In Whom Do You Trust?
by Jack Wald | September 22nd, 2019

Isaiah 36:1-37:7

If you think back in your life to a time when you were in an extremely stressful situation, what do you think of? For me this was a week in Chicago about a year before I moved to Morocco. I was at a trade show and in the final stages of selling my company. I had one lawyer. The company buying my company had six or seven lawyers. The contract of sale was about eight centimeters thick and by the time the company was sold I had read the entire thing, word for word, four or five times. We were at the end of the process, I was reading the contract one more time, and a few critical details needed to be worked out.

That same week there was a wedding for my niece and the whole family gathered. My aunt, my mother’s only sibling, had died a month earlier and the family had a memorial gathering. There was not a service because neither my mother nor my aunt had any affection for God and, in fact, had only negative things to say about God and those who believed in him.

This was the beginning of the year and a half before I left for Morocco when my mother refused to speak to me. She was an unhappy person and blamed others for her unhappiness. My other five sisters had suffered her cold alienation at different times and now it was my turn. She and my aunt had said many negative things about my wife, Annie, and they had also turned away from my two daughters.

I was busy with our booth at the trade show and making phone calls to keep the wheels on the sale. I was rereading the sale contract with last minute changes. This alone was a very stressful time.

In the middle of that I had to sit in a family circle as we talked about the life of my aunt. I had to listen while my mother told the family how bad I was, how bad my wife was, how my daughters did not write thank you notes to her sister. In times of death, unhealthy family dynamics come out and there were other unpleasant exchanges.

I walked around that week in crisis mode – everything a little bit slowed down as my mind worked out what to do, what to say, how to react.

When you are in the middle of a highly stressful crisis, in whom do you put your trust?

This is where we come to in preaching from Isaiah. Last fall we preached from Isaiah 1-12 which centered around a political crisis facing Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah. Isaiah 13-35 contains judgments against the nations that affected Judah and Israel. Now comes a four chapter interval, Isaiah 36-39 which deals with a second political crisis, and then after the next couple sermons, we will move into Isaiah 40-66 which focuses on hope and the way of salvation.

In order to understand what we are reading, I need to review the history from the opening chapters and talk about how that history relates to the crisis in these chapters.

In briefest terms, Isaiah can be understood by Three Empires, Four Kings, Two Crises, and Three Messianic Portraits.

The three empires that affected Israel/Judah were Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt.

Over the years of Israel’s history, its fortunes rose and fell depending in large part on the strength of these three empires. These empires had strong rulers and weak rulers. When there were strong rulers, they expanded their influence and extended the boundaries of their control. When the leadership of these empires was weak, the surrounding countries and cities experienced periods of peace. If you draw lines between the capitals of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, Jerusalem is where those lines intersect. So when there was a strong ruler in Assyria or Babylon, Jerusalem came under pressure.

Isaiah was prophet under four kings: Uzziah, his son Jotham, his son Ahaz, and his son Hezekiah.

As a young man Isaiah witnessed the rapid development of Judah into a strong commercial and military state. The reign of Uzziah coincided with weak Assyrian leaders and so Judah attained a degree of prosperity and strength unseen since the time of Solomon. Walls, towers, fortifications, a large standing army, a port for commerce on the Red Sea, increased inland trade, tribute from the Ammonites, success in war with the Philistines and the Arabians—all these became Judah’s during Uzziah’s long and prosperous reign of 52 years.

But along with power and wealth also came greed, oppression, religious formality and corruption. Prosperity increased and piety decreased. When Jotham took the throne after Uzziah died, the prosperity continued but then Assyrian power grew and began to assert itself.

There were two major crises in the life of Isaiah that are associated with the third and fourth kings in Isaiah’s life. The first was under Ahaz when Judah was under pressure from the north, from the Philistines, and from the Edomites. Ahaz made a deal with Assyria, against the counsel of Isaiah, to enter into an alliance with Assyria in exchange for their taking care of the threat to Judah from the north. This was a short-term solution that had a long-term negative consequence. Ahaz was forced to become a vassal king of Assyria which was a turning point for Judah. For the first time in its history, the king of Israel/Judah was not in control. From this point on, the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah were under the control of Assyria and then Babylon.

The second crisis came thirty-four years later under Hezekiah. Assyria conquered Damascus in 732 BC and Samaria in 722 BC and the two northern powers vanished as Isaiah had prophesied. Now Assyria was pushing toward Jerusalem and Egypt saw an opportunity to move against Assyria. Envoys from Egypt encouraged Hezekiah to form an alliance against Assyria. Isaiah counseled against this, but Hezekiah was not able to resist. The consequence was that Assyria made a ferocious attack on Judah and when Hezekiah saw he could not resist, he asked for terms. The terms strained the treasury of Hezekiah to the limit. But then the king of Assyria betrayed the pact and renewed his assault on Jerusalem.

