This week I read an online newspaper article that was discussing the ongoing war in Afghanistan. It was arguing for a tougher military strategy especially in the light of the Afghan’s government-endorsed and even enforced persecution of Christian believers in that radically Muslim land. The author stated with commendation the war adage, “Grab them by their throats and their hearts and minds will follow.” He clearly rejected the current military strategy of the primacy of the need to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”
Whatever the merits of such a military strategy, it is clear that this was, in many ways, the approach of (next to David) the greatest king that ever ruled over Judah: Hezekiah.
Hezekiah was a mere 25 years old when he inherited the royal crown from his father Ahaz. And yet at this tender age (perhaps not so young for that day) he grabbed the nation by the throat and cleaned things up externally with the goal of cleaning things up internally for the glory of God. He grabbed idolatry by the throat and expected the hearts and minds of those in Judah to follow.
Hezekiah knew that Judah was in deep spiritual trouble because even though they claimed to worship the true God, they were worshipping Him in a false way. He had inherited this mess from his ungodly father and he now aimed to do something about it. He was intent on doing the hard thing because his reforms would put him at odds with much of both the religious establishment as well as putting himself up against the populace. Nevertheless he did so and the Lord commended him for it.
The Bible itself testifies to his uniqueness when it says, “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done . . . so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him” (2 Kings 18:3, 5).
This leader was serious about serving the Lord and he expected that those over whom God had appointed him to rule would also be serious about serving Him. After all, Judah was a theocracy, which had been instituted by God Himself and therefore each member of this nation had covenantal responsibilities to Him, as well as to each other. Hezekiah understood what biblical church life was to look like, what it did not look like and what needed to be done to promote it.
There is a very real sense in which, even though he was king, Hezekiah also was responsible for the souls—for the spiritual welfare—of the nation. And by the way, the only ones who think that separation of church and state means legislating God out of society are liberal minded secularist. Everyone else knows that though the state cannot impose spirituality, nevertheless it is responsible to enact and enforce law that reflects God’s law. In other words, government is mandated to “grab society by the throat and so that hearts and minds will follow.” That may not be very easy on the ears but it is the truth nonetheless.
Yes, Hezekiah understood what was required for reformation and revival amongst God’s people. He understood what needed to be done to recapture biblical worship and thus what needed to be done for the health of the church. Namely, Hezekiah knew that he would need to speak out, to oppose, and to actively destroy both “sacred cows” and a “sacred serpent.” And I would suggest that the same is true for healthy local church life in our day.
Martin Luther understood this principle when he said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expression every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I might be professing Christ.”
We must face the fact that to follow the Lord Jesus Christ requires some radical resolve and some radical carrying out of that resolve. After all, the Lord Jesus said, that if we are unwilling to forsake all to follow Him then you cannot have Him. He said that in comparison with our love for Him we must “hate” mother and father and brother and sister. He said that once we leave to follow Him that we are forbidden to look back (at home and country). That is, there may be some things that have to be destroyed if we take Him seriously; if we will be saved. Yes, some “sacred cows,” and even some “sacred serpents” will need to be broken.
Perhaps no one else in the Old Testament more exemplified this principle in action than Hezekiah. He seemingly singlehandedly wiped out false worship with its idolatry in a single stroke. He fearlessly and faithfully pointed the nations back to the true God thus preparing them for a time of great conflict which ended in a miraculous deliverance.
My goal in this study is to consider this passage, with primary focus on vv. 1-8, for the purpose of each of us identifying any “sacred serpent” that needs to be destroyed in our quest for healthy spiritual life—both individually as well as corporately in our local expression of the body of Christ. As we will soon see, there are often good things that become bad because of a wrong emphasis. May God give us grace that we might confess our faults, praying for one another in order that we may be healed (James 5:16).
Verses 1-4 record an amazingly courageous reformation on the part of Hezekiah and it is quite clear that, as he grabbed these idolatrous practices by the throat, the hearts and minds of many of Judah followed.
Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
(2 Kings 18:1-4)
But let us note the familial and historical context in which this took place.
The Ungodly Rearing of Hezekiah
Hezekiah was the son of a bad man and a failed leader. Consider the words summarising the reign of Hezekiah’s father.
In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done. But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel; indeed he made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out from before the children of Israel. And he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.
