Sunday School Lesson 7 - Isa. 37:14-20, 30-35 - THE POWER OF PRAYER: GOD LISTENS
INTRODUCTION: In order to avoid confusion, I'm not going to review last week's lesson in Isa. 31:1-9, because it overlaps and parallels today's lesson in Isa. 37:14-20, 30-35. Suffice it to say that last week's lesson focused on Isaiah's call for Judah to repent and return to God, while this week will focus upon King Hezekiah's confession and repentance. Chapters 36-39 form a narrative bridge between the poetic chapters 1-35 and 40-66. Chapters 36 and 37 look back to Chapters 28-35, while Chapter 38 and 39 form the context for Chapters 40-55, where we'll see that Hezekiah's foolish actions ultimately doom Judah to the Babylonian conquest and exile.
CONTEXT FOR TODAY: Chapters 36 and 37 can be summed-up as a record of how King Hezekiah of Judah (715-686 B.C), often described as one of the "good kings," finally listens to God and obeys the instructions given to him by the prophet Isaiah. Chapter 36 reports the boasts made by Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, where he not only insults Hezekiah as Judah's King but also denounces Yahweh, the LORD GOD of Israel and Judah, as being powerless to do anything to save them. At this time in history (approx. 705-701 B.C.), the Assyrian army under Sennacherib's leadership had swept away virtually all other opposition among the other nations in this region, so that the Assyrian king thought that the conquest of Jerusalem was a forgone conclusion. In the midst of this bleak outlook, verses 1-7 of Chapter 37 report how Isaiah came to Hezekiah and encouraged him with God's pronouncement that (1) Sennacherib would not only retreat from Jerusalem before any attack was made but (2) would retreat back to his capitol at Nineveh, where he would die by the sword. Hezekiah, having exhausted all other options, needed to make a bold step of faith and put all of his trust in God for deliverance. This is where we come into today's story.
Read Isa. 37:14-20 - HEZEKIAH PRAYED TO THE LORD
14 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. 15 Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, saying, 16 "LORD of armies, God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made heaven and earth. 17 Incline Your ear, LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, LORD, and see; and listen to all the words of Sennacherib, who sent them to taunt the living God. 18 Truly, LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the countries and their lands, 19 and have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but only the work of human hands, wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. 20 But now LORD, our God, save us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God."
v. 14a: "Then Hezekiah took the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it" - This is Sennacherib's demand letter-in written form-to King Hezekiah. Personal communications between kings were often carried out this way.
v. 14b: "and he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD" - Hezekiah literally had his back to the wall and was slowly learning what he must do. He would not pay more tribute. He would not ask for foreign assistance. Although God already knew what the letter said, Hezekiah went into the Temple, and in a posture of submission, dropped to his knees, unfolded the letter to his front, and prostrated himself before God.
v. 15-16: "Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, saying, 16 "LORD of armies, God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made heaven and earth." - Notice that Hezekiah begins his prayer by acknowledging God's one-if-a-kind uniqueness. He describes God as dwelling between the cherubim in the holy of holies on the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant. Naming Him the "LORD of armies," Hezekiah is declaring faith that that the LORD GOD is the one and only living God, that He is God over all the kingdoms of the world, and that He is the Creator and maker of all things.
v. 17: "Incline Your ear, LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, LORD, and see; and listen to all the words of Sennacherib, who sent them to taunt the living God" - Hezekiah's words "Incline your ear and hear" and "open Your eyes and see" are not derogatory expressions but Hebrew terms for placing stress on the importance of what is being said or written. We don't have the letter itself, but we know from vv. 10-13 that Sennacherib's letter contained substantially the same words as those used by his messenger, which had blasphemed God by name, claiming that He didn't have the power to save Jerusalem from conquest and implying that Judah's so-called God was just as weak as the nonexistent gods of all the other nations that had already been vanquished by Assyria.
v. 18: "Truly, LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the countries and their lands" - Hezekiah is forced to admit Assyria's obvious military supremacy over all the other nations in the region. The Assyrian Empire had waged successful campaigns from the area near the Persian Gulf all the way west to the Mediterranean Sea. To all appearances, its power was unstoppable. In more recent history, this brings to mind the Nazi war machine who's Blitzkrieg (lightning war) swept across Europe in 1939 and 1940, leaving the small island of Great Britain to stand alone.
v. 19: "and have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but only the work of human hands, wood and stone. So they have destroyed them." - Here, Hezekiah is referring to the standard Assyrian practice after they had conquered a particular nation: They would gather-up all the pagan idols worshipped by that nation and burn them up in a fire. A few weeks ago, in Isa. 23, we talked about the nature of the pagan belief systems of the nations surrounding Judah: that they thought their various gods were local and limited in terms of the geography over which they had authority. The people of Judah (including King Ahaz) had been tempted to carelessly put YHWH, the one true God and sovereign Creator, in the same box with all these false deities. Hezekiah's prayer affirms that these puny idols were not gods in any sense of the word but were in fact lifeless, man-made objects that could be destroyed by simply throwing them into a fire, like burning the trash.
v. 20: "But now LORD, our God, save us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God." - Many scholars consider Hezekiah's confession here to be the theological high point of this first part of the Book is Isaiah, and for you and me, it presents the best model of how we should approach our Almighty God and Sovereign Creator in prayer, so let's pay close attention. Like all true prayer, we must notice that Hezekiah's prayer here is totally preoccupied with the person of God: (1) who He is; (2) His perfection; (3) His honor: (4) His uniqueness-He is the one true and living God; (5) His sovereign power and authority over all of creation; and (6) and the revelation of His glory to the world, "so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God." Are your prayers focused on God's glory? As one commentator put it, "The heart of prayer isn't the content of our petitions but the acknowledgement of who God is" (Motyer, p. 281).
