Lord I Have Another Problem!
October 6, 2013
Scripture: Isaiah 38:1– 39:8
Synopsis: The problems of life just keep coming, don’t they? There is an old Tibetan proverb that says, “Beyond the mountains…there are mountains.” In this message, entitled Lord, I Have Another Problem! taken from Isaiah 38-39, we find Hezekiah facing another problem in the form of a life threatening illness. How did he respond? What was the result? And what lessons can we learn as a result?
The title to my sermon last week was, “Lord, I Have a Problem!” taken from the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36-37. From the response I received, it seems that a lot of you could relate to Hezekiah and that sermon. So I believe today’s sermon will be relevant as well. My title today is, “Lord, I Have Another Problem!” Problems just keep coming, don’t they? Just about the time one problem is resolved, there are several more to demand our attention. I recently read somewhere a proverb that comes from the Tibetan people living in the Himalayan Mountains. The proverb states simply: “Beyond the mountains…there are mountains.” Life is like that, isn’t it?
Tonight we are going to look at the life of Hezekiah again, this time from the text of Isaiah 38-39. In these two chapters, once again, we meet Hezekiah in a time of crisis. And just as he did in the story last week, Hezekiah again turns to God in prayer. In chapter 38, we have a very intriguing incident. Hezekiah falls ill and is at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah comes to him and tells him to get himself ready; that he is going to die. In distress, Hezekiah turns his face to the wall, and fervently prays that God will spare him. Hezekiah is a great example for us. He knows where to go with his problems. As a result of his prayer, God sends Isaiah back to Hezekiah to tell him that God has heard his prayer, and that he is going to add fifteen years to his life. He then gives him a sign that the sun’s shadow will actually go backwards ten steps on the royal staircase. And it does!
The rest of Isaiah 38 is given over to a beautiful psalm of praise that Hezekiah wrote recounting his experience. Chapter 39 then continues to relate a follow-up incident. In far off Babylon, the miraculous story of Hezekiah’s healing is reported. The king of Babylon sends envoys to extend his good wishes. Hezekiah is flattered by the attention, and receives the envoys gladly and eagerly displays all his riches in an effort to impress them. After the envoys leave, however, Isaiah came to the king. Let’s pick up the story;
(Read Isaiah 39:3-8)
3 Then Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah, and said to him, “What did these men say? And from where did they come to you?” Hezekiah said, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” 4 He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house. There is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”
5 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7 And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
As I have meditated on these chapters, I want to present five principles for us to ponder together.
1. Prayer changes things.
I recognize that this is a cliché that is often repeated. I also understand that it is a point that is sometimes debated. But in the events recorded here, I think it is very clear. Hezekiah was very ill. He was about to die. In fact, Isaiah tells him he is going to die. But Hezekiah prayed, and in answer to his prayer, God added 15 years to his life. Prayer changed things.
Now this raises some difficult questions which arise whenever we discuss prayer. How does prayer relate to the will of God? Did Hezekiah’s prayer change God’s mind? Did God change his plan? How do we integrate the sovereignty of God and the changelessness of God with the responsibility and free will of man as it relates to our prayers?
First, let me say from the outset: whenever we discuss the problem of the relationship of God’s sovereignty to the free will of man, we will ultimately reach a point in our discussion and debate beyond which our logic cannot take us. We enter an area of mystery which God has reserved for himself alone. I think we must simply accept that reality humbly. In fact, when I have taught a class in prayer here at ECC, in my opening talk on “What is prayer?” one of my points is that prayer is a mystery.
Second, I think there is a reason for the mystery attached to prayer. If we were able to understand prayer precisely; if we were able to reduce it to understandable formulae, with all logical possibilities and probabilities clearly charted, I have a very serious suspicion that we would soon become experts in the mechanics of prayer and quickly forget the relational aspect of prayer. You see, prayer is first and foremost an expression and an outgrowth of relationship; our relationship with God and his relationship with us. It is a living and growing and ever-changing relationship. Our prayer life will change as our relationship expands and changes. If we “understood” prayer, would we be as likely to draw near to God in relationship?
