The power of prayer? (Isaiah 34-39)

December 6, 2010

Now, I’ll level with you guys. While I have read all of Isaiah 34-9 (honest) I am only really going to talk about 36 onwards. There are two reasons for this. This first is that 34 and 35 are poetic prophesy (not the technical term), whereas 36-39 tells stories from King Hezekiah’s reign and, though I’m sure many of you bright sparks know lots about the relationship between these two sections, it’s difficult for to talk about these chapters as one unit without seeming contrived. The second is that chapter 34 in particular freaks me out. A few highlights for you:

“2 For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
   and furious against all their hordes;
   he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
3 Their slain shall be cast out,
   and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
   the mountains shall flow with their blood.”

5 When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
   lo, it will descend upon Edom,
   upon the people I have doomed to judgement.
6 The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood,
   it is gorged with fat…

Freaks. Me. Out. Am I really supposed to absorb this vision of God into my spiritual life? Really? If the answer is yes then I’m not sure what I’m going to do. There’s only so many times I can reel off the “small nation besieged by empire in need of assurance of God’s justice and their deliverance” perspective before it starts to feel like an avoidance of really facing the darker side of some of the Bible texts. (yes, I said Bible and darker side, what else can you call writing about God’s blood lust???)

Anyhoo…on to the slightly more palatable chapters in this section. I say slightly because the “angel of the Lord” still comes and kills 185,000 men  in 37:36, where we are told “when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.” Beautifully put, don’t you think?

But this is a great story. Poor Hezekiah has earned much of a rep in the circles I move in (perhaps he’s a bigger figure in Judaism? ) and he only gets a few chapters but he’s a pretty cool guy, one of the less corrupt kings of Israel in this period it seems. And one who manages to withstand an attack from Assyria, who at this point seem to have conquered pretty much everyone (see 36:19 and 37:11-13). He does this not by strategy or might but by faith in God. That old chestnut, hey?

When King Sennacherib of  Assyria sends his armies to Jerusalem Hezekiah calls on the prophet Isaiah (well, his servants do) and Isaiah reassures him that the Lord will send Sennacherib back the way he came. Next we hear Hezekiah’s own prayer to God, a very good a pious prayer which ends So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” (37:20). It’s a very God-centred prayer, not just ‘please help me’ but ‘help us and glorify your name’.

Sure enough God ‘comes through’ and the nasty Assyrians are…well a pile of corpses it seems. To put the cherry on top King Sennacherib heads home only to be murdered by two of his sons. Jolly good.

Later Hezekiah becomes sick and is told by Isaiah that he will not survive so again he prays and weeps bitterly. But God hears him once more and he lives another ten years.

These chapters are inspiring stories of the power of prayer, but they leave me confused. It seems so clear-cut here; Hezekiah prays and God grants him what he asks. Is that really how it works? We all know it’s a bit more complicated than that. Don’t we?

I have heard John 14:13-14 taken quite literally; you ask and God will do it. And sometimes I pray like that. Like this weekend when my best friend lost her camera while we were on holiday and I said “okay God, I know it doesn’t really work like this but please let her find her camera!”. And she did, you know.  But thent I think, was that really the prayer I mumbled while searching a resturante toilet or would it have happened any way? And if we can just ask for things and they be given what about all those people who aren’t saved from invasion by soldiers or whose lives are not prolonged, however good they’ve been? Are they praying the wrong way or something?

These are not new questions, they are old as the hills. I think there is a mysterious and subtle power to prayer that makes it one of the most important of the pursuits of people of faith. It doesn’t prod God into doing things he didn’t want to, but it does make a difference. I have seen wonderful things happen when I’ve been faithful in prayer. But then again, I’ve also seen a lot of awful things happen. I’d to think that a lot of people are praying for Israel and Palestine, what difference is that making? The truth is we’ll never know in this life. We’ll never how the world would be without prayer, though I’d make an educated guess that it certainly wouldn’t be better (not sure Richard Dawkins would agree with me there).

What we can know, though can’t understand, is that we are heard, as I talked about in my last post. The answer to prayer is not always ‘yes’ but we have to believe there is always an answer, don’t we?

Chapter 39 sees Hezekiah in his later years greet an envoy from Babylon and show them all the booty and strength Israel has to impress with. Oh dear…we know how this one turns out, and if we didn’t Isaiah is there to fill us in; the day is coming when all of this shall be carried to Babylon. So it’s worth mentioning that however you think prayer works, be careful what you wish for…

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