Book the First: King Number One
When Ahaz was king of Judah, two kings united to wage war against him. Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel, besieged the house of David at Jerusalem, and it scared everyone pretty badly. Being trapped in a city is a recipe for a long, nasty death. When Ahaz found out what was going on, “his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with (from before) the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). I know this feeling. My heart has often shaken this way, creating visceral reverberations throughout my entire body. When fear enters your mind, it quickly takes over your whole body. Ahaz and the people of Judah were inwardly quaking at the thought of what was coming against them.
Isaiah was the Lord’s prophet at the time, and the Lord gave Isaiah these words for the King. “’Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands’” (Isaiah 7:4). This is a tough word to hear when you’re between a rock and a hard place. These folks played for keeps when they went to war. They slaughtered and pillaged and did gruesome things to everyone. They were not respecters of persons, literally tearing up pregnant women and children as soon as they’d hew down a man. And there was not one, but two kingdoms coming against them, ready to swallow them up whole. And yet, it seems like God is asking Ahaz to ignore his senses. How can he ignore the smell of the campfires of the armies, the taste of their stale food, the feel of the dirty streets piling up with refuse, the sound of the swords being sharpened, the sight of war all around him? It seems a mockery for God to tell Ahaz to be cool, calm and collected. Yet here is God commanding Ahaz to bolster his heart. And here is God smirking at these mighty kings as little stubs—little embers pretending to be mighty fires. But to all of Ahaz’s five senses, these kings are mighty fires ready to consume him.
But God is not ignoring nor asking Ahaz to ignore all the proofs around him. God acknowledges the situation as it is on the ground. Indeed, they have “’planed evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrorize it (cause it a sickening dread), and make for ourselves a breach in its walls”’” (Isaiah 7:5-6). Yes, God is saying. It is true that you are being hunted down. Your fear is real. There are people coming against you, and they want you to be sick to your stomach with terror. This force wants to tear down all your defenses, invade your safe place and annihilate you. It is all true, but…but there is a greater truth. For, “’thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass”’” (Isaiah 7:7). The thing about the Master of the Universe is that the Creator is He “who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7). So while the circumstance may clearly appear to be unchangeable, His force of will is not at all hampered by those very real but very impotent circumstances. He can say, “It shall not be as it seems,” and He has the ability to make it so.
God is testing Ahaz with the test of faith. Will you believe what your eyes see, or will you dare to believe what I say will be that is yet unseen and unthinkable as a potential outcome of this catastrophe? That God testing Ahaz’s faith is clear by His next declaration through Isaiah. “’If you will not believe, you surely shall not last (be established)’” (Isaiah 7:9). God is drawing the line in the sand. Believe what I have said for you, and you will see my salvation spring forth from nowhere. But if you will not believe Me, if you will choose to fear the men who come against you and believe what your own powers of deduction tell you about the outcome, what you fear will come upon you.
And then, God makes a move that I still cannot fully digest. God asks Ahaz to ask Him for a sign. “Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven’” (Isaiah 7:10-11). Jesus repeatedly announced that only the wicked seek for a sign (Matthew 12:39, 16:4), and Ahaz knew, from his knowledge of the laws of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:16) that it was forbidden to put the Lord to the test. Yet, here is God Himself commanding Ahaz to ask for a sign—and not just any sign! Because I cannot see His face, I am imagining what is going on here in the heart of God, much as Ahaz must have been as he sat listening to the prophet Isaiah claim to speak the words of the LORD God. I am wondering if this is more testing, but I am also daring to wonder if God isn’t giddy with excitement—nearly bursting with this sign that he wants to share with one of His children. Because this is a big sign coming. This is the sign of all signs, and you are going to have to brace yourself for it as Ahaz had to brace himself when God let this one loose. So it makes me wonder if God was not trying desperately to help Ahaz believe by giving him the best sign He had ever given to anyone, saying, in essence, believe me because I have even more wondrous things ahead.
But Ahaz chose, it seems, to believe that this was a test. Or maybe he was pulling out some false holiness, or challenging Isaiah’s holiness. We can’t fully know why, but he responded to God with “’I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!’” (Isaiah 7:12). And immediately, we see that Ahaz chose wrongly. Isaiah is instantly up in arms. “’Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign’” (Isaiah 7:13-14). As God’s prophet, Isaiah speaks with the authority of God. For whatever His reasons, God has delighted in giving Ahaz a sign. That Ahaz refuses, claiming the law as his excuse is not seen as righteousness, but as disobedience and pride. It reminds me of Simon Peter.
