A Pattern of Prayer, part 3: A Pattern of Desperation
February 28, 2016 | 2 Kings 19-20
Before the period of modern warfare, it was common for cities to be fortified and for attackers to camp outside the walls, laying siege to the city, hoping that starvation and plague would defeat the defenders. When surrounded by a competent army, it was difficult for a city to break the siege without outside help.
Air access now make sieges less likely, but occasionally they have been used in modern wars.
You will recall that in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin entered into a non-aggression pact which divided Poland and a number of other countries between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This pact cleared the way for Germany to invade Poland and begin World War II. The Germans and Soviets refrained from fighting each other for nearly two years.
In 1941, though, Hitler launched an attack on Soviet positions and began to push to the east, in order to get what he called “Lebensraum” — living space — for the German people. He wanted the vast farmland of eastern Europe to feed an expanded Germany. This would ultimately turn out to be a disaster for Hitler, but in the beginning the German armies were very successful.
NOTE: This marvelous map is by Morgan Hauser, derived from File:Second world war europe 1943-1945 map en.png and File:Second world war europe 1941-1942 map en.png by users Jarry1250 and ArmadniGeneral, respectively. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org /w/index.php?curid=14619311 (Berlin, Leningrad, Moscow, Nazi, Soviet symbols added for clarity by AFB).
By 1942, nearly all of Europe was under the Reich. An amazing amount of Western Russia was under Nazi control, including Ukraine and the Baltic states. On the map, everything in black and gray is under Nazi domination.
One of Hitler’s targets was the city of Leningrad, one of the first cities of Russia. Leningrad was on an isthmus near Finland. To the west is the Gulf of Finland, to the northeast is Lake Ladoga. It is about 400 miles Northwest of Moscow, and about 800 miles northeast of Berlin.
Hitler’s goal was to flatten the city. He had no interest in maintaining it because he did not want to have to worry about feeding the millions of people who were living there.
Hitler sent a message to his Army Group North:
After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center. . . . Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.
Adolph Hitler, Directive to Army Group North (Sept. 29, 1941).
And so, sometime in the fall, the city was completely surrounded by German and Finnish troops. The siege had begun. The Germans bombed and shelled the city. Oil and coal supplies ran out. Food was scarce. Pipes froze and clean water was hard to come by. Nothing got in or out. People began to starve. Fifty thousand residents died in December 1941 alone. Corpses lay in the streets.
But Leningrad was not defeated. In December, Winston Churchill wrote in his diary “Leningrad is encircled, but not taken.” Winston Churchill, The Grand Alliance 3 (1950).
Leningrad was desperate for help, but it held on, waiting for someone to break the siege.
It would wait for a long time.
* * *
God made a promise to Abraham. Three promises, really. A land, a nation, a blessing.
God led Abraham to the Land but he did not give it to him in his lifetime.
Then Israel was born as a nation in Egypt. Jacob’s family went to Egypt because of a famine and did not leave for 400 years. They grew numerous in Egypt and the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt in the Exodus, probably about 1446 BC.
The Lord, Yahweh, brought them to Mt. Sinai, where they entered into a covenant—a contract—with him. They agreed to obey him and He promised to bless them if they were obedient and to discipline them if they were not.
They were led to the Land, but flinched at the faith required to go in and take what the
Lord had promised to give them. The nation spent 40 years in the wilderness before they
came again to the edge of the Land, this time at the Jordan River.
As they crossed into the Land, Israel followed the Lord by following the leader he had provided them. This man was Joshua, who led them in the Conquest of the Land.
Now there came a time, about 1399 BC, when all the tribes had their space in the Land. Some tribes (like Judah) had done a good job of pushing out the Canaanites, but others (like Dan), had not eliminated the violent, bloodthirsty people who disrupted the Lord’s plan for the nation.
