Faith in what?

Scriptures: Psalm 46; 2 Kings 19:8-20, 32-36

Guest speaker: Pauline Evans

“God is our refuge and strength … Be still and know that I am God”

These oft-quoted lines encourage us to put our faith fully and firmly in God, as Hezekiah did in our passage today. Some scholars believe that Psalm 46 was actually written in Hezekiah’s time, to celebrate God’s deliverance of Jerusalem that we just heard read about. Whether it was written then or not, it fits well in this context.

But first, let me set the larger historical context. It was about 700 years before Christ. It was 300 years after the time of King David. The twelve tribes of Israel had been one united kingdom under David and then under Solomon, but after Solomon’s death, they split up.

In the south, the tribe of Judah, with the much smaller tribe of Benjamin, became the kingdom of Judah. The other ten tribes, in the north, became the kingdom of Israel.

Judah was ruled by the descendants of King David. By the time of Hezekiah, there had been about twelve of them. Six had more or less followed God, and six had not followed God.

In the north, they had had had nineteen kings by this time, and not a single one had followed God. They had worshiped pagan gods, and so did the people. Prophets like Elijah and Hosea tried to call the people back to God, but not very many of them had listened.

In 722 BC, the judgment of God came on the kingdom of Israel for their idolatry, they were conquered by the Assyrians, and many of the people were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire, and they never returned.

The king of Judah at this time was Hezekiah. His father, Ahaz, had been one of those who was not following God. He had put his faith in powerful kings and their gods. When he was attacked by Syria and Israel (and yes, Israel and Judah were sometimes at war with each other), Ahaz sent word – and money – to the king of Assyria, asking for help.

He was so impressed by the power of kings who were successful in battle, and by their gods, that he wanted to worship those gods. When he went to Damascus and met the king of Assyria, he saw the altar where they worshiped there, and he decided Jerusalem should have one of those. So he sent a plans and a model of that altar to the priest in Jerusalem to copy it.

Back in Jerusalem, he not only worshiped pagan gods, and led the people in doing so, he actually closed up the temple. He took out its furnishings and its utensils, and ended the worship there.

Hezekiah was very different from his father. After his father’s death, one of the first things he did was begin a project of religious reformation. He got rid of the idols and the altars where they were worshiped. He opened the temple up again, he had it reconsecrated, and he reorganized the Levites and the priests to lead in worship.

He also rebelled against Assyria. No more sending money the way his father had. Not surprisingly, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, came marching with an army into Judah to put down this revolt. 2 Chronicles, which also tells about Hezekiah, tells us that when Sennacherib invaded Judah, Hezekiah and his officers set about strengthening their military defenses.

They rebuilt parts of the wall that were broken, they built towers, they built a new wall, and they dug a tunnel underneath the city wall, so that they could bring in water from springs outside the city. Then they stopped up the springs so the invading army would not find it easy to get water.

Then he told the people to trust in God and not be afraid of Sennacherib and his mighty army, because Judah had God fighting on their side. That sounds like a king with great faith, doesn’t it? But there are a couple of problems with this.

Isaiah 22 doesn’t mention Hezekiah by name, but it does mention two men in his court, and it mentions building up the walls and bringing water into the city. And it delivers a stinging rebuke for trusting in military defenses instead of in God.

The other thing is that in 2 Kings, it tells us what Hezekiah did when Sennacherib invaded. He caved. He sent word to Sennacherib, saying, “I was wrong. Please go away, and I’ll send however much money you ask for.”

Then he took the silver, out of not only the palace but also the temple, and he even stripped the gold off the doors of the temple, and sent that to Sennacherib. That doesn’t sound like the faith of the king we heard read about this morning.

It’s hard to come up with a clear timeline of what happens next. Scripture does not always relate events in strict chronological order, nor does it necessarily give us an indication of the passing of time between one event and another. Some scholars believe that Sennacherib invaded Judah twice. Others say only once.

Either way, it seems that some time has passed between what I just talked about, and what we heard read this morning. After all, it took a long time to capture a walled city. When Assyria conquered Samaria, it had taken three years of siege before the city fell.

