieve; fifteen years were added to his life. During those years a son, Manasseh, was born to him. Manasseh went on to become the worst king Israel ever had. We are reminded of the "wheels within wheels" by which God deals with us at times. When he grants us what we have prayed for, that may also open doors for other circumstances which we would not have chosen.

But God did hear the prayer of the king and grant him these fifteen years. Verses 16-20, written after this promise was made, reflect a new spirit of hope. In line with God's grace, Verse 21 gives Isaiah's directions for Hezekiah's recovery.

Now Isaiah had said, "Let them take a cake of figs, and apply it to the boil, that he may recover." Hezekiah also had said, "What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?" (Isaiah 38:21-22 RSV)

The king may have been suffering from a form of cancer -- melanoma, perhaps -- and this cake of figs was to be applied to it to draw out the purulent matter and speed the healing. Hezekiah had asked what sign would he receive so that he should "go up to the house of the Lord?" i.e. resume his daily worship. Verse 7 gives that sign:

"This is the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps." So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. (Isaiah 38:7-8 RSV)

Would God do such a remarkable thing merely to encourage this king's faith? Obviously it was meant to be more than that. Recall that when Rabshakeh spoke to the deputation from Jerusalem he stood at an extremely significant and historic spot before the wall of the city "the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field" the exact spot where Isaiah had given the sign of the virgin's son. That sign also was not designed only for the benefit of Ahaz, but for the benefit of the whole world, the whole universe. Here then was another sign that would be manifest throughout the whole world, for to cause the shadow of the sun to turn backward on a sundial meant that some major physical change had to occur on the earth.

Certain critics hold that the earth must have stopped its rotation, and there is no record that that phenomenon ever occurred. But the sign given to Hezekiah did not require that. Scientists now know that a shift in the axis of the earth would have such a result. Doubtless that is what happened for science has also discovered that at various times in the past the axis of the earth (the slant of the earth in relationship to the sun) has suddenly changed. That would cause the shadow on the sundial to turn back.

This miracle links also with Chapter 39, the closing chapter of this section, which describes a visit by ambassadors from Babylon to Hezekiah. According to Second Chronicles 32, they came because they saw the sign which was given to Hezekiah and they wanted to investigate what was going on in Israel that resulted in such dramatic changes in the course of nature. This indicates the tremendous interest God has in what happens to the house of David. Hezekiah, a son of David, is here in the spotlight of God's concern, and God is willing to adjust the forces of nature to encourage his faith. Now we learn of the embassy from Babylon.

At that time Merodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. (Isaiah 39:1 RSV)

When Hezekiah received a letter from the king of Assyria he handled the threat by spreading it before the Lord in the house of the Lord. But when he now receives a letter from Babylon -- a flattering letter, and a present with it -- Hezekiah acts very differently.

And Hezekiah welcomed them; and he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. (Isaiah 39:2 RSV)

Taken in by the flattery of Babylon, the king trusted these ambassadors despite the fact that Isaiah had spoken very clearly of the threat from that quarter: what Babylon represented in spiritual terms, and what Babylon's ultimate fate would be. But the king ignored Isaiah's words, as many today ignore the clear warnings of Scripture.

So Isaiah pays another visit to Hezekiah. The old prophet says to the king, "I see you have had visitors. Who were these men?" "Oh," replies Hezekiah, "they are ambassadors from Babylon, the great power to the east. This superpower has recognized our tiny kingdom, and that makes me feel proud and honored." Doubtless he had shown the letter to his wife, exclaiming, "Look, dear, the king of Babylon has now taken note of us." Asked by Isaiah what he had shown these ambassadors, Hezekiah replied, "I showed them everything we've got -- all our treasures, all our defenses, everything." Isaiah goes on to give a prediction of what will result from the king's foolishness.

"Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: "Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon." (Isaiah 39:5b-7 RSV)

Hezekiah's whining response to this terrible prophecy follows: "Well, the word of the Lord is good. But thank God it will not happen in my day, at any rate."

What this is meant to teach us, of course, is that prosperity is a greater threat than adversity. When we are challenged, attacked and insulted, we naturally run to the Lord as our defender. Ah, but when we are offered a new position, with a higher salary, and to take it we must remove ourselves and our families from the influences that have shaped us morally and spiritually; or when our work is of such a nature that we are taken away from time we should spend "seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" Matthew 6:33), it is then we are being exposed to the subtle trap of Babylon. We have all known people who have fallen into this trap, losing spiritual vitality sometimes for years because they failed to heed warnings concerning the allurements of the world.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells of having once a very close friend while he was imprisoned in the Gulag. They saw eye to eye on everything. They enjoyed the same things, they liked to discuss the same subjects. Solzhenitsyn thought their friendship would last a lifetime. To his astonishment, however, when his friend was offered a privileged position in the prison system he accepted it. That was the first step in a change in his friend that ultimately saw him end up as a torturer who devised horrible and cruel torments against Soviet prisoners. Solzhenitsyn described the fear in his own heart when he realized that simple decisions, made in a moment, in the face of an offer of prosperity, could wreck a life, though attack and personal insult were unable to shake one's faith.

The great test of faith comes not when we receive news that offends us, insults us, or seems to threaten our lives. Rather, we ought to take offers of prosperity and blessing and spread these before the Lord, and listen to his wise words in evaluating what we are being offered.

Prayer

Thank you, our Father, for the clear glimpse of the wisdom of your word regarding threats to our lives. Help us to remember that we have an enemy who can come openly, with blatant attack upon our faith, ridiculing and insulting us; or he can come with blandishments and allurements in what seems an offer of greater prosperity, better conditions, or more honor. Grant to us the wisdom to evaluate such threats, to judge what is right and wrong. In Jesus' name, Amen.