Sermon preached on 2 Kings 18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/04/2020 in Novato, CA.
After darkness, light. Or in Latin, post tenebras lux. That became the motto of Protestant Geneva under reformer John Calvin’s leadership. They even put it on their coins. It reflected how God brought a great light of reformation to the church after a period of much darkness. As we head into October, this is a month that we tend to reflect a bit more on the Protestant Reformation. Well, we have a fitting passage to begin this month as we start to look at King Hezekiah who was a great reformer-king in Judah. Judah had been in much darkness, especially under the leadership of Hezekiah’s father Ahaz. But here, in a time when it was greatly needed, God rose up Hezekiah to bring much needed religious reform to God’s people.
Let us begin then by considering the summary of Hezekiah that is given to us in verses 1-8. We take great joy when we see how his own personal spiritual health is summarized. We start there in verse 3 and learn that he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD. Not only that, but we read that he did according to the pattern of David his father. We’ve read about some evil kings in Judah’s history. We’ve read about some decently good kings in Israel’s history. But time and again even the good kings were said to be good, but not as good as their father David. So then, finally we have this refreshing report that not only did Hezekiah do good, but he did David-good. David, a man after God’s own heart, finally had a son who lived up to his legacy. We find this further explained in verse 5 in terms of trust. Hezekiah trusted in the LORD – that’s a trust that will get tested in today’s passage. Verse 6 adds that he held fast to the LORD. In other words, he preserved in his trust and allegiance to God. When troubles came, he continued to cling to the LORD. It goes on to say how that was illustrated in terms of obedience. He did not depart from following the LORD even in how he closely kept the commandments God gave Moses. And so, verse 7 tells us that the LORD was with him and prospered him. His life was a demonstration of the righteous way of Psalm 1, that a person planted in the LORD finds a blessed and fruitful life. As we will see, that doesn’t mean that he had a life without any troubles. But, by the great grace of God, Hezekiah was a godly king whom the people needed for that day.
As such a king, we notice all the wonderful religious reforms he accomplished. We find this in verse 4 and it should also really jump out at you. It says he removed the high places. Remember, this has been the repeated refrain among the kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. Even the best ones that received a good report, would end with a disclaimer that the king didn’t remove the high places. God had commanded there should be just one central altar among his people, and that had been established in Jerusalem. Yet these high places were alternate altars located throughout the land. Many of these sites would have historically been pagan worship sites from when the Canaanite peoples controlled the land. Unfortunately, some of them were still being used to perform pagan worship practices, as we see the pagan Asherah poles mentioned in verse 4. When that was the case, there was nothing valid at all about such high place worship. Yet, many of these high places had begun to be used as a place to offer sacrifices to the LORD God of Israel. When they worshipped the LORD God in those high places, that was technically still a violation of God’s regulation for a single altar, though not in such a way that completely invalidated the worship. We saw that, for example, back in Solomon’s day in 1 Kings 3, where Solomon was noted critically for worshipping in the high places, yet God still responded to that worship and blessed Solomon. So, such high place worship to the LORD did not completely invalidate the worship, but it was not as pure of worship at God would have. Hezekiah is the first king since Solomon that finally dealt with this lingering impurity.
We should note here that another major religious reform that Hezekiah did is to repair the temple in Jerusalem. That detail is not recorded in 2 Kings, but the account in 2 Chronicles 29 goes into a lot of detail in that regard. Remember, Hezekiah’s father Ahaz had really desecrated the temple, putting in an altar styled after the Syrian worship practices and making other changes to some of the key furnishings in the temple. And so, under Hezekiah’s orders, they make repairs and cleanse the temple and restore worship there. This is the key counterpart to Hezekiah’s removal of the high places. To get rid of the high places means you need to have a proper central altar for God’s worship. Hezekiah’s reforms included restoring the proper worship of the LORD at the temple in Jerusalem.
We also learn in verse 4 of another corrupt worship practice that had been going on in Judah that Hezekiah addressed. Apparently, the people had begun to worship the bronze serpent that Moses had made in the wilderness. You might recall that centuries before when Israel was in that period of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, that they had gotten bitten by venomous serpents. This is recorded in Numbers 21. This was a punishment by God when they yet again complained against God. But then they cried out to God for help and he had Moses make a bronze serpent with the promise that if you were bitten by a snake you could look upon the bronze serpent and God would heal you. This obviously would be a test of their faith and the supernatural power of God to heal them. Well, apparently they had kept that artifact down through the centuries and unfortunately at one point it became idolatrous. Hezekiah decides that it needs to be destroyed because it had become another second-commandment violation for the people. So, again, we see the regulative principle of worship informing Hezekiah. We can make idols out of things that originally began as a good thing. Obviously that bronze serpent hadn’t begun as an idol, but in man’s sin it became that over time. Corruption can creep into our worship practices. This is a challenge for us still today. The spirit of the Reformation says we need to be regularly evaluating what we do in worship and see that we’ve not twisted something good into becoming a perversion.
