The Bible Story - Volume VI
The Decline of Judah HEZEKIAH, ailing king of Judah, was speechless to see the shadow of his giant sundial gnomon moving BACKWARD at a rapid rate. Whether or not the king realized it, it required a most awesome situation to cause such an unusual sight — a sudden reversal in the earth's direction of rotation! But it was no more difficult for God to alter the earth's rotation temporarily than for a pilot to stop a modern jet that travels hundreds of miles per hour. The surface of the earth travels about 1000 miles an hour around its axis. So it need not have taken more than several minutes to slow down the earth, reverse rotation and then start it going again as before.
Miraculous Recovery A miracle is a supernatural occurrence having to do with God temporarily suspending or canceling certain of His physical laws. In addition He often uses natural means which people don't always understand.
In any event, Hezekiah was shown exciting proof that God would heal him, and he was very grateful. Whatever means God used to do the healing, He first wanted the poisons out of the king's body. Isaiah instructed servants to apply a special fig poultice to the most painful and swollen area of the inflammation, so that the accumulated toxins would be drawn out. True to the prophet's prophecy, Hezekiah was so improved by the third day that he had the strength to go to the temple to thank God for His help and the promise of fifteen more years of life. (II Kings 20:1-11; II Chronicles 32:24; Isaiah 38.)
Royal Visitors From Babylon Judah continued recovering from the Assyrian assault. Prosperity increased. Believing that his nation faced a trouble-free future as long as idolatry was kept down, Hezekiah began to amass treasures. Every valuable gift that came to him from men of other lands added to the collection. Besides, he sent men afar to acquire objects of gold, silver and rare stones. They obtained costly spices, precious ointments and many unique items of unusual value. (II Chronicles 32:27.)
Among the worthy presents the king received was one from Baladan [Merodach-baladan], ruler of Babylon, a city-state in the country of Babylonia, south of Assyria. Babylon had been a province of Assyria for several years, and long before Sennacherib's disastrous army loss in Judah, Baladan moved without success to free Babylon from Assyria. Having heard of the unusual powers of Judah's God, as well of Judah's growing wealth and power, Baladan was anxious to establish friendly relations with Hezekiah. It was his desire to use that friendship, however, for personal advantage.
To impress the king of Judah, Baladan sent his gift by ambassadors instead of by regular messengers. These men also brought a letter for Hezekiah, who was as surprised at its contents as he was at the arrival of the men from distant Babylon, the ancient city near which men once tried to reach the sky by building a high tower. (Genesis 11.)
King Baladan wrote that the bearers of the gift were men of high rank and that he knew the officials of Judah would treat them accordingly. He mentioned the mysterious destruction of Sennacherib's troops in Judah and Hezekiah's miraculous recovery from what was regarded as a fatal illness.
Baladan wrote that he would like to know more about the powerful God of Judah, the growing prosperity of the nation and Hezekiah's treasures. Before the letter ended, there was a strong suggestion that Judah and Babylon should plan to unite against Assyria if that nation should threaten either of them again.
Hezekiah should have been suspicious of these overly curious ambassadors, but he wasn't. He was pleased by this attention from another king, even though Baladan's kingdom was small. Hoping to enhance his prestige and gain the favor of a ruler who later might prove to be of value to him, he showed the alert Babylonians all his personal treasures, special costly army equipment and the wealth of the temple. Gullible Hezekiah even took them on a tour of the nation to let them see the outstanding farms, ranches, quarries, mines and other features of the land. (Isaiah 39:1-2; II Kings 20:12-13.)
Days later, when the Babylonians left, there was little they didn't know about Judah's economy and manpower. Shortly after their departure, Isaiah came to talk to the king.
"At the risk of your considering me overly curious," the prophet told Hezekiah, "I would like to know the identity of your recent guests."
"That should be no secret to you," Hezekiah replied in a respectful tone, realizing that the prophet possibly knew about them even before they arrived. "They were special ambassadors from Babylon. Their king, Baladan, sent me a gift and a letter by them."
"What did this king have to say?" Isaiah asked. For answer, Hezekiah produced Baladan's letter, written in Hebrew. As the prophet read it he scowled a little and shook his head.
"Did you disclose anything to these men?" he queried. "I showed them everything they asked to see," the king hesitantly answered. "I have so much to be proud of here in Judah. Is it unwise for me to take pleasure in displaying to foreigners the good things God has allowed us to have?" (II Kings 20:14-15; Isaiah 39:3-4.)
Isaiah stood up and thoughtfully gazed out a window for a short time.
"Didn't it occur to you that what these Babylonians learned here could be used against Judah some day?" the prophet asked. "Haven't you considered what God thinks of your growing pride in your increased possessions?"
A surprised reaction welled up in the king toward the prophet for speaking to him so bluntly, but before words could come out, he had a sudden awareness of a vanity that had been growing in him without his recognizing it before.
"Perhaps I have been thinking about material things more than I should," Hezekiah admitted.
