This verse is about Hezekiah, an exemplary and godly king. The chronicler had summed him up already in chapter 31: ‘he worked that which was good and right and faithful before Yahweh his God. In every work that he began in the service of God’s house, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered’(2 Chronicles 31:20-21). Similarly, in the earlier book of 2 Kings, which the chronicler assumes our knowledge of, we read, ‘He trusted in Yahweh, the God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among them that were before him. For he joined with Yahweh; he didn’t depart from following him, but kept his commandments, which Yahweh commanded Moses. Yahweh was with him; wherever he went forth he prospered’(2 Kings 18:5-7).
And Hezekiah certainly had prospered and been successful. ‘God had given him very much’(2 Chronicles 32:29). Moreover, God had been kind to him. One specific example is relevant to this study text. 2 Kings chapter 20 provides the detail and the chronicler comments on the incident.
Hezekiah had become seriously ill. Moreover, through the prophet Isaiah, God had informed him that he was going to die. At this Hezekiah became very upset, praying in great anguish. So God graciously healed him, granting him a further 15 years of life. In addition he gave him a wondrous miraculous sign as confirmation. But then, as the chronicler summarises, ‘However concerning the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart.’
Again the chronicler assumes our knowledge of 2 Kings. Here we read more detail about the miraculous sign that prompted the Babylonian visit, and how Hezekiah responded. It seems the confirmatory miracle involved time on a stairway sundial going backwards in some unexplained way. Perhaps an associated astrological sign attracted the Babylonian interest? When they arrived, Hezekiah proudly showed off all his riches and power in a worldly, self glorifying way, ‘for his heart was lifted up’(2 Chronicles 32:25).
We are nothing without God, spiritually, physically or materially, and should be humble about any gracious benefits we receive from him, re-directing any praise we attract back to God, our creator and sustainer. But ‘Hezekiah didn’t render again according to the benefit done to him’(2 Chronicles 32:25).
Moreover, his actions imply that he was ready to make an alliance with Babylon against Assyria, the superpower they both faced. God spoke out through Isaiah against such alliances with other nations, made by those who ‘don’t look to the Holy One of Israel, and they don’t seek Yahweh!’(Isaiah 31:1). But Hezekiah ignored this. Despite all his previous experience of God’s sovereign power and loving protection, on this occasion he seems to have doubted God could save Judah from the Assyrians.
‘God left him’: We are what we are by the grace of God. Hezekiah’s great virtues summarised for us in the earlier verses were very much dependant on his closeness to God, which itself was a gift from God. Perhaps he spent most of his reign buoyed up and carried along by God’s close presence. But at this point God left him. God stepped back for a moment…
‘to try him’: Living the godly life comes naturally to us when God feels near and we are full of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes God seems absent and spiritual enthusiasm goes flat. This might be God testing us. It was for Hezekiah.
Sadly Hezekiah failed, as might any of us, unless we learn from his mistakes as much as from his exemplary behaviour. He should have cried out like David, ‘Yahweh. My spirit fails. Don’t hide your face from me’(Psalm 143:7), but instead he reverted to a worldly frame of mind. Thus is revealed ‘all that was in his heart’ without God.
This incident teaches us what was in Hezekiah’s heart without God, and what is in all our hearts without His gracious work. The human heart of even the great Hezekiah, without God’s intervention and enabling, was proud, boastful, and faithless. The Bible thus puts king Hezekiah in his place, and magnifies the sovereignty of God. As Paul put it, ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast.’(Ephesians 2:8-9)