Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hezekiah’s Sin

This week’s chapter is a short one. But for all its brevity it provokes lots of questions. We will see Isaiah deliver to Hezekiah a word from Jesus that will probably not make sense to most of you, at least at first. This is one of those places in Scripture that many find confusing. It is, however, good to remember that the places in Scripture that make the least sense are the places where we can learn the most. So, let’s see what the Spirit has to say to us from this bit of Scripture.

Listen as I read Isaiah 39.

Let’s start by describing the events related in our text. The king of Babylon has sent his emissaries to King Hezekiah. It was what we might call a diplomatic visit. While they were in Judah, Hezekiah gave them the grand tour. Isaiah then confronts Hezekiah concerning these diplomats, asks some questions about them and what happened while they were visiting, all of which Hezekiah answers in a straightforward manner. Isaiah then delivers a word from Jesus that predicts exile. All that Hezekiah has and some of his sons will go off to Babylon. And this is because of what Hezekiah did when he welcomed those emissaries.

The first question that we need to deal with is obvious. What did Hezekiah do to result in these words from Jesus? Did he sin in some way? Is it wrong to give guests a tour of your place? He must have done something to provoke that message. What was it? If we were left only with this passage we would have to be rather tentative in any conclusions that we might arrive at. But, fortunately, we are given more information elsewhere. Listen to this from 2 Chronicles 32.24-26, 31.

Now, we have a clearer picture of what happened. Now, we know what it was that Hezekiah did. ‘His heart was proud.’ On the outside all we saw was Hezekiah giving a tour, something that seems innocent enough. But it’s not just what’s on the outside that matters. It’s what’s going on in the heart that determines what’s really going on. It’s not just what you are doing. It’s also why you are doing it. Right and wrong are not determined merely by looking at your behavior. It’s a matter of what’s going on inside, in the heart. This is not the first time I’ve pointed this out. And that should not be a surprise since this is a significant theme in Scripture. So, an important question that we all need to ask from time to time is, ‘What’s going on in my heart?’

Let’s pursue this a bit. There are several reasons why knowing your heart is important. Here’s one. The person who really gets the Gospel is the person who understands how desperately he needs it. Those who love Jesus most, who are willing to do whatever for Him, who rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, whose lives shine with the beauty that only the Spirit can give – these are people who understand something of the true ugliness of their sin. John Newton is someone who knew his own heart. That’s why he wrote, ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’ It is as a Christian grows in his understanding of his sinful wretchedness before God that he grows in his wonder at the grace of Jesus in the Gospel. But the Christian who doesn’t see too clearly the sinfulness of his heart, who merely considers his outward behavior, will come to the conclusion that while he certainly is a sinner, it’s not all that bad. After all, he’s kept clear of the really bad sins like murdering and stealing. There are still those things that he does, certain behaviors that are sinful. So, he knows that he needs a savior, and he’s grateful that Jesus is his savior, but Jesus didn’t need to save Him from all that much. This kind of person will only be a tepid disciple of Jesus. But once he gets to know his heart better things change. That’s when he sees how sinful he really is. That’s when he sees how desperately he needs a savior. That’s when Jesus becomes precious to him, precious like never before. And out of that comes joy. He, a wretched sinner, has been rescued. Grace becomes amazing. And he becomes a devoted disciple ready to do anything for Jesus.

Here’s another reason why knowing your heart is important. If sin is just a matter of your actions, things you do, then fighting sin is simply a matter of changing what you do. The goal then is to change one set of habits for another set. And anybody can do that. All it takes is some willpower and persistence. But if sin is first a matter of what’s going on in the heart, simply changing our habits is worthless. More often than not, all we’ve done is changed one way the sin of our hearts shows itself for another way that it shows itself. So, the dieter no longer worships his heart’s idol of pleasure by using food. But you watch. That idol is still worshipped. It’s just that some other pleasure is used. And the real sin is still there. But if getting rid of that idol is the goal, making a real change in the heart, then it’s clear that I can’t do that. Then it’s clear that I need something more than some book titled, ‘Twenty-one days to a better you!’ What I need is the powerful work of the Spirit. What I need is the grace of the Gospel. Once I see the impossibility of my situation then I get to see how great a savior Jesus really is. And the fruit of that is not just another set of behavioral habits. The fruit of that is a taste of real holiness. And with that comes a deeper experience of God. But it starts with getting to know your heart.

Let’s take all of this back to the text and ask this question. What was it that Hezekiah should have done when the emissaries arrived, and he began to show them around? He should have asked himself, ‘What’s going on in my heart?’ Here’s one way that this might have played out. I’m basing this on my own experience. As he began the tour, Hezekiah would have sensed that something was wrong. There would have been a disquiet within. That’s when he should have asked that question, ‘What’s going on in my heart?’ That disquiet comes from a sensitive conscience. It’s at that point that Hezekiah could have discerned that he was slipping into pride. It’s at that point that he could have stopped and avoided falling into Satan’s trap. If Hezekiah had understood the dynamics of his heart he could have avoided this sin.

I’m not going to go into detail about the conscience here. But let me say just a little. First, a quote from Paul: ‘The aim of our instruction is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.’ One of Paul’s goals was to help the saints develop a good conscience. That’s a conscience that works well, that guides according to the Word. This kind of conscience is a tool in Jesus’ hand to guide us away from sin and toward holiness. It is something that the Spirit works in us as we pray and strive to conform our lives to God’s Word. And it is something tied to the inner life that must be developed and protected. If Hezekiah had developed a good conscience and then listened to it, he could have become aware of what was really happening during that tour. He could have avoided that sin.