So when we see Hezekiah here, receiving this letter, and taking it God, time and events have had a chance to change his heart and in his faith. So let’s look now at the conflict at the heart of this story.

Sennacherib’s goal was to intimidate. He would knock down the walls of Jerusalem if he had to, but it was easier to knock down people’s faith in their ability to withstand him. It was difficult in these smaller countries to stand up to a big army. It was only divine power that could save them, and so far – all those names of countries that the liturgist read – divine power hadn’t done a thing for them.

All these victories had made Sennacherib proud, confident of his own strength and his gods. He didn’t consider the possibility that the god of a minor kingdom like Judah could come close to the power of the gods that had made Assyria great.

Hezekiah saw Sennacherib’s disparaging remarks as an affront to God and His glory. That is a mark of those who know God, that they desire His glory. When we come to know God, to know His goodness and power, it builds our faith and our desire for the truth about Him to be known to all people. We gain confidence to ask for things from Him, but we also become less concerned about ourselves and more about Him.

Hezekiah does ask God, “Save us.” But mostly his prayer is for God to be glorified, for people to know that God is the true Creator and Lord of the entire world. Yes, those other countries’ gods had failed them, just as Sennacherib claimed. But that’s because they weren’t really gods at all, just inventions of people’s minds and hands.

We saw before that Hezekiah didn’t start out with this kind of faith. So how did he come to the faith he shows here? Perhaps it was in part due to Isaiah’s ministry. Isaiah had been preaching about trusting in God, instead of in military strength or political allies.

Perhaps it was the ministry of the Levites, as they led in worship and they sang psalms that celebrated God’s greatness and what He had done for His people.

I think he must have seen God’s work in his own life. Some interpreters think that, while the account of Hezekiah’s serious illness and miraculous healing comes after 2 Kings 19 in the Bible, it may have actually happened before. So perhaps through that experience and its aftermath, Hezekiah had learned something of God’s power and mercy.

Perhaps it is because, at this point, Hezekiah has nowhere else to turn except God. Those kingdoms that he had allied with, hoping with their combined forces might be enough to stand up to Assyria, the rest of them have either fallen or they are busy fighting against Assyria themselves. The only military force around with any significant power is the one camped around Jerusalem, waiting for them to surrender.

It may not be the most sterling example of faith when we turn to God as a last resort. But many times, that is when people do turn to God, and in His mercy and grace He accepts those who come – not taking His help for granted but humbly acknowledging that they need Him – and He provides for their needs.

It’s even possible that Hezekiah didn’t feel the confidence in God that we think we hear when we read his words here. Because faith isn’t about what we feel. A 16th century bishop, François de Sales, said:

“Although, dear Lord, I have no feeling of confidence in Thee, I know all the same that Thou art my God, that I am wholly Thine, and that I have no hope but in Thy goodness; therefore I abandon myself entirely into Thy hands.”

Hezekiah’s faith shows in what he did. He turned to God, rather than to any other source of help, and prayed to God, asking for God to be made known to all people.

For most of us, it doesn’t happen as dramatically as in our passage today. One can only imagine the giddy relief of the people of Jerusalem, who had probably gotten up in that morning wondering if this was going to be the last day, when the city fell and their lives were destroyed by violent Assyrian soldiers, and instead they find no army at all outside their walls, just a lot of dead bodies.

Probably even Hezekiah would not have dared to ask for that kind of miracle. He simply prayed, “Save us, for your glory, so people will know that You are God.” Then he left it to God how to answer that prayer.

Perhaps, like me, you sometimes are not sure you have a deep enough faith. I pray for something, and wonder if my lack of faith will make the prayer less likely to be answered. But I’ve noticed that it tends to be that my lack of faith is that I’m trying to put my faith in the wrong thing. I’m praying to God, but I’m trying to have faith in His answering my prayer a certain way, rather than just having faith in God.

