Where do you turn in a crisis?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Kings 19
In one of the most dramatic passages in the Old Testament, God miraculously delivers Jerusalem from a massive army camped on their doorstep. He asked King Hezekiah to trust Him, and Hezekiah did. This passage is a great reminder of God's incredible power but also a great warning that people can quickly forget God's amazing blessings.
I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David. (19:34)
Do You Remember?
So, we covered this passage less than two years ago when we studied Isaiah. I don't see where Lifeway even acknowledged that. I'm going to try very hard to introduce new things to my discussion, but key points from then are still going to be key points now.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Taunts That Get Under Your Skin
This week's passage focuses on a nasty taunt, and that got me thinking: is there a particular taunt that really bothers you? As an Astros fan, I get really tired of "cheater" comments. I also get really annoyed by people who lump me or my church in with other Christians or Baptist churches that have been caught in some kind of sin or controversy. But I've never been tempted to get in a fight because of that. I have some friends who were once pretty hotheaded, and they could be goaded into a fight with a couple of well-placed taunts. How about you? Is there a taunt or an insult that can get a rise out of you? Just as importantly -- as you've matured in your Christian walk, how have you learned to deal with it?
-or- What Do Christians Worry About?
If that first topic doesn't interest you, try this one. There's a great line: "why pray when you can worry?" When you're faced with a real crisis, what's your initial reaction? You might have to role play some scenarios to help people be really honest with themselves. In this week's passage, King Hezekiah is faced with the mother of all crises -- a massive army at his doorstep ready to raze his city to the ground. How would you handle something like that? We'll soon learn that Hezekiah responded with a prayer. How many actions would you take before you prayed?
This Week's Big Idea: A Refresher on Isaiah
Let's start here:
2 Kings 18 & 19 = Isaiah 36 & 37
(and 2 Kings 20 ~= Isaiah 38 & 39)
Isaiah was almost certainly compiled into its edited form before 1/2 Kings, but Isaiah 36-39 reads more like history than prophecy, so there has long been disagreement whether this section first appeared in 1/2 Kings or in Isaiah. I think this passage fits the structure of Isaiah extremely well, so it makes sense to me that Isaiah recorded this event first, and then the editors of 1/2 Kings copied it into their history.
If that's so, then understanding the structure of Isaiah will help us better appreciate the events recorded in this week's passage.
Isaiah's ministry spans some of the most important events in Jewish history: the fall of Damascus, the fall of Samaria, and the almost-fall of Jerusalem. It also spans the biggest roller coaster of kings ever known: the disastrous King Ahaz, the good King Hezekiah, and the catastrophic King Manasseh. I have long wondered how Isaiah handled all of the highs and lows of his long prophetic ministry.
Anyway, from the timeline above, you'll note that Isaiah isn't necessarily recorded in chronological order, but rather topical. That's just something to remember when you study the book for yourself.
Isaiah 1-6: Introducing the prophet and his situation
Key point: Jerusalem is full of sin
Isaiah 7-12: Ahaz refuses to trust God
Key point: Assyria's invasion is a consequence of Ahaz's sin
Isaiah 13-35: Will Jerusalem trust God or trust other nations?
Key point: God will judge those other nations, so...
Isaiah 36-39: The payoff: will Hezekiah trust God when Assyria invades?
Isaiah is such a brilliantly structured book. The entire book has been building to Hezekiah's choice of trusting God or not. First, we have the explicit example of King Ahaz refusing to trust God (in chapters 7-12). The consequence of that choice is the event in our passage:
Isa 6:6 Because these people rejected the slowly flowing water of Shiloah and rejoiced with Rezin and the son of Remaliah, 7 the Lord will certainly bring against them the mighty rushing water of the Euphrates River— the king of Assyria and all his glory. It will overflow its channels and spill over all its banks. 8 It will pour into Judah, flood over it, and sweep through, reaching up to the neck; and its flooded banks will fill your entire land, Immanuel!
And sure enough, that's what happens. After Assyria conquers the northern kingdom of Israel (remember last week), they shift their attention to other parts of the empire (remember that Ahaz had bribed them to leave them alone). But eventually a new king (Sennacherib) needed to put the rebellious Jerusalem in its place.