(2 Kings 16:1-4)
Ahaz was a worldling while maintaining some semblance of religious respectability. He sold out to God’s enemy (vv. 5-9) and imported pagan worship (methods) into Judah (vv. 10-18). He offered the right but in the wrong manner driven by a perverse because idolatrous motive. He had really bad theology! These practices became sacred cows which needed to be destroyed.
This was the heritage under which Hezekiah had been raised. What hope was there? Perhaps not much—but for the grace of God!
The Unique Reign of Hezekiah
Unlike many of Judah’s other godly kings there were no qualifications attached to Hezekiah’s commendation. There are striking similarities between David’s reign and Hezekiah’s. Of both kinds it is said that God was “with” him (v. 7; cf. 1 Samuel 16:18; 18:12, 14; 2 Samuel 5:10). Both are said to have “prospered,” and particularly in war (vv. 7-8; cf. 2 Samuel 18:5, 14-15). Both were successful in subduing the Philistines (v. 8; cf. 1 Samuel 18:27; 19:8).
Though other kings were commended for doing great things, there was always a “but” or “yet” that came on the heels of such commendation. Some did not destroy high places, others did not completely remove idolatry. Solomon’s exception clause was that he loved many foreign women. There are no such caveats mentioned with regard to Hezekiah.
Commenting on this, Iain Provan writes,
The consequence of all this religious faithfulness was that Hezekiah’s military exploits paralleled David’s in a way that was not true of any of the rest of his descendants. Only of David and Hezekiah among the Davidic kings is it said that “the LORD was with him” (v 7; cf. 1 Sam. 16:18; 18:12, 14; 2 Sam. 5:10) and that the king “was successful” in war (Hb. skl, v. 7; cf. 2 Sam. 18:5, 14, 15). Only David and Hezekiah, furthermore, are said to have “defeated” the Philistines (Hb. nkh, v. 8; cf. 1 Sam. 18:27; 19:8; etc.). As similar to David as he was, he was by the same token utterly dissimilar to Ahaz, for he would not continue to “serve” the king of Assyria …but “rebelled” against him (18:7).
Hezekiah was certainly not perfect (see 18:13-16; 19:8; 2 Kings 20:12ff), but he sought to love the Lord with all his heart, mind and soul.
This, of course, should be our approach to God—with purity of heart. In some ways, Hezekiah was a type of the perfect antitype, the righteous Ruler—Jesus Christ. Even now, Christ reigns and seeks to reform worship in the church so that it will be acceptable. That is, He seeks a worship from the church which is “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
The Uncompromising Reforms of Hezekiah
Hezekiah was completely uncompromising in his reforms.
Passionate Commitment to Righteousness
Hezekiah “removed the high places.” The term “high places” refers to altars constructed for unauthorised worship. God had ordained the temple in Jerusalem as His place of worship, but the high places served as illegitimate substitutes for the place. Israel was meant to “tread down” these high places (Deuteronomy 33:29), not to worship at them. And that is precisely what Hezekiah did.
Hezekiah further “broke the sacred pillars” (or “images,” KJV). These may well have been idolatrous phallic symbols. The first mention of the Hebrew word is in Genesis 31:19 where Rachel had “stolen the household idols that were her fathers.” It is a reference, one way or another, to idolatry, which God would not tolerate (Exodus 23:24). And since God would not tolerate it, neither would Hezekiah.
Hezekiah proceeded to “cut down the wooden image” (“groves,” KJV). The ESV and NASB translate the word as “Asherah.” Asherah was an Assyrian goddess, who was associated with the image of a tree trunk because she was the goddess of fertility. The term “tree of life” became associated with Asherah. God had previously forbidden this practice (Deuteronomy 16:21) and Hezekiah was once again unwavering in his obedience.
In short, Hezekiah destroyed that which was clearly evil, perversely profane, even diabolical. No doubt, there was an amen corner that was in a frenzy. There were doubtless Jews who were delighted at the removal of open idolatry in their land.
And the same is true today. There are open evils—adultery, lying, theft, abortion, pornography—that church leadership is expected to take a stand against—and no one is too upset when the leadership does this. Taking such a stand sometimes requires a radical break with the past. Ordinarily, this involves nothing more or less than returning to the clear statements of Scripture. And there are always those who are glad when leadership acts in accordance with God’s clearly revealed Word.
