49: Making Hezekiah Great Again
Have you ever thought about Hezekiah as one of the main characters in the Old Testament? And what if we told you that the child named Immanuel spoken of in Isaiah referred not to Jesus but to Hezekiah (at least at first)? Nate and Tim look again at the literary technique of “snowballing” and discuss how biblical characters and even biblical texts are presented as disappointing failures that will have to be recycled and repurposed in the future.
Nate: Welcome back to Almost Heretical. Last time we talked about snowballing and how the biblical writers build upon this idea of the messiah figure and these kind of heroes in the Bible and what we’re looking for in the messiah as the story goes along. And so—
Tim: Well, I want to get to that. Well so, one of the things I forgot to say is that what David adds to the profile is that David is one who is anointed as king, and that’s when this thing begins to become called the Messiah. So someone who is messiah-ed, anointed to lead now becomes part of the profile, and that’s why we have this idea of the messiah.
Nate: Okay, so the messiah thing didn’t come around till David?
Tim: Uh, yes, more or less correct. So mashiach, which is Hebrew, means to anoint, or the anointed one. It’s this ceremony where you take oil, you put it on the head. Oil was kind of this elaborate part of hygiene; most people couldn’t afford it, basically gets your hair wet. And it’s a symbol of anointing someone to be king. But that becomes a part of the anointed one, this hero figure, once there was a royal throne, there’s a kingship, there’s a dynasty, then this figure will no longer be this kind of impromptu leader like Moses or just sort of this military leader like Joshua, but’ll actually be the king of the nation. And so the Messiah is the anointed king.
Nate: Oh okay, okay. So that’s the snowballing thing, and that’s how David fits in, and that’s how this Messiah idea comes about. And this all kind of pushes forward to Jesus eventually. But are we there yet, or what do you want to talk about this time?
Tim: So we just tried to get up to the point of David in the last episode, and here, like I said, snowballing will happen both with ideas; it will happen with prophecies. And that’s a little more complicated, because prophecies are always intertwined with the humans who will be the subject of those prophecies. So for instance, David is promised that if he’s faithful, that God will, similar to the promise to Abraham, God will use his children and his children’s children and the family that will come from him to be this great house, this great family, that will help bring about what this whole story’s been trying to bring about, which is restoration, renewal, healing of eventually the entire world. That promise gets latched onto David, but then we see that David wasn’t the one, right, like you said. The character piece, it presents David as the one up to a point and then we realize it wasn’t him; he couldn’t finish the job. So that snowballing character piece says we have to look for another person. The prophecy piece says, “This person will still somehow be able to fulfill this prophecy.” So now what we’re going to do is we’re going to look within David’s lineage, within David’s offspring, to find this person. So that prophecy kind of gets snowballed forward. But then, I think what’s super fascinating here, is we’re actually going to see how texts, specifically the Great Isaiah Scroll, or as we westerners call, the book of Isaiah, is actually snowballing on top of itself in order to kick this ball forward.
Nate: Okay, but Tim, you said something about talking about Hezekiah? And I said, “Wow, that sounds really interesting,” and you said, “No, no, it will be interesting, Nate. Just wait.” So you said, “I’m going to make Hezekiah more interesting than anything you’ve ever heard.” So what? How do you? Hezekiah… tell me about it.
Tim: [laughing] Make Hezekiah Great Again. So we’ll fast forward through part of the story. You know, ends poorly with David. Then he gets this warning that things are going to fall apart, and then you know David’s son Solomon, right? Again, Solomon looks like things are going really well. He builds the palace, the temple; economic prosperity; and then it all falls apart. So we’re just seeing this thing happen again. So David’s not the one. Maybe Solomon? No, Solomon’s not the one. And then you probably know, and most listeners can probably identify with, the books of Kings, 1 and 2 Kings, the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles?
Nate: It’s like the same thing.
Tim: Well, not just that. I mean, have you ever been able to actually enjoy reading those texts?
Nate: Uh… No. No I have not.
Tim: Why? Give me a—
Nate: Kind of like what I told you about Hezekiah. I felt like it was going to be boring. It is boring. It’s repetitive, it’s um… I’m trying to think of other boring words. Yeah, monotonous. It just kind of goes on and on. And it’s about the same stuff over and over again and it’s hard to differentiate between this one and that one. I just kind of get confused and lost and want to move onto something else.