Isaiah 36: Assyria surrounds Jerusalem and gives them one chance to surrender
Isaiah 37: Isaiah tells King Hezekiah not to listen to Assyria's threats.
Our passage just kinda ends with verse 34. Here's a sketch of what happens next:
Hezekiah trusts Yahweh, and Yahweh miraculously destroys the Assyrian army. Then, Sennacherib is assassinated by his own sons. Golden, right? But then we find out that Hezekiah later has real doubts about Yahweh's ability to heal him from a disease, and finally he boasts about his wealth to some envoys from Babylon, which is the tipping point for Babylon later to conquer them.
The point is this: even the king who trusts God will eventually fail. King Hezekiah, who was even compared to David in 2 Ki 18:3, had a later-in-life collapse just like David did. Every human will let us down; only the Messiah is worthy of our trust.
Where We Are in 2 Kings
Last week, we read about the destruction of the northern kingdom and its exile to the far side of the Assyrian Empire. And then we are introduced to King Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. He was king when Samaria fell. Somehow, he was a good king.
18:5 Hezekiah relied on the Lord God of Israel; not one of the kings of Judah was like him, either before him or after him.
Later in his life, we read about some cracks in his faith (see below), but all things considered, Hezekiah's faith was remarkable. He defied Assyria -- the empire that had conquered everything around Judah -- based solely on faith in God. He was the first king to destroy the high places around Jerusalem. And most importantly, he did so as the son of the man who had made Judah a vassal to Assyria in the first place. (Hezekiah is the anti-Ahaz.)
These events take place about 20 years after the fall of Samaria. The three kings of Assyria before Sennacherib had been incredibly successful:
Tiglath-Pileser -- conquered Damascus (kingdom of Aram)
Shalmaneser -- conquered Samaria (kingdom of Israel)
Sargon II -- conquered everything around them
This map shows the full extent of the Assyrian Empire (I also include the dates of when Babylon eventually overtook them -- they controlled Israel for a little more than 100 years).
Sennacherib was Sargon's son. When Sargon died, rebellions popped up throughout the empire. This is partly why Hezekiah was able to get away with refusing to pay tribute to Assyria like Ahaz had -- Assyria had other fires to put out. But eventually, Sennacherib turned his attention to the rebellious Israelites and attempted to "flood" them with his army.
Bonus Big Idea: Sennacherib and the Lies of Assyria's Histories
Sennacherib actually recorded his military venture into Judah on three "prisms" that still exist. These priceless artifacts describe how he invaded Judah, conquered all of the cities around Jerusalem, and trapped King Hezekiah in his capital.
Do you know what Sennacherib's histories don't include? Anything about a crushing defeat outside Jerusalem, -or- anything about capturing Jerusalem.
I go into a lot more detail about this in the Isaiah post. All of Assyria's kings were known to grossly exaggerate their accomplishments, and Sennacherib was one of the worst. He was the son of a great leader, and he desperately needed to prove how "great" he was (the fact that he was assassinated by his sons shows how tenuous his rule was). Like any king, he could exaggerate his victories and ignore his defeats. And who would know? It's not like they had social media to challenge his reports!
But I think we can safely say that if Sennacherib had conquered Jerusalem and captured King Hezekiah, he would have trumpeted that in his records. For example, those records mention receiving a large tribute of silver and gold from Hezekiah -- something mentioned in 2 Ki 18:13-16 -- but then they invaded Judah anyway (either because the tribute wasn't large enough, or Hezekiah had done something else to offend Sennacherib). That sort of anger demands a clear victory, which Sennacherib doesn't report. BUT if Sennacherib had experienced a catastrophic, divine defeat, then it only makes sense that he ends his report with a vague and unsatisfying mention of surrounding Jerusalem.
Transitioning to the Lesson
You only need to cover as much history as your group would be interested in. Here's the main point: when God's people trusted Him, he defended them. We've seen this time and time again in 1/2 Kings. But time and time again, God's people could not entirely trust Him. This resulted in their complete destruction.
There are lots of ways we can misinterpret that, and we will cover those below. But for now, the point is that God promised to defend them from the Assyrians if they would trust Him.
