And Hezekiah received the letter of the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up into the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said, O LORD God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. (2 Kings 19:14-15 KJV)
Hezekiah became king of Judah after a long line of faithless leaders. Because of His people’s rebellion, God had allowed Assyria to plague them for years. Previous kings had spurned God’s grace of chastisement, instead bowing to Assyria’s demands and at times even asking them to protect Judah rather than praying for God’s protection. But faithful Hezekiah set out to reform his nation by destroying the pagan shrines and idols.
During the sixth year of Hezekiah’s reign in Judah, Assyria conquered the unrepentant northern kingdom. When the Assyrians had finished resettling Israel, they turned to march on Judah. If the nation had truly been repentant, God would have protected them. But there was a problem. Though the people no longer worshiped idols openly, reform had not reached their hearts. As a result, the Assyrians were allowed to destroy many of the cities of Judah. Rather than see his entire nation fall to the enemy, Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrians. But gold did not satisfy them. Though they tried to draw Hezekiah’s army into a fight, his response was to put on the sackcloth of repentance, go to the temple to pray, and send his men to request the prayers of Isaiah. The prophet assured him that God’s wrath would be shown against the blasphemous Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians sent Hezekiah a boastful letter trying to convince him that Judah and her God would fall to their power just as the surrounding nations and their gods had fallen. With the knowledge that the Assyrians were now planning an attack on Jerusalem, what was Hezekiah’s response? To muster his army? To redouble the city’s defenses? To saddle horses and sharpen spears? No, his response to imminent danger was to take the letter to God’s house, spread it out before Him, and pray fervently. Yet his prayer makes no mention of Judah’s peril. Instead, his prayer is for God to protect the honor of His own name in the world. Appealing to God as the Creator and Sovereign Ruler of angels and of nations, Hezekiah asserts that the Assyrians had been able to destroy the other nations only because their gods were dead idols that had no power to save themselves or their worshipers. Hezekiah then calls upon God to preserve His honor by showing Himself to be infinitely greater than the shattered gods of wood and stone.
Hezekiah’s prayer comes from a heart that has no room for idolatry. Nothing in his kingdom, not even his own life, is as important to him as the glory of God. When in distress, he appeals to God’s character and trusts in His covenant, for the establishment of God’s honor in the world necessarily implies that His faithful people will be preserved.
So what was the response to Hezekiah’s earnest plea? God through Isaiah made this promise that echoes Hezekiah’s plea for God’s honor and for the keeping of the covenant: “I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.” (2 Kings 19:34).
The result was devastation for the Assyrian camp. “And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (2 Kings 19:34). Though Hezekiah’s army never had to strike a single blow, he had the victory, through the power the One who always keeps His covenant, the God who is our mighty fortress, as Martin Luther has penned:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabbaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle!
A Prayer for the Spirit of Prayer
O Lord Most High, let our prayers be set before thee as incense, and the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice. Unite us in faith with thy whole Church, in hope with thy saints in heaven, and in love with all who are praying at this hour; and grant by thy mercies, that we may present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto thee, which is our reasonable service, and by thy grace be enabled to offer unto thee the sacrifice of a contrite heart, which thou, O God, wilt not despise. Amen.
(From The Pastor’s Prayerbook by Robert Rodenberry. New York: Oxford, 1960)