In any case, they settled into life in the Land which the Lord had promised Abraham. They lived in covenant with the Lord. But they were not faithful, and they repeatedly rebelled against the Lord. When they did, they would fall into slavery to other nations. When they came to their senses and called out to the Lord, he would raise up a deliverer who would lead them out of slavery. When the crisis was over there would be a period of peace, until again Israel fell away. This continued for about 350 years, until the nation was again brought under one king under the overall rule of the Lord.
The United Kingdom began under Saul, who did a poor job of obeying the Lord. Saul’s coronation would have been in about 1050. Saul had been chosen based on human standards. He was succeeded by David.
David, in contrast, had been chosen and trained by the Lord based on a different standard. The Lord promised David that his son would occupy the throne and that the Lord would lead him and discipline him. The further implication was that the line of David would continue and that eventually a Davidic king would bring about a just world — the blessing promised to Abraham.
In 931, though, David’s grandson, Rehoboam, lost control of the Northern half of the kingdom. What had been one nation, Israel, became two nations—Israel in the North and Judah in the South. Each had its own king. In the south, the kings were descendants of David. In the North the kings were not. In the South the people worshiped at the Temple, but in the North the people followed other gods or attempted to worship Yahweh in a syncretistic cult invented by the first northern king, Jeroboam.
The Northern Kingdom ignored the covenant it had with the Lord for the next 200 years. She ran after other gods despite the warnings of prophets and the warnings of the covenant itself. Finally, the fierce warrior nation of Assyria overran Israel and took her leaders into exile in 722 BC.
I’d like you to turn in your copy of God’s word to 2 Kings, chapter 18. The time is about 715 BC.
1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. 2He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. 3And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done.
Now Hezekiah was a really good king in the eyes of the Lord.
4 He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
So he was getting rid of the idols and false worship which had plagued Judah, and which had just led to the deportation of the people of the Northern Kingdom.
5 He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. 6For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. 7And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him.
But if Hezekiah pleased the Lord, he certainly did not please the Assyrians.
He stopped paying tribute to Assyria, and in 701 BC, King Sennacherib moved against Judah and some of the surrounding areas:
13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.
Sennacherib’s armies took the surrounding cities.
Hezekiah paid a ransom, and hoped that Sennacherib would leave.
It did not work, and Sennacherib sent his armies to lay siege to Jerusalem.
Food was scarce. Nothing got in or out. People began to go hungry. But Hezekiah had prepared for the siege (look at 2 Chronicles 32) and Jerusalem did not fall.
17 And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Washer’s Field.
18And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.
Sennacherib’s envoy had come to negotiate the city’s surrender.
In various ways, the envoy said that Hezekiah was foolish to think Judah could resist Assyria. He mocked them and wondered whether Hezekiah was foolishly relying on Egypt to save them or foolishly relying on Yahweh to intervene.
He spoke to the people of Jerusalem who were listening from the wall:
32 And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us. 33Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?
The message is clear. All gods are the same, and all are inferior to the king of Assyria.
Hezekiah is appalled at this blasphemy, and he goes into the Temple to pray — the writer does not tell us what he prayed — and sends his advisors to the prophet Isaiah:
19 5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6Isaiah said to them, Say to your master, Thus says the Lord:
Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.
God has a plan — an unlikely plan — Sennacherib will return suddenly to Assyria, Sennacherib will be killed there.
And, indeed, at this time, the Assyrian King becomes distracted by rumors that an Egyptian army is coming, and so he does not attack Jerusalem, but again sends a dispatch to Hezekiah, urging him to surrender.
He leaves part of his army to continue the siege of Jerusalem as he goes to meet the Egyptian army:
9b So [Sennacherib] sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying,
10Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. 11Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? 12Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? 13Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?
Again, the message is that Hezekiah’s god is no different from the gods of the nations Assyria has conquered.
14Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. 15And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord . . . .
This time, the writer lets us know what Hezekiah prays, at least in summary:
15 And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord and said:
O Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned [between] the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.
Hezekiah knows who Yahweh is — and the covenant which binds him to his people.
16 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.
