Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Good King Hezekiah

2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32

After the people of Israel were carried away into captivity by the king of Assyria, only the tribe of Judah remained of the twelve tribes that had entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. Hezekiah was the king of Judah at that time.

The kingdom of Judah was very weak when Hezekiah took the throne. For many years it had been ruled by men who were not serving the true God, and they had even shut up the temple of the Lord.

Hezekiah began at once to restore the true religion. He called for the priests and the Levites to come to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple. Then when everything was ready for worship at the house of God, he sent invitations to the people in every part of the land of Judah and Israel, and commanded them to come to the Feast of the Passover, which they had not kept for many long years.

Some of the people laughed when they received Hezekiah's invitation to attend the Feast. They had worshiped idols for so long a time that they did not care to return to Jerusalem again, to worship the true God. But many from the land of Judah came gladly, and there was a great meeting.

Hezekiah destroyed the idols out of his land, and tried to teach his people to do right. He found in Jerusalem the brass serpent that Moses had made in the wilderness. He saw that the people were burning incense before this brass serpent, just as if it were an idol, so he cast it into the fire. He tore down the altars that had been built to worship heathen gods, and did much to strengthen his kingdom.

The King of Assyria had gained power over Judah before Hezekiah took the throne. Every year the people of Judah had to pay Assyria a large sum of money. But Hezekiah was displeased to have his people oppressed by this heathen King. He decided to quit paying the money. He built up the walls of Jerusalem until they were very strong. Then he gathered an army and made ready to fight against the Assyrians.

Hezekiah's army was only a handful compared to the hosts of Assyria. The enemies came into the land of Judah and took one city after another. Then they marched toward Jerusalem, and Hezekiah knew that his soldiers could not keep them away. He realised that he had made a sad mistake when he refused to pay the money that the Assyrian King required of his people. So he sent word to the angry King, promising to resist him no more and to pay whatever that King should require.

The King of Assyria thought: "Now is my chance to spoil this little country of Judah." So he demanded a heavier tax than he had ever asked before. Hezekiah took all the gold and silver that was in his palace, and all that he could find among the people, and even the gold and silver from the temple of the Lord to pay this tax. Still the King of Assyria was not satisfied. He sent a message, saying, "I am going to destroy your city and take you and your people away to a far country, just as I have done to your neighbors who lived in Israel. The gods of other nations did not help them when I came against them, and your God will not be able to save you."

Hezekiah was afraid when he heard this message. He knew that his army was not strong enough to drive away such a powerful enemy. He took the letter that this King had written and went into the temple to pray. There he spread the letter before the altar and asked God to help him and his people out of their trouble. Then he sent some of his princes to visit the good prophet Isaiah and ask him to tell them about God's will.

Isaiah answered, "The Lord has said that the King of Assyria shall not come into this city, nor shall he even shoot an arrow against it. But he shall go back to his own country by the way that he came, and there he shall be killed with a sword."

That same night an angel of God visited the camp of the Assyrian King and caused a terrible sickness to fall upon the soldiers. By morning many of them lay dead. All of the leaders in the army were among the dead men, and the King rose up and hastened back to his own land.

Never again did he return to fight against Hezekiah, for God had heard and answered the prayers of the good King. Years after this, while he was worshiping the temple of his god in Nineveh, two of his own sons killed him.

Hezekiah became very sick, and there was no cure to be found for his sickness. Isaiah, the prophet, came to him and said, "God has commanded that you get ready to leave this world, for you must die." Hezekiah did not feel that he could leave his people. He turned his face to the wall and prayed earnestly that God would make him well again. Then he wept bitter tears, and reminded God how faithfully he had tried to rule the people. And God heard Hezekiah's prayer.

Isaiah was returning to his home when the Lord spoke to him again, saying, "Go back to the King and tell him that I have heard his prayer and seen his tears and now I will add fifteen years to his life. On the third day he shall be able to go up to the temple to worship."

Hezekiah was glad to hear Isaiah's second message. He asked for a sign from the prophet, and Isaiah answered, "The sign shall be according to your choice. Shall the shadow on the sun-dial go backward or shall it go forward ten degrees?"

The sun-dial was the instrument by which the King might know the time of day, there were no clocks as we have now. Hezekiah asked that the shadow might go backward, as it would not seem like a sign for the shadow to move forward. So Isaiah prayed, and the shadow moved backward ten degrees.

Hezekiah was healed of his disease, according to God's word, and he lived for fifteen more years. During that time he built up his kingdom and became very rich. He grew proud of his riches and God chastised him, and he humbled his heart again. When he died all the land mourned for him, because they knew he had been the best king Judah had known.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Sad Ending of the Kingdom of Israel

2 Kings 17

The people of Nineveh believed God's prophet and were ready to ask God to forgive their sins. They repented, and they were not destroyed. The people of Israel did not believe the faithful prophets whom God sent to them, one after another. Some of them believed but many of them did not. Their kings refused to worship God in the right way, and kept the golden calves, which the first king of Israel had made.

Many years passed and God saw that the Israelites would never return to worship him as they had done in the days of David and Solomon. Nineteen kings had ruled in the land of Israel, and many times God had helped those kings out of trouble. Still they would not lead their people back to the true worship.

At last God allowed an enemy to carry them all away to a strange land. Hoshea was king in Israel when the great Assyrian army came down into the land and took possession of it. For a while Hoshea and his people paid a large sum of money each year to the Assyrian nation, and they were allowed to live in their own land. But when Hoshea refused to pay the money and sent to the king of Egypt for help, the king of Assyria sent his army again, and the army took Hoshea and all his people away from their homes and led them into heathen cities to keep them for slaves.

