ISAIAH, Part 5

The Assyrian army taking a city.

The Power of Prayer

Isaiah 37:14—20

Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD… (Isaiah 37:14, 15)

At first blush, that seems like a strange thing to do. Why would King Hezekiah take his mail into the temple of the Lord and spread it open, as if to let the Lord read it. Understanding why leads us to see the amazing power of prayer.

1. Historical facts

a. Summary of history

Chapters 36 to 39 form a “historical interlude.” They break a string of prophecies and give us a glimpse of Isaiah’s world. Why do you suppose there are four full chapters of pure history sandwiched in between Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the government and judgment of God and the grace of God, that is, salvation instead of judgment? Most scholars cite three good reasons.

First, history from God’s perspective is often quite different from that of man’s perspective. God’s view of history is laced with great spiritual truths missing from secular history. One can only see these truths through eyes of faith; it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to see God’s hand and purpose in the affairs of man.

Second, the events that we read about in chapters 36 to 39 are found in three different locations in Scripture: 2 Kings 18—19; 2 Chronicles 29, 30; and here in Isaiah. We have to ask ourselves: Why did the Holy Spirit see fit to have three versions of this piece of Hebrew history in God’s Word? Without a doubt, the Lord has some special truth or truths for us to learn. Among the great lessons God wants us to learn, we see some really remarkable miracles taking place during these years:

  • The death angel slays 185,000 Assyrians (Isa. 37:36—38)

  • The sun moves backwards ten degrees on Ahaz’s sundial (Isa. 38:7, 8)

  • God heals Hezekiah and extends his life 15 years (Isa. 38:1—5)

Third, this section opens with the Kingdom of Assyria and closes with the Kingdom of Babylon, spanning the decline and rise of two world empires key in Hebrew history. In chapter 36, King Hezekiah deals with the invasion of Assyria under Sennacherib. Chapter 37 details Hezekiah’s prayer and the resultant destruction of the Assyrian army. Chapter 38 records Hezekiah’s illness, prayer, and healing. And in chapter 39, we see Hezekiah making a fool of himself.

b. Attack of the Assyrians

To set the scene for Hezekiah’s action of 37:14—20, we look back at chapter 36.

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. (36:1)

Sennacherib, King of Assyria, and his mighty army came down on Judah with an army as large as a swarm of locusts. He had three reasons for this attack on Judah:

  • Hezekiah had refused to pay the tribute to Assyria since the days of King Ahaz;

  • He had opened negotiations with Babylon and Egypt for the sake of an alliance against Assyria;

  • He had helped the Philistines of Ekron to rise against their king, who supported Assyria, and had kept that king in prison at Jerusalem.

Things were bleak in Judah, and the army of Assyria was facing the walls of Jerusalem when the commander of the army relayed a message to King Hezekiah, designed to undermine his confidence in his allies, in his God, in Judah’s military strength, and ultimately in Judah’s divine destiny.

Then the Assyrian turned his attention to the common Jew, speaking loudly to them, shut up behind the great wall, in Hebrew:

This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! (verse 14)

He tried to win the Jews over with promises of food and drink if they would just surrender to him and go with him to his land, a land as good as theirs. Worst of all, he tried to convince the people that their God was no better than all the other gods of all the other nations around Judah.

c. God’s response

Hezekiah wasn’t a good king, he was a truly great king. In 2 Chronicles 29:1 and 2, we are told that Hezekiah did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as David had done. He loved Judah so much that that single fact alone was arguably his greatest weakness. At one point, he attempted to stave off the Assyrian invasion by bribing Sennacherib with gold he stripped off the temple (see the story in 2 Kings 18). However, the politically expedient policy of appeasement has never worked in history; you just can’t pay an evil power to be your friend, and so now the Assyrian army was just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Hezekiah turned to the Lord:

When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the LORD. (Isaiah 37:1)

The king did exactly the right thing in turning to the Lord for help. Here is a great lesson for the believer to lay hold of. You must ask for help before you can receive it. In this case, the help from God came in the form of advice from the prophet Isaiah. We don’t know what Hezekiah had in his mind when was in the temple praying, but God sent him Isaiah. This reminds us of what James wrote, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). Isaiah’s message was startling and to the point:

Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.’” (Isa. 37:6, 7)

This must have been welcome news indeed for the king to hear! It was literally fulfilled, but not after the Assyrian tried one more time to capture Jerusalem by send Hezekiah one last letter.

2. What Hezekiah did

a. The cause of the king’s trouble

This brings us to the reason why Hezekiah took his mail into the temple that day. He received a final letter from the Assyrian and it caused the king great trouble. We don’t know what was in that letter, but it must have been disheartening. Consider the context. Hezekiah had just been in the temple praying about this dreadful situation. God had seemingly answered Hezekiah’s prayer through Isaiah; Judah was to be spared and the Assyrian army would be destroyed. But now another threatening letter; what did it mean? Had God changed His mind? Was Isaiah wrong in the first place?