Hezekiah calls on Yahweh to hear his prayer. He is not shy about telling God what is going on.
17 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands 18and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed.
Does Sennacherib think it was his power which was being exercised? We see Hezekiah understands what is really going on: Of course the other nations’ gods were not effective — they were mere idols!
19 So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.
Honestly, when you read this prayer you would think that the chief concern is not the military threat but the insult to God’s glory.
You would be right.
Hezekiah asks for a deliverance that would honor Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth.
Now Isaiah—aware that Hezekiah has prayed—comes to Hezekiah and tells him what the Lord thinks about all of this.
20 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Your prayer to me about Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard. 21This is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him:
This is a complicated passage, because it is written in poetry and it is sometimes directed to the Assyrians, and sometimes directed to Hezekiah. We’ll get enough of it to understand what is going on. First, to Sennacherib, the Lord explains the disdain with which Hezekiah, and the faithful in Jerusalem, look at the surrounding Assyrians:
She despises you, she scorns you—
the virgin daughter of Zion;
she wags her head behind you—
the daughter of Jerusalem.
22 Whom have you mocked and reviled?
Against whom have you raised your voice
and lifted your eyes to the heights?
Against the Holy One of Israel!
Sennacherib has insulted God. And the Assyrian king was so proud of his victories, he had arrogantly talked as though he was God:
23 By your messengers you have mocked the Lord,
and you have said, With my many chariots
I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
to the far recesses of Lebanon;
I felled its tallest cedars,
its choicest cypresses;
I entered its farthest lodging place,
its most fruitful forest.
24 I dug wells
and drank foreign waters,
and I dried up with the sole of my foot
all the streams of Egypt.
Sennacherib says, “I conquered the countries from Lebanon to Egypt.” But the Lord says, “you are boasting about the plan I put together”:
25 Have you not heard
that I determined it long ago?
I planned from days of old
what now I bring to pass,
that you should turn fortified cities
into heaps of ruins,
26 while their inhabitants, shorn of strength,
are dismayed and confounded,
and have become like plants of the field
and like tender grass,
like grass on the housetops,
blighted before it is grown.
The Lord says “I planned that you would do these things as my tool, and now, because of your arrogance, I will bring you low”:
27 But I know your sitting down
and your going out and coming in,
and your raging against me.
28 Because you have raged against me
and your complacency has come into my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
by which you came.
Eventually, speaking to Hezekiah, the Lord promises deliverance from Assyria:
32 Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 33By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord.
And then again, it is made clear that all of this is connected to the covenant with the nation at Sinai and the covenant with David.
34 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.
And then the text explains that the Lord did what he said.
35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh.
Now, there are extra-biblical historical accounts which reflect at least part of this story — Assyrian records show that although Jerusalem was besieged, it was not conquered. (Ancient records do not admit to defeats):
As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them). I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate.
Prism of Sennacherib (trans. from The Context of Scripture, patheos.com). Notice that even as he is boasting, Sennacherib does not say that he conquered Jerusalem.
If Tom Brady goes on and on and on about how many passes he completed and how many yards he threw for and how many touchdowns he made, but never mentions who won the game, I imagine we know it wasn’t the Patriots. (This is really unfair to Tom Brady, but it makes the point. Sorry, Tom.)
Herodotus, writing from the Egyptian point of view, says that at divine direction, mice ate the Assyrian implements of war:
Sanacharib king of the Arabians and of the Assyrians marched a great host…, there swarmed by night upon [the Assyrians] mice of the fields, and ate up their quivers and their bows, and moreover the handles of their shields, so that on the next day they fled, and being without defence of arms great numbers fell.
Herodotus, History, 1.141. It was, and is, a hard event to understand.
But the Lord had also said “ I will cut him down with a sword in his own land.” (19:7).
And here at the end of chapter 19, we read:
37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place.
From outside sources, it appears that this happened in 681 BC.
