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26-27 April. 2 Kings chapters 18-22
The kingdoms of the Near East have always had shifting allegiances. Through the history of Israel, Egypt in particular was sometimes an enemy, sometimes an ally. The same was true of other powers such as Assyria (roughly what we now call northern Iraq – its capital Nineveh was on the site now occupied by Mosul). Judah was allied with them until the time of Hezekiah (c. 700BC) whose reign we now come to.
The Bible reckons Hezekiah a very good king for two reasons – he finally got rid of the pagan shrines which previous kings had tolerated, and he broke of dependency on Assyria, trusting in God to give Judah victory. The Assyrian king Sennacherib was not happy about this and threatened to capture Jerusalem as he had already done to Samaria. At this point we first hear of Isaiah, best known for the separate book of his prophesies elsewhere in the Old Testament. His oracle against Assyria on this occasion emphasises that both victory and defeat are planned by God – his will is paramount. That might seem simplistic to us, but in the culture of the time where all events in human life were assumed to be influenced by gods or spirits of some kind, it would make sense. Sennacherib returns to Nineveh and is murdered there. The time had still not yet come for Judah’s defeat.
Next comes the kingdom of Babylon – southern neighbour to Assyria. After Hezekiah is granted an extra 15 years of life by God (I will pass over the miraculous reversal of the sun’s shadow, which we cannot begin to explain) he welcomes envoys from Babylon and boasts of his riches which presumably he must have amassed quite quickly by taxations, after previously, giving away all the silver and gold he could find to appease the Assyrians. But Isaiah realises this is a mistake and prophesies that in his sons’ time they and all their riches would be taken captive by these same Babylonians. Amazingly, Hezekiah is complacent, even at the thought of his sons being captured, reckoning that “peace in his time” was all that mattered. That is either extreme cold-blooded self-interest, or a cowardly shrinking from risky actions, or the sort of short-term thinking (“my poll ratings matter more than the best interests of the country”) that often causes political problems.
In chapter 21 we read of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh who was everything his father was not. He reigned for 55 years from the age of 12, but all that we read of his reign is evil. He reinstated the pagan shrines that had been torn down, turned to the occult, and even placed an idol in the Temple of the Lord. He also “shed innocent blood”. This long and bloody reign contrasting with Hezekiah’s provokes God to declare that Judah’s time is up. Like the rest of Israel, their apostasy has gone so far as to break the covenant that God had always kept.
After a brief two-year reign by Amon, we come to Josiah, another child anointed at the age of only eight. He followed the good works of his great-grandfather whom he had never known. After 18 years he instructs reserved funds to be used to repair the temple, and in the process something even more important happens: the book of the Law is discovered. Sometimes we may assume that the people of Israel always knew God’s commandments (even if they often did not keep them) but this passage reads as if for a long time (maybe since Hezekiah’s time, maybe longer) the people had merely been following custom and did not know or understand God’s laws. Josiah is savvy enough to know the significance of the book. God’s word to him is that it is too late to save the people from the fate he had ordained for their idolatry, but Josiah would be allowed to die in peace before Israel as a nation was removed altogether from the promised land.