When Hezekiah Went To Church
( Originally Published 1921 )
HEZEKIAH'S PRAYER FOR DELIVERANCE
Not that it was unusual for Hezekiah to go to church am I telling this story, but because one time when he went into the temple such a wonderful thing came to pass on account of his visit that I feel you should hear about it and enjoy it with me. Hezekiah was king of Judah and was one of the three good and great kings that were a blessing to the Hebrew people.
Yes, Israel had more than three kings, many more, but of all she had, only three left behind them a good record and were faithful to the laws of Jehovah. Perhaps you are thinking Hezekiah went to church because he believed it to be a duty or because his father compelled him to go. Not a bit of it, and here is where the surprise is for many of you. He went because he loved to go. To have kept him at home would have been hard work. His father Ahaz had done everything he could to destroy the worship of Jehovah and to defile His temple. If you are wondering why Hezekiah was so different from his father, I will tell you. He had a good mother.
How do I know that? The Bible, to be sure, says no more about Hezekiah's mother than to give her name, Abi, adding that her father was Zechariah, who probably had some part in the music of the temple and in its services. We can be certain that Abi was a woman with a fine, strong character, for you boys and girls who love history and enjoy reading the lives of great men must know, as I do, that every good man who has become great has always had a mother with force of character and strength of mind.
Suppose we make another visit to Jerusalem. You who watched with me beside the gates to see the queen of Sheba when she entered the city, and followed her into the presence of King Solomon, will be much disappointed at what you will find there when Hezekiah is king. The gardens are no longer beautiful as they once were. A plow seems to have been driven through some of them and they are littered with arrows. You may possibly stumble over some old chariot wheels buried deep in ruts of earth. A sickly wind whines through gaunt trees often bare of leaves, and even if they have leaves they droop as though it were difficult to live. The steep ascent is rough with scattered stones. The city gates hang aslant on rotting hinges. Some are not closed at all, although the sun has set and it is time they were barred for the coming night. The walls of the city have so many gaps in them that we wonder why gates are necessary, as one could easily slip through the falling ruins so often battered and torn by besieging armies. Now and then a loosened stone drops from a shattered tower on the walls with a crash into the valley below. Altogether it is a dismal picture, not at all like the glory and beauty of Solomon's time.
No, do not turn away and say we must have made a mistake—this is not Jerusalem, the city of David. You are pointing to the many altars on which a human sacrifice is smoldering into ashes. The dying shrieks of a youth being made to "pass through the fire" cause you to shudder with horror. His father passes us with blood-stained hands and with a smile on his face, for has he not offered his first-born to the fire-god, who will now forgive the father's sin? As we enter the city and pass by the closed doors of the temple, you look in astonishment at the many revolting images of heathen gods within its courts. Surely this cannot be Jerusalem, you insist, for these things do not belong to. the worship of Jehovah. It is Jerusalem. You remember I told you that of all the kings of Israel and Judah only three were faithful to their people and to their God, Jehovah.
We know that every Hebrew law forbade human sacrifice, and that a man causing his children to "pass through the fire" was to be stoned to death. Israel had good laws.
You ask, " Why did n't she keep them then?"
For the same reason that people in our time do not keep the laws they know are righteous. My story, as you see, is only about people, and people then were the same as they are now, some good, some evil, many lawbreakers, and many wishing to see the law obeyed. No, the people of those long-ago days were only human as we are. Watch them carefully and see. Is n't it like a looking-glass across which, as time passes, is reflected all human experience, yours and mine as well?
But let us listen to the people of Jerusalem as we walk through their streets. Do you see them shake their heads in doubt as they wonder what kind of king young Hezekiah will make? Ahaz, his father, had overthrown the worship of Jehovah and even put into the temple images of the Asherim, idols of the neighboring heathen kingdom. One old man is saying to his companion, "We need our streets repaired and the city walls rebuilt where they have been torn down."
"Yes," replies his friend, "and our water supply should be improved. And there is the temple; it has been so abused by Ahaz and the kings before him that it will need a thorough cleansing before it will be fit for the worship of Jehovah."
"Look at the watch towers on those walls! They are a shame to Jerusalem," remarks a third.
"There is no longer any hope for our once royal city," observes a sad-faced man. The hearts of Israel and Judah are so depraved with serving false gods and indulging in foolish pleasures that they no longer take any pride in Jerusalem."
A man joins the group and smiles as one after another respectfully greets him. There is a light in his eyes that at once gives us courage. He surely sees something that is good. He is Isaiah, the prophet-statesman.
