The power of prayer

You may wonder, Can one person make a difference in the world? Is it possible to change the course of history? Hezekiah, king of Judah reigned from 715 B.C. to 686 B.C. during a critical time period when the Assyrian empire was spreading rapidly throughout the middle east. In 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Sargon II, king of Assyria and its people were taken into captivity. In 701 B.C., Sennacherib, king of Assyria attacked Jerusalem, the capital of the nation of Judah. Shortly before this, Sennacherib led a campaign against the strongholds of Judah and took them (2 Kings 18:14).

It says in 2 Kings 20:1 that “in those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die and not live.” Isaiah’s use of the words “thus saith the LORD” indicated that God had sovereignly ordained Hezekiah’s death. In response to the news, Hezekiah cried out to the LORD. It says in 2 Kings 20:2-3, “Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, saying, I beseech thee, O LORD, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.”

In the early years of his reign, Hezekiah had instituted many reforms in Jerusalem in order to counteract the evil behavior of his father, king Ahaz (2 Kings 18:4). Much to his credit, it says of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:5, “He trusted in the LORD God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.” Hezekiah’s relationship with the LORD gave him the confidence he needed to ask God to change his mind. It says in 2 Kings 20:4-6:

And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD, the  God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears:  behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the LORD. And I will add unto thy days fifteen years; and I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.

Based on the LORD’s message to Hezekiah, “I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 20:6), it appears that the  LORD intended to give Sennacherib victory over Jerusalem after Hezekiah’s death. It could be that the LORD planned Hezekiah’s death in order to spare him from going into captivity in Assyria. Whatever his intent, the LORD saw Hezekiah’s sincerity and decided to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian army instead.

An interesting aspect of Hezekiah’s situation was that he asked for a sign that the LORD would actually do what he said he would. “‘Signs’ are attestations of the validity of a prophetic message” (226). In essence, Hezekiah’s request for a sign meant that he doubted what Isaiah said was true. Perhaps, because he knew he could not defeat the Assyrian army. Isaiah gave Hezekiah two options. “And Isaiah said, This sign shalt thou have of the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he hath spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?” (2 Kings 20:9).

The only miracle recorded in the Bible comparable to what Isaiah suggested the LORD would do for a sign to Hezekiah was when the sun stood still while Joshua and his army fought the Amorites. In that instance, it says, “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13). Since we know now that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the earth around the sun, what actually happened was the earth stopped spinning for about 24 hours.

In Hezekiah’s case, what Isaiah was suggesting was that the LORD could make the earth rotate in the opposite direction, equivalent to 10 degrees of movement, so that the shadow would go backward instead of forward as it usually did. Based on what we know today, this was scientifically impossible. The amount of time that would have been gained or lost would have been about 20-40 minutes, a somewhat insignificant amount of time compared to the whole day that Joshua gained. Therefore, the evidence of the shadow made it possible to verify that is actually happened.

Hezekiah’s response indicated that he wanted God to do the impossible. “And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees. And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the LORD: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz” (2 Kings 20:10-11).

True believers

Fasting and praying were common religious practices in the Israelite community that were associated with mourning and repentance. The first mention of these activities is in 2 Samuel 12:16 where it says that king David fasted and prayed because of his sick child. David wanted God to spare the child’s life, but his son died anyway.

Fasting was perceived to be a means of obtaining God’s mercy. As a form of spiritual intervention, it was effective in gaining God’s attention, although the desired result was not always obtained. Isaiah identified right and wrong types of fasting. One of the characteristics of the wrong type of fasting was an attitude of entitlement (Isaiah 58:3).

An indication that a person was fasting for the wrong reason was a desire for vengeance (Isaiah 58:4). The purpose of fasting was supposed to be to humble oneself before God (Isaiah 58:5). Speaking through Isaiah, the LORD declared, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

Fasting was designed to be a tool to break free from spiritual bondage. Instead of focusing on their own spiritual condition, the Israelites had turned fasting into a speed dial to access God’s power. What God wanted was a sincere search for sin in one’s own life. His expectation was, “When thou see the naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (Isaiah 58:7).

Evidence of genuine righteousness was important to God because he wanted his children to be an example for others. The LORD often referred to himself and his people as a light to the world. Regarding the practice of genuine righteousness, the LORD said, “then shall thy light break forth as the morning…then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:8,10).

Ultimately, God wanted his people to demonstrate the results of following his commands, but in the near term, the goal was to show the world that God’s promises were reliable. After the people of Judah were taken into captivity in Babylon, a remnant was to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The remnant was going to be a group of true believers that would pave the way for the birth of Israel’s Messiah.

