Sunday School Lesson: Hezekiah - Spiritual Renewal
Hezekiah: Sunday School Lesson Intro
Spiritual renewal is often associated with the present concept of "revival." It was in the nineteenth century that Cotton Mather first used the word to describe a great awakening in the early Americas. The word derives from the Latin revivere, "to live again," and was typically used to describe an old play that was brought back to a new generation of theater audiences. The concept is closest to the Old Testament idea of renewal or restoration, found especially in the work of leaders such as Hezekiah and Josiah.
The story of King Josiah is probably the best illustration of revival in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 34). Judah had fallen away from God, almost exclusively serving the idols of surrounding peoples. When the Pentateuch is suddenly rediscovered, Josiah immediately calls the people back to this covenant, and institutes sweeping reforms throughout every institution in Israel. Revival was possible because the lines were so clear-cut. Judah had a past relationship with God it could return to, with the spiritual and political mechanisms in place to quickly restore this relationship to a central place in Israelite life. They rebuilt what had decayed.
The reign of Hezekiah some 70 years earlier is one example that Josiah was likely aware of. Through Hezekiah's devout commitment to God, a legacy of devotion was passed on.
Jumping forward seven centuries to the empowering of the Church in Acts 2, we see the ultimate spiritual renewal. As a nation, Israel was proven guilty by their treatment of the Messiah, but His death became their atonement for sin - a concept Jews would have readily understood, given their tradition of sacrificing animals. The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead becomes the pivot point from which Jews are called to return to God so that the spirituality seen in Hezekiah's day might be actualized once again.
I. Call for sanctification (2 Chron. 28:1-4, 22-27; 29:1-11)
The name Hezekiah in Hebrew means "God has strengthened." This is appropriate, given the story of this uncommon king's life and reign. As we will see, he emerges from the most unlikely background to rule with persistent godliness. The thirteenth king of Judah since the northern and southern lands of Israel have been divided, Hezekiah stands in the Gospel of Matthew's lineage of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:9-10 NKJV). A careful study of Hezekiah's life will show us why God graced him with a messianic lineage. His commitment to spiritual renewal in Israel makes him an appropriate predecessor to Christ.
A. A wicked father
"And Ahaz gathered together the vessels of the house of God, and cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and shut up the doors of the house of the Lord, and he made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem. And in every several city of Judah he made high places to burn incense unto other gods, and provoked to anger the Lord God of his fathers. And Ahaz slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city, even in Jerusalem: but they brought him not into the sepulchres of the kings of Israel: and Hezekiah his son reigned in his stead" (2 Chron. 28:24-25, 27).
Surprisingly, the reign of Hezekiah begins with a father of unparalleled wickedness. Ahaz never makes any effort at all to put Yahweh first in his life or in the administration of the kingdom (v. 1). He boldly serves foreign gods, to the extent of calling for the manufacturing of Baal idols and the execution of child sacrifice (vv. 2-3). This means that Hezekiah once had siblings whose lives were given over to pagan cults, most likely Molech, the god of death. The ensuing chaos in the land leads Ahaz to make a treaty with Assyria - an aggressive nation that is quickly becoming a regional empire (v. 16). This pressure fails to cause Ahaz to turn to Yahweh. Instead, he sacrifices all the more to the various gods of Damascus in Syria (v. 23). He crosses a sacred line, however, when he incorporates the Temple's furnishings into these pagan rituals of worship (v. 24).
What would cause a man with Ahaz's history in Judah to become so stiff-necked? We are left to guess. Determined that Yahweh will do them no good, that these other gods are the saviors of Judah, he closes the Temple completely after ransacking it for its sacred vessels. This is explicit religious syncretism - utilizing Yahweh's temple's furnishings in the worship of other gods. For the worshipers of Yahweh still left, it was a ghastly crime.
Ahaz sees to it that this pagan worship takes place all over the city of Jerusalem, then moves outward with his campaign of sorcery (v. 25). The text stops just short of insinuating that Ahaz purposefully attempts to anger Yahweh. "High places" were altars built on cliffs and mountains that were considered sacred space due to their usage for various forms of worship, including incense and sometimes sacrifice. These high places were often dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, but apparently not in Ahaz's lifetime. As a result of his betrayal of the God of his fathers, including his own father, Jotham, Ahaz's burial is a disgrace. Though laid to rest in Jerusalem, he will not receive the honor of a burial with previous kings (v. 27). Judah seeks to forget him entirely, and Hezekiah is the perfect ruler to help them do so and to move forward with God.
B. The new David
"Hezekiah began to reign when he was five and twenty years old, and he reigned nine and twenty years in Jerusalem. And his mother's name was Abijah, the daughter of Zechariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He in the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened the doors of the house of the Lord, and repaired them. Now it is in mine heart to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel, that his fierce wrath may turn away from us" (2 Chron. 29:1-3, 10).
