2 KINGS 20 IS ONE OF the sadder chapters of Scripture. It pictures a man who has been faithful in the past, now withering away in the complacency of selfishness.
King Hezekiah ruled over Judah, the southern kingdom, in the waning days of the northern kingdom of Israel. Once the Assyrians had defeated Israel and transported its leading citizens, leaving behind only a shattered wreck of a nation, there was plenty of reason for discouragement in the south. But in truly heroic fashion, Hezekiah, guided in part by the prophet Isaiah, withstands the withering siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria, simply relying on the mercy of the Lord God. Sent by God himself, plague sweeps through the Assyrian camp, killing almost two hundred thousand people. Jerusalem and Judah are spared (2 Kings 18–19; Isa. 36–37). Moreover, Hezekiah’s commitment to God in the early years of his reign was not characterized by the typical compromise, which maintained some sort of allegiance to Yahweh while not touching the high places and other sites of pagan worship. Far from it: he cleaned things up, earning the judgment, “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done” (2 Kings 18:3–4). He even recognized that the bronze serpent Moses had made (Num. 21:4–9) had now become a superstitious snare, and destroyed it.
Then he fell ill and wept bitterly. Somehow he got himself into the position where he thought his righteous deeds meant that God owed him a long and prosperous life (2 Kings 20:2–3). In his mercy, God assigned him fifteen more years, and gave him a miraculous sign to confirm the promise (20:1–11). During that fifteen-year span, however, Hezekiah failed an important test: when emissaries came from Babylon, instead of seeking the Lord’s face and walking humbly, Hezekiah played the role of a proud potentate, showing off the kingdom’s rising wealth. Everything was duly recorded in the books of Babylon, in preparation for the day, more than a century later, when Babylon would be the superpower and crush Jerusalem and send her people into exile (2 Kings 20:12–18).
But this is not Hezekiah’s most grievous lapse. When Isaiah the prophet tells him what will happen, the king does not repent of his arrogance, or seek forgiveness, or intercede with God. The threatened judgment is slated for the future: Hezekiah refuses to accept any deeply felt responsibility. He piously comments, “The word of the LORD you have spoken is good”—while the writer comments, “For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’” (2 Kings 20:19). Hezekiah has become a moral and strategic pygmy.
Far better to die young after genuine, godly, achievements, than to die old and embittered, poisoning your own heritage.