Secret mission

Nehemiah’s position as Artaxerxes’ cup bearer gave him unique access to the king of Persia. About 13 years after Ezra was sent to repopulate the city of Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovered that the mission was unsuccessful and God’s people were unable to regain the glory they had once experienced in the great city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was devastated by the news and showed visible signs of his distress when he appeared before the king. Artaxerxes questioned Nehemiah, asking him, “Why is thy countenance sad seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart” (Nehemiah 2:2). The king’s observation of Nehemiah’s sadness and sorrow of heart wasn’t meant to be an expression of care or concern, but rather an objection to Nehemiah’s distraction from his work. Nehemiah was responsible for the king’s welfare and needed to be completely focused on what he was doing. In the moment, when Nehemiah was confronted about his bad behavior, it says in Nehemiah 2:4 that he “prayed to the God of heaven.”

Nehemiah’s sorrow of heart was due to his realization that God’s people were still reaping the consequences of their rebellion against God. Even though they had physically returned to the Promised Land, the Jews still appeared to be spiritually separated from the LORD. As a result of his prayer to God, Nehemiah was prompted to ask Artaxerxes to send him to Jerusalem to rebuild the city’s walls. Nehemiah also asked for an armed escort to go with him, most likely because he wanted the people of the surrounding nations to believe that he was on a mission for the king. Initially, Nehemiah decided to keep the purpose of his mission a secret. It says in Nehemiah 2:12, “And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon.”

Nehemiah’s inspection of the city gates at night indicated his secrecy was probably due to suspicious activity within the Jewish population. It could have been that some of the Jews were cooperating with Israel’s enemies in exchange for special treatment or political favors. Nehemiah had received instructions from the LORD, and yet, he was reluctant to share the information with anyone else. Perhaps, Nehemiah’s greatest concern was that he would be unable to convince the Jews that God wanted to help them and would protect them if they once again put their trust him. The key issue Nehemiah had to deal with was the people’s unbelief. What God had put in Nehemiah’s heart would no doubt require their faith and the belief that Israel’s Messiah would eventually come to Jerusalem, just as God had promised. When Nehemiah finally revealed his secret mission, the Jews responded positively. It says in Nehemiah 2:18, “Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”

Grace

God’s concern for the people that were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar was evident when he told Jeremiah to write them a letter to remind them of his plan to bring them back to the Promised Land after their 70 years of captivity was completed. Jeremiah began by instructing the people to settle down and make the best of their difficult situation. He said, “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished” (Jeremiah 29:5-6).

A key aspect of God’s plan for the remnant of his people that went into captivity in Babylon was the restoration of their relationship with him. Many false prophets, including Hananiah the son of Azur, were telling the people they would be brought back to Jerusalem shortly (Jeremiah 28:3-4). The false hope that was being instilled in their hearts made the captives vulnerable to disappointment and discouragement in the face of great trials. In his letter, Jeremiah told them specifically when they could expect to go home. He wrote, “For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10).

The period of seventy years represented the average person’s lifespan. By establishing that number as the length of their captivity, God was essentially assuring that none of those who left Jerusalem would actually return, unless he granted them an extension of their life on earth. The hope of a return to the Promised Land was really meant for the next generation, but they would only make it back if those who were taken captive believed in the LORD and followed his instructions. In order to stir up their faith, Jeremiah wrote these familiar words:

For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

An expected end is one in which the outcome has already been decided. Each person in his own heart had to know and believe the truth of Jeremiah’s message or God’s plan could not be carried out. Therefore, to say that the outcome was already settled and God could guarantee a certain result, meant the people’s faith had to be based on God’s decision, not their own. Although Jeremiah’s letter to the people exiled to Babylon did not specifically use the word grace, his message implied it. The only way God could cause his people to return to Jerusalem was to “grace” them, make them want to return by way of his divine influence upon their hearts.

Ruined

Habakkuk believed that God would do what he said he was going to, and, therefore, Habakkuk knew that his life was about to be ruined. God had said the Chaldeans would come and completely destroy the nation of Judah. He also said everyone would be killed except for a small portion of the population that would be taken into captivity and would become slaves of the king of Babylon. Given what he knew, Habakkuk prayed, “O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid. O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years in the midst of the years make known, in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).

Somehow, Habakkuk knew that God could show his people love in the midst of their punishment. He asked that God would revive his work and make himself known to his people while they were in captivity in Babylon. Habakkuk was most likely referring to God’s work of salvation. One of the key components to God’s plan was that the Messiah had to be a descendant of king David. In order for God to accomplish this, he had to preserve the royal blood line. Habakkuk didn’t know what would happen to him or his family when his country was invaded, but he believed that his salvation was assured and that was enough for him to trust God with the outcome of his situation.