Read Isa. 37:30-32 - A SIGN FOR YOU
30 "Then this shall be the sign for you: you will eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what grows from the same, and in the third year sow, harvest, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. 31 The survivors that are left of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. 32 For out of Jerusalem a remnant will go, and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the LORD of armies will perform this."'
v. 30a: "Then this shall be the sign for you:" - In vv. 21-29, which we are skipping, God responded to Hezekiah's prayer with a rebuke aimed at Sennacherib personally and promised that the Assyrians would be defeated. Then he gave Hezekiah a "sign to you" to confirm His promise.
v. 30b: "you will eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what grows from the same, and in the third year sow, harvest, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit." - This part of the verse is difficult, but I will attempt to re-phrase it: For two years, normal agriculture around Jerusalem will be impossible, but God will cause the land to produce enough food for the inhabitants to survive (the land had been ravaged by warfare); then, in the third year, planting and harvesting as usual would resume. This agricultural recovery would be supernatural-a sign of God's gracious provision-insofar as the Judahites would be able to plant vineyards and harvest their fruit in such a short period of time.
v. 31: "The survivors that are left of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward" - This is a second sign: Not only will the agriculture recover in record time, but the surviving remnant of the people of Judah will, like the crops mentioned, substantially increase in numbers and become much stronger-yet another sign of Judah's national recovery.
v. 32a: "For out of Jerusalem a remnant will go, and out of Mount Zion survivors" - This part of the verse informs us that God will preserve a people-a remnant-for Himself from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, i.e, the "Mount Zion survivors." And this remnant will include the Davidic line of kings-the everlasting kingdom promised in 2 Sam. 7:16: "Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever." This points to Jesus as Messiah.
v. 32b: "The zeal of the LORD of armies will perform this." - This can be paraphrased to say that the All-Powerful God of the universe is always true to His Word and always keeps His promises.
Read Isa. 37:33-35 - I WILL SAVE THIS CITY FOR MY OWN SAKE
33 "Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the king of Assyria: 'He will not come to this city nor shoot an arrow there; and he will not come before it with a shield, nor heap up an assault ramp against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he will return, and he will not come to this city,' declares the LORD. 35 'For I will protect this city to save it for My own sake, and for My servant David's sake.'" 36 Then the angel of the LORD went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when the rest got up early in the morning, behold, all of the 185,000 were dead. 37 So Sennacherib the king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived in Nineveh. 38 Then it came about, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword; and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And his son Esarhaddon became king in his place.
v. 33a: "Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the king of Assyria:" - With the adverb "Therefore," Isaiah incorporates all the assurances God had given Hezekiah in vv. 21-32. Up to this point in time, the inhabitants of Jerusalem were probably living in mortal fear of their lives that Sennacherib would show up in person any day now to oversee the final taking of the city, and like conquering kings often do, start things off by shooting a ceremonial flaming arrow into the city.
v. 33b: "'He will not come to this city nor shoot an arrow there; and he will not come before it with a shield, nor heap up an assault ramp against it" - The LORD (YHWH), the one true and living God, promises that Sennacherib would not even besiege Jerusalem, let alone attack it, either from close range (i.e., "with a shield") or over the walls (i.e., "heap up an assault ramp"). It wouldn't happen.
v. 34: "By the way that he came, by the same he will return, and he will not come to this city,' declares the LORD" - According to historical records, Sennacherib was actually 30 to 40 miles west of Jerusalem, nearer the coast, and took the coastal road back to Nineveh, his capitol, thereby skirting Jerusalem and returning "By the way he came." I can also envision Hezekiah heaving a sigh of relief upon hearing this. But Sennacherib's exit was no guarantee of safety; his army was still in place.
v. 35: "For I will protect this city to save it for My own sake, and for My servant David's sake." - This is a profound declaration that points to the New Covenant : The LORD GOD would defend Jerusalem and preserve it, not so much as a reward to Hezekiah for his faith, but for the LORD's own reputation and for David's sake, to whom He had promised an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7:16), ultimately culminating in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as Messiah (Luke 1:32-33).
POSTSCRIPT--vv. 36 and 37: This event was reported last week in the lesson from Isa. 31:1-9. As the Assyrian army was massed around the city of Jerusalem with all their weapons and equipment, awaiting Sennacherib's order to commence the siege, God sent an angel that "struck down" (i.e., killed) 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, removing the threat in one stroke. When the people of Jerusalem awoke the next day, they discovered 185,000 Assyrians laying dead around their walls. As to the fate of Sennacherib, who had defamed God, v. 37 reports that later, while the king was worshipping his false god at a place in Nineveh, two of his sons came in and murdered him. Within 100 years, the once mighty Assyrian Empire would succumb to conquest by the Neo-Babylonians.
APPLICATION-When God Listens:
1. God is working through events in history in ways than can't be fathomed on a purely human level. In today's text, King Hezekiah had pursued every human solution and failed. He had literally stripped his treasury bare to pay tribute to Assyria. He had tried to shore up his defenses through a foreign alliance with Egypt. But the enemy-the vast army of Sennacherib-was at his gates, ready to attack. So, God waited until King Hezekiah's back was literally up against the walls of Jerusalem, when all of his human options had failed, before He was willing to listen to his plea for help.
2. Effective prayer, in general, is always preoccupied with God rather than self, and should include:
• Confession: In today's text, Hezekiah had reached the point where he was prepared to humble himself before God and admit that "I can't" and agree that only "You can."
• Honor: When he prayed, Hezekiah named God as the "LORD of armies," acknowledging God's sovereign control and power over everything-all kingdoms-in the creation.
• One God: When Hezekiah prayed, he affirmed that God was unique, the one and only true God.
• God's Glory: When Hezekiah prayed, he asked God to save Judah "so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God."