During their time in Babylon, the Israelites would be tested to see who among God’s people were truly committed to him. Those who were merely religious would not survive. Isaiah said of these true believers:

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and  like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:11-12)

Help!

There are times when it seems like God is inactive, as if he is asleep or on vacation. Because he is invisible, we look for evidence of his existence and can forget that God is always at work in our lives. Psalm 46:1 states, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The Hebrew word translated present, mâtsâ’ (maw – tsaw´) means to come forth, appear or exist (4672). Although God is always with us, we notice or are aware o his presence most when we are in trouble.

When Sennacherib king of Assyria threatened to attack Jerusalem, he used psychological warfare to intimidate the city’s people. The type of trouble the people experienced was an anguish of soul, a distress of a psychological or spiritual nature. What they needed was assurance that God was near. The psalmist declared, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God shall help her, and that right early” (Psalm 46:5).

Often times, fear causes us to run. We want to get as far away from our trouble as possible. One of the ways that God challenges us to trust him is to wait, to not do anything for the moment. In their time of distress, God told his people, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Isaiah said to the rebellious children of Judah, “Therefore have I cried concerning this, Their strength is to sit still” (Isaiah 30:7).

The primary reason God doesn’t want us to react to our emotions when we are in trouble is we usually make things worse. If we stay and watch to see what will happen, we get to see God at work, and may witness a miracle. Psalm 80 focuses on God’s ability to break forth in a situation like the sun coming up over the horizon. The psalmist prayed, “Stir up thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:2-3).

Three times in Psalm 80 the phrase “turn us again” appears, emphasizing the importance of connecting with God at a personal level. God’s people turned away from him continually and did not obey his commandments as they were instructed to. In spite of this, the LORD remained faithful and responded to their cries for help. The psalmist, pleading for God to intervene on Judah’s behalf, requested of the LORD, “Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit thine vine” (Psalm 80:14).

Invincible

God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib king of Assyria left a remnant of Jews in the Promised Land to continue God’s work (Isaiah 37:31). Psalm 76 was written as a testament to God’s miraculous defeat of an army that most, if not all, people at that time thought was invincible. This psalm begins with the statement, “In Judah is God known: his name is great in Israel” (Psalm 76:1).

God’s demonstration of his power was a result of Hezekiah’s prayer (Isaiah 37:16-20) which concluded with the petition, “Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the LORD, even thou only” (Isaiah 37:20). Hezekiah wanted God to show Sennacherib and the rest of the world that there was a God in heaven because Sennacherib had implied there wasn’t (Isaiah 36:18).

The psalmist referred to Sennacherib and his army as being stouthearted when he said, “The stouthearted are spoiled, they have slept their sleep” (Psalm 76:5). The term stouthearted essentially means that a person has exalted himself above God (47/3820). Sennacherib claimed that no one could deliver a city from his army, not even the God of the Israelites (Isaiah 36:20). The Hebrew word translated spoiled in this verse is shalal, which means to drop or strip, and by implication, to plunder (7997) as one would an enemy that has been overtaken.

Sennacherib’s arrogant attitude was formulated through his empire’s success. For several decades, the Assyrians had been left unchecked. Even the northern kingdom of Israel fell into their hands because no one was willing to ask God for help. The Assyrian kings were known to be tyrants that terrorized their enemies into submission (Assyrian Campaigns against Israel and Judah), and yet, they were still only men who were no match for God. The psalmist declared, “Surely the wrath of men shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (Psalm 76:10).

What is often forgotten or ignored about God is his sovereign control of all circumstances. Men may think they are in control, when in actuality, God is working things out according to his will. God allowed the Assyrian empire to expand and to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, but when Sennacherib approached Jerusalem, God said no and sent him back to Nineveh (Isaiah 37:37). Psalm 76:12 said of the LORD, “He shall cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth.”

Time of death

Around the time when Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked Judah, king Hezekiah contracted a life-threatening disease. Hezekiah’s sickness may have been the result of spiritual circumstances connected with his removal of the high places and images used in idolatry (2 Kings 18:4). Isaiah the prophet came to Hezekiah, “and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live” (Isaiah 32:1).

Hezekiah’s response to Isaiah’s declaration indicated that Hezekiah was a man of faith. He believed that prayer could change the outcome of his situation. It says in Isaiah 38:2-3, “Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, and said, Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.”

Hezekiah poured out his heart to the LORD in a very real and personal way. He didn’t ask the LORD for anything, Hezekiah merely wanted the LORD to know how he felt about the news he had just received. At the time Hezekiah was told he was going to die, he was about 37 or 38 years old, the prime of life for a man living in that time period.

Hezekiah’s prayer received a response, but the LORD didn’t speak to him directly. “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” (Isaiah 38;4-5). The specification of Hezekiah’s time of death meant that he was receiving a divinely appointed extension to his life span, an unusual blessing from the LORD.

