Formations 09.21.2014: Praying through a Crisis

2 Kings 19:14-21, 27-28, 32-36

Henry Brueckner, The Prayer at Valley Forge, 1889, engraved by John C. McRae

Henry Brueckner, The Prayer at Valley Forge, 1889, engraved by John C. McRae

At my church, we pray every week. Sometimes, we pray silently. Sometimes, a pastor or deacon gives voice to our prayers, and we respond with “Amen.” Sometimes we recite the Lord’s Prayer together.

Actually, we do all three pretty much every week—and I doubt that surprises anybody reading this! Praying together is one of those things that happens in church. For some, corporate prayer in church flows naturally out of a prayer-filled life. For others, it may be the only time all week they settle down and pray.

Churchy prayers have their place. They give us models and a vocabulary for our private prayers. Done right, they point us in the direction of a balanced prayer diet that includes praise, thanksgiving, confession of sins, and petitions for God’s help.

None of that changes the fact that prayer can sometimes be difficult. Praying beside the hospital bed of a dying loved one isn’t the same thing as saying grace over a meal. Praying for guidance while one’s marriage is collapsing is far different from standing for the invocation at a little league game.

In this week’s lesson, Hezekiah had a hard prayer to pray. After receiving threatening letters from Assyria’s king, he retreated to the temple. There, he confessed his trust in the power and goodness of God and called on God to take notice of the Assyrians’ insults.

The prophet Isaiah sent word of an oracle against King Sennacherib, assuring Hezekiah that the Assyrians’ threats will come to nothing. Indeed, that very night, the besieging army was devastated. God heard Hezekiah’s prayer. The threat had passed.

Discussion

• When have you found it difficult to pray?
• How can we find the strength to pray when all seems lost?
• What are we justified in expecting God to do in response to our prayers?
• Although Hezekiah’s prayer was answered with a miracle, such things are more the exception than the rule. How should we respond when God’s answer seems long in coming?

Reference Shelf

A Dramatic Deliverance

Sennacherib claims to have shut up Hezekiah as “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Yet Hezekiah, with the support of Isaiah, would not surrender. Miraculously the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian troops and Sennacherib withdrew. Though the size of the Assyrian army seems to be exaggerated, a dramatic deliverance of Jerusalem is likely on the basis of later history. By Jeremiah’s day the inhabitants of Jerusalem considered their city and its temple to be invincible (Jer 7, 26). The dramatic deliverance from Sennacherib is a likely origin for this attitude. Nevertheless, a dramatic deliverance was not enough to give Hezekiah independence. Both he and hs son Manasseh continued to be vassals of Assyria since it was nearing the peak of its power after 700.

James C. Moyer, “Hezekiah,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 379.

Prophetic Intervention

We have seen the brief assurance of the prophet Isaiah in vv. 5-7. Now the prophet occupies center stage in the narrative. His principle oracle in response to the prayer of the king is in the poem of vv. 21-28. After that oracle are added two prose pronouncements (19:29-31, 32-34), perhaps a result of editorial addition but now a part of the prophet’s decisive intervention.

The poem is on the lips of the prophet but is given to us as Yahweh’s own response to the prayer of the king (19:20-28). The poem begins in v. 21, by way of introduction, with an acknowledgement that “she,” the Assyrian empire, scorns and despises Jerusalem. By this lead statement, Jerusalem is presented as “the righteous sufferer” who endures the hate of detractors but who is the special object of Yahweh’s attentiveness.

The first substantive element of the poem has Yahweh address Assyria, specifically Sennacherib as “you” (19:22-24). By its con- duct Assyria thought it could mock and revile Jerusalem and Hezekiah with impunity because the powers of Jerusalem are modest and irrelevant to the great empire. Verse 21 has asserted that Assyria mocked “virgin daughter Zion.” But the mocking of Jerusalem is in fact a mocking of Yahweh; Assyria mistakenly thought it could mock safely, but failed to reckon with Yahweh who is a force well beyond the visible capacity of Jerusalem. It is Yahweh whom Assyria has mocked, reviled, raised voice against, and lifted eyes in arrogance, exactly as the king has said (19:5, 16).

Because the God mocked is “the living God,” the empire will pay dearly. This is none other than “the Holy One of Israel.” This latter title is Isaiah’s most formidable title for Yahweh, most sovereign, most ominous. Verses 23-24 specify the ways in which Sennacherib has mocked. The mockery has been by “messengers”= ambassadors, as in 18:19-25, 28-35; 19:8-13. The messengers have used a series of first-person pronouns of self-assertion for Sennacherib, as though Sennacherib were a free, unencumbered, autonomous agent in the world who could do what he wanted. Thus the braggadocio of the empire:

my chariots,

I have gone up,
I felled,

I entered,
I dug,

I drank,

I dried up.

The empire, in its taunting discourse, clearly imagines itself—the last superpower—to be unanswerable to anyone in its aggressive use of all of its power. The references to Lebanon and Egypt refer to Assyrian military advances clear across the Fertile Crescent without hindrance or deterrence. It is to be observed that in the diplomatic arrogance of superpowers, such self-announcement seems ordinary and unexceptional. We must wait until vv. 25-27 to find out how it is that this “ordinary and unexceptional” rhetoric is in fact mockery, reviling, and haughty.

The reason for the disastrous Assyrian miscalculation about Yahweh is that Sennacherib did not understand that he himself is no self-starter. Such autonomy as he thought he possessed is in fact a gross illusion, even when it happens with a superpower. How could Assyria not know? In fact Yahweh planned and determined Assyria’s actions. Sennacherib did not know it, but he is simply an instrument to act out in the world the long-held resolves of Yahweh:

It is Yahweh who determined that Assyria should destroy fortified cities;

It is Yahweh who causes inhabitants to be dismayed and confounded;

It is Yahweh who causes cities and inhabitants to be blighted and lacking in growth.

It is Yahweh! It is all Yahweh. It is not at all or ever Sennacherib. The Assyrian pretense of autonomy mocks Yahweh by failing to recognize that Yahweh is the one, the only one who takes initiative in international geopolitics. The illusion of autonomy causes Assyria to do crazy, destructive things. Moreover, such destructiveness will not be tolerated! Yahweh knows every move Sennacherib makes. Yahweh knows about Sennacherib getting up and sitting down, Sennacherib going out to battle and coming home in triumph (see Ps 139:7-12). Indeed, Yahweh knows about Sennacherib’s defiant usurpation of Yahweh’s preeminence in the world. Yahweh laughs cynically about such posturing:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury. (Ps 2:4-5)

Yahweh may laugh; but Yahweh is not amused!

Resource

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 509–10.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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