Jesus, God incarnate, has indicated that He means to wash Simon’s feet. This act is a very important sign. This act of foot washing indicates in the tangible world that the Messiah is the humble servant of all—that He is lowering Himself beneath a slave and serving up to His own followers His very life. Peter seems to have the understanding of Ahaz—some breed of pride or misunderstanding or adherence to form and law over God-breathed word and truth. Simon Peter is repulsed by the idea and declares, “’Never shall you wash my feet!’” (John 13:8). That this sign repulses Peter shows how far he is from understanding the call of God on the Messiah. Jesus makes it clear that partaking in this sign is essential for being a Christ follower. “’If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me’” (John 13:8). I have to do this dirty deed of cleaning you, Peter. It is a necessary evil. It is what I have been called for. Oh, man, does Simon do a 180 then. He is flailing all over the place asking Jesus to give him a full-body bath in some over-compensation that Jesus does not indulge. Exactly the prescription was all that was required, and Jesus gets down to the business at hand. Ahaz does not seem to have time for backpedaling before Isaiah.
In response to Ahaz’s unwillingness to ask for a sign, Isaiah just gives it to him anyway. “’Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel (God is with us)’” (Isaiah 7:14). It makes me stagger, even to write it. To this king whom we don’t even register in the who’s who of our faith is this holy sign being delivered square in the face. To this undeserving man, to this king who wouldn’t even ask for the sign when God was telling him to ask for it, God gives this most precious word—I am sending you the Messiah! Do you need a sign? Do you need proof that I mean what I say? Do you need further witness that I intend to make you great as I have been promising to your people since I made them a people? Do you not already understand that I want to be for you, defend you, and make you great if only you will believe? Here you have it. I am coming down to wash you clean. You won’t even ask for it, but you need it. You don’t deserve it, but I am doing it. Watch and see if I will not tear open my own veins and wash you white as snow.
And Isaiah goes on to tie it together for Ahaz. These two kings that you fear so very much? They will be rendered as nothing before this Messiah can even formulate clear thoughts. You dread these kings who will be utterly nothing when my Son is crawling on the carpenter’s dirty floor. And you will be overtaken exactly as you fear, try as you might to stem the tide (Isaiah 7:15-25). And Ahaz tried.
Ahaz chose to fear what he could see rather than the God he could not see. He set about absolutely raping the house of God in order to gather enough shiny things to present to the King of Assyria as a bribe to come and save him. “So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son; come up and deliver me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are rising up against me.’ Ahaz took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasuries of the kings house, and sent a present to the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 16:7-8). Ahaz plunders the house of his true Father to make a present for a no-name king in order that he might purchase a defender, a father, a savior.
God just goes right on speaking to Ahaz. He cries out to him, calling Ahaz to a higher fear. “’”You are not to fear what they fear (their fear) or be in dread of it. It is the LORD of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, And He shall be your dread. Then He shall become a sanctuary”’” (Isaiah 8:12-14). You are looking for sanctuary, Ahaz. You are clawing for a safe place. You are willing to sell all that is precious to try to buy security, but it is only found in me. Oh, that you would fear Me instead of these two insignificant kings. If you would only stand in holy dread of Me and so obey My heed, I would become your everything. But Ahaz feared not the voice of God. He went right on plundering the precious temple, cutting off the brass ornaments and rearranging the furniture to make room for altars to idols and even sacrificing his own son’s blood as an offering to the gods of his enemies in attempts to stem the tide that just kept mounting against him (2 Kings 16). Because God kept His word. Even though the king of Assyria did come and captured and killed and exiled, it did not go well for Ahaz or for Judah. “So Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria came against him and afflicted him instead of strengthening him. Although Ahaz took a portion out of the house of the LORD and out of the palace of the king and of the princes, and gave it to the king of Assyria, it did not help him” (2 Chronicles 28:20). The one who was supposed to be his new savior came and took over his kingdom to the extent that when Ahaz died, he was not even buried with the kings of Judah. Ahaz died a nobody, without even a proper burial.