Belatedly, Hezekiah took Isaiah’s advice and turned to God for help. Hezekiah and Jerusalem were rescued, the Assyrian invasions of Judah were over, and Assyria began its decline as Babylon rose in power. Less than one hundred years later, Babylon conquered Judah and took the residents of Jerusalem into captivity.

So, Three Empires, Four Kings, Two Crises, and finally Three Messianic Portraits.

The book of Isaiah is divided into three portrayals of the Messiah. 1-37 speaks of the Messiah the King; 38-55 of the Messiah the Servant; and 56-66 the Messiah the Anointed Conqueror.

There are two eight minute videos produced by The Bible Project that give an overview of the history in Isaiah. Isaiah 1-39 Isaiah 40-66
I highly recommend them and will put links to them in the RICEmail this week. I was greatly tempted to show the first of them this morning, but it will be better to see this on your own electronic device where you can see the graphics more clearly.

This morning we will look at the second crisis faced when Isaiah was prophet and contrast how Ahaz and Hezekiah reacted to their crisis.

Ahaz faced the threat of nations from the north. Hezekiah faced the much greater threat of Sennacherib who had military success over Babylon and other cities in the region, and then moved to the west. He captured city-states from Tyre to Sidon, continued down the coast defeating the Philistine cities, captured Hezekiah’s walled cities in the south, and then laid siege to Jerusalem. Hezekiah was surrounded.

Ahaz had trembled like a leaf and now Hezekiah also trembled. Ahaz had given the king of Assyria the treasures of Jerusalem and now Hezekiah did the same, trying to buy Sennacherib off. (2 Kings 18:14–16)
So Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.” The king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace.
16 At this time Hezekiah king of Judah stripped off the gold with which he had covered the doors and doorposts of the temple of the Lord, and gave it to the king of Assyria.

But Sennacherib took the money, betrayed the agreement with Hezekiah, and renewed his attack on Jerusalem.

This is where Isaiah 36 picks up the story.

In this story there is a challenge and then a promise.

The challenge comes from the field commander of the Assyrian army who met with three representatives sent by Hezekiah. They met within earshot of the people of Jerusalem who were leaning over the walls to see and hear what was happening.

The field commander spoke. He did not whisper. He spoke loud enough that the three envoys sent by Hezekiah and all those leaning over the walls of Jerusalem could hear.
‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? 5 You say you have counsel and might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? 6 Look, I know you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. 7 But if you say to me, “We are depending on the Lord our God”—isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship before this altar”?

The field commander had heard of the reforms of Hezekiah who destroyed idols. In his mind, the more gods the better. Now, because of Hezekiah’s reforms, the people of Jerusalem had less gods and there may have been some people in Jerusalem who were not happy that Hezekiah had gotten rid of the idols they had worshiped. Perhaps, some people thought, if those idols were still being worshiped, Jerusalem would not be in the trouble it was in. The words of the field commander were like arrows feeding doubts in the minds of the people of Jerusalem.

Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses—if you can put riders on them! 9 How then can you repulse one officer of the least of my master’s officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen?

The field commander had complete and total confidence. He could give two thousand horses to Jerusalem and not miss them. And, Jerusalem did not have enough men who could ride the horses if he gave them.

He had led highly successful military campaigns against Babylon, Syria, the Philistines, and the walled cities of Judah. Nothing was going to stop him now.

Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’ ” 

The field commander had spies who told him of the prophecies of Isaiah that warned of coming destruction and he used that information against them.

Then Eliakim, Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.” 

Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah were intimidated by what the field commander said. They were negotiating with the field commander and they wanted to speak in the language of diplomacy so only they would understand what he was saying, but the field commander was speaking not just to them, but to the people of the city. He wanted to intimidate all who could hear him.

But the commander replied, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?” 
13 Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! 15 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 

He promised peace and prosperity to the people of Jerusalem. But then he made a mistake.

“Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Have the gods of any nations ever delivered their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? 20 Who of all the gods of these countries have been able to save their lands from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” 

The field commander had challenged Hezekiah, but now he challenged the pre-existing, creator God of Israel. In his thinking, he had defeated the gods of other countries and Israel’s god was just one more god to be defeated. He knew of Israel’s God but he did not know the God of Israel.

