Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"Hezekiah prospered because he sought the will of his God."
Text: 2 Chronicles 31:21b "So he prospered"
II Chronicles 29:1-12; 20-24; 35b-36
II Chronicles 30:1-16; 23-27
II Chronicles 31:2-6; 20,21
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
"So he prospered." Three little words … that we’d love to hear in relation to ourselves! Delegates from the churches are called upon to bend their minds over issues that need the attention of the churches, be it deputies’ reports, be it appeals, be it church visitation reports. There’s work to be done, and we want so much that our work be of benefit in God’s kingdom, for God’s glory and the benefit of the children of God in the various congregations. To prosper, yes, we want so much that the work of this Synod be prosperous. So we wonder: how come Hezekiah prospered so? What’s the secret?
The secret to Hezekiah’s prospering, brothers and sisters, was simply that he worked with the promises of God contained in the Scriptures he had. It’s so simple: Hezekiah took God at face value, Hezekiah took seriously what God said, and acted in a fashion consistent with God’s instructions. And see: "he prospered." That’s to say: God granted His blessing – just as He’d promised.
This evening I want to trace with you why Hezekiah prospered. For God’s revelation in II Chronicles is given so that we may be taught the way forward ourselves. I summarize the sermon with this theme:
Hezekiah prospered because he sought the will of his God.
The Background of Chronicles
You will be aware that there are two books in the Bible that tell us about the kings of Israel. There is on the one hand the book of Kings; there is on the other hand the book of Chronicles. There is overlap and agreement between these two books; there is also much difference. It’s not that the two books contradict; it’s rather that the author of Chronicles writes his account with a very different purpose in mind than the author of Kings. The Chronicler has the book of Kings beside him as he writes, he uses bits and pieces of the book of Kings, and then adds or deletes things because he has his own purpose in writing what he writes. So I read in the book of Kings, for example, next to nothing about Hezekiah’s labors to restore the temple; the book of Kings tells us instead about Hezekiah’s confrontation with Sennacherib’s army and his taunting, tells us too about his sin with the Babylonian envoy – things that Chronicles scarcely mentions.
That reality compels us to consider why the author of Chronicles lays the emphasis where he does. Why does he tell us so much about Hezekiah’s efforts to reform the temple service? For whom was this material written, and why?
Nobody knows with certainty who wrote the book of Chronicles. Nor do we know precisely when it was written. What we do know with certainty is that this book is one of the last books written in the Old Testament. You know that the people of Israel went into exile, stayed in the land of Babylon some 70 years, then returned (at least some did) under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. Well now, the book of Chronicles was written by one of the returned exiles. From his vantage point after the exile, the Chronicler is looking back into Israel’s history, is writing a history for the benefit of those exiles who have returned from Babylon to Jerusalem.
We wonder: why would he write a history of Israel for the benefit of these returned exiles? Don’t forget: these returned exiles already had the book of Kings. Why write a second history? Here I need to draw for you a picture of what life for the returned exiles was like.
The people who came back from exile were relatively few in number. The land to which they returned had been devastated by the destroying armies of the Babylonians, with as result that the returned exiles had to build everything up from scratch. Houses, farms, city, temple, economy: here was a mountain of work. Further, the exile had shattered their identity as a people, had severed them from their heritage. In the days of Moses, God had promised Israel a place as head among the nations, and that’s what happened in the days of David and Solomon. But nothing of that was left; the returned exiles were but an insignificant tribe amongst many displaced peoples, had no independence anymore, were in fact looked down upon by the peoples around them. Spiritually too they were flat on their back. They scarcely had the wherewithal to rebuild the temple, priests did their duties (Malachi writes) but saw nothing wrong with offering sick and injured animals to the Lord (1:6-14) and at the same time did not apply God’s law fairly among the people (2:1-9). The Sabbath was neglected or given over to business, I read in Neh 13 (vss 15-22). The people did not pay the tithes (Mal 3:7-10), and so the Levites had to abandon their duties in order to earn their own crust (Neh 13:10f). That sort of disregard for God and His law produced in turn more rot in the moral fabric of the returned Israelites; the prophet Malachi tells us that divorce was common (2:13-16), that men cheated each other of their wages and took advantage of the weaker (3:5). All in all, brothers and sisters, it’s a very bleak picture; the returned exiles live in a spiritual wilderness. Here was anything but the "prospering" that characterized Hezekiah’s reign.
