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God Listens - The Amazing Events of Isaiah 37

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

IMPACT Your One Tie-in

See the final application for this week's Impact Your One lesson.


This week: Even the mightiest kings of the earth cannot stop God's plan. Hezekiah chose to trust God rather than fear Assyria, and that was the right choice.

Facing Impossible Situations

In our passage this week, King Hezekiah is faced with quite literally an impossible situation. It would take a miracle to get out of the mess they were in.

I always advise caution in discussion topics like this one. It's very callous when a Christian says, "The floodwaters were rising, but I prayed to God for deliverance, and He blessed me and spared my home," while the Christian next to them is thinking, "I prayed the same thing, but my house was destroyed." The way that first Christian talked, it gives the impression that God must love him more than the other. (Not only is that callous, it's also wrong! That kind of thinking -- that God answered their prayers the way they wanted because they were "special" -- is exactly what got the Jews into so much trouble!)

Rather, when we talk about God's miraculous deliverance, we need to do so always with so much humility. We don't know why God would answer our prayer affirmatively but not someone else's; we do know that it's not because we're any better or more worthy! Rather, we just need to be thankful and continuously lift up one another in prayer.

That introduction said, do you have any times in your life when you know God has intervened in your circumstances after you prayed?

There are so many times when I believe that God has responded to my prayers by influencing my situation. And I have heard so many amazing stories about God bringing healing to those who were sick, changing external circumstances in ways that could not be imagined, and more. And hearing those stories is so encouraging! It's such a great thing to hear some of the ways God continues to take care of His people in this world. Sharing stories of God's amazing answers to prayer is an important part of the Christian life! (Remembering how God has acted in the past is the central theme to all of the Jewish feasts.)

And if your group can handle it, it's also worthwhile to bring up times that God has not answered a prayer the way we wanted Him to. God doesn't always give us what we want when we think we want it. There are so many times in my life when God has not answered my prayers as I asked. Learning how to trust God under those circumstances is also a critical part of the Christian life, and it's something best learned with the support of our Christian brothers and sisters.

[Indeed, those stories can be a part of your testimony that you share with people why you are a Christian -- how God has worked in your life.]

That discussion may lead to a tough follow-up question: when am I supposed to assume that God is saying "no" to my prayer? If so, it's worthwhile to talk about.

How Do We Know If God Has Answered Our Prayer with a "No"?

In our passage this week, the "bad guys" have told the king that he needs to stop praying to God for deliverance, that God has said that He wants the bad guys to win. The bad guys list a bunch of things that have already happened as evidence that "clearly your God wants things to work out this way".

I'll talk about the answer to this question in the context of our passage down below, but for now, let's just make this question generic. We all know that sometimes, God's answer to our prayer is a "no". And every once in a while, we live long enough to realize why -- God had a better job in mind, a better relationship in mind, and better treatment in mind, someone else's future in mind, etc. But in the moment, how do we know when God has answered our prayer with a "no" and that we should stop praying for that?

This is an important question for every Christian to be comfortable with.

What do you think?

Well, sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals to us that we have been asking for something with the wrong motive (James 1:7), or we have been asking for something outside the will and character of God (John 16:24). God does not answer those prayers in the way we ask. That is why I often say that prayer is not primarily about us telling God what we want, but rather being open to realize what God wants for us.

Sometimes, we realize that the nagging sensation we have that God is telling us "no" is actually a lie of the devil. (For the most part, that's what's going on in our passage.) The doubts we have that God has heard us comes from ourselves -- our own doubts and insecurities that are so easily manipulated by our enemy.

That's why I have this simple answer to the question: unless you believe that your prayer is clearly outside the will of God, keep praying it. This is basically the point of the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18) and the Parable of the Persistent Friend (Luke 11) -- just keep asking, and either your prayer will be given or you will learn another way. Keep praying until whatever you're praying about is quite literally "over".

This is what is so great about praying to God: if what we're asking for isn't what is best for the world (a part of God's "Plan"), God won't "cave" to our persistence. God will always do what is best and right. So we keep praying, and we keep trusting. And yes, that brings up the question "why pray at all if God is just going to do whatever He was going to do?". Two responses: first, remember that prayer is about bringing us in line with the will of God. That makes prayer a critical part of the Christian life. And second, how do you know that your prayer isn't intended to be part of God's action in that situation?