There are often reformations of church life that many will even support—even if perhaps grudgingly. Church members will support, for example, the regulating of corporate worship according to Scripture (the way we “do” church). They will support the leadership in doing away with certain “sacred cows” (the “altar call,” for example), so long as it has a biblical basis. They will amen a return to the law of God as our standard, even if it initially requires a change of mind. (See, for example, our recent series on the Ten Commandments, which required a radical shift of mindset regarding certain Commandments.)
But Hezekiah was not about to stop there. He was not content to reform the outwardly sinful. He was more radical than that. And what he did next defied all expectations.
Impartial Commitment to Righteousness
Having removed the openly idolatrous, Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.” If destroying the sacred cows of a nominal Christianity required courage, how much did destroying this sacred serpent!
G. Campbell Morgan states quite plainly, “One of the first acts of the reign of the new king was that of smashing to fragments one of the most valuable and historic relics in his kingdom.” Let’s briefly consider the history of this relic in order to fully understand the picture.
Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
God’s solution to Israel’s calamity with the “fiery serpents” was for Moses to construct an image of the serpent on a pole for all to look to. The very real serpents slithering through the camp were portrayed as lifeless on a pole. Of course, there was no magical power in the bronze serpent. Rather, as Morgan says, “What brought these men back to life was the fact that they returned to submission to the government of God.”
Many centuries later, Jesus would use this account as an illustration of His crucifixion (John 3:14-15). Just as the lifeless serpent on the pole was God’s instrument to rescue the Israelites, so the lifeless Son of God on the cross was God’s means to deliver the world from sin.
There is no explanation in Numbers 21 of exactly how this worked, but clearly the point is that, by trusting God’s Word, looking away from themselves while looking at the cause and the curse, they would be delivered by God alone. The bronze serpent was God’s means to God’s end.
Clearly, there was no problem with the serpent itself. The problem was that the children of those delivered had substituted the symbol as their saviour. They trusted the means of their deliverance rather than the One who ordained the means. Something that was good had become an idol.
How did this come about? Quite clearly they had lost the consciousness of God. They felt the hunger but they had lost the reality. Morgan is spot on when he notes, “These people never could have burned incense to the serpent if the presence of God had been recognized and realised. . . . When the one true and living God having been revealed and known is lost to consciousness the heart will clamantly cry for that which is lost. . . . It is loss of the vision of God that is demonstrated by the deification of anything less than God.” When this occurs then it is just a step away from deifying the gifts because we have drifted from the Giver.
But what about our own bronze serpents? There are many things that we need to look at and ask, has the good become a curse? For many, God’s gift of family has become an idol. There is nothing wrong with family, nothing wrong with loving and giving time to family, but if family becomes a substitute for God, we have crossed the line to idolatry.
Church life and even church buildings can become a similar stumblingblock to us. Many years ago there was a man who occasionally attended the church at which I was then pastor, but who was clearly an unbeliever. He went to Cape Town one day, and when he returned he told me with great zeal about the wonderfully “worshipful” time he had had there. When I asked him to explain, he told me that he had gone to a well-known church, and was clearly impressed with the building. The impressive architecture and stained glass windows gave him a sense of “worship,” even though he denied the gospel!
Theological acumen is another potential Nehushtan. We can become so comfortable in our grasp of the Bible that Bible knowledge becomes our saviour rather than Christ.
For many, idolatry is seen in their physical health and wellbeing. Again, there is nothing wrong with these things, but some people give so much attention to their physical body that they neglect devotion to God. They will rise in the early hours of the morning to spend time at the gym, but they will not do the same to spend time with God. Christian counsellor and pastor David Powlison was once asked whether he would ever like to return to Hawaii, the land of his birth, to minister, and he immediately replied that he would not, because in Hawaii the physical body is too much of a god.
Sport and recreation poses another challenge for us. As I write these words, South Africa is busy with the tremendous privilege of hosting the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup. Just a few days ago, Brazil—one of the tournament favourites—was knocked out of the competition by the Netherlands. In news reports of the game, sad scenes of distraught Brazilian fans were broadcast. Many were in tears, requiring the comfort of their companions. One football presenter noted, “We must keep in mind that, for many Brazilians, soccer is a religion.” And, I might add, the same is true of many sports for many people. How shameful!
