Nahum, Isaiah, Hezekiah, God, and Church Guys

What is a Men of Emmaus meeting like? Here is a summary of our most recent one:

We read Nahum 1. Nahum is one of the minor prophets – the book is only 3 chapters – and short ones at that. He prophesied at the time that the Lord defeated Assyria on behalf of Judah. I think it would be fair to say that the consensus at the start of the meeting was that it would not be all that inspiring.

Were we wrong.

A little context first. 2 Kings, chapter 18 tells us about the context from a historical perspective.

Hezikiah was the king of Judah. He was a good king:

5 Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. 6 He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. 7 And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. 8 From watchtower to fortified city, he defeated the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territory.

The second sentence of verse 5 jumps out – no one before or since, e.g., King David, was his equal. As we often see, Hezekiah’s faith translated into worldly success.

Hezekiah’s yes to the Lord led him to say ‘no’ to Assyria. “He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him.”

Assyria responded as you would expect. First, Assyria destroyed Samaria – the tribes of Israel.

10 . . .So Samaria was captured in Hezekiah’s sixth year, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel. 11 The king of Assyria deported Israel to Assyria and settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in towns of the Medes. 12 This happened because they had not obeyed the Lord their God, but had violated his covenant—all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out.

This development, though, should not have been worrisome. The defeat of Israel “happened because they had not obeyed the Lord their God, but had violated his covenant—all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out.” That was not true of Judah. King Hezekiah “trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.”

But the Assyrians captured “the fortified towns of Judah.” Hezekiah’s fear drove out his love. He offered repentance and asked for the price of peace. The king of Assyria demanded 300 talents of silver and 30 of gold as ransom (about 20 metric tons) Hezekiah said “yes” and stripped the Temple of its gold and silver to pay the ransom.

What a reversal. King Hezekiah began as the most faithful of the kings of Judah. Now, he was handing gold and silver dedicated to the honor of the Lord to the king of Assyria.

The Lord sent Nahum — “comforter” — to Judah. Keeping in mind the abject fear that had seized Judah, listen to the first verses of Nahum’s prophecy :

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
and clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and dries it up;
he makes all the rivers run dry.
Bashan and Carmel wither
and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.
5 The mountains quake before him
and the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at his presence,
the world and all who live in it.
6 Who can withstand his indignation?
Who can endure his fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
the rocks are shattered before him.
7 The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
8 but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

For a people facing an army of horrific size and cruelty, this is the message they needed to hear. The essence of their fear was that there was no exit. God was not strong enough to help. This sounds warlike and violent to those of us who live in a nation blessed with peace, but it is a message of hope to those who see no other recourse.

Then the Assyrians added insult to injury. Sennacherib, King of Assyria, sent his field commander to demand total surrender. The passage is too long to quote in full, but here is a taste:

28 Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’

31 “Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, 32 until I come and take you to a land like your own—a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey. Choose life and not death!

“Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ 33 Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? 35 Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”

What did Hezekiah do? What would you do? He got down on his knees.

14 Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord. 15 And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: “Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 16 Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.

17 “It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. 18 They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. 19 Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.”

The prayer shows Hezekiah’s faith. He does not pray, ‘Lord, I am a good king and kept my side of the bargain (ekev). So now keep yours!” Rather, his prayer focuses on the Lord. It is not about Hezekiah or Judah; it is unselfish.

How did the Lord answer this prayer? He sent Nahum to say:

9 Whatever they plot against the Lord
he will bring to an end;
trouble will not come a second time.
10 They will be entangled among thorns
and drunk from their wine;
they will be consumed like dry stubble.
11 From you, Nineveh, has one come forth
who plots evil against the Lord
and devises wicked plans.
12 This is what the Lord says:

“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
13 Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.”
14 The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh:
“You will have no descendants to bear your name.
I will destroy the images and idols
that are in the temple of your gods.
I will prepare your grave,
for you are vile.”

The Lord’s love for His holy city, Jerusalem, and for the people of Judah is steadfast. Even though they despoiled His temple in a futile gesture, the Lord promises to protect Judah from its enemy.