The last thing we can note in summary about Hezekiah is that he had some good military successes, per verses 7-8. We should read this as a product of the LORD being with them. He had victories over Assyria and the Philistines. We might also note that it is a summary statement. We learn a lot more about his conflict with the Assyrians here and in the next chapter.
This leads us nicely then to our second point to observe the Assyrian threat here against Judah. The context is given to us in verses 9-12 where we are told how Assyria conquered and exiled the northern kingdom of Israel. You might at first wonder why the narrator told us that fact yet again after speaking so thoroughly about it last chapter. But it’s purpose here is to connect it with Hezekiah’s reign. The point is that early in Hezekiah’s reign he witnessed his Israelite brothers to the north get completely wiped out and destroyed by Assyria. They alone in Judah were spared by God. Yet, Judah had been living too much like Israel, especially under the leadership of Hezekiah’s father. Assyria’s recent destruction of Israel would have been fresh on Hezekiah’s mind when they then invade Judah here as we see starting in verse 13. This is the context for Hezekiah’s faceoff with the Assyrians. Less than a decade prior, God had allowed the Assyrians to be his hand of judgment against wayward Israel. Would Judah be next? That had to be in the mind of King Hezekiah.
So then, starting at verse 13 we see the result of Hezekiah’s rebelling from the Assyrians. Remember, his father Ahaz had become a subservient nation that gave Assyria tribute. But by this point in Hezekiah’s reign he had thrown off the yoke of Assyria. But now the Assyrians have finally arrived to deal with his insubordination. What would Hezekiah do? Well, unfortunately we see a moment of personal failing on his part starting in verse 14. He essentially tries to repent of his rebellion to Assyria and offers to submit to them and pay them whatever tribute they demand. I’m glad this is recorded for us, because it helps contrast with the summary we read of Hezekiah earlier. The summary emphasized Hezekiah’s firm trust in the LORD. But here we see that while that was a true summary, it didn’t mean that Hezekiah never struggled in his trust in God. It’s like the patriarch Abraham. He is known for his great faith, yet it was also a struggle of his faith that had him for a moment try to fulfill God’s promises himself through Hagar instead of trusting God to provide through Sarah. Hezekiah here was a man who in general trusted God for help and salvation – but here for a moment faltered and tries to get back into the good graces of Assyria.
So then, the Assyrians demanded this large tribute of gold and silver. Here Hezekiah, like so many of his forefathers, raids the temple and palace treasuries to try to come up with the amount the Assyrians were demanding. You get the sense that Hezekiah was struggling to come up with the amount demanded when you see him scraping off gold from the temple doors. Yet, he sends the tribute and they still proceed to come against Jerusalem!
So then, we see that the Assyrian king sends some of his forces and representatives against Jerusalem. In verses 17-18 we see that the Assyrian leaders request a meeting with King Hezekiah to apparently discuss terms of their surrender. King Hezekiah doesn’t come himself but sends three official representatives on his behalf. One of the Assyrian leaders named Rabshakeh is recorded as doing all the talking. By the way, Rabshakeh means “chief cupbearer” and is likely this person’s title and not his name. So then, the Rabshakeh first directs his speech to Hezekiah’s representatives in verses 19-27. But then he turns to address the people of Judah as a whole in verses 28-35. Basically, he is trying to persuade the king and the people to give up their hope and surrender to the Assyrians and whatever their plans may be for them.
At this point, I’d like to point out that Hezekiah’s great national religious reforms didn’t save them from these troubles with the Assyrians. If we said, “after darkness, light”, we can note that after their light, they still had to deal with some darkness. This was a dark and scary moment in history for Hezekiah. Despite Hezekiah’s trust in the LORD, surely here he was tempted to fear and worry. And the point of application is that just because someone repents of their sin and returns to the LORD doesn’t mean that you’ll be guaranteed a care-free life going forward. In fact, for us under the new covenant we are told to expect to share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ after we become a Christian.