"You will have every desire satisfied," he says to the men. "Hezekiah's heart is warm with love for his country and his God. Be patient, and help him in his efforts to redeem. Jerusalem and deliver her from her enemies."
"Had Jerusalem enemies in Hezekiah's time?" you ask me.
The city and the Hebrew nation have always had enemies. Even now as we are looking out from her towers down on the peaceful valley below, there is an army on its march intending to capture her treasure and make her people slaves.
You may be saying that Jehovah had made a covenant with Israel and had promised to protect the people and the city from their enemies.
Yes, if they obeyed His laws, but not otherwise. The closed doors of the temple, its desecrated altars, the hideous idols within the city and on every hilltop, show us only too well that Judah and Israel have forsaken Jehovah, and many of the people probably have never known Him.
We enter the city the day Hezekiah is crowned king. Let us visit his palace and watch him as he stands talking with his counselor, Isaiah, the prophet. As we silently conceal our-selves behind the curtains of the doorway he and Isaiah pass us. Outside they turn their faces in the direction of the temple. With upraised arms the young king declares that his first work shall be the cleansing of Jehovah's house, and the purifying of the Levites and the priesthood so that they may be ready for all the temple service.
And all these things he did, even destroying the brazen serpent which Moses had set up in the wilderness to heal the bite of the fiery serpent. When the people objected to this destruction of an old idol and asked that they might still be allowed to burn incense to it, he replied,
"It is nothing but a piece of brass and cannot help you.
Every religious service Hezekiah reestablished. The passover had been so long neglected that the majority of the people had forgotten the laws about it, and probably there were some who had never heard of it. So the king sent messengers with letters throughout all Judah, Israel, Ephraim, and Manasseh, calling them to Jerusalem to keep the passover. His letters told the people that all the Hebrew country was in danger from her enemies, that many of her people already were in captivity, and that captivity would be the fate of all unless they returned to Jehovah and obeyed His law.
Yes, they listened. There were many who ridiculed the king and probably wondered why such intelligent persons as themselves, so full of new and up-to-date ideas, should give attention to a worship and a God they had forgotten years before. Can this stripling king teach us anything? they inquired among themselves. How their question was answered our story will tell us. A few heard gladly the king's invitation and quickly came to Jerusalem to keep the passover with him. There were only a few in all, "the remnant," as the Bible calls the little band always faithful to God.
But, small as the gathering was, it accomplished a mighty work. The temple was purged of all uncleanness, every idol and image in the Hebrew land was destroyed, every act of worship to a heathen god was abolished. The priest and Levites again performed the temple service of Jehovah, and they were given the tithes—that is, the tenth part of all the earnings and treasures of the people. How did this please the people? Scripture says they gave so gladly and willingly that more was given than could be used; store-room had to be found for the over supply.
Hezekiah selected and re-edited some of Solomon's proverbs, and when you read them you know his selection was exactly what a man like the king would live by. What were they? Proverbs, twenty-fifth chapter and on through the twenty-ninth chapter. He altered and improved the song service of the temple and had music of different kinds used in the worship.
He repaired the streets, rebuilt the walls, strengthened the towers, built treasuries and storehouses, gave the city a better water supply, helped the farmers to increase their crops and their cattle, and the workmen as well as the farmers to increase their gains. Wealth and all things in plenty were his, but not once did any of his treasure cause him to forget Jehovah. And it was for this reason that he was able to make that memorable visit to the temple of which our story tells.
"How long did it take Hezekiah to do all these good works?" you ask.
For twenty-nine years he was king, and every one of those years saw some good work done by him. He did only one thing at a time and did it thoroughly and quickly. As the Bible says, he did everything with all his heart, also adding that whatever he did with all his heart was a success.
We have toiled up the steep slopes leading to the city and have seen with sorrow the decay into which it was rapidly falling. Then we have turned away to leave it in the hands of its young and noble king and the great prophet Isaiah, certain that the fortunes of Zion during their lifetime would be blessed.
Years after the evening when Hezekiah declared that the cleansing of the temple should be his first work, let us go back again and see the changes that have come to Jerusalem. But we cannot enter the city. An army is encamped around it. Yes, it is the army of the conquering Assyrian against whom no nation has been able to prevail. Behind them they have always left a trail of desolation and despair.
Will they take Jerusalem? Wait and see.
It was not the hour of prayer. Neither was there sacrifice or service going on in the temple when Hezekiah went through its courts and pushed aside the curtains which hid the Holy of Holies, for he stood before the ark of the covenant, the sacred ark just above which the people believed the presence of God dwelt.
