A sermon by Randy Hyde, Senior Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
November 10, 2013
2 Chronicles 28:16-23; Matthew 6:19-24
They say that today’s age of sixty is the new forty, whoever “they” are. If that is true, I wonder what twenty would have been in the days of Ahaz, the king of Judah. That is how old he was when he assumed the throne following the death of his father Jotham. Twenty years old. Pretty young for a monarch, don’t you agree?
But, if you’ll look at the biblical record, you’ll find that this is not all that unusual… which, of course, may have been a big part of the problem for those kings who struggled with their leadership. They just didn’t have the maturity to pull it off. Thrust into office by virtue of their birth, they didn’t have what it took to lead a nation to stability and a sense of purpose. So, Ahaz’s youth may have been the factor – or at least part of it – that got him into trouble. And Ahaz did indeed get into a great deal of trouble.
Ahab, the late king of the northern tribes of Israel, who we considered last week, had the prophet Elijah as his nemesis. And now, some one hundred and thirty years later, Ahaz, who commands the southern kingdom of Judah, finds the prophet Isaiah to be the thorn in his side. But the real question is, why and how did Ahaz do “that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”? After all, he followed his father Jotham and his grandfather Uzziah, both of whom are credited with having been kings who found favor in the eyes of God. Did his youth have anything to do with that?
Maybe so. Or perhaps it was his nearsightedness. And maybe it’s because, when faced with political threat, he simply panicked. Pure and simple, he panicked. And he panicked because he couldn’t see beyond his own nose. And he couldn’t see beyond his own nose because, in a figurative sense, Ahaz was nearsighted… couldn’t view the big picture.
Here’s the situation… Assyria was flexing its military muscles once again, and had the Hebrew nations and their neighbors as their military targets. For the better part of a century, Israel and the surrounding states friendly to them were in control of the commerce that went from Egypt through the Trans-jordan. Finally, Assyria decided they wanted, not just a piece of the action, but all the action. As one historian has said, when Assyria came this time, they came “to stay.”1
What that means is, that this time, Assyria brought a new military strategy. A century before, when they invaded these lands, they simply pillaged and plundered and then took the spoils of war back home. Now, they “conquered and colonized.”2 In other words, they stayed in the occupied territory and used the inhabitants as their slaves. Isaiah warned his people this would happen, but as generally occurred with prophets, he was not heard. Where do you think Jesus got the idea that a “prophet is not without honor in his own country”? (John 4:44). He definitely had history on his side, did he not?
If you are a smaller, weaker nation, and you know your more powerful neighbor to the northeast is about to come down and occupy your lands, what do you do? The first thing you do, if you’re Ahaz at least, is panic! Then you pay tribute, a form of bribery. If we give you money, will you promise to go away and leave us alone? It works for awhile, but Assyria, under the military leadership of Tiglath-pileser, wants more than money. He wants land… and blood… lots and lots of blood. He sends his troops west, and when he reaches the Egyptian border the kings of the nations to the south begin to get nervous. Money may have bought them peace for awhile, but not any more. What do they do next? They form an alliance in an effort to keep the enemy at bay.
The older, wiser (?), more experienced Pekah is the king of Israel while Ahaz leads the southern nation of Judah. Let’s join forces, Pekah says to Ahaz, and bring Rezin, the king of Aram, into the deal. Aram is what we know now as Syria, and as it is today, the capital city was Damascus. Already they have gotten promises of support from other neighboring states like Ammon, Moab, Gaza, and Ashkelon. Even those pesky, marauding Edomites have joined in. Perhaps together, working as one military unit, they can all repel the larger nation of Assyria. On the face of it, it’s not a bad strategy… not bad at all.
It’s a good plan, they think, but Ahaz refuses to go along with it. He prefers to continue paying tribute to the Assyrians, hoping that will keep them at bay. The other kings know it won’t work, but Ahaz doesn’t agree.
They need Ahaz; they need Ahaz desperately. Without Ahaz in the coalition, the rear southern flank will be unguarded, and the alliance will not work. So what do Pekah and Rezin do? They decide to take out Ahaz, instigate a military coup.
Even though this pits one Hebrew nation against the other, in alliance with what is considered a neighboring pagan state, desperation breeds all kinds of strange partnerships. And besides, this is a place and time where brother kills brother, if enough money and power is at stake. So, before you can say “What happened?” Judah is invaded by Israel and Aram, and Jerusalem is besieged.
The book of Isaiah puts it bluntly, “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2). There is fear in the land of Judah, and everyone looks to the youthful, inexperienced, immature Ahaz to see what he plans to do. It is time for Ahaz to stand up. Instead, he simply puts his foot down.
“Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz… at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands…” The prophet Isaiah, through the guidance of the Lord, is telling Ahaz to see the big picture, look farther down the road, lead his people Judah in the faith that God will be with them. Trust me, God is saying to Ahaz, through his servant Isaiah. Isaiah reminds Ahaz that he is king only because of God’s blessings. In fact, his very name means “Yahweh has grasped.”3
Do you think that Ahaz took Isaiah’s counsel? No, sadly he did not. Disregarding the advice of the prophet Isaiah, he sends messengers to the Assyrian king, along with gifts of gold and silver and says to him, “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16:7).