Tim: [laughing] Yeah, and it’s hard to find where it’s important, right? I think—
Nate: Yeah, it’s not very impactful or practical.
Tim: It feels that way. Yeah, so I think secondary to that question is, Nate, I’ll ask you. In the last episode I asked you to think of the prominent characters in the Old Testament. We named Moses, David, Abraham, Noah. Where on your list historically in your time teaching or learning in church world, theology world, where does Hezekiah rank [laughing] on your list of important characters in the Bible?
Nate: I mean… pretty low. I don’t remember teaching on him much or teaching about his story very much, honestly. I don’t know if right now I could tell you—I’d probably have to go look up what he did, honestly.
Tim: Yeah, totally. Here’s why it’s worth noting on this. The reason why I’m going to make a case that Hezekiah is a very important link in this chain, or a layer in the snowball, of hero figures in the Bible. Part of the reason I think we haven’t talked about him much in the church traditionally is that like we just said, the books of Kings and Chronicles we really don’t know how to do much with them. They are confusing; it basically just seems like, “Hey, we got a good king, and a bad king, and a bad king, and a good king.” And you don’t really know what to do with it. It just seems like a historical record. And then the other piece where Hezekiah shows up, the other text, is Isaiah. And in the first half of the scroll of Isaiah. And Isaiah is just so dang complex and complicated, most Christians have no idea what to even do with it, and I don’t even think we notice that Hezekiah’s in it. And so it’s much easier to read, say, 1 Samuel and the stories about David and Saul. Just literarily, they are easier for us to figure out, “Oh, I think David’s supposed to be a good guy, I think Saul’s probably supposed to be a bad guy. I think I can kind of jive with that.” And then we basically just skim through Kings and Chronicles, right? And I think it makes it worse that in our protestant ordering of the Bible, we put Kings and Chronicles next to each other, because then it just makes it totally boring and monotonous when we go from one to the next. But let’s just give a little primer. So basically you have David; then Solomon; things fall apart; and then what you essentially have is a split in the kingdom. You remember that, Nate, where you go from having one Israel?
Nate: Oh yeah, like the northern and southern type thing?
Tim: Yep, so you have the nation of Israel becomes the northern ten tribes, and then the southern nation of Judah, which is David’s line, is centered in Bethlehem. The northern kingdom is centered in Samaria. And they not only split and have a civil war; they actually end up warring against each other like rival nations, which is part of the tragedy of this unfolding historical drama. Then you get to this climactic, political set of events where one of the sons of David, one of the Judean kings, is Hezekiah. He’s the son of Ahaz. Ahaz is a bad dude; Hezekiah ends up being a good dude. So we don’t have time to get into the details, but 2 Kings 18:1-8 offers a literary introduction to Hezekiah, and it has lines like There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. Which includes even David. And I could go through every verse and show how pretty much each verse is a direct reference to one or two characters who are part of this snowball in the past. And it’s presenting Hezekiah; it’s basically his literary, biblical resumé for how this guy is the next messianic deliverer and the most important character we’ve come across in the Bible thus far.
Nate: Okay, so he’s important. You made him important. I don’t know if he’s exciting yet, but you made him important.
Tim: [laughing] Yeah, I don’t expect you to be intrigued with that much. Okay, so then we actually read the story, or at least the portions of Hezekiah’s story that the biblical authors want us to read, and it’s this sort of complicated political drama. But basically, Hezekiah is the king, and Isaiah the prophet is alive during this time sort of as Hezekiah’s faithful sidekick or sort of prophetic assistant who is to help the king, but if the king goes astray, then Isaiah’s supposed to be there to sort of steer him right. And essentially what Hezekiah does is he is the king under the threat of Assyrian invasion. So the northern tribes get exiled to Assyria. That’s the first exile. And the southern tribes under Hezekiah’s rule face the same destruction, and Hezekiah proves faithful with Isaiah’s help and successful in saving Judah from destruction and leading the people both to freedom and to faithfulness. So he ends up being this political national hero that keeps Judah, the southern kingdom, and thus the nation itself of Israel, from being entirely taken captive by the Assyrian empire.