So, keep praying.

Where We Are in Isaiah

We have made it to the primary transition. Here's a super-simplified recap:

  • Chapters 1-6 - introduces the social setting and the prophet

  • Chapters 7-35 - oracles given challenging the Jews to trust God, not other nations

  • Chapters 36-39 - the historical payoff: Assyria besieges Jerusalem

  • Chapters 40-66 - God's message of hope in a post-failure world

The first 35 chapters basically beat on the same drum: are you going to trust God? Or are you going to rely on other nations to protect you?

In chapters 36-37, we have the glorious example of God miraculously saving Jerusalem from the massive invading Assyrian army. Through Isaiah, God told King Hezekiah to trust Him, and Hezekiah did, and that's basically what our lesson is about this week.

But then, in chapters 38-39, we have an about-face from Hezekiah, setting up the failures of the Jewish people that will lead to their exile. First, he falls ill, and he begs for God to extend his life. God answers affirmatively (and this is where God gives the sign of the shadow moving backward). And then Hezekiah sings a song of thanksgiving, but if you read it closely it's kind of a humble-brag. It's hinting to us that God's people may think that God saves them because they are special. This foolish idea is confirmed in chapter 39 when Hezekiah shows off all of his wealth to some envoys from Babylon. This, of course, is used to foreshadow the coming day when Babylon will come and take all of those riches (and the people) away.

The key verse for this first part of Isaiah is the last verse: 39:8. When confronted with the horrifying truth that his arrogance will lead to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, Hezekiah's response is "at least it won't happen in my lifetime". And that's when we realize the problem with God's people -- as long as they receive blessings from God, they don't really care what happens to anyone else (even their own children). It's pathetically selfish and extremely shortsighted. And it explains why all of the calamities would happen to Judah that result in God making such a transition to the second part of Isaiah.

In chapter 40-66, God speaks words of comfort to His people, telling them that He will still deliver any who trust in Him. It's as if they are already in exile, which is why those liberal scholars believe that a second person wrote this part of Isaiah decades (centuries) later. We don't have to believe that, and here's why:

  • Put the whole of Isaiah as a giant narrative. Isaiah has built up this massive choice: trust God or trust the nations. And it seems that Hezekiah has made the right choice! But then we realize that his trust has been selfishly motivated. And Isaiah makes the fateful announcement that Babylon, not Assyria, will conquer and destroy Jerusalem. That's a crushing prophecy, isn't it? After all of that buildup! It makes complete sense to me that God would immediately follow this final prophecy with words of comfort to the people -- yes, that day is coming, but I will be with you through it all. Call on Me, and I will answer you. Trust in Me, and I will not abandon you. And one day, a true Messiah will come to make all things right.

It's as if the point of the first part of the book was to demonstrate that you can't trust any nation, even your own. Your king will fail you (and it's possible that some were looking at Hezekiah as a coming Messiah -- that had to be corrected!), so you should trust in God yourself. It's not about the nation, it's about the people of God.

Amazing, right? The structure and flow of Isaiah? Blessedly, we spend six lessons in the second part of Isaiah. Many people consider it to be the highpoint of Jewish poetry and theology. We are reading a singularly magnificent work of art.

About Sennacherib and the Siege of Jerusalem

I don't know how history-minded your group is, so let me put this information in its own section. You can skip it if you want. Isaiah 36-37 covers what should be considered a major historical event -- a crushing military defeat of a major world power. That should have made news all around the region, right? What do other sources of history say?

The other major source of history we have from this era is from Assyria itself, and that should only make sense. They conquered and destroyed everyone else in the region. And who writes the histories? The victors.

We have three clay "prisms" that came from Sennacherib's own court: the Taylor Prism in the British Museum, the Oriental Prism in the Oriental Institute of Chicago, and the Jerusalem Prism in the Israel Museum. These priceless artifacts give the official record of Sennacherib's military campaigns in the Near East. Here's what it says about our episode in Isaiah:

"As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. ... I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep. As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashod, Ekron, and Gaza."

It also talks about Hezekiah paying tribute in an effort to buy off the attack. Importantly, it mentions nothing about Jerusalem falling. And it also says nothing about his own army's defeat. Should we be surprised by either?

