Praying Through the Bible project
Prayer as an Excuse for Inaction
(2 Chron 32.20)
Then King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz prayed because of this and cried to heaven.
Sometimes, we rely too much on ourselves. But it is also possible to rely too much on prayer! Hezekiah did both, and it is a good less for us about prayer.
The Empire of Assyria had been growing for some time, becoming the “superpower” of that age. Invading nearby countries, they brutally attacked cities, killing men, women, and children, looting the treasures, and taking away any surviving leaders to spread them out into other conquered lands (to avoid any possibilities of uprisings).
As Assyria moved to expand the empire, they eventually arrived at the borders of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. While the north would eventually fall to Assyria and be lost forever, King Hezekiah bought time to prepare for a siege. He had his engineers stop up all the wells and springs outside the city, then had a tunnel built underneath the city walls so that the city would have water (you can visit this tunnel even today). This would make obtaining water difficult for the siege army. He had walls rebuilt, the army strengthened, and commanders appointed. In a speech to the people, he encourages them to have faith, because the God that is with them is greater than the massive army with the king of Assyria, Sennacherib.
Sennacherib sent a message to all the people, ridiculing Hezekiah and telling the people not to trust him because he will make them die of thirst. He also argues that the gods (and God) are against Hezekiah.
Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah pray to God, asking for deliverance. In response, God sent an angel that created an unnamed disaster among the massive Assyrian camps. Sennacherib ordered a retreat, and they returned home. When he arrived, he was killed by his own sons.
The writer sees the prayer and reliance on God as a vindication of Hezekiah’s faith in God, and God’s protection of him and of Judah.
This story is perhaps more fascinating because an Assyrian writing tells the same story, from the other perspective. Of course, king’s annals don’t report a defeat as such. While they give, in great detail, how Sennacherib destroyed and captured many cities in Israel, it never mentions conquering Jerusalem. It blames Hezekiah for the siege, just as in the biblical text. It does say that many were captured, but does not say they were taken away into captivity. It spends a lot of time describing the amount of tribute that Sennacherib got from Jerusalem, more than it does for conquered cities, perhaps to distract from the fact that he did not conquer the city. The texts are ambiguous about why the army picked up and left—there are hints of illnesses among the troops. Later Assyrian texts confirm that Sennacherib was murdered by his own sons.
What of the prayer? The Chronicler has condensed this story quite a bit when compared to the telling by he writer of Kings. There, Hezekiah went to the Temple to send messages to Isaiah asking him to pray for deliverance, and ten details the oracles and more accounts of prayers and discussion between Hezekiah and Sennacherib (2 Kings 19; see also Isaiah 37). Since the Chronicler knew of the other telling of the story, he focuses less on details and more on the meaning: Hezekiah prepared as best he could and turned to God in prayer.
He did not just pray and then wait for God to act. Nor did he trust only in his own power and the strength of his people. He did both. While the saying “God helps those that her themselves” is not a biblical concept, and sometimes the opposite is true, it is the case here that Hezekiah did not only cry out to God, but used the skills and resources that God had blessed him with.
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