Material goods can become idols for us. Years ago I was ministering in Australia, when a colleague and I were driving to a hospital to visit someone. As we drove, a Porsche came speeding past us. We both admired the vehicle—perhaps coveted it!—but just a few minutes down the road we came upon the same vehicle overturned and badly damaged. The driver had lost control and overturned his car. We stopped our vehicle to assist, and uncertain of what might happen to the Porsche (Hollywood flashes of spectacular explosions were admittedly going through my mind), I asked my friend if he had a crowbar in his car. He produced one, and I proceeded to take the crowbar to a vehicle far more expensive than I could ever dream to afford. I did not think twice about the approach, for a human life was potentially in danger. And when we visited the driver several weeks later in the hospital, he did not rebuke me for the damage that I caused to his vehicle. It was Nehushtan.
We could continue listing potential Nehushtans with which we are all familiar: career, education, retirement, relationships, personal testimony of conversion, the ordinances, ministry methodology as well as misters! These good things can be as idolatrous as the otherwise obviously idolatrous things.
So what must we do? Leadership must take responsibility to point us back to God and His grace. They need to help us to focus on the cross. “Let the cross always be the treasure of your heart, your best and highest thought . . . and your passionate preoccupation,” counsels C. J. Mahaney. Idolatry points to a hunger, but an absence of reality. When we lose sight of God’s grace then His gifts become more important than the Giver.
Hezekiah realised that the people he was leading had lost track of the living God. They had lost sight of reality and thus he committed himself to do something about it. There was really only one thing Hezekiah could do: Get rid of it! And so he “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.”
There are two ways of understanding this particular event. It is possible that the children of Israel had been venerating the serpent and calling it Nehushtan. In other words, it was conceivably the children of Israel who called it Nehushtan.
The text makes more sense, however, if we understand that Hezekiah called it Nehushtan. The last clause as translated in the KJV makes this clearest: “and he called it Nehushtan.” It seems to me that Hezekiah himself demolished the bronze serpent and cried to the people, “It’s Nehushtan!”
The word “Nehushtan” literally means “just brass.” Certainly the people had been treating it more than just brass—they had been venerating it—but Hezekiah now destroyed it in their sight and declared, “It’s just brass!” He needed to take radical action to destroy a once-good thing that had become a stumblingblock to his people. And Morgan counsels regarding God’s good gifts to us, “If any or all of these things are coming between your soul and God himself break them in pieces.”
We should note that this would no doubt have been extremely unpopular to the people. This serpent had been in Israel’s collection for some 700 years! It was a treasured relic, tracing back to their most famous ancestor, Moses. To destroy it Hezekiah ran the risk of opposition, but he knew that half measures would never usher in true revival. And we need to have the same understanding! Husbands, fathers, elders, are you willing to do the hard thing in order to guard your own devotion and that of your wife, spouse and flock?
Of course, there is another option available. To Hezekiah, it was clear that Nehushtan needed to be destroyed. And whilst it is sometimes necessary for us to destroy our own idols, there is always the possibility that we can rename and reclaim God’s gifts to us. That is, it is not necessary to despise God’s gifts if we will get our focus right. We need to “have eyes to see” and then we will both appreciate God’s gifts more while at the same time keeping His gifts in perspective.
Paul challenged the Corinthians to “use this world” without “misusing it” (1 Corinthians 7:31). And he wrote to his young friend Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
Think again about the potential Nehushtans mentioned above and ask yourself how you can use them without misusing them. Take, for example, God’s gift to South Africa of the Fifa World Cup. Whilst we may well enjoy it and the many benefits that it has brought to our land, we should not worship it. We need not despise it (after all, it is just bronze), but we certainly must not deify it (for it is merely bronze)! By all means, let us enjoy the spectacle. Let us enjoy world class football in our backyard. But when the game begins interfering with the Lord’s Day (where will South African Christians be on Sunday, 11 July—the day of the World Cup final?), with our family time, with our work responsibilities, we have gone too far.
Why was Hezekiah so passionate in his reformation? Why was he willing without hesitation to do the hard thing? The text clearly tells us:
He trusted in the LORD God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses.
(2 Kings 18:5-6)
Because Hezekiah was deeply devoted to God, he was able to see that which others could not. This is how we can continue to hang on to Nehushtan in a meaningful way.
Note the marks of this relationship.
First, he was confident in God.. “He trusted in the LORD God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him.” And as Jeremiah said, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD” (Jeremiah 17:7).