Habakkuk declared, “Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed; thou woundest the head out of the house of the wicked, by discovering the foundation unto the neck. Selah” (Habakkuk 3:13). Habakkuk was able to see there was more at stake than the occupation of the Promised Land by God’s people. Where they lived was not as important as the fact that the Israelites remained alive until God’s plan of salvation was completed. Habakkuk understood that God was preserving, as well as punishing, his chosen people by sending them into captivity.

Habakkuk’s concluding statement of faith showed that he was able to trust in God’s providence regardless of his circumstances. His anticipation of what was to come, caused Habakkuk to set his mind ahead of time that he would survive against all odds. Habakkuk confidently stated, “The LORD is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Habakkuk 3:19). Although Habakkuk’s fate is unknown, it is possible he escaped Jerusalem before it was invaded and became a member of the first wave of what has been described as the dispersion of the Jews. He may have set out for a far off land, leaving behind his prophetic writing as a testament to his belief that God would protect and preserve those of his people who truly put their trust in him.

Whose side are you on?

The prophet Jonah’s ministry to the city of Nineveh made it clear that God’s mercy was not limited to the Israelites (Jonah 3:10). Even though the book of Jonah seems to end without an answer to the question, was the Ninevites repentance sincere? Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s eventual destruction of the Assyrian empire indicates its capital, Nineveh only received a temporary reprieve and would one day experience God’s judgment for their wicked behavior along with the rest of the world.

Describing God’s overthrow of Assyria, Isaiah declared, “The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand: that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders” (Isaiah 14:24-25). As Sennacherib king of Assyria approached Jerusalem and threatened its destruction, it must have seemed to king Hezekiah that God had changed his mind and would allow Assyria to continue its conquest of the world.

After hearing of Sennacherib’s threat, Hezekiah sent Eliakim, Shebna, “and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, unto Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz. And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blashphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth” (Isaiah 37:2-3). King Hezekiah knew that Sennacherib was right about his ability to defeat Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before he would break down the city walls and take the people into captivity.

Isaiah assured Hezekiah that God would not allow Sennacherib to carry out his threat, but Hezekiah’s confidence was shaken when he received a second message from Sennacherib’s servant Rabshakeh.

Let not thy God, in whom thou trustiest, deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria…And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up unto the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. (Isaiah 37:10,14)

Hezekiah’s action of spreading or displaying the letter before the LORD was similar to presenting evidence. Hezekiah was making a case that Sennacherib had accused God of lying. In Hezekiah’s opinion, Sennacherib had gone too far and God needed to do something about it. As a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God did more than just stop the Assyrians from attacking Jerusalem. It says in Isaiah 37:36, “Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses”.

Psychological warfare

Sennacherib king of Assyria sent his servant Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army in order to intimidate the people of Jerusalem into surrendering (Isaiah 36:2,4). A master at psychological warfare, Sennacherib instructed his servant to speak to the Jews in their native language so that they would understand every word he said and would believe he sympathized with their situation.

Rabshakeh intended to instill doubt and fear in the people when he said, “Am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against the land, and destroy it” (Isaiah 36:10). Hearing these words spoken in Hebrew made the message much more convincing. Essentially, Rabshakeh implied that the LORD had switched sides. He was no longer protecting the Israelites; God was helping the Assyrians to destroy them.

Rabshakeh’s message was true in the context of the northern kingdom of Israel, but an outright lie in regards to Jerusalem. Whether or not God had spoken to Sennacherib was not what really mattered. The question at hand was did God intend to destroy the kingdom of Judah as he had the northern kingdom of Israel? Apparently, king Hezekiah had already warned his people of an Assyrian invasion. Rabshakeh wanted the people to think Hezekiah was the one who was lying to them.

Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria. Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you. Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: the city shall not be delivered into the had of the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 36:13-15)

Rabshakeh had a strategic advantage in convincing the people that their king was lying to them. It would make sense for Hezekiah to do so. Rabshakeh argued that Hezekiah was like every other king and was powerless to keep his promise. Rabshakeh declared, “Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?” (Isaiah 36:18).

Three of king Hezekiah’s cabinet members were listening in as Rabshakeh struck fear into the hearts of the people of Jerusalem. Rather than trying to defend their leader, these men walked away without acknowledging Rabshakeh’s threat. It says in Isaiah 36:21-21, “But they held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king’s commandment was saying, answer him not. Then came Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, that was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rabshakeh.”

