Does a Messiah have clay feet?
by Jack Wald | October 6th, 2019

Isaiah 38-39

Isaiah 38 begins with, “In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death.” When were those days?

As a reminder, Isaiah 1-6 is a prologue to the book of Isaiah and ends with Isaiah’s call to be God’s prophet to Judah. Chapters 7-35 deal with a political crisis when Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah, was king which is followed by prophecies of judgment and hope. The theme of these chapters is that Judah should put its trust in God who will judge the nations that are against them.

For the past three Sundays and this morning we are looking at a four chapter interlude between the prophecies of chapters 7-35 and the prophecies of chapters 40-66. Chapters 36&37 deal with a second political crisis with Assyria threatening the destruction of Jerusalem. Chapters 38&39 deal with Hezekiah’s illness and then his ill-advised reception of a delegation from Babylon.

Chronologically, chapters 38&39 occurred ten or fifteen years before chapters 36&37. Let me present a couple reasons that lead to this conclusion.

First, chapter 39 begins with this: “At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of his illness and recovery.” Marduk-Baladan was defeated by Assyria and was out of the picture by 703 BC, the time of the Assyrian siege on Jerusalem. It is inconceivable that Babylonian envoys would have come to congratulate Hezekiah solely on his recovery if he had recently experienced a great deliverance from Assyria.

Second, most of the temple treasures had been stripped to pay the tribute to Sennacherib that did not prevent him from laying siege to Jerusalem. If they came after the siege, there would have been no treasures to show them.

So why are chapters 38&39 placed out of chronological order after chapters 36&37?

Isaiah is not concerned with writing a chronological history of what happened. He does follow the historical record by beginning with Ahaz and ending with Hezekiah, but he does not seem to be concerned to put chapters 36-39 into historical order. These four chapters are placed where they are for literary reasons.

Chapters 36-37 illustrate the themes of chapters 7-35. Chapters 38-39 serve as a prelude to chapters 40-66.

Chapters 7-35 have the theme that it is possible to turn to God in trust and find relief and deliverance. That is exactly what happened to Hezekiah in chapters 36&37 as he faced the overwhelming Assyrian assault.

Isaiah 38&39 raises questions that are answered in chapters 40-66. If God could deliver Judah from the Assyrians, why could he not do the same thing with the Babylonians? Isn’t Hezekiah the promised child of Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
And
Isaiah 9:6
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Hezekiah was the greatest king since David and Solomon. He had reversed the terrible policies of his father Ahaz. He had destroyed the altars to idols and reinstituted worship and sacrifice to God in the temple.

When Isaiah came to Ahaz with the prophecies of the coming Messiah, it was believed that a son of Ahaz would be the fulfillment of the prophecy. When Hezekiah brought his great reforms, people were encouraged to view him this way.

Chapters 40-66 answer these questions. The Messiah is coming and after reading chapters 38-39 it is clear that Hezekiah is not the Messiah; he is a mortal and fallible man. The Messiah will come, but he has not yet arrived.

So let’s step into chapter 38.

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” 
2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, 3 “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 

Hezekiah was not ready to die and he reminded the Lord about his faithfulness, his devotion, his obedience. Hezekiah was only thirty-nine years old and his son, Mannasseh, who succeeded him as king, was not born until three years after this. He was not ready to die.

In addition to this, remember that in the Hebrew bible there is a place of the dead, but not a heaven and a hell. These did not arise in the understanding of followers of God until the time of Jesus. Because we live after Jesus died and rose from the dead, we can approach death with the comfort and assurance that we will meet Jesus face-to-face. Hezekiah did not have that assurance so he wept bitterly. This was the end for him; he had no future.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: 5 “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. 6 And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city. 
7 “ ‘This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: 8 I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.’ ” So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down. 

In response to the tearful plea of Hezekiah, the Lord added fifteen years to his life. And a sign was given to verify this to be true. There was a staircase the sun shone on. As the earth moved, the shadow moved up the steps. God caused the shadow to move back down, seemingly reversing time. If the sun did move back in time, the earth had to reverse its rotation – which is not likely. Perhaps there was a miracle of refraction that caused the shadow to move down the steps. We can ask about this someday.

The point is that Hezekiah pleaded for more years and he received them. Hezekiah wrote a poem about this experience in his life and then we move into chapter 39.

At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of his illness and recovery. 

If the coach of your favorite sports team was seriously ill and recovered and a competitor sent a couple people with a gift to express their good wishes, just a couple weeks before a big match, you can bet the two representatives would keep their eyes open to see what they could learn about their opposition.

You can be sure that Marduk-Baladan told his messengers to keep their eyes open and see what they could learn about this kingdom of Judah. It is always good to gather information.

Hezekiah received the envoys gladly and showed them what was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices, the fine olive oil—his entire armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. 