Having said all this, I want to come back to repeat this principle. Prayer changes things. God acts in response to our prayers. Prayer changes us, but it also changes things. Things happen when we pray that would not happen if we did not pray. I firmly believe that if Hezekiah had not prayed, he would have died. But he prayed and 15 years were added to his life. God answers prayer. Now that does not mean that prayer shifts control from God to us. It does not mean that God gives us everything we ask for. God retains the right of veto. One of God’s possible answers to our prayers is: NO. Another possible answer is: WAIT. But one of his answers is also YES. We should never be afraid to ask God. Our prayers do make a difference.
2. The obedient, wholehearted believer has more influence in prayer than the one who is disobedient or half-hearted in his/her commitment to God.
Notice what Hezekiah is able to say in his prayer in Isaiah 38:3: "Please, O Lord, 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 is not only Hezekiah’s testimony about himself. Listen to the writer of II Kings in II Kings 18:5-6:
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. 6 For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses.
That makes a difference when you are praying. James clearly tells us in James 5:16: The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
The man or woman, boy or girl, who only comes to God in prayer when there is a problem and ignores God and lives in disobedience to his Word the rest of the time, simply cannot expect the same results to their prayers.
Another way of saying this is: You cannot disassociate the prayer from the pray-er. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that if you are out of fellowship with God there is no use praying. Do pray. Start with a prayer of repentance and ask for God’s cleansing, and throw yourself on the mercy of God. Our God is a God of grace. He just might hear and answer you. But the believer whose prayers have the most power and influence before the throne of God is the one who is living his life in fellowship with God and walking in obedience to his will as Hezekiah was.
3. The bitter, painful experiences of life can produce great benefits.
Hezekiah’s illness and close encounter with death was a bitter, painful period in his life. Listen to how he describes it in Isaiah 38:10-14.
I said, In the middle of my days I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.
11 I said, I shall not see the Lord, the Lord in the land of the living;
I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world.
12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
13 I calmed myself until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones;
from day to night you bring me to an end.
14 Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety!
That is a graphic description of what Hezekiah experienced. He felt like he was being mauled by a lion until all his bones were broken. He moaned like a mourning dove in his misery.
Yet look at his assessment as he looks back on this experience in verse 17: Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness;
The NIV translates it: Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. A literal rendering of the text here would read “this bitterness has turned to my peace.” And he uses that wonderfully descriptive Hebrew word “shalom” or well being.
Let’s face it, none of us wants to go through bitter, painful experiences. And be careful not to share this principle too glibly with people who are in the midst of a difficult time. But isn’t it reassuring to know, when the hard times do come, that good things, positive results can and will come from it if we will cling to our faith in God? In this passage, Hezekiah actually mentions two specific benefits.
The first is humility. Look at verse 15: I especially like the way it is translated in the NIV: But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years. The phrase literally says “to walk softly or quietly.” I think that’s a great description of humility; walking quietly, walking reflectively. The proud think they are in control. They are invincible. They are calling the shots and making things happen. Hard times, especially a near brush with death such as Hezekiah had, changes that perspective and we learn to walk softly. That kind of humility, that kind of perspective which grows out of a time of suffering, is a valuable gift.
The second benefit is heartfelt praise to God. As I said, the whole second half of Isaiah 38 is given over to Hezekiah’s song of thanksgiving. Let’s just read verses 19-20.
The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.
20 The Lord will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives, at the house of the Lord
But this particular song of praise would never have been written if Hezekiah had not gone through this difficult time.
So, there are two benefits mentioned here. I am sure that if we thought about our own painful experiences in life, we could even add to this list of benefits that can grow out of hard times.
4. Dramatic answers to prayer and great spiritual experiences can produce pride rather than gratitude.
I wonder if you have ever heard anyone preach a message on “The Dangers of Answered Prayer”? There are some real dangers. To pick this up clearly, we need to go to II Chronicles 32:24-26 which also records the story of Hezekiah’s reign.