Second, Hezekiah cleaved to God. “For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses.” The word “held fast” (“clave,” KJV) is used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the relationship of a husband “joined” to his wife. It is used in Deuteronomy 10:20 and 11:22 to exhort believers to “hold fast” to God. And it is used to speak of the way that Solomon “clung” to foreign women who were forbidden by God (1 Kings 11:2).
You will only properly view Nehushtan if the Lord is your focus. If this is not the case then your “religion” is merely nominal and deceptive. Look to and confide in and cleave to the Saviour and all of His blessings to you will be seen as more than brass and yet just brass at the same time.
What were the results of Hezekiah’s devoted reformation? Again, our text clearly tells us.
The LORD was with him; he prospered wherever he went. And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. He subdued the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city.
(2 Kings 18:7-8)
The historian says quite plainly, “The LORD was with him.” Hezekiah understood that having the Giver is more precious than merely having gifts. He was willing to give up God’s good gifts if they interfered in his relationship with God.
Sometimes obedience to God requires that we be willing to give up what may be God’s good gifts to us. Consider our recent series in Matthew 18, where we considered the biblical injunction to confront others in sin (Matthew 18:18-20). If we are committed to this, there is a very real danger that we will lose some relationships. God’s good gifts might be taken from us. But if we are more committed to the Giver than we are to the gifts, we will take the risk out of love for our Lord. And this principle can be applied to whatever your specific Nehushtan might be.
It is further said of Hezekiah that “he prospered wherever he went.” The immediate context seems to indicate prosperity in war, for we are immediately told, “And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him.” Nevertheless, it is this issue of prospering under God’s hand that we want to focus on.
Someone has said that success is knowing the will of God and doing it. It was precisely because Hezekiah did what he knew to be the will of God that God prospered him. He trusted that God would prosper him, not his own wisdom. And when it comes to our own obedience, we must trust God rather than our own means to prosper us.
Hezekiah further enjoyed God’s power. “He subdued the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territories, from watchtower to fortified city.” Verses 9-12 give us further evidence of how he enjoyed God’s power in his war against the Assyrians.
Hezekiah was an effective leader and God’s people experienced wonderful victories because he would not sell out to the world. He had true freedom. When God rather than Nehushtan is your object of confidence, you can do the unthinkable!
Lest we get the wrong impression, Hezekiah was not perfect, and vv. 13-37 clearly show us this. In this text, he was faced once again with enemies. Fearing the (humanly) superior strength of the Assyrians, Hezekiah stripped the temple of its gold and gave it to the Assyrian king as a guarantee of safety.
R Ralph Davis is helpful when he comments on this spiritual lapse of Hezekiah,
Faith is not a prophylactic that shields one from all disasters. You can cling to the Lord and the Assyrians will come. . . . You can be a king who trusts and obeys Yahweh and who reforms the nation’s worship and yet your enemy may come and crush your land, deport its population, and await the moment when he can impale the king’s carcass on a stake outside the city wall. It’s helpful to faith to know that. There is no conflict between an overall trend of faith that nevertheless experiences lapses of faith. Sometimes faith has its “wobbles”—and they can be severe.
God puts our reformations to the test, as he did with Hezekiah. The question for Hezekiah was, now that Nehushtan was no more, on whom would he lean? And we are faced with the same question.
Even after the Assyrian king received the gold from Hezekiah, he did not stop his attacks. In fact, he intensified them. And when Hezekiah had no more props to lean on—or, more correctly, once God had removed all Hezekiah’s props—he finally turned to God.
Chapter 19 opens on a glorious note. “And so it was, when King Hezekiah heard it [i.e. the threatening of the Assyrians], that he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD” (19:1). Hezekiah turned to God in prayer, and God mightily answered his prayer through the ministry of Isaiah. God assured Hezekiah that He would grant deliverance, and He eventually did so without Hezekiah even needing to lift an arm.
If we deal properly with Nehushtan then we are in a position to pray and to experience God’s blessings.
Most scholars believe that Psalm 126 was penned by Hezekiah after God’s great deliverance from the Assyrians.
When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad. Bring back our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
He responded in precisely the appropriate way, and it all began with his commitment to destroy Nehushtan.
Leaders, will you help those you lead to deal properly with Nehushtan? You can only do so as, by God’s grace, you share Hezekiah’s devotion to the Lord.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Ask yourself, what in your life is a good thing which has become an idol? Be honest. And then resolve to grab it by the throat, in Jesus’ name, believing that your heart and mind will follow.