Let's get nerdy about history. There's an interesting article "Assyrian Propaganda and the Falsification of History in the Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib" that I would be happy to email you if you really want to read more about this. Essentially, the author asks: why do historians assume that the Bible is always embellished but the corresponding histories from other nations are somehow impartial and trustworthy? In this article, this author points out a whole bunch of times that the official records from Assyria were verifiably wrong, and that Sennacherib was particularly bad about this.

You see, Sennacherib was the leader who came after the "great" leader. Assyria reached its peak under Tiglath-Pileser (who conquered Syria), Shalmaneser (who conquered Israel), and Sargon (who conquered everything else). Under their leadership, Assyria reached the fullest extent of its conquering and became the dominant power in the entire Near East. Sennacherib was Sargon's son. The moment Sargon died, many regions he had conquered immediately rebelled (including Hezekiah! - see 2 Kings 18), and he was unable to keep control of them all. So, his reign began with a series of territorial losses (that he ignored in his official histories). He compensated for his reputation for weakness by sending his armies out on massive, mostly ineffective, campaigns. One such campaign went through Judah.

[Again, you can read about these events in 2 Kings 18. This is what Ahaz brought upon his people by his failures.]

The article makes these valid points: if Sennacherib was so enraged against Hezekiah, wouldn't he destroy him and then brag about it in his annals (like he did about everyone else he conquered)? Why did he return to Nineveh before achieving complete victory? These sorts of unanswered questions are normal for Sennacherib. We see repeatedly in his annals that he omitted facts, combined viewpoints to give the impression of Assyrian victory, reported his own boasts as facts, and overstated the power of his enemies when they gave him trouble. All to make him look better. (But it was a lost cause. Isaiah 37:38 says that his own sons assassinated him, likely for his repeated failures and losses.)

[The article also goes into more detail about the other questions that arise when comparing 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37 and Sennacherib's Prisms -- what exactly was the role of the Egyptian army? Where/when exactly did Hezekiah pay tribute? The last few pages of the article present how he harmonizes things; if it's really important to you to know, I can send you the article. Note that this author explains the "185,000" by claiming it's a mistake in copying, very common among historians; so let's address that.]

What about the Number of Assyrian Casualties (185,000)?

It seems that only conservative biblical historians take the number of Assyrian casualties seriously. Just about everyone else assumes that it's either an exaggeration or a copy-mistake. (I see this as a mirror of the arguments about the large numbers in the book of Numbers, which I wrote about elsewhere.) Why do we have such a problem with these large numbers? The Assyrians marked enemy casualties in six digits more than once, and we know that their armies were absurdly large (often because the "soldiers" were untrained fodder).

The only real question I have is what did they do with the bodies? That's a lot of casualties to dispose of for a weak city. Especially if -- as many speculate -- God killed the army with a plague. Here's an interesting historical side note (as if I haven't given you enough already): the Greek historian Herodotus records a little about Sennacherib's campaigns as reported by Egyptian sources. They say that Sennacherib tried to invade Egypt but was thwarted by an army of field mice. But Sennacherib never invaded Egypt! Sooooo, it's possible that the Egyptians claimed the story of what happened at Jerusalem and gave the credit to their own gods. Mice were commonly associated with plague (see 1 Samuel 6), so a common understanding is that mice infected the Assyrians with a virulent plague resulting in their quick deaths. (The prophecy against Jerusalem in Isaiah 22 mentions her people dying, though not by sword. If that prophecy applies to this siege, then perhaps it means that the plague got into Jerusalem, as well.)

Regardless, we should not have significant problems with the huge number of dead Assyrians. It would certainly explain why Sennacherib would suddenly recall his armies to Nineveh while in the middle of a major campaign.

If the people in your group aren't interested in getting too far into the historical weeds, then that information is just for your personal edification!


Part 1: The Request (Isaiah 37:14-20)

Hezekiah took the letter from the messengers’ hands, read it, then went up to the Lord’s temple and spread it out before the Lord. Then Hezekiah prayed to the Lord:
Lord of Armies, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you are God—you alone—of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. Listen closely, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see. Hear all the words that Sennacherib has sent to mock the living God. Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated all these countries and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made from wood and stone by human hands. So they have destroyed them. Now, Lord our God, save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God—you alone.

