(31) I have engraved you on the palms of my hands – Isaiah 49:16

When Israel went into exile, Hezekiah was king in Judah. He became king at the age of 25 and the three year siege of Samaria started four years into his reign. Right from the beginning he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done” (2 Kings 18:3). He removed idol worship and trusted in God in a way that no other king had done.

2 Chronicles tells us that it was in the first month of his reign that Hezekiah “opened the doors of the temple of the Lord and repaired them” (2 Chronicles 29:3). This tells us as much about the state of true worship under his father Ahaz as Hezekiah’s eagerness to restore it. He then assembled the Priests and Levites and restored regular worship of the Lord. He held a festival for the people and the writer notes that “all the people rejoiced at what God had brought about for his people, because it was done so quickly” (2 Chronicles 29:36). The temple, which had been empty and deserted for so many years was, in a space of a few weeks, a place of vibrant worship once again. It is easy for us to think that things can never change but God can move very quickly to bring about his purposes.

After such a promising start, it would be nice to hope that Hezekiah would have an easy reign. However, having defeated Israel, Assyria returned to take Judah seven years later. Hezekiah was confident that the Lord would deliver Judah, but his faith was tested when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem and their commander asked the Israelite inhabitants standing on the city wall to consider the fact that no other nation’s gods had delivered them so “How then can your god deliver you from my hand?” (2 Chronicles 32:14). Hezekiah’s response was to go to the temple to pray and send his officials to ask Isaiah to pray too.

Isaiah was called to be a prophet in the year that Hezekiah’s great grandfather died. His call was dramatic: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). In this vision, Isaiah sees God’s holiness – his goodness and righteousness – and this gives him a strong sense of his own unworthiness. His response is to cry out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Despite this, God commissions him to speak to his contemporaries, even though they did not listen through the reigns of Hezekiah’s grandfather and father.

When Hezekiah contacted Isaiah, God spoke through him into this seemingly hopeless situation and told Hezekiah not to be afraid but that the Assyrian army would withdraw and not return. Hezekiah offers thanks for God for their deliverance and that night 185,000 men of the Assyrian army died. (The Greek historian Herodotus attributes the deaths to bubonic plague while 2 Kings 19:35 records that they were put to death by the angel of the Lord.) The Assyrian king took his remaining army back to Nineveh where he was assassinated by his sons.

Having seen the exile of Judah’s northern neighbour Israel, Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah that they would suffer the same fate if they didn’t turn back to God. Because of Hezekiah’s faithfulness they did not go into exile in his time but Isaiah prophesied that Judah would still go into exile one day and he prepared them for what was to come.

His words are recorded in the book of Isaiah which is the first of the Major Prophets and one of the largest books in the Bible. The first half, up to the end of chapter 35, contains prophecies calling the people to repentance. Then, after a short historical section in the middle, the second half (chapters 40-66) is written to provide comfort to the people as if they were already in exile. God’s love for his people shines through in many of the words that Isaiah brings. “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16) illustrates the intimacy of God’s care for his people. Just as we sometimes write notes on our hands to remember things so, even though God’s people will face dreadful times, they are always before him and cannot be removed from his thoughts.

 

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