Well, in Hezekiah’s case, this dark threat to their existence then becomes a test of faith. It’s a test for Hezekiah, and a test for all the people of Judah. This leads us then to our third point to consider today. I want to delve into the speech of this Assyrian Rabshakeh. I want to see how he is trying to persuade Hezekiah and the people to abandon hope. As we look at his words, I think we should have in mind the application that this is the sort of thing Satan is out there trying to do to us. He wants us to turn away from our hope in the LORD and think we are already defeated by the enemy and might as well just give in.
So then look at the Rabshakeh’s speech to King Hezekiah through his representatives. Notice his art of persuasion. First, he tries to question what they are trusting in. Look at verse 19. He accuses them first of trusting in words. That they are all talk and have no proof of sufficient strength to stand up against them. He then accuses them of trusting in Egypt and says basically that Egypt has become too weak to help and would only end up hurting Judah to align with them. Interestingly, our text doesn’t tell us about Judah looking to Egypt for help, but the book of Isaiah shows that this was definitely what some people in Judah wanted the county to do. Interesting, the prophet Isaiah would agree with Rabshakeh on this point – Isaiah denounced looking for help in Egypt. Rabshakeh then really goes too far in verse 22 by trying to discredit their trust in the LORD. His logic is faulty and shows he doesn’t understand the biblical religion because he points to how Hezekiah had torn down all the high places and says that God will be mad at them for this. In fact, verse 25 even has his claiming that the LORD has himself ordered Assyria to attack Jerusalem. But we can see the enemy’s tactic here: trying to take away hope, especially from trusting in the LORD.
Rabshakeh’s end game with the king comes across in verse 23. The pew Bible says “come make a wager” with my master, but I don’t think that’s a very good translation. It’s probably more along the lines of calling Judah to make a bargain with Assyria. That if they’ve all thought of going to Egypt for horses, that Assyria can give them many more. But notice how he taunts them in that – basically saying that Judah wouldn’t even be able to put enough riders on that many horses. Of course, we are supposed to realize that at this point you don’t want to make a bargain with Assyria. That would be making a deal with the devil, and no matter how many horses are promised here, it’s not going to work out good for you. But, again, this is what the enemy does. He promises something good in return for your allegiance, but it indeed comes with great strings attached.
So we see then some of Rabshakeh’s art of persuasion toward the people as a whole. He begins in verse 29 by trying to turn the people away from their king. Like how he tried to get Hezekiah to try to question what he’s been trusting in, he does the same with the people. He tries to shake their trust in King Hezekiah. And then he tries to get them to shake their trust in the LORD. His words become especially damnable down in verse 33 when he compares the LORD God with all the pagan gods of the world. He says the nation’s gods couldn’t save them, and so surely your LORD God won’t be able to save you either. That’s when if I were standing close to Rabshakeh, I’d back up so I don’t get hit by the lightning! But it is a rather utilitarian view of religion – what practical thing will your god do for you? Rabshakeh says the religions of the other nations haven’t worked for them, and neither will Judah’s.
He then appeals to the people that he can make peace with them, verse 31. Rabshakeh tries to persuade them to trust in him instead in Hezekiah or the LORD. Notice he offers them in verse 31 that if they make peace with Assyria then they can all live and enjoy their homes. The implied alternative is that if they resist they will all die in battle. So, he says make peace with Assyria and they can live and enjoy their homes and land. But then notice what else he sneaks in in verse 32. Until we come and relocate you. Of course, Rabshakeh promises they’ll be relocated to a land of milk and honey. He promises them a new Promised Land. To a fool, this might sound like a good deal. But we have to remember who is making the promises here. Assyria is known for its great evil. Again, this would be a deal with the devil if they made it. But it is the enemy’s tactic to make promises that can try to make even exile sound appealing!
Well, the people were silent in response to these Assyrian offers. They were silent in submission to their king, as we’re told at the end of this passage.
The king’s representatives come back in torn clothes, in humility to the situation before them. Next week we’ll see Hezekiah turn to the LORD for help. Which, in closing brothers and sisters, is where we too need to turn when the enemy does this to us. The devil and the unbelieving world and even our own sinful flesh will try different ways to turn us aside from our trust in the LORD. But we must not believe their lies or buy into their false hope and empty promises. Our hope and trust must be firmly in God through Jesus Christ! For King Jesus has promised to always be with us, even until the end of the age.
And so this means we have to walk by faith. Assyria here looked like a foe that couldn’t be defeated! And we will have enemies that look beyond our strength. But they are not beyond the Lord’s strength. We’ll get to see that as we keep working through this ordeal in next week’s passage. So then, let us be renewed today to walk in faith and trust in the Lord and turn to him in prayer when we need help. We might not get all the answers we might want in this life. But victory ultimately belongs to the Lord. In him we are more than conquerors.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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