In that climate, the Chronicler busies himself with the history of the people of God before the exile. Better, he busies himself with the history of the God of the people, with the covenant of this God and the way this God worked with the promises of His covenant. And that’s to say that the Chronicler takes the promises of God as revealed to Israel through Moses, and then looks at the history of the kings of Israel with those promises in mind. And what does he find? This, that God is faithful to those promises – no matter how bizarre the situation. Particularly in the reign of king Hezekiah the Chronicler finds evidence of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises – also for blessing upon the people. For the benefit of the demoralized and spiritually bankrupt Israelites of Jerusalem after their return from exile, the Chronicler sets out to demonstrate how God can still be counted on to bless. What’s the way forward for the destitute Jews of Jerusalem, how can they rise above their spiritual bankruptcy? In his account of Hezekiah, the Chronicler shows them that the God of their fathers has not changed, shows them that He is true to His promises, and so encourages the exiles to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord – and then they’ll prosper.
That brings us to our second point: just what, according to the Chronicler, did Hezekiah do?
The Labors of Hezekiah
"So he prospered," reads our text. Those three short words in fact form the conclusion to three chapters of material about Hezekiah’s efforts to reform Israel’s spiritual health. For yes, chapters 29, 30 and 31 are in effect one undertaking, be it with three separate episodes. These three chapters began with a reference to Hezekiah doing "what was right in the sight of the Lord" (29:2) and ending with the same words in 31:20: "he did what was good and right and true before the Lord his God." More "in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, in the law and in the commandment, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart." That undivided concentration on God resulted in God’s blessing; "so he prospered."
For the benefit of the returned exiles in their spiritual malaise, the Chronicler lays a direct link between doing "what was good and right and true before the Lord his God" and the consequence of our text: "so he prospered." This link should surprise no one, for God Himself promised this link in His word to Israel hundreds of years earlier. I think Dt 11:
"Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God" (vss 26ff).
God laid that same link before Israel in Dt 28:
"Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God…" (vss 1f),
and there follows a long list of blessings. No, the exiles should not be surprised –and we should not either- at the link the Chronicler lays between Hezekiah’s whole-hearted service of God and his prospering. It is simply evidence that God has not changed, is still faithful to His word.
But the Chronicler does not leave it with mentioning the fact that Hezekiah prospered on account of his living so closely with the Lord. Rather, the Chronicler lays before the returned exiles the details of what Hezekiah did, lays before the returned exiles also just how Hezekiah prospered. And it’s these details that give the color to this prospering, the details that show us what this prospering is all about. To appreciate, then, the taste of this prospering, we need to follow the Chronicler’s account.
Chapter 29 begins the account of Hezekiah’s reign. The kingdom Hezekiah inherited from his father –we learn from chap 28- was as spiritually bankrupt as were the people for whom the Chronicler wrote this history. For chap 28 tells us that Hezekiah’s father "Ahaz … shut up the doors of the house of the Lord, and made for himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem" (vs 24). Ahaz’s disregard for God brought the wrath of the God of the covenant on His people; "the Lord brought Judah low because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had encouraged moral decline in Judah and had been continually unfaithful to the Lord" (vs 19).
But Ahaz died, and his son Hezekiah became king – at the tender age of 25. He understood: as office-bearer in Israel he had a task before God to do what he could to lead his people out of their spiritual wilderness. But: how should he do that? Where should he begin? Hezekiah works with the Word of God as he had it. Look at what he says in 29:6:
"…our fathers have trespassed and done evil in the eyes of the Lord our God…. They have … shut up the doors of the vestibule, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel. Therefore the wrath of the Lord fell upon Judah and Jerusalem, and He has given them up to trouble, to desolation, and to jeering, as you see with your eyes" (29:6ff).
You hear it: Hezekiah draws attention to the link God has placed between disobedience and curse. Dt 28:
"But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you…,
and there follows a long list of curses, some of which the people of Judah were physically experiencing in Hezekiah’s day. Hezekiah knows the promise of God about the curse and about the blessing, and so sets his mind on teaching the people to "obey the voice of the Lord [their] God, to observe carefully all His commandments" – so that they might taste God’s blessing. Yet how shall God’s people obey the voice of the Lord their God if they don’t know their God? Hezekiah knows: the people need a living faith in the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But how shall they receive faith? How did God wish to work faith in the Old Testament dispensation? Just as in the new: faith comes through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14; Lord’s Day 25). And how shall the gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed in Israel? By God’s ordinance at Mt Sinai, the gospel of Jesus Christ was to be proclaimed in Israel through the labors of the priests and Levites in the tabernacle, the temple. For the sacrifices, the killing of the animal in place of the sinner, proclaimed the very heart of the gospel; Christ dies for sinners, Christ on the cross instead of me – so that I get to go free.
