God is Our Strength

This week’s sermon involved the conclusion of the story I shared last week. When I was growing up, I prided myself on being the kid who knew the most about the Old Testament. Everyone else was learning stories from the New Testament, while I got excited about all of the amazing things that God did for His chosen people, Israel. And, to be perfectly honest, I think I liked all of the blood and guts. If they were to ever choose to make the book of Judges into a movie, it would easily have an R rating without having to change anything in the storyline. It’s that gory. Great stuff for a pre-teen boy! But I’m on a tangent…

In all of the sermons I’ve sat through, and all of the Sunday school lessons I’ve heard, I don’t even remember hearing about Hezekiah (other than knowing it was a really cool name), let alone the siege. And there is so much about it. Not only that, but the whole account of Hezekiah and his reforms, sparking a revival in Judah, will definitely preach! But I hadn’t heard anything about it until my first year in seminary! Maybe it was discussed in my Old Testament classes in undergrad, but I definitely don’t remember it.

After the service today, one of the ladies stopped as she was leaving and told me that she and her husband had actually been to the tunnel I mentioned the past two weeks! Pretty cool stuff!

You can listen to the message here.

We’re continuing our sermon series called Songs of our Lives: a journey through the Psalms, and looking at how the experiences of the people who were worshiping the Lord thousands of years ago are not that different from the experiences we have today in choosing to follow Christ. And how the songs that were written thousands of years ago could very well have been written by you or by me because they express the same emotions and experiences that we go through today. There’s on misperception that people tend to have about the Psalms. Many times, people look at the songs and prayers that were written and think they were written in a vacuum. They think that there was some poet who was sequestered somewhere in the middle of a meadow and he wrote all of these songs. They don’t really apply to anything that has to do with regular life. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the psalms were composed as a result of real-life experiences that caused real-life reactions to how they encountered God. That’s very true in the psalm we’re looking at today.

If you remember from last week, we left Hezekiah, the king of Judah, in a rather precarious situation. He’d tried to do the right thing – the godly thing. In an attempt to appease the world superpower at the time, Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, built temples and altars to the Assyrian gods, and pledged allegiance to the Assyrian empire. He had chosen personal political gain over faithfulness to the Lord. He had chosen pragmatism over holiness. And Hezekiah knew his father’s actions were not pleasing to the Lord. So when he ascended to the throne, Hezekiah began to lead the people back to worshiping the Lord and the Lord only. He tore down the altars and temples to the Assyrian gods and revival swept through the land of Judah.  And the Assyrians were none too pleased. Hezekiah and a small band of other kings were rebelling against the rule of their vast empire.

So King Sennacherib wanted to make an example of Hezekiah and the other rebellious kings. He gathered up his mighty army and rained down destruction upon the rebellious kings. One by one, Hezekiah’s allies fell to the seemingly unstoppable Assyrian force. According to Sennacherib’s own historical records, the Assyrian army swept into the rebelling kingdoms and crushed most of the resistance by destroying their major cities and laying siege upon the capital city. Once the capital city was captured, those who participated in the rebellion were dealt with harshly. Hezekiah’s allies were either executed on the spot, or taken back to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and publicly executed with their families. Those who did not participate in the rebellion, of course, were forgiven and allowed to live.

And after wiping out Hezekiah’s allies, Sennacherib set his sights on Judah.

Hezekiah knew he was next. He had seen the punishment inflicted on his allies by the Assyrians. It certainly appeared that he was destined to see the same fate as the other kings. But he knew he was doing the right thing. He knew he was trying to follow the Lord and the Lord only. And as we discussed last week when we looked at Psalm 44, Hezekiah had to make a choice. And he chose to continue following the Lord, even if it meant losing everything.