Part 1: The Taunt (2 Kings 19:10-13)
10 “Say this to King Hezekiah of Judah: ‘Don’t let your God, on whom you rely, deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria. 11 Look, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries: They completely destroyed them. Will you be rescued? 12 Did the gods of the nations that my predecessors destroyed rescue them—nations such as Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the Edenites in Telassar? 13 Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, Hena, or Ivvah?’”
You will have to give some kind of context to this passage. The best thing to do is just read 2 Kings 18 and 19. It won't take long. Here's a timeline of events (note that not every source will agree with the years I use!)
732 BC - Assyria conquers Aram (Syria)
724 BC - Assyria invades Israel
722 BC - Assyria conquers Samaria (Israel)
King - 722 BC Assyria - Shalmaneser dies, Sargon II becomes king
720 BC - Assyria puts down a rebellion in Philistia
King - 715 BC Judah - Ahaz dies, Hezekiah becomes sole king
712 BC - Assyria puts down a rebellion in Philistia
710 BC - Assyria puts down a rebellion in Babylon
King - 704 BC Assyria - Sargon II dies, Sennacherib becomes king
704 BC - Assyria puts down rebellions in Babylon, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia
701 BC - Assyria invades Judah (this week's passage)
There's a lot of fighting going on throughout the Assyrian Empire and around Judah. Hezekiah had been tempted to join in some of the revolts only for Isaiah to tell him not to (see Isa 18 and 20).
That's what's going on in the background of this passage (which is a terrible verse to start with). Sennacherib's commander has already provided an ultimatum to Hezekiah (18:19). They mistakenly think that Hezekiah is depending on Egypt for assistance (18:21) because they misunderstood what Hezekiah was doing when he tore down the high places (18:22). Their primary tactic is to trick the people into surrendering (18:31).
When Hezekiah hears the threats, he prays in sackcloth and ashes, and Isaiah tells him not to be afraid (19:6). To give Hezekiah hope, Isaiah says that God will prove His control over the Assyrians by making them dance on puppet strings. Sure enough, Sennacherib immediately splits his forces to deal with uprisings in Philistia and Egypt. While he rides away to Egypt, Sennacherib leaves Hezekiah with this final warning in these verses. But rather than make Hezekiah wilt, they actually give Hezekiah boldness.
So, what about all of these weird names in verses 12 & 13? (Please be thoughtful when you ask someone to read these verses!). I couldn't find a map with all, so here's a map with some. (Note that the Babylonian Empire absorbed Assyria.) They are the names of significant cities the Assyrians had already conquered. We actually read about some of them in 2 Kings 17:
29 But the people of each nation were still making their own gods in the cities where they lived and putting them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.
Some of the cities Sennacherib told Hezekiah about are the very same cities Assyria had not just conquered but also relocated to Samaria! (I'm assuming that Avvah and Ivvah are the same, but we really don't know.)
Understand that in the Ancient Near East, cities would claim a "patron god". They would build a temple to that god, support a priesthood, and the king would be the primary religious leader. [Note: we think of kingdoms like "nations", but in that day, a king might just rule a single city.] [Also note: these exiles brought their false religions with them to Israel, and that would be a source of tension with the Jews in later centuries.]
Discussion. The Lifeway material focuses on Sennacherib and his pride. Personally, I think it would be better to focus on Hezekiah and his response. That would lead to this discussion idea: what are the ways that people "taunt" Christians today? Or maybe -- how do people try to get Christians to question their faith today? (You might have a rock-solid faith, and nothing can make you doubt it. That's great, but you are still aware of the methods used to try to undermine your faith.)
I know I hear a lot of "pot-shot questions", and they're the same questions we grapple with in our Bible studies because they are so difficult:
How could God allow that child to die from cancer?
If you're so loving, why do you speak against [insert lifestyle choice]?
Don't you know what [insert fallen Christian leader] did?
How can you believe in something so archaic as a "god"?
What do you say about [insert competing Bible interpretation]?
You hear all of those and more, I'm sure. How do you respond to them? How do they affect you? We will talk about Hezekiah's response in the next section.