The Lord also sent “Isaiah, son of Amoz,” to say:

20 Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent a message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I have heard your prayer concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria. 21 This is the word that the Lord has spoken against him:

22 Who is it you have ridiculed and blasphemed?

25 “‘Have you not heard?
Long ago I ordained it.
In days of old I planned it;
now I have brought it to pass,
that you have turned fortified cities
into piles of stone.
26 Their people, drained of power,
are dismayed and put to shame.
They are like plants in the field,
like tender green shoots,
like grass sprouting on the roof,
scorched before it grows up.
27 “‘But I know where you are
and when you come and go
and how you rage against me.
28 Because you rage against me
and because your insolence has reached my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth,
and I will make you return
by the way you came.’
29 “This will be the sign for you, Hezekiah:

32 “Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria:

“‘He will not enter this city
or shoot an arrow here.
He will not come before it with shield
or build a siege ramp against it.
33 By the way that he came he will return;
he will not enter this city,
declares the Lord.
34 I will defend this city and save it,
for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’”

Imagine the scene. Two prophets speak of defeat for the Assyrians. The question at hand is whether their fear will cause Hezekiah to forget that God’s power and steadfast love was just as much a part of the military calculus – a part of objective reality – as were the swords and arrows of Assyria.

King Hezekiah, the most faithful of the kings of Judah, chose correctly:

35 That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! 36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.

37 One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the river

The Lord did not deliver Judah from Assyria and then abandon them. No, He had promised something greater still – a restoration and a Messiah. Isaiah’ promise focused on the material:

“This year you will eat what grows by itself,
and the second year what springs from that.
But in the third year sow and reap,
plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
30 Once more a remnant of the kingdom of Judah
will take root below and bear fruit above.
31 For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,
and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.

Judah would survive.

Nahum, though, prophesied about a Messiah who defeat all of Judah’s enemies:

15 Look, there on the mountains,
the feet of one who brings good news,
who proclaims peace!
Celebrate your festivals, Judah,
and fulfill your vows.
No more will the wicked invade you;
they will be completely destroyed.

Talk about hope! Talk about renewal and restoration! Nahum leaves us with a promise as ringing as any in Scripture. Something – a Someone – is coming. That Someone will proclaim “peace” and bring “good news.” Just reading it, the hopeful expectation bursts forth. All Judah need do is “Celebrate your festivals, Judah, and fulfill your vows.” Live in a right relationship with the Lord according to the Sinai Covenant. Ekev.

What did this teach me? First, the meeting taught me something about the Church. As I noted above, no one really expected to get a lot out of Nahum. Fire and brimstone, not very inspiring. I certainly didn’t. But when we listened to those 15 verses together I heard much more than on my own.

The Church is like that, isn’t it? Rather than a group of guys, we are a billion strong. But not only that, we are millions who came before and recorded what they heard. We are a people who listen and together hear more of what God speaks than any of us could hear alone. Guided by the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him, we try to discern what God is saying to us individually and as a community and then we try to do as He asks.

Second, this passage taught me to pray. Not so much Nahum, but King Hezekiah. All prayer must place acknowledging God’s glory first. When we pray, especially prayers of petitioning, we acknowledge our weakness – as did Hezekiah – and God’s strength. If the premise of our prayer is that God HAS to say “yes” or will say “yes,” our focus is wrong – we must focus on Him and His greatness not the thing we want or the concern that drove us to our knees. Hezekiah prayed, in essence, “deliver us, because You are great.” He did not pray “deliver us, Lord, because we’ve done everything you asked! How many things I have sacrificed for You and now THIS! How could You let this happen to us?”

Notice, too, how Sennacherib tried to break Hezekiah’s spirit and how it sprang from a false premise of prayer. Sennacherib said look at my military might and tremble. The taunt – your bargain with your god is nothing – is a powerful one for a person who views the Lord as ‘Sugar Daddy in the sky.” But if our prayer is based on the premise that its purpose is to acknowledge God’s greatness, Sennacherib’s taunt means nothing. Rather it becomes in the hands of King Hezekiah yet another occasion for acknowledging God’s greatness. Look at Christ’s prayer before raising Lazarus and compare. They stem from the same premise.

Quite a bit from a single meeting!


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