The field commander did an excellent job of intimidation and he put fear in the hearts of the people of Jerusalem. Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah went back into Jerusalem shaking like a leaf. They did not have the strength to stand up against the army of Sennacherib. They had no chance of resisting.

This brings us to the promise.

How did Hezekiah respond to the terrifying report that was brought to him?
37 When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord.

Hezekiah prayed. He had done everything he could to defend Judah and now he threw himself on the mercy of God.

In the fourteen years of his reign as king, he had reinforced the fortifications around Jerusalem. He had increased the production of shields and weapons. Combat forces were organized. He constructed a tunnel connecting the pool of Siloam and the spring of Gihon which was an engineering feat. The tunnel went through 533 meters of solid rock. And then as the Assyrians approached, he cut off other springs that would provide water to the troops of the Assyrians.

He could do no more and so when he received the report of what the Assyrian field commander had said, he tore his robe in sorrow and prayed – and after he prayed he sent word of what was happening to Isaiah..

He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. 3 They told him, “This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the moment of birth and there is no strength to deliver them. 4 It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the Lord your God has heard. Therefore pray for the remnant that still survives.” 

The report they brought to Isaiah said that Judah was helpless, like children at the moment of birth. They said that the words of the field commander were an affront, not just to Judah, but to God. They hoped that God would rebuke him for his total lack of respect for God.

When King Hezekiah’s officials came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. 7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.’ ”

Isaiah did not have to take time for his response. He had already heard the word of the Lord. He had prophesied in Isaiah 14:24-27
The Lord Almighty has sworn,
“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen.
25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.

We hear what happened to Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19. The field commander heard that Sennacherib had moved to a new battlefield and went to join him.
2 Kings 19:35–37
That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! 36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
37 One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son succeeded him as king.

The crisis was over, for now.

Both Ahaz and Hezekiah faced severe crises, what is the difference in how they responded?

Both Ahaz and Hezekiah sent tribute to the king of Assyria, against the advice of Isaiah. Both trembled like a leaf at the impending invasion of those who were coming to do battle against them.

But there was a difference in the character of Ahaz and Hezekiah. There was a difference between them at the heart level.

Ahaz reversed the piety of Uzziah, his grandfather. He erected molten images to Baal, burned his son in the fire, and generally conformed to heathen practices. He went to Damascus and copied the altar he saw there and had it build to stand in the Temple in Jerusalem, next to the altar used to make sacrifices to the God of Israel. There was no room for God in his heart.

When Hezekiah came to power, he returned Judah to the polices of Uzziah. Seven years before he became king he had seen the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and understood that their faithlessness was the problem.

He renewed the covenant with God the people of Judah had broken. The Temple was reopened and repaired. The idols and things used for idol worship were destroyed. Things used for the worship of God were cleaned and consecrated. Sacrifices once again began to be made in the Temple. Worship of God with musicians and singers resumed in the Temple. Passover began to be observed. It was during this reform that the bronze serpent of Moses was destroyed because people had turned it into an idol that was to be worshiped. The people of Judah were caught up in this reform and throughout the land, people destroyed places of idol worship.

What can we learn about how to live in the midst of crisis from Hezekiah and Ahaz?

First, faith in God makes a difference.

In the five and a half years I was pastor of a couple Presbyterian churches in eastern Ohio I officiated at forty-one funerals. In fact, shortly after I arrived as pastor, I did a funeral for a 52 year old man who died from cancer and his funeral was the first one I had been to in my life.

I did a lot of thinking about death and life in those years and one of the things I learned is that faith makes a difference in how we respond to death.

As with the memorial gathering for my aunt, death in a family brings out all the buried, destructive family dynamics. I have seen families fight and blame each other at funerals. I observed that people with faith, even just a little bit of faith, have a strength they can call on when they grieve for the death of someone in their family and are reminded of their own mortality.

But I also observed people fall apart with no faith to help them stand up to the stress, the grief, and sometimes the guilt of the death of someone in their family.

Faith makes a difference in a crisis. Faith does not make the crisis go away, but faith helps people to stand up in the midst of a crisis.

Second, work hard, do all you can, and then depend on God.

Hezekiah built up the fortifications, dug the tunnel for a water supply, did all he could to prepare for the Assyrian invasion he knew was coming and then when it came, he went to God. He knew that the faithlessness of the northern kingdom of Israel was at the root of its destruction. He knew that only faith in God would save them.

There is a well-known saying attributed to Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, and Martin Luther. Whoever said it, it is a good encouragement. “Work as if everything depended on you; pray as if everything depended on God.” This is what Hezekiah did.

