Stewardship: Faith (Hezekiah & Isaiah)
Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; then 2:1-4
Today we are in the last week of our five-week sermon series on Stewardship. Today we will be talking about Stewardship as it relates to faith. In order to understand what is happening in our passage from Isaiah this morning, I want to explain what has happened up to this point.
As Stevie said last week, after King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split in two. There was a northern kingdom called Israel with a capital city at Samaria, and a southern kingdom called Judah with the capital city at Jerusalem. Last week we heard about the prophet Elisha who was a prophet in the northern kingdom. Today we are hearing from prophet who lived about 100 years later, named Isaiah, who was a prophet in the southern kingdom. At this time in Isaiah’s life, the northern kingdom, Israel, had been conquered by Assyria. The southern kingdom, Judah, was still independent, but it was paying tribute to Assyria. The king at the time, named Hezekiah, decided to rebel against the Assyrians, which prompted the Assyrians to go and attack Judah. (We have archaeological evidence for King Hezekiah’s existence. We have two official seal impressions that say, “Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah). (NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan, 2005), pg. 554.))
What happened was that the Assyrians were marching towards Jerusalem and along the way they conquered all the villages and cities. The most recent one they conquered right before laying siege to Jerusalem was Lachish. This is what we read in Isaiah 36:1-2, “In the 14th year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. The King of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army.”
Now, for those of you interested in archaeology, King Sennacherib of Assyria had 12 stone slabs created in the room in his palace where foreign dignitaries would wait for an audience with the king. According to my archaeology study Bible, these stone slabs depict “the magnificent strength of the Assyrian war machine,” specifically the storming of Lachish. They are quite graphic, showing the immense army “moving in a dense wave,” then storming the citadel with “siege engines climbing ramps to the city gates.” Then captives being led out of Lachish past three of their neighbors who had been impaled on sticks.
(NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan: 2005), pg. 559).
The Rabshakeh was one of the highest ranking Assyrian officials after the King. The fact that he came with a large army to Jerusalem, directly from Lachish would strike fear in the hearts of all living in Jerusalem.
Hezekiah had fortified all the surrounding cities and villages, as we read in verse 1, but the Assyrians were able to conquer them all. He had also fortified Jerusalem. And, again, for those of you interested in archaeology, the tunnel of Hezekiah, also known as the tunnel of Siloam, was one of those fortifications. It is a marvel of engineering. He ordered two groups of engineers to construct a tunnel that would force all the water from the Gihon spring to flow into Jerusalem into the pool of Siloam. The Siloam inscription was written when the two teams met. The tunnel has a .06 grade that ensures that all the water from the spring flows into Jerusalem, to prevent invading armies from having a water source. That tunnel still stands to this day. (NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan, 2005), pg. 564).
Even though Hezekiah had worked hard to fortify the cities and towns of Judah against the Assyrians, they had been overrun. By the time the Rabshakeh arrived at Jerusalem with his large Assyrian army, it seemed like all was lost. Then the Rabshakeh delivered a speech that would have further demoralized everyone in Jerusalem, starting in verse 13, where it says, “Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah.” I want to stop there. In verse three, there were three people who came out to meet the Rabshakeh. They were people who knew foreign languages and they were expecting the Rabshakeh to make his speech in a foreign language. But the Rabshakeh made his speech in Hebrew. This meant that all of the soldiers on the wall in Jerusalem and all the people within earshot would have understood everything that he said. And in fact, in verse 11, which isn’t in the lectionary, the representatives of Judah ask the Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic so that the people in the city will not understand him. But he insists on speaking in Hebrew because he wants to demoralize the people so that they will turn against King Hezekiah and force him to surrender the city.
In addition, the Rabshakeh has done his homework on the religion of Judah. He starts his speech in verse 14, “Thus says the king,” when all of the prophetic oracles of the prophets of Judah start with “Thus says the Lord.” He is trying to get the people, and especially King Hezekiah to stop putting their faith in God, and instead put their faith in the King of Assyria. He says in verse 18, “Do not let Hezekiah [he doesn’t even call him king] Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will save us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?” He is trying to convince the people to put their faith in the king of Assyria by claiming that he is greater than all the gods, even the God of Judah, and that they should not put their trust in their king. He even takes it one step further to make the claim that it is through surrendering to the King of Assyria that they will finally find peace.
