“Prayer and Unintended Consequences”
Isaiah 38:5, “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.”
This morning, cynicism is one of the pervading marks of our culture. People have become so negative that many things that produce positive outcomes are seen as unbeneficial. How many people today pray in faith expecting that their prayer will be heard and answered? Paul made it very clear that prayer helps. (II Corinthians 1:11) James pointed us to a poignant example to show how effectual prayer can avail. (James 5:16-18) Yet, prayer can be rote, faithless, and duty driven if we are not careful. To the faithful Christian soldier, prayer is a powerful weapon that should be seen as a mighty application. In my youth, I heard a minister make a powerful example about prayer. “What if this country was invaded and instead of using the great arsenal of weapons at our disposal, soldiers were on the beach with bows and arrows? That makes as much sense as a disciple forgoing prayer for wishing or undervaluing prayer to not use it to its fullest effect.”
In our study verse, we see one of the most striking answers to prayer recorded for us in Scripture. Hezekiah was one of the most righteous kings that Judah ever had, and his prayer touches the God of heaven to add to his life here on earth. God had sent word that Hezekiah’s sickness was to death, and due to this man’s prayer, God mercifully added 15 years to his life and recovered him of the sickness. Considering the effect that this man’s prayer had on the Almighty, we should be strengthened and emboldened in our prayer life to consider that He who needs nothing is still touched and compassionate to our struggles and trials. However, I fear that even when focused on this great truth of God’s mercy, I have sold God’s mercy short in this regard. His mercy is far beyond my comprehension, and when I learn more about it, it fills me with awe and wonder.
Looking at just the surface of the matter, we see how great God’s mercy is to this man just in the length of days that were added. Hezekiah began ruling at the age of 25 and reigned for 29 years. Considering that 15 years were added, God gave him slightly more than double the time to reign than he would have had. His rule would have lasted only 14 years should he not have prayed and God answered his prayer. What a great mercy to give this righteous man so much more than he would have had. Yet, God’s mercy is far more than just this surface view of the time itself. God can and does see what is coming down the road in perfection. God knew what was going to happen in the future, and even knowing this, He was merciful anyway. Let us consider what Hezekiah did not know when praying this prayer that God knew, and God blessed him anyway.
In the next chapter, we see one of the few times that Hezekiah stumbled mightily in his rule. He is hospitable to the ambassadors from Babylon and shows them the breadth of his kingdom. This foreigners should not have had access to certain parts of his kingdom. Certainly the temple was one place that they were not allowed, yet there was nothing in his kingdom that he showed them not. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for his actions and foretells the captivity by the very nation that he showed such hospitality to. Yet, God’s mercy was still on display by not bringing this judgment and destruction in Hezekiah’s time. Simple question. Had Hezekiah died in chapter 38, would this transgression by him have taken place in chapter 39? The answer is obvious, and yet God added to his life knowing full well that he would stumble shortly thereafter.
Another unintended consequence of this answered prayer was something that happened after Hezekiah did pass away. After his death, his son takes the throne. His son is a wicked king by the name of Manasseh. Not only was Manasseh one of the most wicked kings that Judah ever saw, he had the longest reign of any king (55 years). So, his wickedness plagued the land for decades. Interestingly, Manasseh was only 12 years old when his reign began. That means that during Hezekiah’s sickness and answered prayer in our study verse he was not born yet. Again, had Hezekiah died, this wicked man would not have lived and distressed the land for the prolonged time that he did. God knew all of this perfectly when answering Hezekiah’s prayer, and He blessed him anyway.
Considering these unforeseen and unintended consequences, God is more merciful than we can comprehend. There are many times as a father that I will forego giving my children things that I know will be bad for them. God surely does this too, as James tells us God does not give us things when we intend to consume them upon our lusts. (James 4:3) However, there are certain things that my children may ask for that I can see what it will do later down the road when they cannot. If I think the path down the road from the request may turn out bad, I may deny them even though they have not thought about it. God knows what everything will bring about down the road. He knew that lengthening Hezekiah’s days would put him in position to stumble like he did and also bring a child into the world that would rule contrary to His law. Knowing this, God still honored this man’s request for the uprightness of His heart and the compassion He had for Him.
At this point, the kind reader may wonder, “Does this mean something for me today?” Surely it does, as we are much like Hezekiah. Though we may not have had a sickness to death that we recovered from, all of us – I believe – can look back over the course of our lives and see where the Lord spared us from death and destruction. The fact that we have life today is a testimony to the Lord’s daily grace that has allowed us to continue to this day. (Acts 26:22) When I look back over my existence, there are countless times that I should have been dead long before today. It is my firm belief that others prayed for me even when I was too thoughtless and stubborn to pray for myself. My parents prayed daily for me, and my dear companion prays daily for me. These prayers help brethren. Of that, I have no doubt, for Scripture teaches it and experience bears it out.
However, looking back on my life from the time forward from those deliverances, I have failed and stumbled time and time again. The wrong words have been spoken; the wrong steps have been taken. Time and time again, I have come short of what God requires and deserves from the walk of one of His ministers and disciples. So many times I sing the words of the old songwriter, “Much of my time has run to waste, and I perhaps am near my home. But He forgives my follies past and gives me strength for days to come.” What if God had not answered Hezekiah’s prayer the way He did or answered the prayers of my loved ones the way He did? Hezekiah would have died, and I would have too. Those great evils in his life would not have occurred, and my list of sins would be shorter than it is now. Yet, God heard, answered, and blessed in spite of what was coming in the future.
Beloved, when I consider this Great One that we serve, it astounds me that His mind and heart operate in the harmonious fashion that they do. If we knew through perfect foresight how someone was going to mistreat us and go in utter rebellion at times from our fellowship, would we have the heart to deal compassionately with them? Consider one relationship that you have lost over your life. If you could travel back in time to when things were “happier” with that person, would it be hard to treat them like you did then knowing what you know now? Surely it would. Yet, God knows all these things and deals with the kind grace and tender mercy in the ways that He does. Whenever we pray to Him in an honest spirit with a contrite heart, He blesses time and time again. When He spares our lives daily and even prolongs our existence from things that should have naturally killed us, He does so in love and great mercy. Though we fail time and time again, let us go forward in greater zeal to the mercy that we have seen and experienced and try mightily to limit these negative consequences that are a reproach to Him. If you are reading this, then you are still living here, and still living here is a testament to God’s hand preserving your life. Let us take the days that we have to honour Him and bring glory to His compassion and power that has so blessed us.