Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On What Are You Basing This Confidence of Yours?

Reading: Isaiah 36 – 37
Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had just captured all the fortified cities of Judah. These are the military outposts which were the outer band of protection for the country, keeping enemies from getting to the capitol city. Now Sennacherib has sent his military commander to Jerusalem. Arriving outside the city, some officials of Jerusalem went out to meet him.
The field commander said to them, "Tell Hezekiah, "'This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours?  5You say you have strategy and military strength—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? (Isaiah 36:4-5)
Most of us have never experienced anything quite like this. This isn't like being down 3 touchdowns in a play-off game with only 4 minutes on the clock and needing to come back. This is more like the Taliban are outside your house with weapons and you are inside, guarding your family with steak knives and a couple of teenagers. The Taliban are telling your family they can all be spared as long as they surrender. Add to this, they have just taken out most of the neighbors before arriving at your house. Half of them surrendered, and are alive, even if not so well; going to Assyria now. The others didn't, and were killed. You aren't surrendering, and you are believing the Lord is going to deliver you. You let them know that you have no intention of surrendering.
So the question is reasonable, “On what are you basing this confidence of yours? On whom are you depending?”
Some of us might quickly respond, “On the Lord. I am depending on the Lord.” Others would stop and ask themselves, “Yeah, on whom am I depending?” But the answer might more realistically be revealed by our actions.
It's not as if the Assyrian field commander was naive to Jewish religion; he knew upon whom they were relying. But he didn't fear the Lord. He made four specific attempts to undermine Israel's faith in God.
  1. The field commander questions Hezekiah's and Israel's faith in God.
In Isaiah 36:7, he points out that Hezekiah had removed the high places. We know that the high places were bad; that kings were commended by God for doing this. But that is looking back; hindsight is 20/20. Hindsight needs no faith. But when it happened, it required faith. (For instance, two days after the lion's den incident, Daniel knew there was no reason to fear. However, the moment before being thrown in it took faith.)
I imagine there was very likely a backlash from the people against the kings for doing this. No doubt many argued, “Why are you tearing these down, we can't get all the way to Jerusalem every time we need to sacrifice. We are, after all worshipping Yahweh.” Tearing down the high places then might seem a lot more like telling people in America today that you can't do church in front of your TV on Sunday morning; you need to have a body of believers that you are joined to in a local church. Some would think you were crazy. So the field commander exploits this, as if Hezekiah had actually slighted God.
  1. The field commander points out the impracticality of faith in God.
In verse 8, he mocks the absurdity of thinking they will succeed by pointing out that he could actually provide them with 2,000 horses, if only they could provide riders for them. In other words, “We've got 2,000 spare horses... you haven't even got 2,000 horsemen to defend yourselves against us.” Faith in this situation seemed absurd to those who merely look at practical matters. This battle wasn't even going to be close. But times like this call for us to remember truths as expressed in Psalm 33:16-19:
No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. 17A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. 18But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, 19to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
  1. The field commander makes statements designed to introduce doubts about God's faithfulness. In Isaiah 36:10 we read,
Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the LORD? The LORD himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.
This one reminds me of the serpents strategy in the garden. “Has God really said...” Here it is more like, “Has God really said He would deliver you? Actually He told me to come and destroy you. Maybe He has betrayed you.”
This falsehood is designed to impugn the character of God, to cause the Jews to wonder if God had turned against them. And it is not so far fetched either. A few generations later, God did send Nebuchadnezzar to Jerusalem to take the people into captivity. Then the people had a cocky kind of faith that wasn't real. They thought, “We are God's people. We have the temple. We are Abraham's children. There is no way we can be defeated.” It wasn't faith and trust in God; it was arrogant confidence in who they were. Not so in Hezekiah's day: The people were pursuing obedience to God and a life of faith.
  1. The field commander tried to incite fear in the hearts and minds of the people.
Check out this interchange between him and Hezekiah's officials.
Then Eliakim, Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don't speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall."  12But the commander replied, "Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the men sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own filth and drink their own urine?" 13Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, "Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! 15Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the LORD when he says, 'The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.' 16Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then every one of you will eat from his own vine and fig tree and drink water from his own cistern, 17until I come and take you to a land like your own—a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. (Isaiah 36:11-17)
Notice that this particular attack on faith does 3 things. First, it attempts to strike fear at what will happen to them. This reminds me of politicians who are constantly trying to tell us that if the other side wins we will have have mud coming out our water facets and our children will starve to death at school, and retired people will stop getting their social security. However, in this case, the fear is more realistic. From an earthly standpoint, Sennacherib can and will do this very thing; he has done it to others quite successfully. This is no idle threat or fictitious fear mongering.
Second, this attack posits the possibility that Hezekiah is the one who is doing the deceiving. It suggests that to believe in God as Hezekiah has asked them to is to believe in something “made up” or imaginary. Sounds a lot like attacks on faith that can occur to each of us. Our society at large is quite fine with religion. But don't take that religion into a sphere where it really matters. Once again I am reminded of politicians who will talk all about how religious they are, but attack the other guy if he actually allows religion to affect a policy, or a stance on any given issue. This field commander was quite alright with the people worshiping God; but don't believe Hezekiah's declaration that God will deliver you.
Third, this attack offers false hope. If you turn from trusting God to trusting Sennacherib, you will have prosperity and hope. As if Sennacherib is their promised deliverer. No longer a need to trust in this God you cannot see.
Now we turn to the response of faith. We first see the faith of the people in their silence and obedience (Isaiah 36:21). This was a simple act of obedience. Faith can be seen, not in our proud proclamations, but in our simple acts of obedience. They didn't start making bold declarations of how they would be victorious. They simply did not answer because the king had commanded them not to answer.
They were probably quite afraid. It might well be that questions were swirling about their heads; they probably were. But, they knew to do one thing: “Do not answer him.” “I can do that. I might not be able to remain confident; I might be trembling on the inside; but I can remain quiet.” Often faith is expressed in simple steps of obedience; doing what we know we are called to do. It might be not turning on the TV, when you know that you need to have time with the Lord. It might be, not going to the convenience store when you know that you have a hard time resisting going to the magazine section. It can come in a number of ways. But it is often a simple act of obedience we are called to make.
The second response of faith is seen in Hezekiah's reaction (Isaiah 37:1). Hezekiah didn't panic, he turned to the Lord. And he was serious about calling on God. In fact, in Isaiah 37:2-4, he sends his officials to Isaiah and asks Isaiah to pray also. Isaiah sent back a word from the Lord that indeed the Lord would deliver them by causing the enemy to retreat. Later, when Sennacherib was again delayed by the Egyptian army he sent a letter to Hezekiah telling him not to deceive himself thinking they were safe now. He promised to return and conquer them soon.
Hezekiah turns to God once again (Isaiah 37:14-20). He spreads out this letter before the Lord. He acknowledges the truths which it contains. He compares the gods of the nations which Sennacherib had taken over with the Living God. He asks God to deliver them from his hand. Our prayer life reveals where our confidence is. On whom are you depending? Faith is about where we go with our fears.
On whom are you basing this confidence of yours?” That was Sennacherib's first question. Hezekiah and the people answered with their actions; actions which revealed trust in God.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

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