Saturday, April 3, 2010

2 Kings 16-20: The Fall of Israel; Hezekiah

After Judah's stunning string of good kings, Jotham has a son named Ahaz, who is not just as bad as all the Israelite kings, but arguably even worse, because he practices human sacrifice with his son.  Now for me, the inference that I've gotten from my reading of the Bible so far is that sacrificing one's child is one of the most detestable and evil things that a person could do in God's eyes.  And I don't think there needs to be any explanation as to why.  Humanly, spiritually, socially, in just about every conceivable way, this is an evil act and you have to be really screwed up to do it, I think.  I mean, we're talking about taking your living breathing child whom you have raised from birth, and setting them on fire.  People like that deserve to have their fingernails and toenails pulled off one by one, then their fingers and toes chewed off one by one, and . . . well, you get the picture.

Then Aram and Israel combine forces and attack Ahaz in Jerusalem, and this is weird - he asks for help from Assyria.  I'm thinking this was a bad move, but he didn't know what Assyria was going to become.  Oh, and also, he sends more of the treasures in the temple to Assyria.  I'm surprised there's anything left in that place, because it seems like at least every two or three generations it's getting cleaned out for some kind of tribute.  You'd think it would be drained by now.

Thank goodness, Ahaz dies shortly after this story, and his son Hezekiah becomes king.  More about him later.

Meanwhile, Israel's next king is named Hoshea.  If that name looks kind of familiar to you, I think it must be a variant of Hosea.  I wonder if it is also a variant of Joshua or Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus).  I don't need to mention that he's evil, but in his reign the king of Assyria rises up against him, so Israel pays tribute to him, but then Hoshea conspires against Assyria with the king of Egypt somehow and stops paying tribute, so the king of Assyria throws him in prison.  Then they invade Israel, besiege Samaria for three years, eventually capture it, and carry the people into exile.  And that is the end of the nation of Israel.

In another rare moment, the author of this book launches into a commentary here and talks about why Israel fell, apparently because he wanted us to learn a moral lesson from this story - that's what ancient history books were all designed to do, by the way.  He writes that the exile happened not because Israel's kings weren't strong enough leaders or made bad political moves, but because the people sinned and turned their backs on God and trusted in other gods.  These are the main things that Israel did wrong, according to this passage here: 1) they worshiped other gods, built idols, etc., 2) they evil things that provoked God, 3) they did not listen to the prophets' warnings, 4) they followed the example of the nations around them, 5) they practiced human sacrifice, divination, and sorcery, 6) they led Judah into sin by example.

What happens next is that the king of Assyria brings foreigners into the land of Israel after he's taken a bunch of people out and into exile.  I think the idea was to mix the cultures by intermarriage, thus diminishing a sense of nationality, thus lessening the risk of a future uprising.  And the plan worked: the ten tribes of Israel are no longer distinguishable today, although a few of their mixed-blood descendants remain in the land, even to this day.  They are called Samaritans, and we will not hear about them again for a very long time.

Anyway, when these transplant people come in, they make up their own gods and sort of add the true God into the mix, into the pantheon as it were.  God did not appreciate this.  He doesn't want to be one of many revered objects in our lives.  You can't put him next to anything; I think it has to be just him and nothing else beside him or above him.

Back to Hezekiah.  Hezekiah, I will let you know, is my favorite king.  The first thing it says about what he did as king is that he broke down the high places!  He is the only one out of all the good kings to have done this!  He broke all the idols that the people were worshiping, even the bronze snake that Moses made for the people in the wilderness, because they were worshiping that.  Note: sometimes we can take a really good thing, a God-given thing, and make an idol out of it.  In contemporary terms, these things might be going to church, or religious practices, or service, or even, to some extent, the Bible (because the Bible is not actually God, although it was written by him).  Anything that we put before God himself, no matter how good it is, must be broken down and removed until nothing stands between us and him.  That is a freaky thing to think about, because there are an awful lot of things in my life that I value very much.

Now, everybody talks about how great David and Solomon were, but get this: Hezekiah was better.  The Bible says so!  It says, "He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him.  For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses."

Reread that phrase up there, "He clung to the LORD."  That brings such a powerful image to my mind.  It's one thing to keep something next to you, another to hold onto it; to cling to something is another matter entirely.  Here is how one dictionary defines that word:

  1. To hold fast or adhere to something, as by grasping, sticking, embracing, or entwining: clung to the rope to keep from falling; fabrics that cling to the body.
  2. To remain close; resist separation: We clung together in the storm.
  3. To remain emotionally attached; hold on: clinging to outdated customs.

To me, the word "cling" conjures up the impression of a life-and-death situation.  Like clinging to a life preserver when you're lost at sea, or something like that.  It's not a casual action; it is . . . a desperate, committed action.  When you cling to something, there is no way you are going to let go, ever.

So Hezekiah is my favorite king.

