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In the Near East, the 8th and 7th centuries BCE were much like our own time. In the kingdom of Judah it was a time of “trespass and distress.” After nearly two centuries of burgeoning wickedness under worldly leaders, with few exceptions the people had forgotten the Lord. King Ahaz worshiped Baal and “burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen” (2 Chron. 28:2-3).
Trespass weakened Judah, and distress followed. A small kingdom, Judah was mercilessly besieged by the surrounding powers of Edom, Sidon, Ephraim, Philistia, and Syria. But the most fearsome of all was Assyria. It was the superpower of the age. During this period, Assyria ruled from the Persian Gulf to the Nile, and has been called the first real empire in history. With 120,000 people, the capital Nineveh was the largest city in the world.
The king of Assyria referred to himself as “the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of the four quarters, favorite of the great gods . . . perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive.” The high and mighty Assyrian emperors gained their wealth by subjugating and plundering weaker neighbors. In imitating their master Satan, more arrogant disciples of the Devil never lived.
In the face of the Assyrian threat, King Ahaz stripped the temple at Jerusalem of its gold and silver vessels as tribute to ward off destruction, “but it helped him not.” Instead of turning to the temple, he pillaged it and closed it: “He shut up the doors of the house of the Lord and made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem” to worship his idols.
“In the time of his distress did he trespass yet more against the Lord: this is that king Ahaz” (28:20-25).
In other words, the answer of Ahaz to the encroaching evil around him was to do evil himself, to indulge himself like his neighbors in the perverse worship of gold and false gods.
This was the situation when the 25-year-old Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, came to the throne. We dont know why, but Hezekiah was quite different from his father. “He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord.” Perhaps his devotion to the Lord came from the teachings of his mother, Abijah, daughter of a. prophet named Zechariah, who “had understanding in the visions of God” (29:1-2; 26:5).
As king, Hezekiah invited the members of the priesthood to meet with him. “Our fathers have trespassed, and done that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord our God, and have forsaken him,” he announced. “They have shut up the doors of the porch, and put out the lamps, and have not burned incense nor offered burnt offerings in the holy place unto the God of Israel.” There had been total neglect of temple worship, of the light of the Lord, of prayer as represented by incense, and of the sacrifice of a repentant heart as represented by the offerings. Judah had abandoned God.
The result? “Wherefore the wrath of the Lord was upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he hath delivered them to trouble, to astonishment, and to hissing. . . and our sons and our daughters and our wives are in captivity for this” (29:6-9). Assyria was bleeding the land dry of wealth and enslaving the people because they had spiritually enslaved themselves.
The Judahites had brought upon themselves the natural consequences of turning away from the Lordoppression from within and without. Having wiped out the northern Kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians now encroached on the people of Jerusalem, on their lands, their wealth, and their families like a spreading plague.
Exactly the same consequences await us if we become lax and negligent in our prayers, in our repentance, and in our duty to God. How do we fend off the encroaching evil of the empire of this world?
By doing as Hezekiah didby turning to the House of the Lord.
“It is now in mine heart to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel, that his fierce wrath may turn away from us,” the king proclaimed. “Sanctify now yourselves and sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers, and carry forth the filthiness out of the holy place” (29:5, 10).
Cleansing the House of the Lord is of course symbolic of cleansing the heart, which is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Like Hezekiah, we must sanctify ourselves and purge ourselves of the “filthiness” of this world. We do so through sincere repentance and through the ordinances of the priesthood.
After opening the doors and purifying the temple, the priests of Judah resumed those ordinances. They “made reconciliation with blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel” (29:24). Then the king invited all the people of Jerusalem to come forward and unburden their sinful hearts: “Come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord . . . [and] as many as were of a free heart burnt offerings” (29:31). The gift of a “free heart,” liberated from the heavy weight of sin, is perhaps the sweetest blessing of the Atonement of Christ. Like the Judahites of Jerusalem in those days who offered sacrifices at the temple, we can become “free of heart” by bringing to the sacrament table the offering of a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.”
Like the Savior, King Hezekiah wanted all Israel to enjoy the privileges of the house of the Lord, so he “sent to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the passover unto the Lord God of Israel.”
Hezekiahs message was one of mercy and deliverance: “If ye turn again unto the Lord, your brethren and your children shall find compassion before them that lead them captive. . . . the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn his face from you, if ye return unto him.”
The messengers went from city to city throughout the land of Israel, “but they laughed them to scorn, and mocked them” (30:1, 9, 10). We are reminded that the house of the Lord is always the focus of mockery in the empire of this world.
Still, many individual Israelites responded. Hezekiah prayed for those who came up to the temple, “saying, the good Lord pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God.
…and the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people” (30:18-19).
Essential to the sanctification of the people was the payment of tithing. “They also brought in the tithe of oxen and sheep, and the tithe of holy things which were consecrated unto the Lord their God” ( 31:6).
At last, out of all Israel, “a great congregation assembled” in the city.
“They arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense took they away, and cast them into the brook Kidron.
“There were many in the congregation that were not sanctified: therefore the Levites had the charge of the killing of the passovers for every one that was not clean, to sanctify them unto the Lord” (30:17). In this we learn of the essential function of the priesthood, to bring the ordinances of salvation to them “that are not sanctified,” to do the work of salvation for those who cannot do it for themselves.
“So there was great joy in Jerusalem: for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there was not the like in Jerusalem” (30:26).
Intriguinglyand perhaps predictablythis great celebration was followed by a great challenge. The faithfulness of the people of Judah was about to be severely tested. Would they keep the covenant Hezekiah had made? Or would they revert to the practices of Ahaz?