One by one, Sennacherib destroyed each of Hezekiah’s fortified cities. In his own words, Sennacherib “besieged, captured, plundered, and took” those cities. One by one, Hezekiah’s world was falling apart. One by one, the 46 fortress cities that Hezekiah had spent so much time and effort upgrading were no match for the Assyrian army, and they fell like houses of cards. The Assyrians were an unstoppable force, leaving death and destruction in their wake. And as the enemy came closer, the people of Jerusalem could hear the drumbeats of war growing louder. And what happens next is recorded in three different places in the Old Testament. It’s found in 2 Kings 18 & 19; 2 Chronicles 32; and within the prophecies of Isaiah, chapters 36 & 37. As Sennacherib’s army drew closer to Jerusalem, he began to taunt the citizens of Jerusalem, trying to get them to give up their king so they could be saved. He said to them things like, “Just as the gods of the peoples of the other lands did not rescue their people from my hand, so the god of Hezekiah will not rescue his people from my hand.” (2 Chron. 32:17) Sennacherib had wiped out stronger armies – their god hadn’t delivered them from his vengeance. He had already wiped out Judah’s fortified cities. What made them think that the Lord was going to protect them any better than those other gods of other nations had protected their cities? They were doomed, so it was best for them to just give up and save themselves. In spite of these warnings and threats, and although they were certainly scared out of their minds, they remained faithful. Isaiah told Hezekiah that Sennacherib would not take Jerusalem. Here’s the message the Lord gave him: “He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here… By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city,” declares the Lord. “I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant!”  (Is 37:33-35) He told him to stay the course and although it appeared that things were hopeless and they were doomed for destruction, God would deliver them. Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem believed him. They believed that they were doing what the Lord wanted them to do. And so they continued to follow Him – even if it meant their own destruction. They didn’t give in to Sennacherib’s demands and remained holed up in their last remaining city. The army kept marching. And the people could hear the drumbeats of war grow ever louder as Sennacherib’s army, more than 185,000 strong, began to encircle the holy city of Jerusalem. In Sennacherib’s records, he says that he had Hezekiah “caged up like a bird.” And he was ready to lay siege upon the city and wait out the man who had chosen to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

And an amazing thing happened.

When the people of Jerusalem woke up the next morning and peered over the city walls, they saw the most amazing thing – the entire Assyrian army lay in ruins! The siegeworks they were preparing to deploy were destroyed. 185,000 troops were dead. Sennacherib had gathered up his remaining men and began his long, embarrassing trek back to Nineveh. He went back the way he came, just as God had promised. One angel in one night did what no other army had been able to do – defeat the Assyrian army right where it stood, and send Sennacherib home with his tail between his legs.

And Jerusalem rejoiced!

Most scholars agree that Psalm 46 was composed in response to the miraculous victory over the Assyrian army. It’s an amazing tribute to the triumph of the angel of the Living God over the mighty army of the enemy. If you have your Bibles with you, turn with me to Psalm 46. It’s towards the middle of your Bible. Psalm 46 is part of a collection of psalms that were either composed by Hezekiah and his poets, or collected by his administration during the revival of worshiping the Lord. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one found in the pew in front of you. Psalm 46 is found on page 490 in that Bible.

Remember the story surrounding this psalm’s composition as I read it.

Read Psalm 46:1-3

Now, selah is a tricky word in the Hebrew language. 71 different Psalms use this word, but scholars can’t really pin down its exact meaning. Some scholars think it’s related to a Hebrew word that means “to lift up,” indicating a time when the people were to lift up either their voices, heads, or their hands in response to God’s goodness. Others think it comes from the word that means “to pause” or “be silent.” It’s a moment of stillness that forces the worshipers to meditate on the words they had just sung. One scholar says it could freely be translated: “There! What do you think of that?”

Whether it’s a moment of silence or a marker of a musical crescendo, there’s a break here that makes you hesitate for a second. Remember, the people are worshiping in the temple in the middle of a city that is surrounded by a defeated army that had rained terror wherever they went and was a serious threat against their own survival. It was like all creation had trembled at the threat of this enemy as they left destruction in the wake of wherever they marched. And with this selah, you can almost hear the psalmist chuckle here. Mountains falling to the sea and the oceans roaring with foam are signs of chaos. And that’s what the Assyrian army brought – chaos. That chaos meant trouble for the people of Jerusalem, because it had forced them into a corner. Surely when they finished this stanza, they looked around and remembered how they had feared for their lives and how they didn’t know what to do – how on earth was God going to save them from this horrible enemy? And now they stand there in amazement at how God was at work. They were weak. And they knew it. They stood no chance against the Assyrian army. But God is strong.