A lot of Christians have found themselves in this exact same uncomfortable position. They have had prayers answered, been the recipients of great blessings and even miracles, yet trouble continues to come at them. They do the right thing and live their faith yet they continually hear from the “messenger of Satan.” Like it or not, the enemy of our souls never rests, and he will be active until his bitter end. That can be very disheartening to the child of God. This is why Peter wrote these words:

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (1 Peter 5:7—9)

His advice is worth following. When you get anxious, tell God about it. Keep your wits about you. Be aware that the devil isn’t going anywhere soon and eventually he will set his sights on you. This happens to every Christian, no believer is exempt, not even the greatest saint of the church! So resist the devil; stand firm in the faith. In other words, don’t feel sorry for yourself when you get bad news! It happens to us all; just keep trusting in the Lord and let the Lord deal with it.

b. What the king did

Verse 14 tells us that Hezekiah spread out this letter before the Lord in the temple. He didn’t read it to everybody, he let the Lord read it personally. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that when we come the God, we must come to Him in faith, believing that He exists. In other words, we must come to God in a personal way, as we would come to any human being, believing Him to be that real, which He is. Hezekiah did just that; he spread open this letter as though God were right there in front of him, ready to read it.

c. How the king prayed

And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD. (verse 15)

Is there anything else a human being can do when faced with a crisis to which his resources are inadequate? Hezekiah’s prayer is jam-packed with Biblical theology from beginning to end. True prayer never denies the facts, rather, it faces them head on but interprets them theologically. That’s how Hezekiah prayed. That’s also how the early church prayed in Acts 4:24—31.

Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” (Acts 4:24b)

Sennacherib’s challenge was in essence a showdown. But it wasn’t between Nehemiah and the Assyrian commander. It wasn’t between the Jews and the Assyrians. It was between the real and the phony; between the truth and lies. Hezekiah’s prayer indicates that he realized that and he expressed it the words he chose.

  • LORD Almighty, the God of Israel… The first thing the king acknowledged was that even though he was the king, there was One greater than he, and it was really God who was over Israel. Other nations had their gods, other people worshiped their rulers, but not Israel. Israel’s God was Yahweh.

  • you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. Not only is Yahweh sovereign over Israel, He is sovereign over all the kingdoms of the earth. This is a profound statement. It indicates that God is literally overseeing what is going on in every nation, not just Israel. Psalm 102:15–The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.

  • You have made heaven and earth. If Yahweh made all that can be seen, it’s reasonable to see Him as ruler over it!

  • ...they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Other nations have come and gone and their so-called gods have perished because unlike Yahweh, they were not real

  • Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, LORD, are the only God. Now all the nations needed to see who really is God alone. He cannot be stopped by the plans of any man. Fire cannot stop Him because Yahweh was not fashioned by the hands of man; He is an eternal spirit who dwells among the angels.

Linked to Judah’s deliverance—their salvation—was a revelation of God to all people, acknowledging that Yahweh was God alone. So, for Hezekiah, the salvation of Israel meant the vindication of God among the heathen, and the possibility that they, like Israel, would come to know Him as God alone.

3. Hezekiah’s success

Then the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! (verse 36)

“The angel of the Lord” is described as “going out.” The Hebrew word is usually used of going forward in battle. Though the “angel of the Lord” is distinct from God, He is identified with Him. It was God who fought for Hezekiah and the Jews. How did He slay all those soldiers?

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that that night Sennacherib’s camp became infested with rats that destroyed the soldier’s weapons and killed the soldiers. In the ancient east, rats are usually identified with some sort of terrible plague. However God did it, He decimated the Assyrian army and those left alive beat a hasty retreat.

But God wasn’t finished with the Assyrians just yet. There is a span of some twenty years between verses 37 and 38, but Isaiah seems to indicate that all the events were part of God’s judgment on Sennacherib and the Assyrians:

One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword…

Sennacherib was assassinated while worshiping his false God. The God of the Jews protected them, Sennacherib’s gods did nothing for him. This was more than enough evidence that Yahweh was real.

The power of prayer is evidenced by success.  Sometimes that success is a long time in coming.  Ultimately, Hezekiah’s prayer was completely answered after his death.  That’s a good thing to remember when we pray!  We need to pray in faith believing for an answer.  We need to look for the answer.  But we need to realize that God’s time isn’t necessarily ours.

Is there any sadness or sorrow so great or circumstance so frustrating that the prayer of faith can’t bring deliverance and success? The words of Jesus affirm what King Hezekiah knew:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
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