Here's what I want you to notice: the "taunts" we hear today are basically the same as those used by the Assyrians. (In other words, people today aren't as clever as they think.) What are the Assyrians saying? "If your god is so great, how could he allow all of this to happen?" "None of the other gods have been able to do anything against us." "Don't you know what happened to those religious leaders [kings were the chief religious leader]?" [Note that they confused religions, assuming that the Jews are no different from the others.] And the overall message -- "religion is powerless in the face of our great strength".
Part 2: The Prayer (2 Kings 19:14-19)
14 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. 15 Then Hezekiah prayed before the Lord:
Lord 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. 16 Listen closely, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see. Hear the words that Sennacherib has sent to mock the living God. 17 Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated the nations and their lands. 18 They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made by human hands—wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. 19 Now, Lord our God, please save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God—you alone.
Here are the three things I said about this prayer when we studied it in Isaiah:
Hezekiah took his situation to God
Hezekiah was honest about his situation
Hezekiah prayed based on God's character
And I pointed out parallel prayers in Daniel 3:17-18 and Acts 4:29-30.
In the two years since we studied Isaiah, I've only become more convinced that Hezekiah's prayer is a great model for us when in a crisis. Let me repeat what I said two years ago: Hezekiah is not attempting to manipulate God ("did you hear what they called you?") -- he's just being as honest as he can be with God. God wants honesty in prayer. After all, doesn't He already know our hearts and our situations better than we do?
I love Hezekiah's honesty. Things really are bleak. The picture the Assyrians painted was accurate -- they had rolled over the land like a flood, and nothing had stopped them yet. And I'm sure Hezekiah realized that some of his own people were probably wondering if they were on the wrong side.
But what's the one thing that separated the Jews from those other peoples that had been destroyed? Yahweh is real. And if Yahweh is real, then everything Yahweh said is true. And what did Yahweh just say to Hezekiah (through Isaiah)?
“Tell your master, ‘The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid because of the words you have heard, with which the king of Assyria’s attendants have blasphemed me. I am about to put a spirit in him, and he will hear a rumor and return to his own land, where I will cause him to fall by the sword.’” (6-7)
What did Hezekiah not do?
Get into a shouting match with the Assyrians.
Engage the Assyrians in any way.
Run around screaming and crying.
Call a meeting with his leaders and advisors.
No! He took it straight to God.
Now, let's be honest: it's pretty helpful that Hezekiah had Isaiah handy to relay answers from God. Wouldn't that be nice?
But don't we today have something even better? We have the Holy Spirit. Why do we like the idea of having a prophet like Isaiah follow us around and telling us "thus saith the Lord"? Because it's easier! It's so much easier than the hard work of building your relationship with God, cultivating a lifestyle of prayer and obedience, and spending meaningful time with God in Bible study and prayer. If we have someone to tell us what God says, then we don't have to do any work on our own.
Discussion. So, let's apply all of that to our lives today. Imagine a crisis, maybe something you've faced recently. Based on what Hezekiah did and prayed, how might you handle that crisis? What would you say in your prayer?
And this leads us to the most important part of this week's discussion: what has God promised us that we can take to God in prayer when we face a crisis? There are some Christians who interpret this week's passage to mean that "if we have enough faith, we can escape all harm". You'll find versions of this in a number of Pentecostal churches -- God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, and if we have enough faith, He will make that happen. But that's not quite what God has said:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33
Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Rom 8:35
Rather, God has promised that He will be with us in our trials and crises, and (most importantly of all) those trials will never separate us from His love. The greatest trial we will face -- the actual trial of whether we deserve to enter heaven when we die -- will be ruled in our favor, not because of us but because of Jesus. (In that way, it's just the same as Hezekiah's situation, praying solely based on God's character.)
But how about the day-by-day promises you can claim from the Bible?
Aside: "Word of Faith" Christianity
There are a number of theologies out there based on the idea that if you have enough faith, you can make God do just about anything. (Yes, that was crass, but so is that theology.) These include "Word of Faith", "Prosperity Gospel" (and "Health and Wealth" "Name It and Claim It" etc.). All of these theologies were invented in advanced industrial economies (not coincidentally), and they are being heavily pushed in very poor areas (also not coincidentally). I've talked about them in other posts over the years:
(just to link a few). God has never promised Christians a life of ease and comfort. Indeed, pursuing ease and comfort has distracted many Christians from our mission from taking the difficult and controversial gospel of Jesus into a world that rejects it!