For instance, when I get in the car to travel somewhere – including my 42-mile commute to and from Moline five days a week – I generally start with prayer. Partly that’s because the time in the car gives me the time and the space to pray which I might have trouble finding other times in the day. But also it’s because I feel vulnerable, whizzing along at 55 or 65 miles an hour, knowing that just a moment or two of inattention – by me or some other driver – can lead to injury or death.

But as I pray for safety, I am also very aware that I can’t count on God answering the prayer with the result that I want. People are injured and killed in car accidents every day, and I’m sure some of them are Christians who were trusting in God to keep them safe. Does that mean He failed?

No, the problem is that I – and perhaps you – tend to think we need faith in God to answer a certain way. This can end up being an attempt to have faith in our faith, rather than faith in our God. The fact is that God will give us what we need, and will keep us safe – but often not in the ways that we wanted Him to.

Sometimes God keeps us safe by preventing the bad things that we’re afraid of from happening. Sometimes He keeps us safe by allowing them to happen, but keeping us from serious injury or death. Sometimes God allows injury but keeps us safe from death. And sometimes God allows death, but keeps us safe, because as my favorite Bible verse says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

None of the things we fear and ask God to deliver us from can really hurt us, in the end. God can be glorified by any of the circumstances of our lives. So if our desire is for God’s glory, as Hezekiah’s was, then the circumstances stop mattering so much.

Max Lucado, in his book He Still Moves Stones, says: “Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right.”

So I can pray for safety when I travel, for my financial needs to be met, and for the other things that I can hardly help asking God for because they’re important to me. But I don’t have to work up some feeling of confidence that He’ll give me what I have in mind, because I can trust that He knows far better than I do what is good for me.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes that phrase “what is good for me” doesn’t sound so good. It sounds kind of like “eat your vegetables.” Does faith in God mean giving up all those things I like for a plate of vegetables? Well, sometimes – but that’s because faith in God means believing that He is so good that I’m not really giving up anything that would have made my life better.

In another of Max Lucado’s books, he says “You need to learn a secret. What you have in your Shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.”

We are going to be tempted to put our faith in other things. We don’t worship idols of wood or stone as many people did in Hezekiah’s day, but we are tempted to put our faith in something other than God, often without even realizing it.

Timothy Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, says that an idol – a “counterfeit god” as he calls it – is anything other than God that we think have to have in order to be happy or to find meaning in life. Family, career, financial security, prestige, power, pleasure – none of these are bad in themselves but they can become idols if they take the place of God in the priorities of our lives. If there is something we cannot bear the thought of losing, it may be our trust is in something other than God.

Hezekiah knew that idols needed to be done away with, that right worship needed to be restored. His own faith took time to grow, to really trust in God when circumstances looked dire. But God was patient with him, not letting his errors in judgment and lapses in faith be the end of the story. He was far from perfect, but he provides us with an example of faith in God, not just for what God can do for us but for who He is.

And thank goodness, God is patient with us. I imagined, when I was a new Christian, that by the time I was older – say, in my 30’s – I’d have a strong and mature faith. In my 30’s I looked forward to the faith I would have in my 50’s. Now I am in my 50’s, and I wonder sometimes why it takes so long to get it right. But God is good, and He is powerful not only to save us but to change us and shape us into people of true faith in Him.

It takes time, and it takes learning God’s character. A. W. Tozer said “We wonder why we don’t have faith; the answer is, faith is confidence in the character of God and if we don’t know what kind of God God is, we can’t have faith.”

We come to know God’s character as we read Scripture and hear it preached, and as we read books that help us understand who God is and what He has done. I recently reread J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God, and if you haven’t ever read it, I highly recommend it.

We learn about God’s ways from hearing what God has done in other people’s lives, both those we know and those we just hear about. And we ponder what God seems to be doing in our own lives – often only after the fact because at the time it’s usually hard to make sense of it.

And somehow, over time, God builds our faith in Him. He knocks down our faith in things other than Himself – a painful process, usually, but necessary – and teaches us to have faith in Him. Not in the things He gives us and does for us, but in Him. Because He alone is worthy of our faith, our praise, and our service.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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