Result of Trusting Enemies "That's more than possible," Isaiah remarked. "Obviously you were favorably impressed by the Babylonians, but God wants you to know that you should have no league with these pagan people. Those emissaries were allowed to test you, to see how you would react to their flattery and also to see how much of a display you would make of your possessions. Remember this, because God has spoken it: There will come a time when an army will come from Babylon to seize all that is in this palace. The invaders will ransack the city, ruin the temple and plunder the land. They'll herd our people to Babylon and surrounding nations, where they'll become slaves. Your descendants will become SPECIAL slaves — keepers of the bedrooms of the king of Babylon!"
Hezekiah was stunned. For a few moments he paced about the room, occasionally glancing at Isaiah as though he wanted to question the prophet.
"If that's the way God says it will be, then it's certain to happen," Hezekiah finally remarked in a resigned tone. "I am thankful that it won't happen in the peaceful years I have left." (II Kings 20:16-19; II Chronicles 32:31; Isaiah 39:5-8.)
"I, too," Isaiah answered, "am thankful that these terrible things won't occur in your time."
After the prophet had gone, the full impact of his words reached Hezekiah's understanding. Isaiah wasn't talking only about an enemy victory from which Judah would recover. He was talking about the end of Judah as a nation!
In his years that remained, Hezekiah dedicated himself to the best interests of his country. He saw to it that large supplies of grain, wine and oil were maintained. He continued to promote farming and to increase the raising of sheep and cattle.
The greatest engineering project during Hezekiah's reign was the laborious cutting of a tunnel 1,177 feet through solid rock under Jerusalem. Through the tunnel water was conveyed from a spring outside the city to a large pool inside. Previous to the filling of the pool area, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had to get their water by lowering buckets forty feet into a well. (II Chronicles 32:27-30.)
Hezekiah's greatest accomplishment, of course, was the stopping of most idolatry in Judah and restoring proper worship at the temple.
The son Hezekiah had wanted when he was so ill was born to him three years after his recovery. Having been given fifteen more years of life, the king was succeeded by a boy only twelve years old. His name was Manasseh. (II Chronicles 32:32-33; II Kings 20:20-21; 21:1.)
In his last years and months, the king must have been painfully conscious of the approaching date of his death, although probably he didn't know the exact day. He died at the age of fifty-four, after about twenty-nine years as ruler of Judah. Hezekiah was buried in one of the main sepulchers reserved for the descendant kings of David.
A Swing to Religious License Unfortunately for Judah, young Manasseh was guided and influenced by profane men who were in favor of returning to idolatry. It wasn't long before Hezekiah's headway against pagan religions in the nation was offset by a decline in the worship of God and a revival of permissiveness and an interest in neighboring religions.
As Manasseh grew older, there seemed to be no limit to the heathen practices he allowed and even promoted. At first he favored reestablishing private and public places for idol worship. Then he decreed that altars should be built throughout the nation for sacrificing to the god Baal, one of the chief pagan deities of the Canaanites. His next move was to prepare special shrines for worshipping the goddess Astarte, whose rituals were disgustingly lewd. These swift plunges into idolatry were more than enough to rouse the Creator's scourging anger. But Manasseh didn't stop there. He deliberately defied God by setting up these pagan altars, idols, images and obscene symbols in the holy temple!
Of course, God's priests were driven from the temple first. Then their quarters were changed into a chapel for the worship of stars and planets. Even Molech made a comeback in Judah when followers were invited to build places of worship in the Valley of the Dram or Tophet — known in New Testament times as Gehenna.
The metal idol was heated to red-hot by fires built inside the belly.
To the thunderous accompaniment of drums, the parents placed their own babies into the glowing hands of the idol in worship of their horrid god. The purpose of the drums was to drown the agonizing screams of helpless infants, sacrificed by their very own parents.
How different from the worship of the Living Creator God who says that this kind of worship is so awful that he couldn't imagine the children of Israel ever doing it. (Jeremiah 32:35.)
Faith was replaced by superstition. Like vultures the wizards, witches, sorcerers, and mediums returned to feed on that superstition.
Convinced that worshipping and relying on Israel's God was foolish, Manasseh did more to turn his nation to idolatry than did the pagan nations God had destroyed. He was even worse than blasphemous King Ahab, because he required his people to worship the idols he brought to Judah. Those who were loyal to God and refused to have part in pagan religious rites were arrested and tortured. If they still refused, they were put to death. (II Kings 21:1-9; II Chronicles 33:1-9.)
Because of the misused power of one man, Jerusalem, the city of peace, became a city of despair, terror and death. Those who tried to obey God lived in constant fear of criminals and of Manasseh's soldiers. Those who became idolaters became debased and miserable.
Manasseh apparently began to doubt that Israel's God existed. Manasseh was one of the most foolish kings who ever lived for deliberately antagonizing his long-suffering Creator, who began to act by giving instructions to the prophets who were hiding in Judah.