There's a movie (that I enjoyed thoroughly!) called "Facing the Giants" that could easily be used as an illustration for this week's passage. Hezekiah's "giant" was the Assyrian army, right? Well, the themes of the movie are very appropriate for Christians: never give up, never lose faith. But if you're uncritical in your watching, you might slip into a "word of faith" mentality -- if you have enough faith, you'll win the big game / overcome your illness / overcome your infertility / get the job, etc. (By the way, I get it -- the movie writers were trying to make a simple, uplifting movie.) The more helpful takeaway for us would be "what's more important: winning the game or bringing glory to God in how you play?" That's why I love the parallel scenario in Daniel 3: "17 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. 18 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.”
As the song goes, "the God on the mountain is still God in the valley". It's easy to have faith on the mountaintop; how is your faith when you're in the valley?
Part 3: The Answer (2 Kings 19:32-34)
32 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. 33 He will go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city. This is the Lord’s declaration. 34 I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
We'll get to what happened below. First, I want to call attention to something God said before these verses (really -- read the whole prophecy):
25 Have you not heard? I designed it long ago; I planned it in days gone by. I have now brought it to pass, and you have crushed fortified cities into piles of rubble.
It's the ultimate way to put a braggart in his place -- the only reason Sennacherib accomplished anything was because God allowed him to (for God's purposes, not Sennacherib's).
If you want more information about the "sign" God mentions in 19:29-31, read the Isaiah post.
All this is is God reiterating what He had said earlier. God asked Hezekiah to trust Him that God would take care of the situation. Hezekiah did trust Him, and so God would take care of it.
And take care of it, God did!
35 That night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! 36 So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and left. He returned home and lived in Nineveh.
It's really no surprise that Sennacherib didn't mention this in his records. I mention in the Isaiah post that there are stories of plague floating around in the local histories of the day, so a possible interpretation is that God infected the Assyrians with a particularly virulent plague. Regardless, the point is that God took care of the situation without any effort on the part of Hezekiah or the Jews.
Incredible miracles are no problem for God.
[Aside: in keeping with what I said earlier about the "word of faith" theology, remember that this dramatic miracle is the exception that proves the rule. God does have a plan for humanity that cannot be thwarted, but He does not regularly make such dramatic interventions. He doesn't need to. Rather, He works through us as we conform more and more to the likeness of Jesus.]
Closing Thoughts: How Good King Hezekiah Led to Bad King Manasseh
By all accounts, this is a "Facing the Giants" kind of a Bible study. Jerusalem is miraculously preserved, and the evil king is assassinated by his own sons. No loose ends!
But wait -- within 100 years, Jerusalem will be demolished by Babylon. What happened to "I will defend this city"?!
The next chapter shows some cracks in Hezekiah's faith. First, he selfishly cries out to be healed of an illness (I say "selfishly" because he asked God to prove Himself through a strange miracle). Then, he shows off his wealth to some envoys of Babylon (at the time, Babylon was just another rebellious province in the Assyria Empire). This later Hezekiah is the man Manasseh observes and emulates as co-regent and then king. I mentioned last week that Manasseh did things even worse than any king of Israel! It is a consequence of Manasseh's wickedness that God decided that He must punish Judah.
[One person I feel terrible for in all of this is Isaiah. Isaiah went from the extreme high high of the destruction of Assyria's army (due to Hezekiah having great faith in God) to the extreme low low of his son Manasseh building pagan altars in the temple itself! In chapter 40, there is the very famous shift in tone toward "Comfort My people". By then, God had made His intention clear to Isaiah, and Isaiah's new "job" was to give the Jews words that would sustain them through their decades of exile.]
We talked about a similar situation last week with the fall of Samaria -- it's not so much that God's patience runs out as God eventually says, "I told you that sin has consequences." Really, our better perspective should be, "It's incredible that God had so much patience with His people at all!"
Next week, we will talk about the experience of good King Josiah. Because Josiah strove to obey the Lord, God said that He would delay the coming judgment (22:20).