That is why, brothers and sisters, Hezekiah set out straightaway to open the doors of the temple. Vs 3: "In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them" (29:3). Then he summoned the priests and Levites from around the country, and instructed them clean up the temple. That is: he restores the temple as step one in an effort to get the gospel to the people. And once the temple is cleaned out and the furniture God commanded put back in its place, what does Hezekiah do? Vs 20: he "rose early, gathered the rulers of the city, and went up to the house of the Lord." Why? What does he want to do with the rulers of the city? To bring sacrifices "for a sin offering" (vs 21). Notice how the Chronicler writes it; vs 22 mentions three times that blood is "sprinkled on the altar." The point? This is blood from the slaughtered animal, now presented to God in place of the sinner – who ought to die for his transgression but instead gets to go free; the gospel of substitution. The sin offering is "for the kingdom, for the sanctuary, and for Judah"; all should perish under the burden of God’s wrath on their sins. But Hezekiah pursues "atonement for all Israel" (vs 24); the sins of God’s people are transferred to the animal and the animal is killed in place of the sinner, and that blood in turn presented to God via the altar – so that God’s wrath against Israel might be stilled. You see: here is the preaching of the gospel of free grace for God’s undeserving people-by-covenant; Another dies so that I get to go free! Given the wealth of such a gospel, it’s no wonder that Hezekiah organized the Levites, "with stringed instruments and harps", to lead the people in thankful praise of the God who shows such mercy to a people who deserve nothing of that grace (vss 25ff).
Observe now, beloved, the response of the rulers of the city to this preaching of the gospel through the sacrifices of the restored temple! Vs 31: "the assembly brought in sacrifices and thank offerings, and as many as were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings" – so many that the temple staff could not cope with it. What this was? This, brothers and sisters, was God’s blessing on Hezekiah’s obedience! You see: he sought the Lord with all his heart, and look at the results among the people in his charge! See there what Hezekiah’s prospering means. The point is not that he received material abundance or freedom from difficulties. The point is rather that God blessed his efforts to live for God and His glory –how?- by granting positive response among the people in His charge. "So he prospered," and that’s to say that God bestowed His blessing on the king’s efforts.
But it’s not just the "rulers of the city" who need to be confronted with the preaching of the gospel through the sacrifices of the temple. God’s covenant is with all His children, so they all need the preaching of the gospel of grace. So this office-bearer in Israel who sought the Lord with all his heart had letters sent to "Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel" (30:1). Indeed, they "made a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God at Jerusalem" (vs 5). That Passover: nothing in all the Old Testament temple celebrations could be more clear about the wealth of the gospel than the sacrament of the Passover. For the people of Israel were no better than the people of Egypt; that group of slaves in Egypt ought to perish like anybody else in the face of God’s judgment. With the tenth plague God sent His angel of death to Egypt to kill Egypt’s firstborn – a symbol that all Egypt ought to perish. But in the houses of Israel a lamb had be killed –why?- so that the firstborn of Israel might be spared! There’s the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ, so graphically displayed: the lamb gets killed instead of the firstborn, instead of the people!
That’s the feast which Hezekiah sets about to organize for all God’s people-by-covenant. For all must have the gospel of free grace laid before them! Only by embracing this gospel will it go well with them. Hence the wording of the letter of invitation (II Chron 30:6ff):
"Children of Israel, return to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; then He will return to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria."
Hezekiah knows: God is faithful to His promises! Sure, the people’s sins are many. But the sanctuary, the temple, preaches the gospel of grace, preaches the good news that "the Lord your God is gracious and merciful" (vs 9). So: come to the Passover, see and hear what the gospel of our Lord is all about, how it is that you should die on account of your sins but how the Lord God has ordained Another to die in your place.
And see here again, brothers and sisters, the blessing the Lord granted on Hezekiah’s obedience! True, those of the northern tribes, where Hezekiah was not king, largely rejected the invitation. But –vs 12- "the hand of God was on Judah to give them singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and the leaders, at the word of the Lord." That is, God so blessed Hezekiah’s honorable efforts that God moved so many in Judah to congregate at Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover. It happened "at the word of the Lord", and that’s to say that the crowds gathered according to what God had said would happen. God had said He would bless obedience; well, here is obedience with this office-bearer in Israel, here is an effort to set the gospel of grace before a covenant people languishing in a spiritual wilderness, and see: God blesses the effort – according to His promises. You see: God makes Hezekiah prosper, grants that Hezekiah sees fruits on his labors.
And it’s not just that the people gather; they did more. Vs 15: "they slaughtered the Passover lambs." That is: the people see the gospel of redemption spelled out before their eyes! More –vs 22- Hezekiah made it his business to encourage the Levites who "taught the good knowledge of the Lord." That was the command the Lord had given to the Levites back in the book of Deuteronomy (33:10), and so Hezekiah impressed on them that they had to tell the people the significance of the sacrifices of the Passover. And such was the excitement and the thankfulness of the people in the face of this gospel of redemption that they determined together to celebrate the Passover for a second week; for a people in a spiritual wilderness, this gospel of free grace, of life through the death of Another, was too wonderful to cut short. Then we read the marvelous words of vs 27:
"Then the priests, the Levites, arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; and their prayer came up to His holy dwelling place, to heaven."