I'm not going to rehash any of the historical details from above. I'm just going to focus on this amazing prayer.

There are actually a whole bunch of letters and messengers in these chapters. First, Sennacherib sent his army to Jerusalem with a message. In it, he mocked the reports that Jerusalem was looking for military support from Egypt (note: God also ridiculed that report). Besides, Assyria knows how pathetic Jerusalem's and Egypt's armies are. He also argued that God/Yahweh was angry with Hezekiah for removing Ahaz's high place (being polytheistic, the Assyrians could not understand monotheism), so the people should not count on God. And he made the offer to anyone in Jerusalem to defect and be saved.

At some point, an Egyptian army attacked Assyria from behind and were crushed. Then, Sennacherib sent another message to Jerusalem telling them not to get hopes up from such a wimpy attack. Assyria will destroy Jerusalem just as they destroyed everyone else who opposed them. There is no hope in resisting. That's the letter mentioned in our passage.

It's pretty bleak.

For you, imagine the worst report possible. Just some terrible, terrible news, and the implication is that there is nothing you can do about it.

How did Hezekiah handle this situation?

Everything he did is something we can do. He quite literally took his situation to God. You know how David will sometimes have us write things down on a paper, a rock, whatever, and physically put it somewhere, like nail it to a cross? The symbolism is powerful because God made us to resonate with symbols and symbolic actions. (That's why there is so much symbolism and ritual in the Old Testament; Jesus simplified it greatly for us in the New Testament.) Hezekiah took this awful letter and put it down in his "prayer room". (Wouldn't it be neat to have the temple as your prayer room?)

Hezekiah was also very honest about the situation. Many of the things in this letter were true. The Assyrians did conquer and destroy many cities and their gods. No sense sugarcoating anything or hiding from anything. Sometimes it's very hard to confront what's going on because the reality may be so depressing. But honesty and awareness is very important. And sometimes that's about what's going on inside ourselves! Being honest with your feelings, your doubts, your fears. God can handle your honesty; He's already aware of the reality.

Finally, Hezekiah prayed based on God's character, not his own worthiness. When we talk about our own salvation, we are usually quick to say that it was "nothing good in me -- just by the grace of God". Which is right! But we need to have that same attitude with every prayer we pray. In this case, the Assyrians were not really saying that God wanted them to win; they were in fact ridiculing God. That's how Hezekiah knew God wasn't saying "no" in this situation. The Assyrians were saying that God couldn't help them. And so Hezekiah prays that God should defend His honor in the world.

In this case, the focus is on the fact that God is God alone, nothing at all like those worthless idols Assyria previously destroyed. "Enthroned between the cherubim" is likely a reference to the construction of the Ark of the Covenant.

What do you think about that technique? It's actually really solid, but we have to understand it. Hezekiah was not saying, "Did You hear what they called You?" thus trying to manipulate God. Rather, as Jesus told us, we know that God always acts in line with His character. When we see how our prayer lines up with our understanding of God's character, we pray that -- and we grow. Otherwise, we might be tempted to pray something like "God, if You love me, You'll do this and this". See how that's manipulative and selfish? That's not what Hezekiah was doing. Everything he prayed was based on God's character.

There are two important parallel prayers like this in the Bible. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:17-18 [the prayer is implied]:

If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.

The disciples after the first violent threats of the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:29-30:

And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.

Both of these prayers are based on God's character, but note that their response is independent of God's answer to the prayer -- whether God answers the prayer in they way they ask or not, they will continue to steadfastly trust and serve God alone.

That's so hard, but it becomes easier the closer we grow to Jesus.


Part 2: The Sign (Isaiah 37:30-32)

30 ‘This will be the sign for you: This year you will eat what grows on its own, and in the second year what grows from that. But in the third year sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 31 The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. 32 For a remnant will go out from Jerusalem, and survivors from Mount Zion. The zeal of the Lord of Armies will accomplish this.’

In the skipped verses, we read that God heard Hezekiah's prayer and has a response specifically for the king of Assyria -- his arrogance has not gone unnoticed. And it will not go unpunished.