Book the Second: King Number Two
Meanwhile, God kept calling to His people in His bizarre and unsearchable ways. The exiles continued in the ways of Ahaz. They “did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them which killed some of them” (2 Kings 17:25). God sent actual lions to do devouring work in order that He might drive some toward holy fear. The King of Assyria himself figured out that God was displeased. Though he didn’t know or serve God, he called back an exiled priest to teach people how to follow God!
So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel and taught them how they should fear the LORD...”You shall not fear other gods, nor bow down yourselves to them nor serve them nor sacrifice to them. But the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, and to Him you shall bow yourselves down, and to Him you shall sacrifice. The statutes and the ordinances and the law and the commandment which He wrote for you, you shall observe to do forever; and you shall not fear other gods. The covenant that I made with you, you shall not forget, nor shall you fear other gods. But the LORD your God you shall fear; and He will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies" (2 Kings 17:28, 35-39).
As a result of this return to the law, the next king's reign is marked by a renaissance of understanding God and aiming to obey Him. Ahaz’s son Hezekiah grew up in the wisdom of God. “The LORD was with him; wherever he went he prospered” (2 Kings 18:7). From the loins of a most faithless king comes a king who “did what was good, right and true with the LORD his God. Every work which he began in the service of the house of God in law and in commandment, seeking his God, he did with all his heart and prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Hezekiah absolutely delighted in running back to the God his father has worked so hard to desecrate. He destroyed the idols and the high places his father had built for their worship. He opened and repaired the doors to the house of God, making a literal way back to God for his people (2 Chronicles 29:3). He restored temple worship and reinstituted the Passover with such genuine zeal and delight that even though he did not follow the law precisely in the carrying out, the LORD pardoned the sin and was pleased with their worship and the whole of the kingdom extended the feast for an additional seven days just for the joy of it all (2 Chronicles 30).
This tale is of two kings. The first “did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done” (2 Kings 16:2). But the son of this first King was an entirely different sort of man. And what made this second king different from his father had everything to do with the One to Whom he clung. We will see that Hezekiah was no less fearful than his father. And he had no less to be fearful of than his father did, for Judah was more heavily assailed upon after Ahaz got buried in the city plot. The marked difference between the wicked father and the faithful son was where each chose to place his fear. The second king feared the LORD his God and clung to Him. Hezekiah chose the better part.
Hezekiah inherited his father’s mess. The Assyrians to whom his father had scraped and groveled and played the fool were now the enemy. Ahaz had bribed the Assyrians into coming into his land only to bring upon himself and his people and even mightier enemy than the kings he was seeking protection from, so that Hezekiah ascended a very wobbly throne amidst oppressors who had made themselves home in his own kingdom. “Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them” (Isaiah 36:1). When Ahaz saw the enemy approaching, he ran to look for a bulldog to save him. Now that bulldog had turned on his son, and his son did not run to find another bigger mercenary. His son stood in the confidence of God. He dammed the water supply to keep the water within the city. He shored up the wall and placed armed men all over it, and he followed in the tradition of his God-fearing forefathers in shoring up his own heart and the hearts of his men with courage.
Like David charged Solomon with the building of the temple, and like Elisha charged his servant at the onset of attack, Hezekiah “spoke encouragingly to them (upon their hearts), saying ’Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria nor because of all the horde that is with him; for the one with us is greater than the one with him. With him is only an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God to help us and to fight our battles’” (2 Chronicles 32:7-8). Hezekiah knew the good, enduring word of the LORD. Because Hezekiah feared the LORD his God more than the warriors trapping them in the city, he could gently speak faith into hearts that trembled just like their father’s hearts had trembled one generation prior. We serve a more fearsome force than the men who threaten our lives. These men have breath only in their nostrils and strength only in their flesh. We have a God who moves in Spirit, who wages war with a thought, with a rumor. On their side are chariots and horses. On our side is the one who can pull the spirit of life from the lungs of all men without lifting a sword, without using a single arrow. Does it sound familiar yet? Hezekiah is speaking the words of God that Isaiah had spoken to his father. He is reminding them of whom they should fear—where they should put their hope. And in the exact same spot that God told His messenger Isaiah to meet Ahaz for the delivery of that marvelous word, this enemy king places a messenger to shout out his terrifying word to King Hezekiah and anyone else who would listen. The messenger’s name was Rabshakeh and he stood at the conduit of the upper pool on the highway of the fuller’s field, just as Isaiah had posted himself for his holy message. But this was not holy prophecy, this was a prophet of another kind delivering pure blasphemy. Two messengers. Two entirely different messages from two entirely different kinds of kings.
