Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (2 Kings 20:2-3)
Tomorrow marks the first day of Advent, for many (me included), the richest season of all. The high spirits and sentimentality associated with “the holidays” get rechanneled into a sacred journey when we explore anew the beauty and power of God’s promises. We hear Isaiah, Advent's über-prophet, declare future peace and redemption will come in the person of a Savior Who will establish a New Order that transcends politics and ambitions. And we rejoice as we look ahead 800 years to see the promise fulfilled in a tiny Infant born in a barn to humble, trusting young parents. Yet modern esteem for Isaiah as the dean of Messianic prophecy would probably surprise him. It might also rankle him by overlooking the diligence with which he honors his primary duty to address contemporary instability.
All told, Isaiah serves five monarchs in a career spanning as many decades. His years as God’s spokesperson in the Jewish province of Judah aren’t the best of times. Like many areas today—the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, the Korean peninsula, and the US—ideological strife divides the region. Assyria’s recent ascendance forges an alliance between its bordering nations, Israel and Syria. Given Judah’s ethnic and religious ties to Israel, they assume it will join their coalition. When King Ahaz remains neutral, Israeli-Syrian forces invade Judah, leading to his appeal to Assyria for protection. The Assyrians rout the invaders—taking many Israeli Jews captive—and effectively turn Judah into a satellite state with Ahaz as its puppet king. For the rest of his reign, Judean culture undergoes radical transformation. It integrates Assyrian customs into daily life and expands its religious practices to include Assyrian gods. Towers and monuments to pagan deities dot the land.
Pleading with God
It appalls Isaiah that Judeans observe Jewish traditions out of obligation, while shoring their hopes of political security in pagan pursuits. Before his prophecy offers hope in a Messiah, it seethes with rage at Judah's waywardness. God’s first words indicate how out-of-control things are: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel [i.e., the Jewish kingdom at large] does not know, my people do not understand. Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!” (Isaiah 1.2-4)
Ahaz’s successor, Hezekiah, gets it. He sets aside political expediency to lead a back-to-God movement, defiantly tearing down the pagan structures. The Assyrian king responds with a threatening letter of intent to destroy Judah and ridicule its God. Hezekiah spreads the letter on the altar and prays, “Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, LORD, are God.” (2 Kings 19.19) Overnight, 185,000 enemy troops mysteriously die in their sleep, proving God’s might and replacing Judah’s false sense of security with true stability. Soon after, Hezekiah falls sick. Isaiah tells him: “Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” (2 Kings 20.1) The king can’t fathom why God should end his life and reign prematurely. He turns to the wall and sobs, pleading with God, “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully.” New word comes from Isaiah. His life will be extended 15 years. Hezekiah survives to rule a stable nation.
Honest with God
Beyond Isaiah’s involvement, what does this saga have to do with the Messianic prophecies we celebrate this season? Quite a lot, it turns out. The Advent connection surfaces first in teaching us God’s promises of redemption and deliverance are born in times of oppressive struggle and insecurity. During these unstable periods, the cultural and political challenges of remaining true to God’s principles may seem insurmountable and imprudent. Yet each of us possesses capacity to become a modern Hezekiah—to resist corruption, to place threats and ridicule on the altar, to trust God’s Word, even to question it when what we’re told God says doesn’t seem just or deserved. When we turn our eyes from people and politics (including the politics of religion), we can be honest with God about our disappointments and doubts. Hezekiah’s honesty about his grief and confusion moves God. Weeping bitterly, he turns to the wall, refusing to countenance the notion what he’s told is all there is. He’s so convinced of God’s faith in him he’s unafraid to ask for more.
Hezekiah weeps for more time. What do we weep for? More love? More acceptance and understanding? More recognition of our gifts and potential? More stability? More peace of mind? More faith to believe? As a new Advent commences, let’s engage it with fuller understanding of its promises. Christ comes to dwell among us not only to make possible our faith in God, but also to restore God’s faith in us. Because we trust God, God trusts us. We honor God’s will with our faithfulness, striving to please God in all we do. But, likewise, we honor God’s trust with our honesty. When what we’re told falls short of what we know is true about God’s love and grace, we have every reason to ask for more.
Because we trust God, God trusts us. We honor that trust with honesty, never being afraid to ask questions, never feeling ashamed to ask for more.