Nate: Because the northern kingdom was and he keeps the southern kingdom from being captured, right? Okay, so he did all the good stuff, but where’s his “hit a rock” moment. Did he have one?
Tim: Yeah, so do you remember the strange story—it probably will ring a vague bell for those of you who’ve been acquainted with Bible stories for long enough—the kind of random story where Hezekiah gets sick and then the king of Babylon starts sending him get well letters and gifts and then there’s this strange piece where Hezekiah brags to all the Babylonian messengers about how wealthy they are, and Hezekiah shows these guys from Babylon all the wealth Judah has? Do you remember that story at all?
Tim: Okay, so he’s the king. He helps avoid this Assyrian, destruction to the Assyrian empire. But then there’s this other empire, or looming empire right around the corner. And after all the successes of Hezekiah, you just have this story pop out of the blue. And he’s sick and the king’s like, “Hey! Hezekiah!”—the king of Babylon—like, “Hey, get better, man! Here’s some gifts!” And just randomly, Hezekiah’s like, “Hey, come see all our gold! All our wealth!” And it’s essentially implying this is kind of like a Trump-Putin relationship between two nations that really shouldn’t be happening. Babylon is another enemy threat. So then Isaiah’s like, “Hey, who was that?” And then essentially Hezekiah’s like, “Oh, it was the Babylonians.” And Isaiah says, “Well, what did you show them?” And Hezekiah’s like, “Oh, I showed them all of it. I showed them everything.” And Isaiah basically then says, “Bro, the day is coming where everything will be gone. It’ll all be carried off to Babylon. Thus saith the LORD.” [laughing]
Nate: So Isaiah’s Mueller, then?
Tim: Prophet Mueller? Something like that. So it’s this funny story. You know, we’re making some jokes in there. But it’s this funny story that kind of pops out of nowhere. Basically he just—Hezekiah is this symbolic hero who saves Israel from being destroyed from one nation, and then at the end of his life he sets up what’s going to happen in the future, which is this other nation is going to come in and completely destroy them just like they were afraid was going to happen to Assyria. So literarily, Hezekiah is accredited for saving Judah from destruction at the hands of Assyria and blamed for the future exile to Babylon, and that is his downfall. And then there’s this hilarious piece at the end, where at the end of these stories, we’re just reminded of other great achievements like how Hezekiah built a pool and a tunnel to bring water to Jerusalem. And then he dies. And then immediately following, his son, the next king ruins everything. So it’s another one of these stories where you’ve got, “Good, good, good, good, good. This guy’s so great! He’s the great deliver we’ve always been waiting for!” And then, “Whoa, where did that just come from?!” And it all falls to pieces.
Nate: Hi friends, it’s Nate. Real quick interruption. Just wanted to say, if you have any questions or thoughts or want to share your story with us, we would be so honored to hear that. And also, special announcement, our shows are now being transcribed, thank you Sarah. So if you want to read these shows instead or as well, you can now do that. And also, if you want to help support the show, that would be awesome as well. You can do this all at almostheretical.com
Nate: Okay, so I made the joke about Mueller being Isaiah the prophet, or whatever. But how does Isaiah fit into all this here?
Tim: Yeah so I already told you, historically, at least according to these texts, Isaiah and Hezekiah were alive at the same time, right? Isaiah’s life—the original prophet named Isaiah—is overlapping with these political events, escaping Assyrian exile and then the threat of Babylon exile not long after. Remember, though, I said that Hezekiah’s dad Ahaz was one of the bad kings? He was a bad dude? So Isaiah was alive then, too. And actually some of what we read in some of the early chapters in the book of Isaiah is in relation to Ahaz. So let me just pause here before we get into some interesting Isaiah stuff. Nate, what has your experience been with the idea of there being multiple authors to Isaiah? The whole 2, 3 Isaiah? Have you been around people who push back on that idea or get scared about that?
Nate: No, I mean, I haven’t really… Isaiah… I’ve felt over the last couple years the complexity growing of what this actually is and some of even all this other stuff we’re talking about with the Bible and layering and different parts to it, different authors and that kind of stuff. But what I used to teach of Isaiah was basically the, “We like sheep have gone astray,” and the piece you do around Christmas-time about the prophecy around Jesus, right? Those are the two sort of components. But other than that, it’s just kind of this really complex book, you know?