"But we thought only the high priest, once a year, on the day of Atonement, was allowed to enter the most holy place," you say.
That was the old law and also the law as it existed but was not heeded, in the day of Hezekiah. This visit Hezekiah made, however, was at a time of deep distress and great danger. An army was hammering at the gates of Jerusalem; a vicious letter from a cruel king demanded that Hezekiah give the city to the enemy. Hezekiah went into the the temple to talk with God. Jehovah was to him a real friend. He could not see, but he did feel this Power, and knew that he stood in the presence of One who had promised never to leave nor to forsake those who really put their whole trust in Him. He had been taught that here within the Holy of Holies one could come closest to Jehovah, and so in the hour of his greatest need he stepped within it and asked God to hear him.
"If an army was besieging Jerusalem, why didn't he call out his soldiers?" you boys ask.
For the same reason that David refused to wear Saul's armor when he went out to meet Goliath. Both David and Hezekiah had great faith in God and very little in armies and their machinery.
The ark of the covenant—which was really an oblong box—had above it, directly in the center, a spot called the mercy-seat ; over this seat were stretched out the wings of the cherubim.. You might have called them angels. To the Israelites the Mercy-seat was where God himself dwelt, and the wings of the cherubim signified His sheltering care. Now we know why Hezekiah disregarded the priestly law and went to lay the letter before this seat.
Into the sacred place Hezekiah had carried the letter and laid it before the Mercy-seat. It was here he would ask and receive God's mercy for his people. The letter was from Sennacherib, saying, " Let not thy God in whom thou trustest deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, by destroying them utterly; and shalt thou be delivered?"
Rabshakeh, the messenger of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, had insultingly talked with Hezekiah's three officers—his treasurer, his secretary, and his historian. The haughty Assyrian soldier kept talking to the men upon the wall in the Jews' language, even though Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah, the messengers of Hezekiah, had asked that he speak in Assyrian, as they understood that language. Like all other bullies, the Assyrian thought that courtesy meant weakness, so he began to scoff at the three men, blaspheme against Jehovah, and speak with contempt of Hezekiah's folly. By his folly the Assyrian meant Hezekiah's trust in Jehovah. "You are being deceived by Hezekiah," shouted the Assyrian commander; "put your trust in my king and you shall have mercy." Rabshakeh offered the listeners upon the wall homes, property, and all things in plenty if they would desert Hezekiah and serve Sennacherib.
The men upon the wall made no answer. The Assyrian general had not frightened them. They "rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah." What were those words?
"Be strong and of good courage, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him; for there is a greater with us than with him: with him is an arm of flesh; but with us is Jehovah our God to help us, and to fight our battles."
The king and the men of Judah knew well what had been the fate of every nation that had dared rebel against the despotic rule of Sennacherib. Had they not been told of captives lying naked before that monarch in order that they might be whipped to death? Starvation, exile, imprisonment, and every punishment that fiendish cruelty could suggest was employed to torture any people who resisted the will of Assyria's king.
It was in this hour that Hezekiah went into the temple, carrying with him the fate of Jerusalem and its people. He would prove that the evil tongue of this heathen king could not alter Jehovah's purpose to protect every soul that called upon Him, and so he prayed:
"0 Jehovah, the God of Israel, that sittest above the cherubim, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thine ear, O Jehovah, and hear; open thine eyes, O Jehovah, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, wherewith he hath sent him to defy the living God. Of a truth, Jehovah, the kings of Assyria have laid waste 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 have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Jehovah our God, save thou us, I beseech thee, out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou Jehovah art God alone."
When his prayer was ended, Hezekiah left the temple and at the door met a messenger from Isaiah. Through the mouth of the prophet came Jehovah's answer, saying of Sennacherib, "He shall not come unto this city, nor shoot an arrow there, neither shall he come before it with shield, nor cast up a mound against it. For I will defend this city to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake."
That night Hezekiah's rest must have been sweet. No troubled dreams of broken walls and captive exiles disturbed his sleep. He and his people were at rest. Not so the Assyrian host outside the city, for from the wings of night there had fallen a black pestilence upon the besieging army. So great was the number of dead that lay in their midst they dared not stay longer in the place. Without one blow at the city they had come to capture, they turned and went to their own land, and Hezekiah had no further trouble with the Assyrians.
Do you ask me, " Was this an answer to his prayer?" I will let you settle this question for yourselves. But before I leave you let me add that it is not wisdom to doubt something one has never tried.