Because Hezekiah has reached adulthood, his reign will be characterized by getting things ordered in a hurry. His father long forgotten, in verse 2 Hezekiah is identified with David - the greatest spiritual and political leader to ever emerge from the hills of Judah.
The language in verse 2 is deliberate as usual. Other kings accomplished righteousness before the Lord in part, or for a historical segment of their reign. Hezekiah, however, achieves righteousness in full. Everything good about David is found in Hezekiah. This connection to David is especially important. It was the goal of every king after David to be identified with David. In fact, even King Herod in the time of Jesus took pains to identify himself as the new ruler in the line and spirit of David. We will see that this is an appropriate moniker for Hezekiah.
A king's first action is indicative of his priorities. The business of leading a nation is multifaceted, so we can guess that kings ordered their time with care and precision, just like leaders today. Therefore, the text wastes no time in letting us know what Hezekiah is passionate about. He "opened the doors of the house of the Lord, and repaired them" (v. 3).
These doors will be very important to Hezekiah's conflict with Sennacherib later on in his reign, but that is not in view here (2 Kings 18:13-16). Hezekiah breaks with his father by reopening the doors to God's temple in Jerusalem - the same doors his father had tried to close for good. This statement rang out to the kingdom of Judah loud and clear. God would be the national priority again. In the spirit of David, they were to put their trust in Yahweh.
Hezekiah, like several kings before him, is passionate about proper order in the Temple. He does not commence the work of restoration himself, as if he has rights to administrate the Temple's operation. We know from King Uzziah that this is dangerous territory (2 Chronicles 26:19). So Hezekiah readies the Levites to take over the Temple once more (2 Chronicles 29:5). It has been a long time, however, since the house of the Lord has been open for business. Given that Ahaz reigned sixteen years, many of the Levites have never served in the Temple, even though they are from the priestly tribe. Hezekiah, then, leads the charge to get the Levites and the Temple consecrated. He takes pains to ensure that everything is done according to God's law. All the while, he keeps his eyes on Judah's history. To Hezekiah, this history clearly shows that dedication to Yahweh is demanded from Judah. Therefore, he plans to call the nation back to the covenant (v. 10).
Initially, making a covenant seems strange. Didn't God forge an eternal covenant with Israel, and especially with David (2 Samuel 7:15-16)? Yes, so what is needed is not a new covenant, but a renewed covenant. God's offer to bless Judah still stands; it is still based on covenant. And this covenant still costs Judah something. It costs unabashed and singular devotion to Yahweh, the one true God.
II. Atonement made (2 Chron. 29:12-24)
Hezekiah has now solidified his focus on the Temple. The accomplishments of his dynasty will therefore be in tandem with the work of the priests and Levites in Jerusalem. This close relationship is often established by the faithful and successful kings of Judah. Again, Hezekiah realizes that he cannot effect spiritual renewal in Judah on his own. It will be a national effort, led by those who care most for Yahweh and His temple. Such leadership is always communal, and never individual. It starts with the ruler's heart and extends outward to his followers.
A. A period of consecration
"And they gathered their brethren, and sanctified themselves, and came, according to the commandment of the king, by the words of the Lord, to cleanse the house of the Lord. And the priests went into the inner part of the house of the Lord, to cleanse it, and brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the Lord into the court of the house of the Lord. And the Levites took it, to carry it out abroad into the brook Kidron. Now they began on the first day of the first month to sanctify, and on the eighth day of the month came they to the porch of the Lord: so they sanctified the house of the Lord in eight days; and in the sixteenth day of the first month they made an end" (2 Chron. 29:15-17).
One remarkable characteristic of the reign of Hezekiah is that he never sacrifices care and quality for speed, even as he races ahead to make God's temple in Jerusalem ready for worship. Indeed, the pace of the work was amazing. He has carefully apportioned the various ethnic groups descended from Levi to accomplish their respective work on the Temple. But first, they ritually consecrate themselves in accordance with God's law. These laws are explicitly laid out in Leviticus 21 and Leviticus 22, which depict the high standard for God's priests. After all, they intercede with God on behalf of the people. They cannot do so flippantly, but must remain reverent.
Once they have consecrated themselves and their garments, the consecration of the Temple itself begins. They work from the inside out, moving into the dilapidated inner court to make it ready to serve God and the people of Judah again. We can imagine the emotion of the priests' duty, walking into the Temple, some of them perhaps for the first time. Disgustingly, they find the Temple full of unclean things, all of which they haul to the Kidron Valley, probably for ceremonial burning or to drown in the Kidron River. The work takes sixteen days: washing, praying, singing, and cleaning. After the work is done, they joyfully report their progress to Hezekiah, who wants to know everything. They explain each facet of the cleansing with him, ensuring that everything has been done properly and in order. This purification even included the utensils for sacrifice - forks, bowls, bread plates, and the like. Unsurprisingly, they mention wicked old Ahaz in their explanation to Hezekiah. They have undone all that he did, providing a new day for Hezekiah and the kingdom of Judah. Without Hezekiah's bold willingness to break from his father, spiritual renewal would not have been possible.
