Hezekiah had the same foibles and failings as the rest of us, and that is why his example is worth studying.
After the golden age of Israel, during the reigns of David and his son Solomon, Israel split apart. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin kept Rehoboam, grandson of David as their king, but the northern ten tribes chose Jeroboam, an Ephraimite. The subsequent history of Israel is a sad tale of uniformly evil rulers, people unfaithful to the Lord, and near extermination by the Assyrians two hundred years later (721 BC). The history of Judah is little better, with a few good kings, including Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Uzziah and Jotham interspersed with many evil ones. Judah lasted 135 years longer than Israel but became progressively more wicked and was finally overwhelmed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.
Hezekiah is described in 2 Kings 18:3 as “doing right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done”. He was an unlikely saint, because although his grandfather Jotham was a good king, his father Ahaz was one of Judah’s worst. Hezekiah reigned during troubled times in Judah. He began to rule shortly before the physically stronger Northern Kingdom had been wiped out by the Middle Eastern superpower, Assyria. Ahaz had emptied his treasury to enlist their aid against Aram, and so Judah became dominated by Assyrian power (2 Kings 16:7-9). Not long after Hezekiah came to power, he rebelled against Shalmaneser, king of Assyria (2 Kings 18:7). It took Assyria a little time to respond and by the time they did, Sennacherib was the Assyrian ruler. Hezekiah got a bit wobbly and relented (2 Kings 18:14) but Sennacherib had had enough and was intent on punishing Judah. Situated as he was between one bad king and another, Hezekiah’s reign was crisis-filled. With Sennacherib’s desire for revenge, one of Hezekiah’s greatest crises began.
Sennacherib had rampaged through the Judean fortress cities and finally took the greatest and strongest, Lachish (Isaiah 36:1). Then, ignoring Hezekiah’s pleas for peace, he marched on Jerusalem. The Assyrian army was one of the strongest military forces in antiquity. They had perfected the use of combined arms including infantry, chariots, and siege machinery. Assyria achieved logistic excellence which gave their army a long range capability not much surpassed until the advent of the internal combustion engine over two millennia later. They made effective use of iron deposits in eastern Anatolia, equipping their soldiers in a way no army in Palestine could match. Further, Assyria was ruthless, perfecting the use of terror as a weapon of war. Militarily speaking, Hezekiah had no hope of defeating Assyria. Once Sennacherib had refused to accept his apology and his tribute, Hezekiah had to play his cards right.
Sennacherib sent a messenger, Rabshekah, to stand before the walls of Jerusalem and speak to Hezekiah and the people. His speech, recorded in Isaiah 36:4-20, is a masterpiece of political terror, intended to undermine the courage of the Jewish defenders. Rabshekah spoke Judean and was very familiar with the culture and religion of his Judean prey. Note that the Assyrians never offered conditions of peace; they simply wanted Jerusalem to fall without a fight. As befits a good crisis leader, Hezekiah avoided escalating the situation while he figured out what was really going on (Isaiah 36:21).
Rabshekah’s speech enabled his companions to observe the state of the defenses and bought time to bring up the army. It also gave Hezekiah a chance to learn more about the situation and figure out what to do. Seeing the hopelessness of his plight, at least from the standpoint of man, Hezekiah passionately sought the Lord. This is a remarkable contrast with his father Ahaz’ response in a similar situation (Isaiah 7:1-20).
Hezekiah’s next move was to lay his request, with complete honesty, before the Lord. He was not posturing or pretending. He never said “Thy will be done” when he really wanted salvation from the Assyrian sword. He laid himself on the line before his God (Isaiah 37:1). Some would argue that prayer is not a course of action. Actually, though, prayer is the best course of action until God clarifies what His leader should do. Standing in the temple, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. He also sent other leaders, in mourning, to the prophet of God, Isaiah. Other kings sought advice from false prophets and paid the price (1 Kings 22:5-40), but Hezekiah knew the Lord’s faithful servants.
Sometimes the hardest thing about praying is to know when you have an answer, and to do whatever God commands, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. Isaiah told Hezekiah through his messengers to wait for the Lord’s deliverance. With all of the hopes, dreams and fears of his people on his shoulders, Hezekiah did the hard thing and waited. In Isaiah 37:36, God provided miraculous deliverance.
A different time in his life, Hezekiah faced another crisis, and this one more personal. He developed a boil, an abscess, which was growing rapidly and probably spreading bacteria into his blood. Hezekiah would soon have died (Isaiah 38:1, 21). After a lifetime of faithfulness, he knew what to do…petition his Lord. Hezekiah did so and the Lord had Isaiah treat him, healing the infection. Any Christian can see that Hezekiah made the right choice in this crisis, just as he had done a few years before. As a doctor, I know that certain fruits and other foods grow mold that produces antibiotics such as penicillin. Perhaps the healing of Hezekiah, something Isaiah and his contemporaries would have considered a miracle, we would consider commonplace.
Towards the end of his life Hezekiah encountered another crisis, and this time it was one that he did not even recognize as a crisis. Babylon was a rising power in the Middle East and sent a diplomatic mission to Judah. They may have been seeking allies for a revolt against Assyria or looking for targets for their own armies. Regardless, Hezekiah foolishly showed them everything, from his treasures to his defenses. Isaiah prophesied that though Hezekiah would have peace in his day, every treasure would soon belong to the Babylonians.
Hezekiah was a fine, godly leader. He led well in crisis, and God blessed him for it. Hezekiah had a solid relationship with the Lord long before crisis struck and was faithful in the small issues of day-to-day life. In the words of the Psalmist, he hid the word of God in his heart, finding the wisdom that the Lord places there. Finally, he sought good counsel from the right people and followed the counsel he received. With few exceptions, modern day leaders would do well to emulate his performance when facing crises.
Learn more about Hezekiah and the Assyrian War with historical fiction in Head of the Lion.