Third, don’t take shortcuts. Both Ahaz and Hezekiah took a shortcut, paying tribute to the king of Assyria, but the shortcut did nothing but hurt them. Isaiah urged them not to do this, but they were not able to resist the short-term solution to their problem.

If you are sitting in an exam and are stuck, fearful that you will not pass, the temptation is to cheat. In business, the temptation can be to pay a bribe or give a gift to get the contract you want and need. I recently talked with a Moroccan man in his early 30s who rode under a truck to get illegally into Spain when he was eleven years old. He spent time in a child center and then was released. He worked in Spain and then when the economy collapsed, he went to Norway and worked illegally there. After a few years he was deported back to Morocco where he had no papers and did not speak French and only a little Arabic. I urged him to take time and work out his situation legally but the last I talked with him, he was trying one more time to smuggle himself into Spain.

Shortcuts may work in the short-term but they create long-term nightmares.

Fourth, you not only need to depend on God, you have to have a spiritual reservoir to sustain you when you step into a crisis.

That summer of 2005 was very hectic and it seemed every time I turned, I was dealing with another crisis. So many people were having major struggles that summer.

But I persevered and God was good to me in granting me the strength to carry a candle safely through the storm. I was able to go from situation to situation, listen and be of some help.

But then at the end of the summer, a week before I left for the US, I came to the end of my resources and was depleted. In that last week we had two days of strategic planning for the Village of Hope which included discussing a very stressful personnel crisis and although I was present in those meetings, I was too emotionally and spiritually drained to be a full participant.

The evening after the first day of the strategic planning, while I was having supper with a friend, I received a phone call from Annie telling me my mother had died. I crashed. There was too much for me to deal with and I did not have the resources to cope.

I headed to the US for my nephew’s wedding and my mother’s memorial gathering. In those weeks I found myself in the situation where I could respond to some need around me but it was as if the battery had developed enough charge to beep the horn but not start the car. I had enough for the moment but nothing more. I didn’t want to come back to Morocco because I had nothing to give and nothing to say. Preaching seemed impossible to me.

How did I get to that point? There are those who said I was doing too much. But this was not the problem. The problem was very clear to me. For too long I had been operating on my own strength and relying on the faith of others to get by. I woke up in the morning, went out to exercise, came back and rested on the hammock and prayed about the day that was coming, who I would meet, what I needed to do. I asked for wisdom and help. I came in to shower and sat down at my desk, turned on the computer, checked emails and I was off and running. I read the Scripture for my preaching and sometimes I read a chapter or two in the morning, but for a long time I had lacked a dedicated time to sit and be present with God.

God graciously sustained me but finally allowed me to come to the end of my rope to get my attention.

Annie sent me an email from her devotional reading with this quote from Oswald Chambers.
We imagine we would be all right if a big crisis arose; but the big crisis will only reveal the stuff we are made of, it will not put anything into us. ‘If God gives the call, of course I will rise to the occasion.’ You will not unless you have risen to the occasion in the workshop, unless you have been the real thing before God there. If you are not doing the thing that lies nearest, because God has engineered it, when the crisis comes instead of being revealed as fit, you will be revealed as unfit. Crises always reveal character.

‘I can’t be expected to live the sanctified life in the circumstances I am in; I have no time for praying just now, no time for Bible reading, my opportunity hasn’t come yet; when it does, of course I shall be all right.’ No, you will not. If you have not been worshiping as occasion serves, when you get into work you will not only be useless yourself, but a tremendous hindrance to those who are associated with you.

As I began to replenish the spiritual well in my life, I found myself unable to pray spontaneously so I began reading the Puritan prayers found in a book, The Valley of Vision. We read some of them from time to time in our worship services. I leaned on those prayers and am grateful for the way they brought strength into my life.

How is the spiritual reservoir of faith in your life? Are you prepared for a crisis when it will come? Into every life, crises will come. It is not a matter of if, but when. When your crisis comes, whatever it is, will you be able to stand? If it is the death of someone you love, it is ok to grieve, ok to cry, ok to feel the pain. All this is normal and proper. Jesus wept at the grief being experienced by Mary and Martha because of the death of their brother, Lazarus.

Fear and anxiety are proper responses to crises. We are human. We will be shaken like a leaf. But it is faith that allows us to stand under the weight of grief, anxiety, and fear. In a crisis it is faith and the reservoir of faith that allows us to bring light into darkness, hope into despair.

Now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to grow the reservoir of faith that will sustain us in the future.