It is likely that by changing the time of Hezekiah’s death, God allowed Hezekiah’s life to change the course of history. A connection was made between the extension of Hezekiah’s life and the deliverance of Jerusalem out of the hand of the king of Assyria (Isaiah 38:5-6). After Hezekiah recovered, he received a visit from the king of Babylon (Isaiah 39:1) to whom he revealed all his kingdom’s treasures (Isaiah 39:4). As a result of this mistake, It says in Isaiah 39:5-6:

Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Behold, the days will come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the LORD.

Escape clause

The punishment Amos predicted was a complete destruction of the nation of Israel. He said, “Hear ye this word which I take up against you, even a lamentation, O house of Israel. The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise” (Amos 5:1). A lamentation is a chant or wail that occurs at a funeral. Amos was speaking as if the judgment had already been decided and there was no chance of escaping it, but God intended to preserve a remnant of the nation.

According to Amos, ten percent of the people would survive (Amos 5:3). What this meant was that at an individual level there was a type of escape clause in God’s punishment that enabled an Israelite to remain alive even though the nation of Israel would not longer exist. Amos stated, “For thus saith the LORD unto the house of Israel, seek ye me, and ye shall live” (Amos 5:4).

The Hebrew word translated house, bayith (bah´ – yith) refers to a family or a household. It can also designate a “fixed, established structure made from some kind of material” (1004) such as a home. Similar to when the Israelites celebrated the Passover in Egypt and were exempted from the plague that killed all the first born males, each household that sought God’s mercy would be kept alive.

One of the things that Amos made clear was that the punishment of Israel’s sin was coming directly from God. Amos declared, “Therefore the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; wailing shall be in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, alas! alas! And they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skillful of lamentation to wailing. And in all vineyard shall be wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the LORD” (Amos 5:16-17).

A significant problem that existed in Israel was false worship. By that I mean worship that had nothing to do with having a relationship with God. The goal of worship was supposed to be communication with God. In particular, prayer was meant to be a two-way conversation. Instead of asking God what he wanted them to do, the people of Israel were making sacrifices so that God would do what they wanted him to.

Pagan worship, in which deities had to be appeased in order to gain their favor, had infiltrated the Israelite culture. Much like the heathen that lived around them, the Israelites expected their God to do certain things because they made sacrifices to him. The LORD warned his people, “Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts” (Amos 5:22). In order to be saved, God’s people would have to seek his direction through prayer.

Intercession

The ability Elisha had to perform miracles was not dependent on prayer, nor was he limited in the kinds of miracles he could do. On two separate occasions,  Elisha asked the person he intended to bless what she wanted him to do for her, as if he could do anything (2 Kings 4:2,13). Elisha gave one the resources to pay off all her debts (2 Kings 4:7), and the other who was childless, a son (2 Kings 4:17).

Unlike most prophets that proceeded him, Elisha was not a spokesperson for the LORD, but an intercessor on behalf of the people. Like Elijah, I believe Elisha had the ability to see what was going on in the spiritual realm, as well as, the ability to discern motives and intensions. When the woman to whom Elisha had given a son came to him with an urgent request, her problem was hidden from him, indicating Elisha’s ability was blocked (2 Kings 4:27).

The source of Elisha’s power was attributed to the spirit he received after Elijah was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 1:11). The spirit was “the mighty penetrating power of the invisible God” which enabled Elisha “to feel, think, speak, and act in accordance with the Divine will” (7307). In essence, Elisha experienced a life similar to that of Jesus Christ. Although Elisha was not God, he had the ability to act like he was.

When Elisha went into the woman’s house and saw that her child was dead, “He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the LORD” (2 Kings 4:33). The Hebrew word translated prayed in this verse is palal, which means to judge (6419). Elisha was acting as a mediator between the woman who had lost her son and God. In this sense, it was not really Elisha who was praying, but the spirit that was upon him that was praying on the woman’s behalf.

The mother of the child that died is described as a “great woman” (2 Kings 4:8).The meaning of the word translated great is twofold. First, the woman was older. She may have been past the age of having children, but most likely she was capable of having a child. Second, the woman was probably wealthy. She and her husband provided a room in their home for Elisha and his servant Gahazi. Elisha’s intention in giving the woman a child and then bringing him back to life after he died was not to reward the woman for her generosity, but to show the woman that God was concerned about her well being and would go to great lengths to make her happy.

Elisha’s behavior demonstrated God’s love for his people. The miracles he performed were not so much to make people aware of God’s power, but to let people know that God’s power was available to everyone. It was God’s desire to bless his people and Elisha made it possible for everyone to see that God could and would take care of them if they gave him the chance to.