After Israel was divvied up into two kingdoms, we don’t read of any good king arising in Israel anymore. But a few arose in Judah. One of these was Hezekiah, who became king aged 25 and reigned 29 years.
Now there’s an example of godly, reformational zeal! Just look at what God’s Word says about Hezekiah:
And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:3-6).
A very complimentary reference by the Spirit of God, is it not? Who would not be pleased with such a CV? A word of praise forever printed, and for all to read, in the Word of God.
Evidently Hezekiah was no slacker. Moreover, great courage was needed to engage in the sort of reforming zeal he displayed, a courage rooted in love for the LORD and in a knowledge of what God requires in His Word. Hezekiah needed the courage of the Spirit because he did not have the priests onside.[i] They had led the people to serve the Lord through graven images (such as the bronze serpent Moses made) and to sacrifice on the high places (following the example of Canaanite idol worship). Indeed, they had gone beyond sin against the second commandment (serving God through a graven image) to sin against the first commandment (serving other gods). They served the false god Asherah.
Not only did Hezekiah not have the priests onside; he did not have most of his people onside.[ii] Having a visible god to worship appeals to people; just think back to how the people of Israel had persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf in the wilderness. Hezekiah’s people, the people of Judah, apparently had the same inclinations. They had not learnt a lesson from the golden calf incident of the past.
Nor had they learnt from what happened to the ten northern tribes of Israel. There the deformation had started with sin against the second commandment – worshipping the Lord in their own way – but had led to sin against the first commandment: idolatry and unbelief. The sin of Jeroboam – serving the Lord through the golden calves at Bethel and Dan – soon led to the idolatry of Baal worship under King Ahab. Those kings knew that the people liked to see who they were worshipping and it suited their politics.
However, Judah appeared not to have learnt Israel’s lesson.
“After seeing hundreds of thousands of their [northern] countrymen slaughtered or banished, you’d think Judah would get the hint—they’d see what is at stake when you know the LORD, and they would renew their commitment to Him. But if anything, they became complacent. They prided themselves on their longevity as a nation, and they found security in the temple, even while worshiping false gods. So Judah too, was threatened with destruction—they too, hear the rattling of the chains of exile.”[iii]
While Judah appeared to ignore the lesson of the northern tribes, Hezekiah didn’t. Acting decisively with the conviction and courage he brought about a radical reformation. Such reforming zeal can only be explained as the Holy Spirit working in and through him. And the LORD blessed Hezekiah. We read: “The Lord was with him; he prospered wherever he went” (vs 7). The LORD also gave him victory against Judah’s enemies; he flattened the Philistines.
But then came that bolt out of the blue! “In those days”; that is, smack-bang in the middle of this work of reformation of this church-nation[iv] and right when Sennacherib and his 185,000 Assyrian soldiers came against him[v], the LORD told him to get ready to die.
In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’” (2 Kings 20:1)
Not hard to imagine what a bitter, grievous blow this must have been to Hezekiah. How could the LORD do this to him? It was only the 14th year of his rule[vi] and there was still so much to do! His enemies in Judah, those who opposed his work of reformation, would mock him. It would be interpreted as a sign that God didn’t approve of his reforming zeal, that God did not support the demolition of the sacred pillars, the destruction of the Asherah and the breaking up of the bronze serpent. The people would conclude that God was not pleased with Hezekiah’s removal of the high places and his reformation of the service of the LORD.[vii] It was a bitter pill for this great reformer to swallow.
Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
And the LORD heard his prayer. For this was not a selfish prayer. It was not an appeal to the fact that he was still in the prime of life, or that he was indispensable, or even that he had no son yet to replace him as king. He didn’t consider himself so important.
What was it that motivated him? “In his prayer, he reminded the Lord of what he had done and what he still hoped for. This was not boasting on Hezekiah’s part; the Spirit of the Mediator Jesus Christ was in him.”[viii] He knew the idolatrous sins introduced by his father Ahaz had been so influential that, despite Hezekiah’s reforms, the LORD’s people hadn’t yet been completely freed of their terrible effects. True, the worship services which Ahaz had removed had been restored, and the temple which Hezekiah’s father had closed was now reopened, but the priests certainly hadn’t welcomed it. And although most people had followed the king in serving the LORD, the hearts of many—as shown in their speaking and customs—clung to heathen ideas. They hadn’t embraced the continuing reformation. Hence there was more reforming work to be done, and Hezekiah dearly wanted to continue it for the sake of the name of the LORD and His people.[ix]
The LORD heard and heeded Hezekiah’s tears and the desire of his heart. He provided a miracle for all to see: the shadow on the sundial would go back ten steps. Even Hezekiah’s enemies would have to acknowledge this as a wonder, an unmistakable sign that God was with him. The LORD approved of Hezekiah’s reformational work. He heeded Hezekiah for the sake of His holy city, for the sake of His church-nation, for the sake of His great name: “for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake”; that is, for the Messiah’s sake.[x]
Indeed, the history of God’s people was a cry for the Messiah, the perfect Reformer and Deliverer. For Hezekiah was not sinless, as subsequent events also showed. He faltered when Babylon’s ambassadors visited him, ostensibly “to congratulate him on his recovery and to hear about the amazing sign of the shadow” but really to promote an alliance.[xi] Hezekiah proudly showed all his treasures, which suggests that he wasn’t putting his trust in the LORD alone but in an alliance.[xii] Hence he was an imperfect reformer and deliverer.
The cry for the perfect Redeemer became even more evident after Hezekiah’s death. Judah soon turned away from the LORD and eventually followed Israel into exile. But through it all God would bring about the birth of the Son of Righteousness who would atone for the sins of His people, purchasing them with His blood and reconciling them to the Father.
We have seen the subsequent history of God’s people continue from one reformation to another. Sometimes He raises up leaders – Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Schilder – who become famous instruments in God’s hands for the reformation of His church, for the defence of the truth, for the sake of upholding the divine authority of His Word.
When worrying trends and signs of decay become evident it is comforting to know that Christ gathers, defends and preserves His church by His Spirit and Word. He does not let go of His church but works reformation in our lives by His Spirit and the true proclamation of His Word, renewing us to be His image. He moulds us in order that more and more we submit to Him, and rejoice in Him, eagerly expecting the return of Him who makes all things new and will usher in the eternal paradise of God. He obligates us to reform our lives and the life of the church continually so that they conform to His holy will.
Hezekiah was God’s instrument to reform the public service of the LORD. That was needed so that the faithful preaching, sacraments and church discipline could do their work in moulding, in the Spirit’s hands, the hearts and lives of the people. That continues to be needed so that the faithful proclamation of God’s Word can do its work in the ongoing reformation of our lives, our hearts, and our love for, and faithfulness to, the LORD or God.
[i] J P Moerkoert, “Het Teken van de Teruglopende Schaduw” (The Sign of the Retreating Shadow), in In Zijn Dienst (sermons), Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1973, pp. 87-96.
[iii] R Bredenhof, “The Power of Prayer in the Life of King Hezekiah”, sermon on 2 Kings 20:1-11 held in Free Reformed Church Mt Nasura, 30 April 2017.
[v] Keil & Delitzsche, Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids
[vi] Keil & Delitzsche.
[viii] S G de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance Vol. 2, Paideia Press, St Catherines, Ont., 1978, p. 379.
[xi] Keil & Delitzsche.
[xii] de Graaf, P. 380.