Tim: Yeah. So we’ll have to get into the details some other time, but essentially there’s a strong scholarly consensus that what we now know as the Great Isaiah Scroll, or the book of Isaiah was clearly a compilation of multiple texts over multiple periods by multiple authors. And that the text itself is open and admitting to that. So Isaiah 1-39 is called 1 Isaiah, and then you get a split up of the latter half of Isaiah. Most scholars think they’re two separate, second and third portions of Isaiah. The basic premise is that some real historical figure, Isaiah, began teaching or potentially writing texts himself or having his disciples write them down, which is alluded to in the text, and then a lot of time goes by and those texts get repurposed and reworked to adapt for events. I’ve seen firsthand just the massive amount of push back from conservative Christians on that idea, and I think people are just deathly afraid of the idea that a text, especially a text with prophecies in them like we see in the beginning of Isaiah—prophecies, for example, about how a virgin will give birth to a son and his name will be Immanuel—how that text could be about one thing at one time and something else at another time. And so conservative world has largely been intimidated by that premise, even though serious Bible scholars, there’s just no question.
Nate: Well, it’s just insulting to the people who it was originally written to. I just always picture them reading over the thing, like, “Okay, okay, I’m with you. What the heck is this talking about? Okay, I’m with you again.” Like, it meant something to them!
Nate: You don’t send me an email and I’m like, “I have no clue what that line was about,” and then twenty years later, “I get it! He was talking about this other thing that no one knew about!” That just doesn’t happen. That’s insulting to the original audience.
Tim: But it comes close to making people feel like we’re saying the Bible was wrong. And that idea or premise is so scary. Especially when you’re operating on a foundation of inerrancy, that idea is destructive to the entire thing. So let me show you something I think is fascinating. So Isaiah 7 and 8 is kind of where the really interesting stuff happens. So this portion of Isaiah, these couple chapters, overlap with some of the political events we see in Kings and Chronicles. Before Hezekiah, remember we just talked about how he’s presented as this great hero. Before Hezekiah was Ahaz, Hezekiah’s dad. And Ahaz was living as king in the time, and Isaiah was there as well, in the time where he faced two political rivals. A nation called Aram and then his own kin in the northern tribes of Israel. And they were at war with each other, and he’s really scared of those guys. So what he does—remember I said this is like the political equivalent of Trump befriending Putin—he makes an alliance with Assyria, and that later backfires because it puts them at the threat of the Assyrian nation a generation later when Hezekiah’s king. But here’s the interesting thing: Isaiah 7 & 8 are referencing this turmoil, this threat or conflict between Judah under Ahaz and these two nations, Israel and Aram. And Isaiah records a message from God saying Ahaz doesn’t need to be scared of these two nations because God is promising Judah will not be destroyed. And then if you’ll remember, Ahaz doesn’t believe, and there’s thing where God says, “I’ll give you a sign,” to convince Ahaz that he doesn’t have to be scared. And specifically he doesn’t have to be scared because Assyria is going to come in and wipe out Ahaz’s enemies. Assyria is going to do to the northern kingdom of Israel what we call the Assyrian exile. Because of that Ahaz and Judah don’t have to worry about being destroyed by Assyria. But Ahaz doesn’t believe, like the old heroes of old, Abraham and Moses and them, did believe. So God promises a sign, and Ahaz says, “What kind of sign?” And the answer to that question is the thing we read in churches every Christmas. “The young woman, or virgin, will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. And before this little boy is very old, the guys you’re afraid of will be dead and gone, and you won’t have to worry about them anymore, because the king of Assyria is going to come and fix everything for you.” So just think about it. The promise is to Ahaz that a son’s going to be born that will essentially be a part of this sign and actually bring about the ultimate resolution, and the name, Immanuel, means ‘God with us.’ But do you remember when we said the section in 2 Kings 18, the introduction to Hezekiah, was presenting him as this ultimate layer in the snowball? Well, one of the things said about him was, “And the LORD was with him, and he was successful in whatever he undertook,” which is a direct reference back to Joseph and Joshua, who it said God was with over and over again. So the virgin is likely Ahaz’s wife or concubine or whatever, and Hezekiah is Immanuel. Which means Isaiah is prophesying a prophecy that came true in part, that this new hero figure who is going to come be a sign of restoration is Hezekiah. And then you read a bunch more stuff in Isaiah, and then you get to the end of what scholars is 1 Isaiah, chapters 36-39, and the whole point is that these predictions—that Judah will be spared from their wars and Assyria will go wipe out their enemies and Hezekiah, this little kid who’s going to be born, will reign—it comes to fruition and then these chapters of Isaiah then borrow from those chapters telling Hezekiah’s story in Kings and Chronicles. And they do the same thing where they present him as the answer: he is the one, he is Immanuel, he is the anointed one, but then you have this weird story again where he invites Babylon to come and eventually create the downfall. So just think about this. The book of Isaiah is saying that Immanuel is not Jesus of Nazareth but Hezekiah. How does that make you feel for a second, Nate?