Read v. 4

Jerusalem is the only major city in the entire region that was not built on a navigable river. If there’s no river flowing through the city, what’s this river that they’re referring to? Remember, last week I mentioned the tunnel that Hezekiah had his workers dig in preparation for the coming Assyrian invasion. It connected a spring outside of the city walls with a pool within the city, providing a constant stream of fresh water for the citizens of Jerusalem. It was a preparation for war, but now it serves as a reminder of the way God provided His people. They prepared as much as they could, but in the end, it was God who provided the victory because God is their strength.

Continuing on – Read v 4-11.

It’s amazing how your perspective changes once things are over, isn’t it? Last week, we talked about the psalm that appears to have been composed as they were under the threat of the siege. They were asking questions like, “God, why haven’t you intervened here?” “We’re holding up our end of the bargain – why aren’t You?” “God, even if it means we’ll all be destroyed, we’ll follow You.” And now they’re praising God for His deliverance. After the dust had settled, they could look back and see how God had been at work the entire time. Of course, He didn’t work the way they had wanted Him to work – but like I said last week, God is God and we aren’t. And there are times where God doesn’t work the way we want Him to, too – aren’t there? When things come crashing down – you’re in the middle of a health crisis, or you have bills piling up and you don’t have enough money in the bank, or any number of things, you want God to act and to do so right away. You want God to sweep in and make everything OK. But God doesn’t always work like that.

We can look at our own lives and see where God has intervened, but it’s usually after the fact where we see that God was at work. When you’re stuck in the middle of it, you’re too busy asking God for help, not realizing that He’s already at work and already going to help in a way that is totally unexpected. When looking at the handiwork of God, the old adage is probably true – hindsight is 20/20. God is our strength and our comfort; our protector and our provider. It’s just that sometimes you can’t see how He’s doing it when you’re stuck in the middle of it. But when we do come to realize that God was at work, we must react the same way Hezekiah did – with worship of the Mighty God!

It could have been tempting for Hezekiah to somehow take credit for what happened. Maybe it was the strength of the 46 fortified cities that had worn the Assyrian military out. Maybe their forces were weakened to a point that they just didn’t want to go on anymore. Or maybe it was the new tunnel that he dug. Maybe the Assyrains found out about the tunnel and realized that their efforts at a siege would be futile, so they went home. Or maybe it was the boldness of the people of Jerusalem, who stood firm in the face of danger, that frightened away the Assyrians. Hezekiah could have gotten his PR masters to spin this miracle into a story about how great of a leader the King of Judah was. He could have called the attention to himself. But he didn’t. Everyone’s eyes were firmly fixed on the One who delivered them. And it wasn’t Hezekiah. No, it was God who broke the bow and shattered the spear. It was God who burned the shield. It’s all about God.

And we need to do the same thing. When things are difficult, we need to turn to the Lord. But when things are going well, when you could easily pat yourself on the back for the things that have happened, you need to turn to the Lord. It’s God who has provided. It’s God who has delivered. It’s God who is our strength.

Like the people of Jerusalem, we have all faced destruction and utter annihilation. And like Hezekiah and his people, we faced that destruction because of the choices we made. Unlike them, however, we have chosen to sin – to do what is not right in the sight of God’s holiness. And that sinful choice we made has impacted every aspect of our being. It’s a horrible scar across all of creation that goes back through history to the moment when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the fruit of the tree that they were forbidden to eat from. And the result of that choice is death, and eternal separation from the God we were created to love.

But like the people of Jerusalem, God has swept in to save the day. He has provided a way out. The loving sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, delivers us from the destruction we were doomed to face. Although He was perfect in every way, He chose to take on our sins so we could have a right relationship with Him again. It’s a free gift that has been given to you and to me. And once you choose to accept that gift, you’ll be able to look back and see the times when you thought things couldn’t get any worse – when things were crashing down around you – that God was right there as your Strength. When you look back on your own life you’ll see Him at work in amazing ways – and all you can do is stand back and praise Him with words similar to Psalm 46 – “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear.”

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