Hezekiah was showing off. He could have greeted them but they must have flattered him, appealed to his ego, so that he showed them everything. A political leader who meets with representatives of another country and discloses intelligence data, just to show off with how much he knows, is a bad leader, someone who puts his ego above the interests of his country.

Isaiah heard about the visit and called Hezekiah out for what he did.

Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, “What did those men say, and where did they come from?” 
“From a distant land,” Hezekiah replied. “They came to me from Babylon.” 
4 The prophet asked, “What did they see in your palace?” 
“They saw everything in my palace,” Hezekiah said. “There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.” 

Hezekiah did not hide what he had done. He did not think he had done anything wrong. But now Isaiah delivered a word from the Lord.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: 6 The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. 7 And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 

It took a bit more than one hundred years for this prophecy to be fulfilled.

How did Hezekiah respond to this word from the Lord. When Isaiah came to tell him he was going to die, Hezekiah went to the Lord and cried bitter tears. He pleaded his case to live longer.

How did he respond to this tragic news that was going to cost the lives of many, that was going to bring terrible suffering on the descendants of Hezekiah? Many would die. Others would be taken into captivity where his male descendants would be made eunuchs. Did Hezekiah shed bitter tears and plead with God to spare his descendants from so much suffering?

“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” 

“Not my onions,” as the French say. “Not my problem.”

Chapter 39 was not Hezekiah’s finest hour.

If the question was, “Is Hezekiah the Messiah Isaiah promised in Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9?” the answer was a resounding, “No!” Hezekiah was mortal. He suffered from a severe illness and was going to die. He was fallible. He made unwise decisions, made mistakes as ruler of Judah. He cared more about himself than he did about others.

Judah was still waiting for the Messiah. They needed help but help was going to have to come from beyond themselves.

With this two chapter prelude, Isaiah moves into chapter 40 prophesying about the coming Messiah.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

I will be in the US for the next five Sundays and I am jealous of Elliot for having the privilege to preach from these texts that are coming in Isaiah.

Let’s move into some lessons.

  1. We are imperfect people and God blesses us anyway.

Hezekiah had an impressive resume. In the list of kings of Judah, he stands out as one of the best kings, if not the best king, since David and Solomon. He brought reforms that reinstituted worship of God in the temple as well as in the rest of Judah. He did a great job in preparing Judah for an Assyrian assault. But he also made a poor decision trying to buy Sennacherib off by sending him the royal treasures and the treasures of the temple. He pled for his own life when he was told he was going to die and seemed indifferent to the tragic fate of his descendants.

He was not a perfect man or a perfect king but God still used him and blessed him. Was he the Messiah Isaiah had promised to Ahaz? Isaiah 38&39 makes it clear that he was not the Messiah. He was mortal and fallible, but God works with mortal and fallible people. God worked with Hezekiah. God worked with Jacob. God worked with David. And God works with us.

Regardless of how impressive a resume we have accumulated, we also have mistakes that were made. We all have made errors in judgment, said things we should not have said, done things we should not have done. Because of the mercy, grace, and creative power of God, our weakness and failings do not disqualify us from being used by Jesus as he builds his kingdom.

If God were to use only perfect people or even mostly perfect people, he would have no one to work with him.

  1. We move far too quickly from praise to God who blessed us when we were in the midst of great pressure, to pride and obsession with the world’s treasure and values. We forget that we live and prosper by God’s good will for us.

Hezekiah wrote a poem giving God praise after he was healed of his illness, but then his pride in his wealth and possessions led him to show the Babylonian messengers more than he should have.

I remember reading a story in a book in school when I was in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade. It had a picture of monkeys playing in a tree in the sunshine. They had a great time eating bananas, swinging from limb to limb. But then when it was cold and raining, they huddled together, trying to stay warm. They said, “We need to build a shelter in the tree to keep us dry when it rains.” But then the sun came out and they forgot all about building a shelter and they played and ate bananas. When it rained again, they huddled together and said, “We need to build a shelter in the tree to keep us dry when it rains.”

When we are in a crisis, a period of great stress, we turn to God and ask for help. We read our Bible looking for hope and inspiration. We pray with great intensity. But then when the crisis is over, when the sun is shining on us once again, we enjoy this life and all the treasures of this world. We lose the intensity of loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

Hezekiah prayed intensely when he thought he was going to die and then, after he was healed, he delighted in the abundance of his possessions, showing off to the Babylonian messengers. He moved from, “Help me Lord, I don’t want to die,” to disregard for what would happen to his descendants, “It’s not my onions.”

  1. Trust is a way of life and not a tool to pull out when are in trouble.

There is a saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” During a war, soldiers dig a hole in the ground to protect themselves from bullets and artillery barrages. The only reason you dig a hole in the ground to sit in is because you are in a very dangerous situation. Your life is at risk and when your life is at risk, even people who hardly ever pray begin to pray.

Benedict of Nursia founded The Order of Benedict in the 6th century. The monks who are part of this order live under 72 rules. Here are six of them:

  1. First of all, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.
  2. Not to seek after luxuries.
  3. To refresh the poor.
  4. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
  5. Not to be proud.
  6. And never to despair of God’s mercy.

