Friday, September 9, 2011

Hezekiah’s Reprieve (II Kings 20:6)

Whose life was lengthened by fifteen years because he prayed? King Hezekiah (II Kings 20:6)

As his nation was under siege from Assyria, Hezekiah, king of Judah, became mortally ill (II Kings 20:1-11; II Chronicles 32:24-26; Isaiah 38:1-8). The prophet Isaiah had the unenviable task of informing the king that he must prepare to die - “set your house in order (II Kings 20:2; Isaiah 38:1 NASB).” The prophet’s pronouncement seemingly left no hope for the king. Hezekiah responded as he done previously, with prayer, protesting his allegiance to God (II Kings 20:3; Isaiah 38:2). Though he did not explicitly pray for an extended life, Hezekiah implicitly refused to accept the prophet’s verdict. God answered swiftly and definitively as before Isaiah had even left the premises, he returned and announced that God had promised to extend Hezekiah’s life by fifteen years and would also defend Jerusalem (II Kings 20:4-6; Isaiah 38:4-6). In conjunction with the king’s recovery, the prophet laid a cake of figs on the king’s boil (II Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21).

The specific nature of Hezekiah’s illness is never revealed aside from the presence of the boil or inflammation (Sh@chiyn, II Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21). Though it would be labeled folk medicine today and is uncharacteristic of Isaiah’s ministry, the application of figgy pudding was not an uncommon treatment in the ancient world.

Hezekiah handled his bad news with prayer. This was his practice (II Kings 19:14-19, 20:2; II Chronicles 30:18-19, 32:24; Isaiah 37:14-20, 38:2-3). Likewise, we are advised to pray habitually (Luke 18:1, 21:36; Ephesians 6:18) as God cares (I Peter 5:7). As such, can we assume that it is God’s desire to heal unless we have heard otherwise?

If you received a death sentence, what would you do to “set your house in order”? What would your prayer be were you given Hezekiah’s prognosis? Does Hezekiah’s prayer change God’s plans? Why is the folk medicine incorporated into Hezekiah’s recovery?

Given that the death sentence is repealed and the only variable that has changed is Hezekiah’s prayer, it would appear that something happened during his prayer that reversed his fortune. Hezekiah’s prayer appealed to his own good record:

“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.” (II Kings 20:3 NASB)
After praying, Hezekiah wept bitterly, indicating sincerity (II Kings 20:3; Isaiah 38:3). Hezekiah’s boasts were not mere arrogance, they were true. Though he was the son of the wicked king Ahaz (II Kings 16:20, 18:1; I Chronicles 3:13; II Chronicles 28:27), Hezekiah had done “right in the sight of the LORD” (II Kings 18:3 NASB), “trusted in the LORD” (II Kings 18:5 NASB) and “clung to the LORD” (II Kings 18:6 NASB). Hezekiah had a good track record with God.

Hezekiah’s illness is a type story, a recurring tale (Robert L. Cohn [b. 1947], 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 140). It marks the fourth time in Kings that an ill king was given a prophetic oracle regarding his fate as Jeroboam (I Kings 14:1-18), Ahaziah (II Kings 1:1-16) and Ben-hadad (II Kings 8:7-15) endured similar trials. In each of these instances, a king inquired of a prophet about an illness and received a death sentence in response. Hezekiah’s predicament diverges from type as in his case instead of the king seeking the prophet, the prophet sought the king and no intermediaries were necessary. Hezekiah is given equal footing with the prophet. The bad kings’ death sentences held while the good king reversed the oracle.

In both of these analyses, Hezekiah’s own righteousness accounts for God’s favorable response. Jesus affirmed that rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45) and that illness is not necessarily an indicator of sin (John 9:2-3). Many righteous people with terminal illnesses pray today and receive no such reprieve.

Why is Hezekiah’s prayer effective when so many similar prayers are not? Was Hezekiah’s prayer answered due to his own righteousness?

After his recovery, Hezekiah wrote:

Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness;
It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back. (Isaiah 38:17 NASB)
Hezekiah did not see God’s mercy as a response to his worthiness.

The fact that the promise of Hezekiah’s extended life correlated with the guarantee of peace despite the Assyrian threat (II Kings 20:6; Isaiah 38:6) may indicate that Hezekiah’s prayer was answered not just for his benefit alone. Hezekiah’s illness affected the state. Some have noted that at the time of his affliction, Hezekiah had yet to produce an heir as his son Manasseh, who succeeded him, was born three years after this sickness (II Kings 21:1; II Chronicles 33:1). Some have also seen a parallel between Hezekiah and his nation as both were facing death and received extended life through repentance. Both would eventually die but as Hezekiah would not die to his current illness, Judah would also not perish at the hands of its contemporary oppressor (but rather the Babylonians).

The Bible does not record why Hezekiah’s prayer was effective, only that his life span was extended by fifteen years. He also received more than he asked for as God also gave his nation clemency.

What purpose did Hezekiah’s illness serve? Who benefitted from Hezekiah’s extended life? Have you ever known someone who miraculously survived a prognosticated terminal illness? Has God ever exceeded your request in answer to prayer?

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NASB)

1 comment:

  1. One possible explanation for Hezekiah’s ordeal is that his brush with death eliminated any sense of invincibility and gave him the drive to do the tasks he needed to do. Hezekiah accomplished a tremendous amount in his “extra” fifteen years. Like all theories, this one has issues - namely that it makes God a manipulator.

    A modern example of being driven by a perceived lack of time is Steve Jobs (1955-2011). In his 20s, Jobs told his friend John Sculley, “We all have [a] short period of time on this earth. We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great. None of us has any idea how long we’re going to have, nor do I, but my feeling is I’ve got to accomplish a lot of these things while I’m young..” (Sculley, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple... a Journey of Adventure, Ideas and the Future)