This was the terrible punishment that their sins of idol-worship had brought upon them. They were never again allowed to return to live in their homeland. The Assyrian king now ruled over all of the country where the ten tribes of Israel used to live. He wanted to have some people in that land, so he took some heathen people from cities in the east country and brought them to live in the cities of Samaria. He told them to work the fields and keep the vineyards, and pay him money from the crops they raised in Israel.

The new people in Israel were idol-worshipers. They did not know about the true God at all. After they had been in the land for some time they became afraid of the God of that land, for lions would come out of the woods and kill some of them when they went out to their fields to work.

They believed that the God of Israel was sending the lions among them because they did not know how to worship him. So they sent messengers back to Nineveh to tell the king about their troubles. They asked him to send a priest of the Israelite slaves back to Israel, that he might teach them to worship the Israelites' God.

The king sent a priests of the Israelites, and he went to live in Bethel. He told the strangers about the true God, and they, too, tried to worship Him. But they continued to worship their own gods, and their religion became a mixture of right and wrong. Even today some of the descendants of those people are living in Samaria, and their worship is a mixture of idolatry and the religion of the Jews.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jonah - The Prophet Who Tried To Run From God

Jonah 1-4

When Elisha was the prophet in Israel, the Syrians were a strong nation and they often fought the Israelites. After Elisha died the Syrian nation grew weaker, and did not trouble Israel any more at all.

Then a new enemy arose from the far east country, the Assyrian king, who was conquering many little countries all around . He was sending his armies nearer and nearer to the border land of Israel and the Israelites were beginning to fear him.

Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and the home of the great king. It was a great city that had stood for hundreds of years, and it had grown larger and larger until thousands and thousands of people lived inside its high walls. These people did not serve the true God, but worshiped idols. And year after year they became more wicked, until finally God thought he would destroy them all.

God is very merciful. He knew the people of Nineveh had not known about Him as the people of Israel. No prophets had ever come to warn them about their wrong-doings. God sent them a prophet from Israel to tell them that their city would be destroyed because of their awful sins.

Jonah was the prophet whom God chose to send to Nineveh. Jonah did not want to go to that wicked city so far from his homeland. He knew the Assyrians were enemies of the Israelites, and he thought it would be better if God would destroy their city rather than give them a chance to repent of their sins. So Jonah thought, "I will not go to Nineveh. I will take a ship down at the Great sea, and I will sail away toward the west country instead of going toward the east country. Then maybe I can get so far away that God will not talk to me any more about going to preach to those wicked people of Nineveh."

Jonah went down to the seaside and found a ship ready to sail away. He paid his fare, climbed on board the ship, and started with the sailors to go to a city called Tarshish, far to the west. He thought he was very safe now, and he feared no longer that he should have to go to Nineveh. He felt so safe that he went down into the ship and soon fell fast asleep.

But God knew all about Jonah's plans, and God was not willing for his prophet to disobey him. He had called Jonah to go to preach to the heathen people in Nineveh. He sent a storm on the Sea which threatened to wreck the ship. The sailors became frightened and they called on their gods to quiet the winds; but the winds blew harder than before. They did not know what to do. Finally the captain went down into the ship and found Jonah lying there asleep.

The captain woke Jonah and told him to call upon his God for help in this time of trouble. But Jonah did not feel much like asking God to help him when he was running away from the work that God had told him to do. His conscience began to trouble him and when he saw the strong waves crash against the ship and toss it about in the water, he feared that he would never again see dry land.

When the storm continued to rage, the sailors decided that one of them on board the ship must be the cause of the trouble. They decided to cast lots and see which one the lot would fall. And the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah was a stranger among them and the sailors wondered what terrible thing he had done. They gathered round him and asked, "Tell us, who are you and what is your business?" And Jonah told them that he was from the land of Israel and that he worshiped the God who had made the sea and the dry land. At once they were afraid because they did not know about such a great God, and they thought surely he was angry. Jonah told them how he had tried to run away from God, and they believed that God was trying to punish him. Jonah, too, believed that God had sent the storm on his account.

"What shall we do to you that the storm may cease?" asked the frightened men when they saw that their ship would soon be broken into pieces if the wind and waves continued to toss it about. Jonah answered, "Throw me overboard in the water, and then the storm will end." The sailors did not wish to treat Jonah so cruelly, but when they saw that all would be lost if they allowed him to remain on board the vessel, they picked him up and threw him into the sea.

God was not yet finished with Jonah. He had prepared a great fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah and carried him for three days and three nights before throwing him out onto the land. By that time Jonah was very willing to go to Nineveh and preach God's message to the people there.

When Jonah entered the city he began to cry out: "Within forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed!" On and on he went, for Nineveh was a great city, and in every street where he passed he cried out the same words. And the people stopped to listen to his strange message. They had never seen a prophet of God before. Some of them ran to tell their King about Jonah's words, and the King was frightened. He rose from his throne and took off his rich garments and dressed himself in sackcloth. Then he sat down in ashes and asked for forgiveness of his sins. He commanded all the people of the city to do as he was doing, and to cry earnestly to God to spare their lives.

When Jonah finished preaching he went outside the great walls and waited to see the fire fall from the sky to burn up the enemies of the Israelites. Forty days passed by and no fire fell. The people believed Jonah's message and repented of their sins so God did not destroy their city. Jonah became very much displeased. He feared that people might call him a false prophet, and he wanted to die instead of go back to his own county again.

God taught Jonah a lesson by allowing a gourd-vine to grow up in one night and make a shelter for him from the burning heat of the sun. Then God caused a worm to destroy the gourd, and Jonah became very unhappy. Again he wished that he might die. So the Lord spoke to Jonah and said, "You were sorry to see the plant die, though you did not make it grow. And should I not have more pity on the people of Nineveh than you have on a plant?" Jonah learned that God looks upon people of every nation as being precious in his sight, even though they do not know how to worship Him.

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