B. Yom Kippur
"Then Hezekiah the king rose early, and gathered the rulers of the city, and went up to the house of the Lord. And they brought seven bullocks, and seven rams, and seven lambs, and seven he goats, for a sin offering for the kingdom, and for the sanctuary, and for Judah. And he commanded the priests the sons of Aaron to offer them on the altar of the Lord. And the priests killed them, and they made reconciliation with their blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel: for the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel" (2 Chron. 29:20-21, 24).
The festival of Yom Kippur represents the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, yet Hezekiah realizes the nation has failed to celebrate it during the reign of Ahaz his father. The holiday means "Day of Atonement," and it refers to a single sacrifice which God accepts to atone for the sins of the entire nation. This sacrifice does not preclude individuals who come on a regular basis to honor God with the firstfruits of their livestock and crops. It is of a corporate nature, meant to enact God's peace upon the entire kingdom.
From what we know, King Hezekiah has kept his plan secretive. He plods along in the reconsecration of the Temple, and surely the people expect some kind of celebration at its grand reopening. Hezekiah, however, knows that too much is at stake to simply open the doors and stand back. He takes the lead in reinstating this important holiday into Judah's national and spiritual life by creating an elaborate program. However, it will be a slightly different kind of Yom Kippur, in that Hezekiah brings seven of each of the sacrifices before the Lord.
The number seven represents the number of God's completion. Through this act of atonement, Hezekiah proclaims that God is completely restoring Judah to her covenant with Him. The emphasis is on the word "all Israel" (v. 24), foreshadowing the restoration of the divided kingdom. Remember, Israel has been separated from and in conflict with Judah for thirteen Judean kings now. Hezekiah boldly makes the sacrifice for the united kingdom, signifying an important day in the future.
III. Worship restored (2 Chron. 29:25-31, 35-36; 30:1-27)
The text has built tension by keeping the reader wondering what will come next. Will the nation respond to Hezekiah's leadership? After all, in some respects he is unproven. He has yet to lead them into battle or to preside over an economic boom period. He has focused on getting God's temple back into shape. Even an elaborately staged ceremony of dedication to Yahweh does not mean the people will cease following the gods of Ahaz - gods they have grown used to over the years. Hezekiah's daring leadership shows its true colors when the people respond with overwhelming affirmation to his sweeping spiritual reforms.
A. Order in the temple
"Then Hezekiah answered and said, Now ye have consecrated yourselves unto the Lord, come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord. And the congregation brought in sacrifices and thank offerings; and as many as were of a free heart burnt offerings. And also the burnt offerings were in abundance, with the fat of the peace offerings, and the drink offerings for every burnt offering. So the service of the house of the Lord was set in order. And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people, that God had prepared the people: for the thing was done suddenly" (2 Chron. 29:31, 35-36).
After the sacrifices are completed, the heartfelt celebration begins (vv. 25-30). Hezekiah has stationed skilled musicians in the places appointed by King David himself. Obeying the prophets of old, the psalms of David are reintroduced to the nation. The people once again learn the story of Israel through David's psalms. They learn about the character and attributes of God. Equally important, they learn the heart of David, which is a template for God-honoring service.
In a final burnt offering, Hezekiah gives the nod and the choir erupts into rapturous praise. In response, the nation gathered there fall on their faces before God. This continues for the entire sacrifice, perhaps fifteen minutes of overwhelming jubilance before the Lord. Now Hezekiah will open the floodgates for the people to express their individual praise to Yahweh, saying, "Come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings" (v. 31).
Verse 31 gives us a glimpse into the communal nature of sacrifices. That is, they were meant to be eaten by the family, tribe, or the community which brought them. We sometimes have this idea that the sacrifice is only about the death of the animal. This is a part of God's plan for atonement, but the sacrifice is equally about the consumption of the animal. Through eating the animal together, a group remembered the goodness of Yahweh who had nourished them. They also remembered the covenant they had with God and with one another as the people of God, since they ate as one from the same animal.
The sacrifices brought by the people were too much for the freshly trained priests to handle. As a result, the Levites put in overtime as an emergency consecration service was held for unconsecrated priests (v. 34). Verse 35 provides a key insight to spiritual renewal. The text does not say that worship in the Temple simply recommenced. Instead, it emphasizes the priestly order ("the service of the house of the Lord") which allowed the Temple to be reestablished in the first place. This shows us that order in God's house tends to flow from the top down. Hezekiah chooses to become a righteous king, so righteousness has a way of filtering downward to the priests through the king's faithfulness.