I mention this because of rule 47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.

Every day, monks in The Order of Saint Benedict remind themselves that they will die someday.

Thomas Howard writes in Christ the Tiger, “When we hear of a woman who is finally told that she has three months to live before the cancer eats her soul out of her flesh, we are paralyzed, trying to imagine what we would do if we were she. What would breakfast look like? Would it seem worth eating? How would you see your hands, knowing that a few weeks hence a professional man would take them and cross them across your stomach to give an illusion of repose to your corpse? … I have sometimes looked at my socks and pencils and shoelaces and it amazed me that they, worth a nickle or a dollar, would outlast me. It is an indignity.”

He writes about men in Death Row, sitting in their jail cell, waiting for the day of their execution. They are given a choice of a last meal before they die and Howard asks what difference that last meal makes. “And if it did not really make a difference on that night, what about the night before that, and the night before that?”

It is spiritually healthy to be reminded each day that we are mortal, that we will not live forever. We are going to die and every decision we make during the day should be guided by this reminder.

We live in trust each day, not just when we are under stress, in a crisis, and think that day we need God more than we do on other days when everything seems to be going well.

  1. If we put our trust in ourselves or others, we will, one day, be disappointed. The source of our hope does not lie in the Hezekiah’s of this world. They are as mortal and fallible as the rest of us. If there is hope, it must lie beyond the men and women of this world.

If your hope is in a person, that person can disappoint you. Psalm 146 that we read at the beginning of the service says, (Psalm 146:3)
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.

Political leaders sometimes disappoint us. Pastors sometimes disappoint us. We all have clay feet and even the best of us have our weak moments in life.

People put their trust in their wits, their problem solving ingenuity, their experience in dealing with similar problems, and it is good to use our abilities and experience in dealing with problems in life. But there are problems beyond our ability to solve, choices to be made that are too complex for us and we need the wisdom and guidance of God.

In God we trust and there is no other person or place or thing that will not in some way betray our trust. Only God will never fail us.

  1. We live in the present but we have a responsibility to make decisions and to live our lives in ways that will benefit the generations who follow us.

Hezekiah had an embarrassingly bad response to the prophecy Isaiah delivered about the Babylonian conquest of Judah. I hope that in the last fifteen years of his life he matured, became wiser, and did care about what happened to his descendants.

The world is waking up to the reality that there is climate change happening at a much faster rate than was anticipated. Who is leading the charge in the world to make changes now to reduce the effects of climate change? Young people. What about the older people in the world? I suspect that for many of them they think, “I won’t be around for this so why should I be so concerned?”

I am almost 69 years old. I most probably will not be alive in 2050. I will miss the more severe effects of climate change. It’s not my onions? They may not be my onions but they will be my grandchildren’s onions and I don’t want them to weep.

I am stepping down as pastor of RIC in a year and nine months. Who will be the next pastor of RIC? Should I care? I won’t be here. What does it matter to me?

There are people in the church serving on the Pastor Search Committee and most of them, if not all of them will have left when the new pastor arrives. Why are they putting in so much effort for something that will not affect them?

When we gather in heaven for the wedding banquet, who will be with us at the table? There will be people from every nation, every tribe, and there will be people from all of time. The people who lived before us will be there and people who will be born after we die will be there. The people who will come to RIC after we leave and be led by a pastor we chose for them, will be there.

We are part of the world wide body of Christ that has no national borders, no racial borders, and is not restricted by time. We live for the people who are with us on planet earth now and for those who will come after us.

We follow the example of Jesus. Jesus did not ascend into heaven and say, “Now, it will no longer be my onions.” He promised to never leave us or forsake us. He promised to return to bring us safely into his eternal kingdom. Jesus ascended and has never stopped working to encourage men and women everywhere to trust him and put their faith in him.

Jesus is our Messiah. He is present with us and we are waiting for his return.

Our Messiah was not given a fifteen year reprieve. He died, broke the power of death, and was raised to new life. Because of that we have more than fifteen years to live or fifty years or a hundred years to live before we die and then that will not be the end for us. What Hezekiah feared was the end will be the beginning of life lived with our Messiah in his kingdom.

Our Messiah does not have an ego that holds on to his treasures. He scatters his treasures. He is a prodigal God who squanders his love on us. He loves us regardless how we receive it. When we reject him, he loves us more. When we ignore him, he continues to love us. He loves us, loves us, and loves us more until we come to our senses and submit to his love – and then he continues to love us. He gives his treasure to the world so we can be saved.

Our Messiah does not think more of himself than he does for others. He did not look for peace in his lifetime. He voluntarily went to the cross to suffer and die for our benefit.

Our Messiah is not fallible. He is not mortal. He is the pre-existing creator God of the universe who bends himself to love us. We were created for his pleasure and we are his delight. That is our Messiah.