Nate: Yeah, I mean, that helps a lot, because I’ve always felt like that has to mean something for the people that were actually hearing it. It’s not just this magical verse for the future talking about Jesus. So that’s talking about Hezekiah, it’s talking about something in their actually time that was going on then. It’s this snowballing, building forward, he’s this messiah figure in Hezekiah. And then we’re also let down by Hezekiah again and then we use that verse, we repurpose that verse again for pushing forward. What’s the next one? Eventually Jesus, and I get how it kind of works in both ways. I think that’s really helpful.
Tim: Exactly. So then one of the main things for scholars, why they say clearly the bulk of Isaiah was written in at least two very different periods, is you have these stories about Hezekiah and the warning that Babylon’s going to come soon in Isaiah 39. And then Isaiah 40 opens up and says, “You’re about to be free from your exile to Babylon!” It’s clearly generations later. The thing they were scared of, Babylon did come in, it did wipe out Judah, it did carry the people off into exile. They’ve been in exile for a generation or two, and then some voice is declaring that they’re about to be liberated from that slavery. Clearly a massive portion of time has passed. So what actually ends up happening is that Isaiah itself—so what I just said earlier, that the book of Isaiah says Immanuel is Hezekiah and not Jesus of Nazareth, is partly false. The first half of the book of Isaiah says that. The second half of the book of Isaiah says the first half of the book of Isaiah was ultimately wrong in a sense. But not wrong that it needs to be erased, or we pretend that this prophecy was never stated, we pretend that we never got our hopes up in Hezekiah, we cover our tracks and avoid anybody thinking we made any mistakes. Instead it says Hezekiah was another link in the chain, he was another layer in the snowball, this was not him—
Nate: He wasn’t the messiah. He wasn’t the ultimate one.
Tim: He wasn’t ultimately the one. But what we’re going to do is instead of giving up, we’re going to repurpose this! We’re going to repurpose these hopes. That a son could be born and give hope to a whole nation? We want to latch onto that. We want to hold on to that.
Nate: Just like we’ve done in the past! With repurposing all these different figures along the way.
Tim: Exactly! But now, whoever is working on composing this end scroll of Isaiah, it’s repurposing even the texts. And so it’s preserving this first portion of Isaiah saying it was false, but at a deep sense it’s true. On the surface, it didn’t get the job done and Isaiah was wrong to get his hopes up, but somewhere we’re going to hold onto that Isaiah and this idea, this prophetic hope, that it’s ultimately true, but we’re going to pass the ball forward. So don’t look in the past toward Hezekiah or towards Isaiah, look into the future. And then you get this really interesting stuff which we’ll cover in a future episode of this servant figure and actually the reader of the book of Isaiah, the scroll of Isaiah, being invited to step in to be the one who this was pointing to in the future.
Nate: You made Hezekiah pretty interesting. I will give you that. You made him pretty interesting again. And that was fun! This is like this snowballing piece that I think really helps in understanding these kind of good and kind of bad figures from the Old Testament and how it pushes forward to looking for the Messiah figure. Okay, that was another picture into how the Bible works. If you have any questions, thoughts, want to share your story or just get in touch with us at all, you can do that all at almostheretical.com! We will see you next time.