Then Rabshakeh said to them, “Say now to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria, “What is this confidence that you have (trust)? I say, ‘Your counsel and strength for the war are only empty words.’ Now on whom do you rely, that you have rebelled against me?...But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places Hezekiah has taken away?...Now therefore, come make a bargain (please exchange pledges) with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses…Have I now come up without the LORD’s approval against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, ‘Go up against this land and destroy it’”’” Isaiah 36:4-5,7,8,10
This is so unabashedly the voice of the devil himself—this word that the servant of the King of Assyria is literally crying out in his loudest voice. This wicked messenger is contradicting the word of faith Hezekiah brought to them. He is calling the people away from the fear of God to the fear of man. He is challenging the object of their worship as valid. And like the serpent’s challenge in Genesis 3:1, it is full of misinformation. Did God not say…? Hezekiah had indeed taken away the high places, because they had become sites for idolatry, but this messenger is suggesting otherwise and calling into question Hezekiah’s fitness. Then there is the bold invitation to strike a deal for horses, when God had clearly called His people not to boast in chariots or horses but in His name alone (Psalm 20:7). Horses were an understood as a direct measurement of military power. Like Satan offering Jesus worldly kingdoms (Matthew 4:8-11), Rabshakeh is tempting the Judeans to cast off their trust in God for a trust in things that can be seen and touched and smelled and heard. And the messenger takes it a step further so as to suggest that the God of the Judeans has actually given His consent and commissioned this unholy army to come and destroy His people.
It is more than the servants of Hezekiah can bear. Hezekiah’s folks are getting hot with shame and ask the messenger to speak in Aramaic so that the men of Judah will not be frightened by these taunts, but it only emboldens Rabshakeh who makes it clear that his choice to speak in their tongue is entirely intentional. “’Has my master sent me only to your master and to you to speak these words, and not to the men who sit on the wall, doomed to eat their own dung and drink their own urine with you?’” (Isaiah 37:12). Like the enemies of Ahaz, these enemies are delighting in the terror they are stirring up. They know the power of the fear of man. They know that as long as these people fear God more than they fear them, they will not tremble sufficiently to be overtaken. “They called this out with a loud voice in the language of Judah to the people of Jerusalem who were on the wall to frighten and terrify them, so that they might take the city. They spoke of the God of Jerusalem as of the gods of the peoples of the earth, the work of men’s hands” (2 Chronicles 32:18-19).
This is true fearmongering. You are going to die miserably. It is going to happen. We are stronger than your God. “Then Rabshakeh stood and cried with a loud voice in Judean and said, ‘Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria, Thus says the king, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you; nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD will surely deliver us’”’” (Isaiah 36:13-14). This messenger is daring to call them deceived while all the while attempting to deceive. He is calling them fools. You idiots! Do you really believe your king, or even your God, can save you? “Don’t be hoodwinked,” cries the hoodwinker. And he goes on to describe the bounty that they would receive if only they would put their trust in his great king. He even uses the language God used to describe the Promised Land bounty, declaring that they will have grain and new wine if they will make peace with Assyria’s king. And then he calls on reason and history—on statistics and probability.