The last verse in the chapter marvels that Hezekiah is able to get so much done so fast, and clearly attributes this success to God. Yet God would likely not have overridden Hezekiah had he been lazy. It is the urgency of Hezekiah that God uses for His glory. He embodies the maxim that motivated Dr. Martin Luther King - "the fierce urgency of now."
B. A Passover like no other
"So they established a decree to make proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba even to Dan, that they should come to keep the passover unto the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem: for they had not done it of a long time in such sort as it was written. And there assembled at Jerusalem much people to keep the feast of unleavened bread in the second month, a very great congregation. And 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. Then they killed the passover on the fourteenth day of the second month: and the priests and the Levites were ashamed, and sanctified themselves, and brought in the burnt offerings into the house of the Lord. And all the congregation of Judah, with the priests and the Levites, and all the congregation that came out of Israel, and the strangers that came out of the land of Israel, and that dwelt in Judah, rejoiced. 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. 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, even unto heaven" (2 Chron. 30:5, 13-15, 25-27).
After the Temple is gloriously reestablished, Hezekiah moves onto the daily business of governing. However, he maintains his sense of priorities. In his first recorded royal edict, he issues an invitation to the entire kingdom, including the northern land of Israel, to reconstitute the Passover celebration (v. 1). This is an especially bold move since the official time for Passover has already expired. Hezekiah had hoped that the nation could be ready at the appointed time, but his plans prove overly ambitious. There are simply not enough consecrated priests to serve the people at the first of the year (v. 3). But Hezekiah refuses to let his dream sit still for the remainder of the year. He lays out a plan to celebrate the festival that year anyway, so the proclamation goes out "from Beersheba . . . to Dan" (v. 5).
Hezekiah's edict is especially meaningful to the northern kingdom of Israel. By this time, Assyria has sacked Israel and led many of its inhabitants into exile. Nonetheless, there are some that remain, and these Hezekiah invites to return to the God of the patriarchs. Unfortunately, some of the regions of the northern kingdom are hostile to Hezekiah's edict. They probably wondered what there was to celebrate, as they had already been defeated by the pagan Assyrians (v. 10). How could God help them now? Nonetheless, some Israelites make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (v. 11), while all of Judah attends (v. 12).
The "very great" (v. 13) crowd that gathers once again has some work cut out for them, for some unofficial altars have emerged around the city. It is only when these are destroyed that the Passover lamb can be sacrificed and the festival celebrated.
Once again, Hezekiah's dedication to God's order results in a well-run festival centered on the Temple. For those citizens who are unconsecrated, the Levites are ready to step in and make their sacrifice for them (v. 17). But there are simply too many sacrifices to keep up. As a result, Hezekiah offers a prayer to God that the physically unconsecrated will be forgiven if their hearts are consecrated (vv. 18-19). God hears (v. 20), and the festival is full of such meaning, rejoicing, and worship that the entire assembly agrees to extend it another week (v. 23). These are agricultural people with much to attend to back home, but they are caught up in the moment.
In response, Hezekiah blesses the assembly with an enormous donation from his royal treasury, providing food for the second week of Passover (v. 24). Because of this, everyone is reminded of Solomon and David (v. 26), and the people are tremendously blessed before God (v. 27).
Hezekiah: Sunday School Lesson Conclusion
The reign of Hezekiah proves the tremendous work that goes into spiritual renewal for a corporate body of people. He approaches every aspect of the nation's spirituality with intentionality and care. He gets the right people in place. He centers on the right biblical texts. In so doing, Hezekiah is allowed to see some of the greatest miracles God performs for the divided kingdom. He also stands as an example for us of the cost and the benefits of spiritual renewal.
Golden Text Challenge
"Now ye have consecrated yourselves unto the Lord, come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the House of the Lord" (2 Chron. 29:31).
After the central burnt offering, Hezekiah exhorted the people to personal acts of devotion and thanksgiving. Even though there had been a burnt offering expressing the devotion of the entire congregation, individual commitment and thanksgiving were necessary.
Revival must not only reflect the unity and corporate strength of a congregation, it must also touch individual hearts. Without personal application, revival will have no effect on an individual's life. A revival may fall greatly upon the gathering of a congregation. However, each person is responsible for his individual responsiveness to the Lord.
In the last part of the verse, the expression "free heart" in the Hebrew text emphasized a person's willingness and personal motivation. In other words, the people were not forced to bring thanksgiving and offerings. Personal motivation and willingness are essential for revival. Hezekiah knew that the revival would not be genuine if the people were forced to worship. They had to come to the Lord of their own will and personal motivation. So must we.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
[To learn more about the annual Evangelical Sunday School Lesson Commentary, visit www.pathwaybookstore.com.]