Moment of truth

Isaiah’s ministry covered a span of approximately 60 years. During his lifetime, Isaiah experienced what could be considered the best and worst times in Jerusalem’s history. During King Uzziah’s reign (792 B.C. – 740 B.C.), Judah’s powerful army of over 300,000 men expanded his kingdom’s borders and fortified the city of Jerusalem, making it a secure fortress that could withstand a long siege of enemy attack (2 Kings 16:5). Within a decade of Uzziah’s death, his grandson, king Ahaz cooperated with the Assyrians to defeat the northern kingdom of Israel and erected an altar in the temple of God so he could worship a Syrian god instead (2 Kings 16:15).

Isaiah confronted Ahaz in a location referred to as “the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” (Isaiah 7:3). Isaiah told the king of Judah, “The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah” (Isaiah 7:17). Ahaz ignored Isaiah’s warning, no doubt thinking an alliance with the king of Assyria would  prevent him from attacking Jerusalem.

Isaiah recorded his prophecy about the king of Assyria as a testimony against king Ahaz and all who doubted God’s intention to punish Judah for its rebellion against him (Isaiah 8:7-8). Later, Isaiah added that Assyria would be destroyed after God was finished using them to punish Samaria and Jerusalem for their idolatry (Isaiah 10:12). Predicting specific details of the Assyrian attack, Isaiah showed the king of Judah that God controlled his kingdom and could give it to whomever he wished (Isaiah 22:20-25).

When Ahaz’s son Hezekiah took over as king in 715 B.C., Israel had already been taken into captivity and the king of Assyria was breathing down Judah’s neck. Isaiah’s message to Hezekiah made it clear that Assyria was doomed and Jerusalem would be spared from destruction (Isaiah 29:22; 30:31). Isaiah warned Hezekiah to not trust in Egypt, but to rely on the LORD. Isaiah stated, “So shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof. As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem, defending also he will deliver it and passing over he will preserve it” (Isaiah 31:4-5).

The moment of truth came in 701 B.C. when “Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them” (Isaiah 36:1). The king of Assyria sent a messenger to Hezekiah with a great army, “And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” (Isaiah 36:2), the exact location where Hezekiah’s father had first been warned by Isaiah of an Assyrian attack against Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:3,17). Sennacherib claimed to be on a mission from God. He told Hezekiah’s men, “And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it” (Isaiah 36:10).

Judah’s turnaround

King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz king of Judah, began his reign within a few years of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. It says in 2 Kings 18:1 that Hezekiah began his reign in the third year of Hoshea’s reign, which would have been about 729 B.C. In 725 B.C., Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria, attacked Samaria and three years later the northern Israelite kingdom ended. From that point forward, only the kingdom of Judah was left and Hezekiah became the first king since king Solomon that had sole control of the Promised Land.

Hezekiah’s approach to managing God’s kingdom was the opposite of his father’s. Whereas Ahaz had practiced obscene idolatry comparable to the pagan practices of Syria, Hezekiah was devoted to the LORD and kept his commandments (2 Kings 18:6). Most likely, this was due to the influence of his maternal grandfather Zechariah. During the reign of Uzziah king of Judah, Zechariah was a spiritual advisor. It says in 2 Chronicles 26:5 that Uzziah “sought God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the visions of God.” No doubt, Zechariah also shared his understanding of these visions with Hezekiah. Perhaps, as a young child, Hezekiah had listened in as his grandfather counseled king Uzziah in the ways of God.

The difference between the reigns of king Ahaz and his son Hezekiah was like night and day. The dramatic change produced an almost overnight turnaround in Judah’s decline in stature. King Ahaz’s defeat by Pekah the son of Remaliah resulted in 120,000 valiant men being killed in one day and another 200,000 people being taken into captivity. In spite of this devastating blow to the army of Judah, king Hezekiah was able to reverse the conditions in which the Philistines captured Judahite cities and subdued the most dreaded enemy of Israel (2 Kings 18:8).

King Hezekiah’s dramatic turnaround of the kingdom of Judah was proof that God had not turned his back on his people and was willing to forgive their transgressions if they would put their trust in him. The sincerity with which Hezekiah sought the LORD was such that it says of him in 2 Kings 18:5, “He trusted in the LORD God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.”