[Note that this passage gives us one important reason why we should pray: the prayer itself gives the context within which God's actions make the most sense and carry the most impact. By waiting until after Hezekiah prayed, God was able to validate the king, the action of prayer, the foolishness of Assyria, and why other nations should not act like Assyria.]

As in a few other places, God validates His answer with a "sign". Unfortunately, for the people, this sign will take years to develop, and they must remain patient throughout. (It's probably good for us to see that even God's immediately answered signs can take so long to play out. Impatience is not a virtue in our prayer life!)

To make a long story short, the Assyrians has utterly destroyed the land, making all agriculture impossible. But, God would provide enough uncultivated food to preserve the survivors (this should remind you a little of Isaiah 7). Repairing the land would take two full years, but on the third year, they would be able to eat what they produced.

But further, and just as important, those who survived would eventually thrive again as a people, socially and spiritually. This would offer hope to them in the hard years of rebuilding ahead.

Finally, and most importantly, they could have hope and purpose because God would be the one working it out. Hezekiah was right to pray based on God's character, because God did indeed want His people to be fruitful in the land, accomplishing the purpose He set for them. God would accomplish this, and so they should not doubt.

Before I make any comments, let's finish God's response.


Part 3: The Answer (Isaiah 37:33-35)

33 “Therefore, this is what the Lord says about the king of Assyria:
He will not enter this city, shoot an arrow here, come before it with a shield, or build up a siege ramp against it. 34 He will go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city. This is the Lord’s declaration.
35 I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

God's direct answer to Hezekiah's prayer is that He will indeed accomplish what Hezekiah asked for -- the miraculous defense of Jerusalem. And things do happen exactly as God says they would (though the "how" is even more amazing).

And that's an excellent end to the story. God, once again, miraculously delivers His people.

And if you want to end it there, you would go straight into our "Impact Your One" emphasis for the week.



I'll send more details about this to our class leaders. But here's the gist:

Last Sunday, we began to identify our "one(s)" -- people in our life we suspect need to hear the good news about Jesus.

This week, we are learning a simple formula for evangelism "impact":

Impact = Potency + Proximity + Clarity

The impact you make in evangelism will be enhanced when

  • You live a "potent" Christian life

  • You live in "proximity" to non-Christians and

  • Your communication about the gospel is very "clear"

There are some great questions that your group leader can walk you through: How do we live a potent Christian life? How do we get closer to the non-Christian around us? How do we share the gospel clearly?

Something suggested in the campaign might be a little cheesy, but I really like it because it takes all of the pressure off: not sure how to start a gospel conversation? Try this:

"Hey, (friend) -- my church is doing a thing called Impact and I wondered if it would be all right if I shared with you what Jesus means to me?"

Put the "blame" on the church. Everybody understands something like that -- they may think they're even doing you a favor!

Here's my tie-in to our lesson in Isaiah. (Two, really.) You may think that starting a gospel conversation is impossible, or that the person you want to reach is "too far gone". Well, that's exactly the sort of prayer to take to God. And keep taking it to God. Until that person become a Christian, you keep praying.

(Second, the stories you said above about God's answers to your prayers can be a part of anything you say while sharing your testimony. We'll talk more about testimonies next week.)


Lesson Postscript

If you're like me, you got to the end of this lesson and wondered what happened next. We have this amazing deliverance along with God declaring His support for His people and for Jerusalem, and in less than 100 years Jerusalem is utterly destroyed.

Did God fail?

No. The people failed. Remember that God's promises to His people based on the covenant are "conditional". Deuteronomy 28 is the key chapter to understanding this.

But if you do not obey the Lord your God by carefully following all his commands and statutes I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overtake you. (28:15)

That's why Isaiah records in the next two chapters two great selfish failures of Hezekiah. Those failures, which would be repeated by Hezekiah's descendants, would lead directly to the final destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

But what's not conditional? That's a little different for the Christian and can basically be summarized in "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20). Even when our actions cause us to miss out on blessings from God in this life, we will never "lose" God nor the salvation He has given us in Jesus. And the eternal blessings of God in heaven can never be taken away from us.

The Jews had God's earthly blessings and threw them away by being selfish. Christians, too, can lose out on blessings through our actions, but we cannot lose our salvation (which is the greatest blessing of all).

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