In 701 BCE, the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib felt that the tribute he was receiving from Judah was insufficient and decided to attack the little kingdom.
Few tyrants in history have been more fearsome than this one. He was the mightiest king of the mightiest empire in the history of the world to that time. Historians say that “Sennacherib was the apogee of Assyrian kingship, and the most prominent ruler of the neo-Assyrian empire. . . . The stone portraits of Sennacherib present a cold and austere image of a once living man.” (Clive Anderson, Sennacherib, Day One Publications, 1984, 7, 8.) Sennacherib had destroyed or enslaved every petty kingdom within reach, and now the monster laid siege to Jerusalem with a vast army numbering nearly 200,000 men.
Of course, Hezekiah did all that could be done to provide for the temporal salvation of his people. “When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was come, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem, . . . he strengthened himself, and built up all the wall that was broken, and raised it to the towers, and another wall without. . . . and made darts and shields in abundance” (32:2, 5).
Famously, Hezekiah re-routed the water supply of Jerusalem through a tunnel in bedrock to protect it from the invaders. What his father Ahaz had neglected Hezekiah made strong again, living up to his name hezeq-yahin Hebrew “the strength of Jehovah.”
Hezekiah was wise enough to do all he could on his own while relying fully on the Lord. His faith enabled him to say to his people, “Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him: With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles” (32:7-8).
In response, and in the best satanic tradition, Sennacherib began a campaign of psychological warfare against Jerusalem. He sent his top official to give a speech.
“Hearken not unto Hezekiah, when he persuadeth you, saying, the Lord will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered at all his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath, and of Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah? Have they delivered Samaria out of mine hand? Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?” (2 Kings 18:32-35).
So Sennacherib declared war not alone on Hezekiah, but on the God of Israel, in keeping with the satanic master he served. He had beaten the gods of all other nations; now it was the turn of Jehovah. The Assyrians “cried with a loud voice in the Jews speech unto the people of Jerusalem that were on the wall, to affright them, and to trouble them. . . and they spake against the God of Jerusalem” (2 Chron. 32:18). Sennacherib could not allow Jehovah to win the battle and still maintain his standing as “the great king, the mighty king, king of the world.”
For his part, Hezekiah turned to the Lord in a mighty prayer: “O Lord God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims. . . . hear the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations and their lands. . . Now therefore, O Lord our God, I beseech thee, save thou us out of his hand” (2 Kings 19:15-19).
“For this cause Hezekiah the king, and the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz, prayed and cried to the heaven. And the Lord sent an angel, which cut off all the mighty men of valour, and the leaders and captains in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land.” (2 Chron. 32:20-21). The angel of death quietly executed the besieging armyaccording to Jewish legend, it was Passover night.
In the year 1830, archaeologists discovered in the ruins of Nineveh a six-sided monument that recorded the triumphs of Sennacherib. On this monument, the great king had inscribed how he conquered the various peoples of his empire. Of Hezekiah he said, “Like a caged bird, I shut him up in Jerusalem.” Not a word is said about the mysterious loss of his army, and historians have wondered about the difference between the Bible account and the record of Sennacherib. But history also shows that after the siege of Jerusalem, Sennacherib never again went to war against Judah.
In the opinion of prominent historians, “The Assyrian annals try to gloss over the sudden retreat from Jerusalem. . . . Sennacheribs retreat did much to enhance Judahs prestige” (Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible, GreenHill Books, 1997, 254). Indeed, rival kings sent gifts and congratulations to Hezekiah.
Unfortunately, after the death of Hezekiah, the people of Judah reverted to their old ways under the rule of two wicked kings, Manasseh and Amon.
Manasseh introduced star worship, probably in deference to a well-established Assyrian religious practice. During this time, the power of Assyria ebbed and the power of the rival kingdom of Babylon increased, but Judahs situation grew more precarious, situated as it was in the middle of three great powersEgypt, Babylon, and Assyria.
Nearly 60 years after Hezekiah, a boy named Josiah came to the throne of Judah. Again, possibly through the influence of a righteous mother, Jedidah, the new king “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord. . . and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left”(2 Kings 21:1-2). Like Hezekiah, he “began to seek after the God of David his father,” purged the idols from Judah, and set out to repair the once-again neglected temple.
During the work, the high priest Hilkiah “found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. . . . When the king had heard the words of the law, he rent his clothes.
“Great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do after all that is written in this book” (2 Chron. 34:14, 19, 21).
Shocked that the will of the Lord had been so grossly neglected, King Josiah caused the law of Moses to be read to “all the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” In following Josiahs example, “the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God. . . . and all his days they departed not from following the Lord, the God of their fathers” (34:31, 33).
About the example of Josiah, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “I feel strongly that each of us must return to the scriptures just as King Josiah did and let them work mightily within us, impelling us to an unwavering determination to serve the Lord” (Spencer W. Kimball, “How Rare a PossessionThe Scriptures,” Ensign, July 1985, 3).
In the examples of Hezekiah and Josiah, we see how to defend ourselves against the encroaching evil of the world around us. Satan and his representatives will continue to fight our efforts and tempt us to join them; giving in will only weaken and destroy us. Facing the greatest army of the greatest king who ever lived, Hezekiah worked hard and relied on his simple faith in the Lord God of Israel to fight his battles. Unlike his father Ahaz who shuttered the temple, Hezekiah turned to the temple for peace and guidance. King Josiah upheld the scriptures and the covenants of Jehovah, our Savior Jesus Christ.
“Come up to the temple,” the Lord invites each of us. As we encounter the growing power of destruction all around us, let us return to the Lord, to the ordinances, to the scriptures, and to the fortress walls of His holy house.