All of this reminds us that the Lord who entered a covenant with the nation after the Exodus and who brought them to the Land and allowed them to conquer it and who gave them a king after his own heart, and who was absolutely committed to blessing or disciplining his people—this Lord is the God who is the maker of heaven and earth.
He can bring life or death to kings.
And in that context we read the opening words of chapter 20:
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death.
So the Hezekiah who prayed in the siege of Jerusalem, is again under a kind of siege, as his body is “at the point of death.” Now here is one of those times when having a prophet around is a decidedly mixed blessing:
And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, Thus says the Lord, Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.
And this is not good news for Hezekiah, nor is it good news for the nation, because Hezekiah is only about 40 years old and he apparently has no children:
2Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying,
3Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.
And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
This seems like a truthful prayer, by the way — remember the writer’s summary of Hezekiah’s life back in chapter 18:
3And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done.
Hezekiah was a good king and a good man, though of course he was not perfect. Again, Isaiah is sent to tell Hezekiah God’s response to his prayer:
4And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him:
5Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, 6and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.
7And Isaiah said, Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.
So in the prime of his life, Hezekiah learns he is going to die, and he turns again to prayer.
And again, his prayer is answered and his life is extended for God’s glory. Two desperate prayers. Two sieges, one of Hezekiah’s city; one of Hezekiah’s body. Two responses in which the Lord breaks the siege and delivers the praying king.
* * *
That’s the passage — but what do we learn about prayer? We’ve drawn six conclusions from the prayers in Genesis 24 and Psalm 51:
First, we saw that — It is not just the important, educated or powerful who are permitted to pray, but all who will come in humility before God.
Second, we understood — Prayer is addressed to the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth, who has the right to make demands, and who is holy and merciful and desires the worship of his people.
Third, we discerned that — It is appropriate to ask God for things you believe he wants to do, but it is important to recognize that even if you are right about God’s desires, you may be wrong about his methods — if you are praying to God, you have to let him be God.
Fourth, we saw that — God uses the faithful acts of his people to answer prayer.
Fifth, we noted that — As we see God’s response to prayer, we offer him worship.
And finally, we found — To approach God in prayer is to reveal your own sin in the light of his holiness, and to accept that if there will be any commerce with God it will be because he makes it possible.
Today, we see Hezekiah coming in humility. We see him coming to the Lord because of the covenant that the Lord has with his people. We see that the Lord uses Isaiah in responding to Hezekiah.
None of that is new.
Here’s what I think is new. For the first time we feel convinced that the prayer itself was part of God’s plan. Would God have delivered Jerusalem even if Hezekiah had not prayed? Would God have extended Hezekiah’s life if Hezekiah had not prayed? It is hard to believe that things would have turned out the same if Hezekiah had neglected prayer. I am not saying that Hezekiah’s prayers changed God’s mind, I am saying that God used Hezekiah’s prayers as part of his plan.
I think this is the pattern of Scripture — God uses the prayers of his people in his sovereign plan.
Pascal said God has established prayer to give his creatures the dignity of causality. God invites us into his plan. Of course, even Sennacherib was part of God’s plan, but God used Sennacherib as a tool, and he used Hezekiah as a willing servant.
And I want you to notice that in the midst of Hezekiah’s prayer he is perfectly conscious that the goal is not the salvation of his city or even the extension of his life — the goal is the glory of God: “19 . . . O Lord our God, save us, please, from [Sennacherib], that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.”
And I think this is the pattern of Scripture — Proper prayer seeks God’s purposes, and God’s glory, not ours.
We don’t pray to satisfy our needs, we pray seeking God’s purposes.
We will see much more of this in the New Testament, I think. In the coming weeks we will add to these ideas and refine them as we continue to examine the Pattern of Prayer in the Scriptures.
The siege of Leningrad ended after two and a half years, on January 27, 1944, when Soviet forces drove the German armies away from the outskirts of the city. Supplies could flow to the people again.
In a sense, there is a siege whenever sin cuts us off from God. But Jesus has broken the siege.
And so, let us pray . . . .