A sign

Isaiah’s first assignment was to speak to a king of Judah named Ahaz who did not believe in God. The nation of Judah was about to be invaded by a coalition of armies formed to oust king Ahaz and replace him with a puppet king referred to as “the son of Tabeal” (Isaiah 7:6). When Isaiah meets up with king Ahaz, he was checking his water supply to see if he could survive a long siege. It says of king Ahaz in Isaiah 7:2, “And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.”

The Hebrew word translated moved, nûwa‘ (noo´ – ah) means to waver. The king of Judah and his people were shaken up because during king Uzziah’s 52 year reign they had gained strength and were enjoying prosperity similar to the days of David and Solomon. It seemed unlikely they would need to defend themselves, but the threats made against them were real enough that king Ahaz thought it necessary to check his water supply. As Isaiah approached “the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” he was instructed to tell king Ahaz to “take heed, and be quiet” (Isaiah 7:3-4).

Essentially, Isaiah was telling king Ahaz to take it easy and pay attention to what he was about to say. Isaiah had a message of comfort and encouragement to share with king Ahaz, but he wasn’t sure how his message would be received. King Ahaz was only 20 years old and likely had little or no military experience. His grandfather king Uzziah had only been dead about five years, and his father Jotham had done little to maintain Judah’s military strength.

After Isaiah told king Ahaz the plan to overthrow him would  fail, he said to the king, “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established” (Isaiah 7:9). What Isaiah told king Ahaz was he needed to exercise his faith. More specifically, Ahaz needed to ask God for help and rely on God’s faithfulness, rather than trusting in his army to deliver him. Isaiah told Ahaz, “Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD” (Isaiah 7:11-12). Ahaz refused to give the LORD a chance to prove himself and earn Ahaz’s trust.

Following Ahaz’s rejection of God’s invitation to put him to the test, Isaiah delivered his first gospel message. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Isaiah went on to say that judgment was ahead and God would use the king of Assyria to devastate his people and ruin their land.

The sign God intended to give his people, a Messiah, indicated he did not want his people to be destroyed, but saved from their sins. In spite of his many attempts to win their favor, the people of Israel and Judah refused to put their faith in the LORD. In a message that was to be sealed up and kept as a testimony against Israel, Isaiah stated:

For the LORD spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying, say ye not, A confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A  confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself: and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.

 

 

Victory

Jehoshaphat, king of Judah was wrong about Ahab. He thought Ahab’s repentance was genuine, but Ahab never believed in the LORD. According to 2 Chronicles 19:2, Ahab actually hated the LORD. Jehoshaphat’s marriage alliance with Ahab opened him up to spiritual attack and he was vulnerable because the wrath of God was upon him (2 Chronicles 19:2)

Jehoshaphat was a strong spiritual leader, so when he realized he had made a mistake, he set judges in the land to encourage godly behavior (2 Chronicles 19:6), and charged the priests to serve God faithfully (2 Chronicles 19:9). When the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon came against Jehoshaphat to battle, Jehoshaphat “set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3).

When Jehoshaphat sought the LORD in prayer, he reminded God of a promise that was made to king Solomon:

If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help.

God’s response to Jehoshaphat’s prayer assured him that victory was possible, but a condition had to be met in order for their enemies to be conquered. The people had to put their trust in God.

And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; Believe in the LORD your God, so shall you be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.

The Hebrew word translated believe in this verse, ’aman is the same word used in Genesis 15:6 where it says of Abraham “and he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” This verse refers to Abraham’s relationship with the LORD. It was the point in time when he “came to experience a personal relationship to God rather than an impersonal relationship with His promises” (539).

God delivered Jehoshaphat and his people from the children of Ammon and Moab when they began to sing and to praise him (2 Chronicles 20:22). Their heartfelt worship was a genuine sign that they were devoted to God. Jehoshaphat’s success as a spiritual leader resulted in a major military victory for Judah.

I’m still here

The hardest thing to do when you are in a bad situation can be to sleep. In the midst of his trial with Absalom, David said, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). David knew the LORD would take care of him, but like everyone else, he had difficulty sleeping.

David had to make a conscious effort to calm down and be at rest. His way of handling sleeplessness was to talk to himself. David’s advice was to “commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). The word translated still, dâmam (daw – mam´) means to be dumb or speechless and by implication to be astonished (1826). David was referring to his tendency to underestimate God’s ability. David had to remind himself that God could choose to do a miracle at any time and turn the situation around completely.

Sometimes waking up in the morning can seem like a miracle. You close your eyes at night thinking surely the world is about to come to an end and then you wake up and realize you are still alive. David said, “I laid me down and slept, I awaked; for the LORD sustained me” (Psalm 3:5).