“’Do you not know what I and my fathers have done to all the people of the lands? Were the gods of the nations of the lands able at all to deliver their land from my hand? Who was there among all the gods of those nations which my fathers utterly destroyed who could deliver his people out of my hand, that your God should be able to deliver you from my hand? Now therefore, do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you like this, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom was able to deliver his people from my hand or from the hand of my fathers. How much less will your God deliver you from my hand?’” 2 Chronicles 32:13-15
He reminds them that no one and no one else’s gods have been able to stand against Assyria. Just open your eyes to the facts. You are going to be decimated like everyone else who tried to stand against us. Your God cannot save you anymore than anyone else’s gods could. The messenger is vying for their fear. Fear us, not your impotent God. But Hezekiah’s men were silent, because he had ordered them not to utter a word. They were not to entertain the messenger with a response. So they turned and took the words to Hezekiah. “And when Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth and entered the house of the LORD” (Isaiah 37:1). It is precisely here that we see the difference between this king and his father. When this king is distressed, he humbles himself. This king tears his clothes to show his vulnerability and his horror and then he runs straight to the house of his God, not to ransack it for money but to call out for help to the God of the house. And he sends for the prophet to ask him to join the king in prayer for deliverance. “So the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah. Isaiah said to them, ‘Thus you shall say to your master, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him so that he will hear a rumor and return to his own land. And I will make him fall by the sword in his own land’”’” (Isaiah 37:6-7). Again! This is the same sort of unbelievable command from God for a man facing certain death. Do not be afraid. Why? Because I AM. Do not be afraid of what you can see, because I orchestrate the seen and the unseen. I am going to kill this king with a spirit and a rumor. I can do that, and I am your God, so you don’t need to fear.
Book the Third: The King of Kings
The king of Assyria has already begun his downfall. He has already begun to follow the rumor to his destruction, but is still sending Rabshakeh back with terrifying letters. And he is taking it further. Beyond suggesting that Hezekiah is deceiving his people, he is now suggesting that God Himself is deceiving His people. He “wrote letters to insult the LORD God of Israel, and to speak against Him” (2 Chronicles 32:17). “’”Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you, saying, ‘Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria”’” (Isaiah 37:10). The Assyrian king has done it all. He has tried to make God small and powerless and to make himself large and terrifying. He has challenged God’s power, and now he is challenging His character. Your God is not only incapable, but untrustworthy. You can’t believe in His might or His word. But Hezekiah is just continuing to follow his heart in running to cling to the living God.
Then Hezekiah took the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it, and he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. Hezekiah prayed to the Lord saying, “O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, O LORD, and see; and listen to all the words of Sennacherib, who sent them to reproach the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have devastated all the countries and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. Now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hand that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God.” Isaiah 37:14-20
Hezekiah was not operating out of ignorance. He was not pretending that there was nothing to fear. He says it like it is. Yes, these guys have left a path of destruction behind them, but YOU are God of it all! He has got the facts right there, but he is spreading them out before the eyes of His God, because He is fully aware of whom the fear is due. He knows that his God, the God of Israel, is the One on the ultimate throne. There are fears round about Hezekiah, but there is One who is to be feared above them all, and that is where Hezekiah casts his lot. He sees rightly, therefore he is able to obey the word of God through Isaiah. Hezekiah fears God more than he fears the devils dancing on his walls. He believes that God can do more valiantly than all the men whom He created. He is able to calm his heart and to believe the God Whom He cannot see and the outcome that this God has promised that seems too ridiculous to be plausible. This is the unbelievable word:
“’Therefore, thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria, “He will not come to this city or shoot an arrow there; and he will not come before it with a shield, or throw up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same way he will return, and he will not come to this city,” declares the LORD. ‘”For I will defend this city to save it for My own sake and for My servant David’s sake”’” (Isaiah 37:33-35).
And as the LORD said, so it was. That king did not get the satisfaction of his armies shooting so much as one arrow. In shame Sennacherib turned and hightailed it right back to his own miserable god’s house where his own sons slew him with swords while he prostrated himself before his idol (2 Chronicles 32:21). And then the angel of the LORD just absolutely decimated the Assyrians in an all-out massacre--the LORD himself by His own hand and not through any men. “Then the angel of the LORD went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, all of these were dead” (Isaiah 37:36). There was no battle. No shield nor siege ramp was lifted, because none could be lifted against the Lord. He took them out with His mighty hand before they knew what was coming.
And what became of Hezekiah? Well, 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” (2 Kings 18:5-6). He lived a long and prosperous life. He saw more wild miracles from the hand of God and when he died, he wasn’t thrown in the city plot with his father Ahaz. When Hezekiah died, he was put with his rightful fathers: the men of God, the sons of David. “So Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the upper section of the tombs of the sons of David; and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem honored him at his death” (Isaiah 32:33). And that sign that Ahaz refused to ask for but received anyway? The Messiah issued from a virgin who was a descendent of Hezekiah (Matthew 1). Almost no one remembers Ahaz or Hezekiah or any of the kings they feared. But every knee will bow before Jesus. This is The King to watch.