It's during Hezekiah's reign that Assyria conquers Israel and carries everybody off into exile, and they go after Judah too.  In fact, it says Hezekiah rebels against the king, which I guess means he stopped paying the tribute, and that really ticks off the king.  He's already conquered Israel so he goes after Judah next.  Hezekiah gives him more stuff from the temple but that's not good enough.  The Assyrian army lays siege to Jerusalem, and the commander of the army comes out to taunt Judah and insult both Hezekiah and the God he so faithfully serves.  Luckily, Hezekiah's people keep their heads.  The soldiers ask the Assyrian dude to talk in Aramaic instead of Hebrew, because I guess the regular people didn't speak Aramaic that well and they didn't want them to hear.  And when the guy keeps threatening them and jeering and stuff, none of the people give him any kind of response, because Hezekiah had told them not to say a word.  To have that kind of self-command tells me that Hezekiah must have been held in very, very high esteem.  I think the people believed in him.  I hope they also believed in God.

But Hezekiah is not nearly as confident at this point.  He hears what's going on outside and tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth.

Okay, so I have to make a sidenote here about tearing clothes.  There have been a couple references to clothes so far - the clothes worn by the Israelites in the wilderness didn't wear out for 40 years, Samson bet his fiancee's friends so many changes of clothes for answering his riddle, and part of the gift Naaman offered Elisha was a change of clothes.  I get the impression that these people did not have a lot of changes of clothes, if any.  The king probably had a few more sets than the regular people, but still, it had to have been expensive.  Understanding that gives a very new meaning, to me, to the custom of tearing one's clothes when one was in mourning.  It was not comparable to me tearing up my clothes, because I have lots of clothes and I can replace them pretty quickly and easily.  It seems to me, this would be more like me smashing my computer.  Yipes.

But then a prophet comes and encourages Hezekiah.  You might know him; his name is Isaiah.  He says that God will take care of the army without even fighting, and Jerusalem will be okay.  Hezekiah prays for deliverance - and what's awesome is that he doesn't pray because he wants to save his skin, or preserve his kingly power, or even to save the lives of all his people, although I'm sure all those things were important to him.  What he asks is for all the kingdoms around the world to know that the LORD is God.  Hezekiah was a good king because he valued God's reputation above his own, when both were being threatened.  And he knew what Israel was about, I think, that it was supposed to be a light to the Gentiles, a revelation of the character of God.

I think the next thing that happens is cool.  God sends an answer to Hezekiah through Isaiah, and this is the answer that's given to the army commander.  It's basically God slapping Assyria in the face and saying, "everything that you think your bad self did, that was actually me, and I am going to kick you to kingdom come."  And then he does, because the angel of the LORD strikes 185,000 soldiers by night and kills them, so they go home.    Somebody needed to show that Sennacherib who was boss, and God was the perfect person for the job (because he is the boss).

Hezekiah is doing just awesome, so awesome that what happens next doesn't make sense.  He gets sick.  Just like Uzziah, the good king who got struck by leprosy, Hezekiah becomes mortally ill, and Isaiah even tells him he's going to die.  I feel so sorry for Hezekiah.  His response to this news is very short, so short I can quote it for you.  It says, "Then he turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, 'Remember now, O LORD, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.' And Hezekiah wept bitterly."  That's all.

I don't know much about prayer, I have to admit.  Sometimes I feel like the more I pray, the better chance I have of God hearing and answering me.  And while I think there's certainly a biblical precedent for ceaseless prayer, sometimes all it takes is one sentence.  And Hezekiah didn't really even ask God to heal him.  He just asked God to remember him.  The image of this strong, wise, courageous king rolling over in his bed to face away from the prophet and just crying his eyes out, breaks my heart.  And I think it broke God's heart too, because Isaiah hadn't even gotten out of Hezekiah's house before God told him to turn around and tell Hezekiah that he was going to live for 15 more years, and moreover, God would totally deliver Jerusalem from Assyria.

I don't know why Hezekiah got sick, honestly.  God healed him pretty quickly after this incident, and it's not like Hezekiah was needing to be turned around or anything before he got sick.  Sometimes the things God does are inexplicable to me.  But I think what I learned from Hezekiah's story is that, while serving God may not prevent bad stuff from happening to you, when bad stuff does happen to you, it is good to find yourself on his side, because then he is on your side as well.

I love Hezekiah, but he does one stupid thing in his life (we're all entitled to something, I guess).  The king of Babylon sends him a get-well card and a care package, and once he's better, he comes over for a visit.  And Hezekiah is so hospitable to this king that he shows him all the valuable stuff in his whole entire kingdom.  Does the name "Babylon" ring a bell to you?  We'll be hearing from them again soon.  Now, Hezekiah must have trusted in God to protect Judah, and therefore thought there was no harm in showing Babylon exactly what they would get if they happened to conquer his nation.  But just because God is our protector, doesn't mean he gave us a license to be stupid.  I think God wants us still to make wise decisions, and Hezekiah's mistake will come back to haunt Judah - not in Hezekiah's own lifetime, thankfully, but sooner than you think.

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