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death, and he prayed to the Lord, and he answered him and gave him a sign. 25 But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem. 26 But Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah.
Did you hear what that said? God answered his prayer and Hezekiah became proud! It is difficult to be precise in fitting this verse in with the chronology of the account in Isaiah, but my speculation would be to fit it into Isaiah 39:1-2. That is the passage that tells how the news of Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery spread far and wide. Apparently Hezekiah enjoyed the spotlight and that leads to his becoming expansive and proud and showing off all his riches to the envoys from Babylon.
We must be careful. Our minds are so twisted that when God does something special for us, we have a way of concluding from that that we are somehow special and better than other people. Be on guard against that kind of pride.
There is a parallel teaching in the New Testament. The apostle Paul had a dramatic spiritual experience in which he was transported into heaven where he heard inexpressible things. But he goes on to say, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. Even Paul needed a special reminder to keep him from becoming conceited after God’s dramatic working in his life. The lesson here is clear: Beware the perils of answered prayer!
I have one final principle to think about today.
5. Every year of peace and security we enjoy should be received gladly and as a gift of God’s grace.
I have derived this principle from the final verses of Isaiah 39. In those verses, which we read earlier, we have the account of Hezekiah, when he receives the word of God’s judgment, responding in a rather odd way. He says, “The word of the Lord…is good,” because he thought to himself, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” Those verses have always bothered me. At first glance, his response sounds reprehensible; callous and selfish. “As long as it doesn’t affect me, it’s OK.”
But as I have pondered the larger sense of this text and of the parallel passages about Hezekiah in the historical books, I want to present a different take on what is going on. The passage we read in 2 Chronicles talks about Hezekiah becoming proud and God becomes angry. But then it says that Hezekiah repented and so God postponed the judgment. I think those events are telescoped together in this 39th chapter of Isaiah. The envoys come. Hezekiah is impressed by his own fame and becomes proud and shows off his riches. Isaiah comes and rebukes Hezekiah and announces that these very Babylonians would be the instrument that God would use to punish his people and take them into exile. Hezekiah then repents of his pride and God, through Isaiah, relents and tells Hezekiah that this judgment would not come in his lifetime.
I believe what Hezekiah is expressing in this final verse is a heart-felt gratitude to God for his grace in postponing the judgment. Remember, Hezekiah’s pride was not the only sin that would bring the wrath of God upon Jerusalem. As your read the whole book of Isaiah, you realize that judgment had been prophesied throughout Isaiah’s long ministry, and many sins of the people have been listed for which the wrath of God would come. All that remained to be announced was the timing of the judgment and the instrument God would use. In this passage, Isaiah announced that Babylon would be the instrument, but because of Hezekiah’s repentance, the time would not be now but later. It is not the fact of the judgment for which Hezekiah expresses gratitude, but the delay of the judgment which he receives gratefully as gift of God’s grace.
I would suggest that such an attitude is appropriate to us as Christians as well. Knowing the sinfulness of the world in which we live, knowing how evil and rebellious the human race is and how far we have strayed from God’s commands, we ought not to marvel when trouble and turmoil and disaster break out in our world. We ought to marvel when they do not. And we should receive every year of peace and security, not as a right or an entitlement, but as a gift of God’s grace.
During our years in Kenya, I always enjoyed visiting in Kenyan homes and especially listening to them pray. Their evening prayers often went along these lines: “O Lord, we thank you that we have lived another day. We thank you that we have had food to eat, and clothes to wear and that we have come and gone in safety.” Then in the morning their prayers would pick up again. “Lord, we thank you that we have come safely through the night. We thank you for a new day. We thank you for food and health and strength to serve you again today.” Each day is taken as a gift from God’s grace. I think it is a lesson we all need to learn.
Well, I have shared a number of different thoughts this evening. This has not been your typical message on prayer. But I would encourage you to take these principles home. Ponder them. I think you will find them helpful as you take your problems to the Lord.