So, here’s my first point. Hezekiah’s sin was the sin of pride. That was the real reason he was giving the tour. He could have protected himself from that sin by developing his inner life and getting to know his own heart. So, here are some questions for you to consider. How are you doing at getting to know your own heart? How are you doing at listening to the Spirit as He attempts to guide you using your conscience? Do you try to discern the motives of your heart or do you simply look at your behavior? I know that some of have been experiencing progress in these things. For you to say so is not pride. It’s just being honest. So, let me encourage you to keep at it. But I’m guessing that, for some of you, this is an area that needs some attention. But bear in mind that in all of this your hope is not trying harder. That’s putting your hope in works and not in grace. Part of the work of the Spirit is to get you to know your heart so that you can turn away from the lures of sin and toward the joy of holy living. Let me encourage you to pray about this part of His work in your life. As you do that, watch what He does.

My second point has to do with the consequences of Hezekiah’s sin. Isaiah told him that days of exile were coming because of his sin. Let me apply some terms that I’ve mentioned before. Is Hezekiah being punished for his sins? Or is this a matter of discipline? Some might say that I’m playing a game with words. ‘What difference does it make whether it’s called ‘punishment’ or ‘discipline’? Bad things are going to happen to Hezekiah either way. So, who cares what you call it?’ Well, actually it makes a big difference. Words label reality for us and help us understand what’s going on. What’s at issue here is Jesus’ intentions for Hezekiah. If Hezekiah is being punished, then he is paying for his sin. That’s what punishment is about. ‘You did wrong, and now you have to pay for it.’ If someone thinks about life in this way then his goal will be to always do right so that he won’t be punished. Two things flow from that. First, his motive for doing good – the ‘why’ issue again – is all about himself. ‘I can do “A” or I can do “B”. But if I do “B” I might be wrong and then be punished for it. So, I’ll do “A”.’ The motive here isn’t love for God or neighbor. It’s all about self-preservation. And right there, we’re back to falling into a sin of the heart. On the level of behavior, “A” might be fine, but what’s going on in the heart? And then there’s the second thing that flows from this. If God punishes you for your sin, that makes Him your judge. Your obedience then becomes your efforts at saving yourself from God’s punishments. That isn’t the Gospel. There’s no grace there. Bear in mind what the Gospel says: You will never be punished for your sins. And the reason is simple. Jesus has already been punished for your sins. How you label things – what words you use – makes a difference.

But does calling it ‘discipline’ make that much of a difference? Absolutely! While punishment is about justice, discipline is about love. Discipline has your flourishing as its goal. Discipline is the route to your becoming like Jesus. So, we have this from Proverbs. ‘My son, do not despise the LORD'S discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.’ So, while punishment says, ‘Justice must be served. Thirty lashes!’, discipline says, ‘How can I help you thrive as a person?’ So, there’s this from Hebrews. ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ So, while discipline is ‘painful rather than pleasant’, it is nonetheless something that we can be grateful for. The Spirit is at work changing us. He is in the process of forming Jesus in us. That’s discipline.

And that explains what was going on with Hezekiah. Listen again to something from that 2 Chronicles passage. ‘And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.’ The whole situation was to expose Hezekiah’s heart. Hezekiah needed to see his pride for what it was so that he could be changed. And he did see it. That’s why we read, ‘But Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart…’ Jesus uses different ways to get us to see our sin clearly that we might repent of it and be changed. When He does that, whatever the method, we should thank Him. He is in the process of making us a holy and therefore a happy people.

So, my first thought was about getting to know your heart. My second thought was about discipline. Here’s my last thought. Exile is coming to Judah. It’s not just because of what happened in our text. Jesus told Isaiah about this way back in chapter 6. What happened in today’s chapter is just part of the picture. So, Judah is going to be taken away into Babylon for a time as an act of discipline for the saints and punishment for the apostate. That’s a statement that is true but without a great deal of emotional punch. So, let me say it differently. Daniel is going to be taken away into Babylon. Daniel will face the consequences of what was going on in Hezekiah and in the rest of Judah. Daniel will be one of the exiles. What makes this poignant is that Daniel isn’t even alive when Hezekiah is king. So, Daniel is going to be caught up in this exile even though he was a faithful saint who was born much later? Why? To be sure, like the rest of us, he needed the discipline of God to be perfected. But still, he is part of this exile because of the sins of people like Hezekiah. What is going on here? This is hard for many to understand because of a common assumption: Jesus deals with us as individuals. And that, of course, is true. But left by itself it becomes false and misleading. Jesus also deals with us as a group. Daniel endures the consequences of the sins of the people of God committed before he was born because he was part of the people of God. He was part of the group.

This is not the first time this kind of thing pops up in the Scriptures. Think back to when Israel invaded the Promised Land and took Jericho. The walls tumbled and everything was devoted to God. Everything, that is, except for what Achan stole for himself. Do you remember what happened next? When Israel attacked the next town, they were defeated. Thirty-six men of Israel died in that battle. Why? Because of Achan’s sin. But notice how the Scripture reports this. ‘But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things…’ To be sure, Achan sinned, as the text makes clear, but was the group was also held responsible. Jesus deals with us individually, to be sure. But He also deals with us as a group. It’s not that we ought to view ourselves as a group. We are a group. That’s what Paul is talking about when he writes, ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…’ The Church is the one body of Christ. We are a group. The Spirit has formed a bond that ties our lives together. To be sure, a person can overemphasize Jesus’ dealings with us as a group just as he can overemphasize Jesus’ dealings with us individually. We need to be careful. There needs to be a proper balance between these two poles. But we can at least say that in some fashion or other our lives are connected. The Spirit has connected us to each other.

The sermon has been about three thoughts: knowing the heart, discipline and not punishment, being a group. It has been my prayer that the Spirit will use at least one of these for your good.

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