How marvelous those last words, congregation! This is the people who only recently were tasting so painfully the heavy hand of God’s curse. But now God in heaven was pleased to receive their prayer. How come? Because the king –that office-bearer in Israel- sought the Lord with all his heart, led the people in the way of the Lord. God blessed so that Hezekiah prospered in his plans; the people were led out of their spiritual wilderness.
Even now, though, the story is not complete. For more needed to be done if the people were to receive persistently the preaching of the gospel. It’s one thing to open the temple, to have the gospel proclaimed to the people in the Passover. But the people need the regular preaching. That’s why God had commanded Israel through Moses that sacrifices should be offered in the temple day by day (cf Num 28f). So –chap 31:3- Hezekiah organized "for morning and evening burnt offerings, the burnt offerings for the Sabbaths and the New Moons and the set feast, as it is written in the Law of the Lord." Morning and evening, then, all who came to the temple could see the gospel of redemption….
But this in turn meant that staff had to be available in the temple to present the offerings. Ahaz had closed the doors of the temple, and so dismissed the Levites and the priests from their temple service; no longer would these Levites have their daily bread provided through the sacrifices and the tithes the people brought to the temple, they had to earn their own crust. So Hezekiah organized that they would labor in the temple again, organized too that the people would again support the ministry of the gospel. So the priests and Levites also had time again to "devote themselves to the Law of the Lord" (vs 4) so that in turn they were the better equipped to teach the people the glorious heights and depths of God’s gospel as contained in the law. You see again, congregation, what Hezekiah’s purpose was; this office-bearer sought to organize things according to the revealed will of God so that the people might be taught the precepts of God.
And God blessed this effort too so that Hezekiah prospered. Chap 31:5:
"As soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything."
And that’s to say: God showed Himself to be faithful according to His promises back in Deuteronomy. Hezekiah prospered because he set out to seek the Lord in all he did.
The Instruction for the exiles
That leaves us with our last point, the instruction for the exiles. What should those returned exiles, in their spiritual wilderness, learn from what the Chronicler has written about Hezekiah? What, for that matter, shall you and I learn? Surely, it is this that the God of the covenant has not changed! He said to Israel centuries ago how He would act, and see, He does! God is not fickle; He’s rather predictable. The words of Ps 1 say it so well:
"Blessed is the man …
[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord….
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season…,
And whatever he does shall prosper,"
So: here is instruction for the exiles in the pressures of their circumstances always to include as first priority in their deliberations the question of God’s will and God’s promises. Only by working concretely with those promises –and that’s a question of faith in God- could those returned exiles rise out of their spiritual poverty.
Yet this, my brothers and sisters, is not the extent of the instruction of the Holy Spirit through the Chronicler to the destitute exiles in Jerusalem. For truly, what man shall live according to all God’s precepts without fail? Such is the weakness, and such is the depravity of the human heart, that not a single returned exile has it in him to "diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments" (Dt 28:1). In fact, if one but reads further into the Chronicles of Hezekiah in chap 32, the Chronicler himself records that Hezekiah fell into sin – and Judah felt the consequence (vss 24ff). No, congregation, ultimately the Chronicler draws attention here to the Lord Jesus Christ. For here is a man who sinned not; despite temptations to disregard God’s law, He obeyed the commands of the Lord – even to the point of death on the cross. It was through His obedience that the gospel spelt out by those sacrifices in the temple Hezekiah reopened could come to its own; by His obedience forgiveness was obtained for the sins of God’s own – including Hezekiah’s sins, including the sins of the exiles, including our sins today. And because of His perfect obedience, because He sought His God with all His heart, God saw to it that He prospered –how?- the people for whom He died have been made sons of God! That is: because of the obedience of Jesus Christ, that Great Office-bearer, we are made to prosper, are made children of God for Jesus’ sake, heirs of God! In truth, God has not changed! In the prosperity, then, that God granted to Hezekiah, the Lord showed Israel something of the splendors that He was preparing for His people in Jesus Christ. So, not just the sacrifices in the restored temple proclaimed to the people the riches of the gospel; so did the blessings God granted on Hezekiah’ labors!
And we today? We have that same gospel laid out before us through the work of Jesus Christ; because of Jesus’ diligent obedience to God’s commands –even to death- we are children of God. It is for us now, because we are children of God through the triumphant Savior, to obey our God diligently – and for Jesus’ sake we may expect to receive God’s blessing on our labors.
That is true, brothers delegates, for the work we’re given to do in this Synod also. It is for us persistently to act according to God’s will revealed in Scripture, and let the pieces fall where they will. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ promises to make something wonderful out of obedient decisions. Amen.