Might as well, Tiglath-pileser reasons. After all, he was going to invade Judah anyway. Now, he has a personal, engraved invitation from the weasely little king himself. What more could he ask? His armies march through Israel and head south, destroying everything in their path. In the process, they take the youngest and the strongest and the best of the inhabitants of both Israel and Judah back to Assyria where they live out the remainder of their days in exile and slavery. The northern nation of Israel never recovers and the southern tribe of Judah becomes a vassal state to the Assyrians.
Because Ahaz had aligned himself with the winner, he was allowed to stay on the throne as king, but only as a puppet to the Assyrian victors. That doesn’t mean he got off Scot-free. He had to continue paying tribute, a form of tax to his conquerors. And when he died, Ahaz was not allowed to be buried with his fathers, for all the wrong he had done.
While it is true that there is wisdom in taking life a day at a time, it is also important to look down the road so you can attempt to see the big picture. The problem with Ahaz was that he only responded to the immediate threat before him. In other words, Ahaz was nearsighted.
How many of you are nearsighted? When I was in the ninth grade, our junior high basketball team won the state championship. The city of Paragould, my hometown, held a nice pep rally for us, brought us up on stage and displayed the huge trophy that had been given to us, with all our names engraved on it. Over at the high school they put up on the gymnasium wall a huge sign proclaiming us state champs, and included our names there as well. Pretty heady times for a fourteen year-old, let me tell you.
Every day, when I walked into the gym – and trust me, I did go to the gym every day, since I was a gym rat – I would look across the gym floor and see my name. One day, early in my junior year, I looked at the sign to gaze upon my name one more time, and I couldn’t read it. It was all a blur. Just like that, my vision was gone and I realized I needed glasses.
My dad was skeptical at first, until he took me to Memphis to see the opthalmologist. When I couldn’t read the chart, he said, “Well, my goodness, son, you can’t see, can you?”
It’s too bad Jotham wasn’t still around to say to his son Ahaz, “Well, my goodness, son, you can’t see, can you?” He might have been able to do something about it, to keep the Assyrians from taking over Judah and making slaves of them all. Instead, Ahaz found himself on his own, and despite the counsel of Isaiah, the man of God, he really and truly made a mess of things.
The more tribute Ahaz paid to his Assyrian bosses, the more they demanded. He dismantled the bronze works in the temple and used that to finance his tribute. Ahaz even sacrificed his own sons as an appeasement to the Assyrian king. Yet, that was not enough. When you can’t see the big picture – when you are nearsighted and trust in the wrong things – nothing you do or have is ever enough.
Jesus had some things to say about eyesight, didn’t he? “The eye is the lamp of the body,” he said. And then he says – and if any of you have ever had trouble with your vision, you know exactly what he means – “So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if you eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23).
Is he talking about physical vision? Of course not. In the next breath he says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Ahaz said to the king of Assyria, ““I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me…” With the assurances of the prophet Isaiah in his hand, Ahaz gives his life, and the destiny of his people, to the wrong king.
Jesus’ context, of course, was different from that of Ahaz. But then again, it was and it wasn’t. Instead of dealing with Assyrians, Jesus is confronting the Romans. But not even the Romans. In reality, he is casting his teaching toward those who have repeated history by colluding with the enemy instead of depending on God for their strength and purpose. Replace Ahaz with the high priest and his corrupt religious system, substitute the Assyrians for the Romans, and you have the very same thing going on in Jesus’ day as occurred in the days of Ahaz and Isaiah. And if you push it a bit further, you can find plenty of parallels in today’s world as well. It all comes down as to where and with whom you seek your personal security.
I often allude to the letters published every day in the newspaper. Maybe I need to quit reading them. As far as I can tell, the one thing that drives the majority of the opinions expressed in those letters is despair. Many of those letters, of course, are couched in religious talk… to the point that some of the letter writers, who do not put any stock in religious faith, rail against them. But even many of the people who quote scripture in their epistles are coming from the attitude of despair, and at its most basic, despair is the feeling that nothing good or positive can be done about the world in which we live. Do you ever feel that way?
If there was any one person who ever walked this earth and should have known despair, it was Jesus. But instead, with the stomping of the Roman soldiers’ boots coming closer and closer on that dark night of the soul as he prayed in Gethsemane, he placed himself in the hands of God. How? Why? Because he had perfect vision, was able to see the big picture, knowing that he was held in the hands of God.
You and I can do no less. So I would issue you a challenge. Do not let these church walls be witness to the voices of despair… ever. Do not give in to those forces that challenge the grace and mercy of our God. Do not ask deliverance of gods that are no gods. Instead, cast your vision far beyond anything you have ever seen before, and trust in the One who will deliver you. When you do that, God will give you the vision you need, and the grace to walk with him.
Lord, we ask for sight and insight, that even in our darkest hours we find you there. May we learn from those who have come before us, those who have failed and those who have conquered, that we might know you and your grace. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Joan Comay, The Hebrew Kings (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1977), p. 120.
2Ibid, p. 121.
3 George Arthur Buttrick, General Editor, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 64.