The way that he does this is quite, well, you could either call it clever or insidious. This was a very violent time. War reigned, kingdoms fell, the people suffered. During this time, Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom, Judah, as you know. But Micah was also a prophet at this same time in the southern kingdom, in Judah. Micah was from a small town whereas Isaiah was from Jerusalem. But they both have a prophetic promise of peace that is almost exactly word-for-word, and it’s what we read from Isaiah chapter 2; it also appears in Micah chapter 4:1-4. There is a famous line that has inspired hope in people for millennia. It is in Micah 4:3 and in Isaiah 2:4, which is where we will read it. It says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” This prophecy is a promise of future peace if you put your trust in God. Micah adds a verse after this one, that the Rabshakeh uses imagery from in his speech. Remember the Rabshakeh has just come from the towns, conquering and learning their religion, how their God speaks to them (Thus says the Lord) and what kinds of promises their God makes. In Micah 4:4, it says, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” So the Rabshakeh, in order to convince King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem that they should NOT put their faith in God for peace, but instead put their faith in King Sennacharib of Assyria, says this in Isaiah 36:16, “Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria, ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree.” He invokes this imagery of everyone having their own vines and fig trees to say, “You want swords beaten into plowshares? Don’t put your faith in God; put your faith in my King.”
The Rabshakeh gave a very demoralizing speech. In the context of all of Assyria’s military might, it really seemed like all was lost. King Hezekiah’s reaction in Isaiah 37:1, to tear his clothes and put on sackcloth is understandable. And we can see why he said in 37:3, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace.”
How did King Hezekiah respond when it seemed like all was lost? Did he give up? Did he believe the Rabshakeh? Did he put his faith in King Sennacherib of Assyria? Did he go to the wall and surrender? No, he didn’t. And this is why it says 2 Kings 18:5, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow Him.” Hezekiah doesn’t go to the wall to surrender. In Isaiah 37:1, he goes into the house of the Lord. And then he sends his trusted advisors to find the prophet Isaiah, tell him what has happened, and at the very end of verse 4, he asks Isaiah to pray for them all. And God responds through the prophet Isaiah in verses 6-7, by saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “Don’t be afraid. I will deliver you.”
That promise from God seemed completely impossible given the circumstances. But our God is a God who makes a way where there is no way, and that’s exactly what God did in this case. King Hezekiah approached his stewardship of the kingdom of Judah, and specifically of Jerusalem during the siege, with faith. He practiced faith in his stewardship. He thought that all was lost, but he turned to God for deliverance anyway. And God responded to Hezekiah’s faith-filled stewardship by delivering them. It happens at the end of chapter 37, which we didn’t read today. It says in 37:36 that the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers, probably with a plague or something, and they left Jerusalem. Shortly afterward, King Sennacherib was killed by two of his sons, and there are historical records documenting that.
If King Hezekiah had not put his faith in God first in his stewardship, he might have surrendered Jerusalem. He might have given up and then he would have never experienced God’s deliverance.
Faith is such an important part of stewardship. Sometimes in life it feels like all is lost and that we should just give up. It is in those moments when we have to remember that God is with us, and to trust in God, to seek God, and to pray. To keep our faith in God, because our God is a God who makes a way where there is no way. God parts the Red Sea so we can walk on dry ground. God delivers us out of the hands of the Assyrians.
When Brett and I got married, we had no money. He was a student forever. And we decided to have kids young. So there was a time in our marriage where I was staying home with Micah when he was a toddler and Brett was a postdoc at the University of Virginia. The budget was tight. We were always taught that we should tithe to the church. A tithe is giving 10% of your income in your offerings to the church. But at that time we couldn’t give a tithe. And that was a time in our lives when I had to keep very close track of every single penny that we spent. We had no money to save and literally every month we would be down to zero. But even so, in faith, we always gave some small amount to the church, trusting God, that God would provide for us what we needed.
I don’t know if you know, but I have very sensitive skin, prone to get really terrible rashes on my hands. I have to put lotion on my hands after every single time that I wash them. And I remember one month, we ran out of money and I had to cut something from our grocery budget that month, and it had to be lotion for my hands. But we didn’t cut our giving. And out of the blue, someone offered to take me to the store and buy me some things, and I put lotion in that cart and I remember feeling so grateful to God. And I knew in that moment that the offerings that we had given to the church produced dividends that we could never have foreseen. That God had made a way where there was no way (for me not to have awful rashes on my hands!). I realized that faith is the heart of stewardship. That we give to God in faith, trusting that God will use our offerings for God’s own glory and that God will provide for us exactly what we need. God always makes a way where there is no way.
Whether we need to be delivered from the hands of the Assyrians, or simply from dry hands, we should approach our stewardship with faith. Faith is the heart of stewardship. God is at the center of all that we have been given: ourselves, our time, our talents, our treasures, our responsibilities, and our relationships. When we approach our stewardship with faith first, we follow God in all things. Just as Hezekiah turned to God for deliverance when all was lost, so we should turn to God in faith as we care for all that God has given to us. Amen.