Friday, December 21, 2007

How Does God Test Us?

Isaiah 38 describes an astonishing event.

Isaiah shows up at the palace of King Hezekiah, who is deathly ill. He has a prophecy to deliver: "Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live" (v. 1).

Hezekiah is not pleased. But instead of taking it up with Isaiah, he goes directly to Isaiah's boss. "Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord." The king reminds the Lord of his faithfulness in the past, how he walked before the Lord in truth and "with a perfect heart," and had done what was good in the sight of the Lord. After that, he had nothing more to say, but simply "wept sore" (vss. 2-3).

After Hezekiah's prayer, "then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying, Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years."

Now, some might say there's nothing astonishing here. If you believe in prayer, then why not believe that in response to Hezekiah's heartfelt prayer the Lord chose to heal him? We utter such prayers (and see them answered) all the time.

But what got my attention was the fact that Hezekiah "wept sore" specifically because he had received through Isaiah a definitive revelation from the Lord telling him to set his house in order because his death was imminent. Lacking such a revelation, Hezekiah might at least have hoped for a natural recovery. He might reasonably have prayed for recovery. Once he had received a definitive revelation from the Lord (Isaiah said "Thus Saith The Lord"!), wasn't it impertinence on his part to ask for another revelation? Wouldn't the faithful thing to do have been to obey the word of the Lord by "setting his house in order?"

I love the imagery of verse 2: "Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall." It is a startling image of refusal to accept this seemingly inevitable, divinely ordained fate.

Did God punish Hezekiah for his impudent refusal to accept his definitive word, as delivered to him by his mouthpiece, Isaiah? Far from it! He rewarded him threefold! First he rewarded him by granting him healing from a deadly illness. Second he rewarded him by revealing to him the length of remaining life he would have (fifteen more years!). Third, he rewarded him by promising him that Jerusalem would not fall to the King of Assyria (vss. 6-7). How puzzling it must have been to Isaiah to have to return to Hezekiah with this new prophecy, shortly after prophesying his imminent death!

What exactly happened here? How do we interpret these two prophecies? Did the Lord change his mind as a result of Hezekiah's prayer? Or let me rephrase this: Is it possible that there are blessings that the Lord is only willing to give us if we ask for them in faith? That seems one valid interpretation of this text.

But if that was true, why send the prophet on a special errand to announce to Hezekiah that he was going to die? Perhaps the Lord was testing Hezekiah in some way. If so, this is what I find most startling. The Lord expected Hezekiah to refuse to accept his definitive word. He expected Hezekiah to persist in hope of something he had explicitly denied him through his prophet.

In any event, the text suggests a high value on free agency in the divine scheme of things. The Lord forces no destiny upon us -- even something as seemingly inevitable as the natural course of disease and death. There are blessings the Lord waits to bestow upon us contingent upon taking the initiative to ask; or, better yet, the Lord expects us to achieve a kind of higher consciousness that can only come from faithful perseverance even in the face of denial.

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