Hezekiah's post-mature death

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A cursory reading of the biblical account of King Hezekiah's near-death experience and subsequent actions in his final days (found in II Kings 20, Isaiah 38-39, and II Chronicles 32) might seem to be a description of a missed opportunity. God tells Hezekiah he's going to die. Hezekiah whines and complains, and God shows mercy and gives him more time. When he's given more time but told that it will come eventually, he's relieved that at least it won't come in his lifetime. He uses his extra time to parade all of Judah's possessions, including everything in the temple, in front of its future conquerors, who managed to carry away all those valuables when they destroyed Jerusalem and God's temple. Hezekiah basically sets up the nation of Judah's ultimate destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon. He was given a great mercy, and he blew it.

While I'm not going to say that this cursory reading is wrong, I'm beginning to wonder if there's more going on here. The leadup to the exile began with Hezekiah's refusal to abide by God's will and have his life cut short. Is the narrator suggesting that the exile was brought about by means of a king refusing to acknowledge that his time was up? Is the suggestion that Hezekiah's life wasn't going to be cut short but was in fact exactly ready to be done, and the extra time he whined and complained to get was beyond Hezekiah's rightful time? Perhaps Hezekiah should have accepted God's prophetic message that it was his time. Perhaps there's even a reason why it was for Hezekiah's own good that he die then rather than later. Perhaps it was to spare him the moral corruption that would have come had he continued on, and his refusal to accept it then led to God to give him over to that moral corruption that God would have graciously spared him from. If your life is going to end in a way that seems cut short, it might well be because of what you would do if you were to live longer. It might be a mercy.

I'm not going to stake everything on interpreting this passage this way. Perhaps I'll change my mind on it when we cover the Kings account of these events in a few months in our sermons. But it strikes me as a plausible way to read what's going on. Where things end up is some grounds for thinking maybe God would have spared him that but did not, in part to teach a lesson through the scriptures' recording of the incident (three times!) for posterity. It's not clear to me exactly which bits in the Isaiah and Kings versions are meant when II Chronicles 32 refers to Hezekiah being prideful and then humbling himself and Judah, and it's unclear to me when chronologically that's taking place in comparison to the Babylonian incident, during which Hezekiah both declares God's pronouncement of the exile good and grounds that judgment on the fact that it won't happen in his lifetime. So I say this with some hesitation. But it nonetheless strikes me as a plausible explanation of these three texts.

I have a friend whose older brother died in high school, and I remember him telling me at some point that he wondered if it was to prevent him from heading down a certain path that he seemed headed toward. I can think of at least two Christian celebrities that I suspect the same thing of. It's even occurred to me that my own brother's seemingly premature death at 21 could have been to prevent him from heading down a path that would have been bad, perhaps even bad for him and his moral character. I have a sense of a several other things God might have been doing by providentially setting the bound of his life at that point. One member of my extended family came to understand the gospel because of his funeral and soon after began the path of Christian discipleship, and I believe I heard of a couple other stories along those lines from the same funeral (but I forget any details now; it's been more than thirteen years). His life did show much promise, and as far as most people knew it seemed very tragic that God had allowed a life that seemed headed for doing much good for the kingdom of God to be cut short without much in the way of obvious explanations. But it's possible (and I know of one fact that increases my sense of its likelihood) that at least part of it was for his own sake and for the sake of avoiding some bad results that could have come about had things continued as they were headed or had he faced whatever scenarios would have come up down the line.

We tend to think that extended life is always a good thing. In terms of intrinsic value, I would insist that that's so. A shortening of the life is, other things being equal, intrinsically bad. Death is an evil, even if Christians will insist that it isn't a genuine end to conscious existence. But it may well be that some people's time comes in a way and at a time that seems premature to us, when it's purely at God's mercy that he takes them at precisely that point. It isn't premature. It's to spare them from a much worse evil than dying at a younger age than we'd like. I imagine that any right-minded Christian should be glad to accept death at a younger age if the alternative is to destroy one's family and ministry because of a serious sin that God knows they would engage in if they continue on their current path. I'm not suggesting that this would be a death to punish that sin but that it would be a merciful sparing of person from ending up in a very bad state of moral corruption that harms God's purposes in the long run. God certainly doesn't spare every such person who might have such a thing happen, since we know full well of such cases, but perhaps God spares people from a lot more of those cases than we know would happen.

If being evil is worse than being dead, as Socrates rightly insisted at his trial, then we should prefer to avoid such an end and gladly accept death over moral corruption if that's the choice. It may well be that God was giving Hezekiah that choice, and Hezekiah chose the wrong option, with disastrous consequences both for God's people and for Hezekiah's own inner state. If so, then rather than his earlier death being premature, we might call his later death post-mature. His time had been right, and he whined and complained about it, so God "spared" him from the lesser evil in order to allow the greater evil to befall him. He gave him over to his sin, in effect, without it being explicitly said that that's what he was doing.

2 Comments

hi jeremy,
unfortunately my comment is an unrelated request. i was wondering in your philosophical expertise whether you might be able to recommend any discussions of the discussion of rights and (unitary) right. i have read a piece by oliver o'donovan and bernd wannenwetsch on the subject for the purpose of examining the validity of a rights based approach for a theological ethic of immigration.
my email address is brucepass@gmail.com


thanks

bruce

I don't know a lot about contemporary philosophical approaches to rights. I think rights are derivative of obligations, so I don't have a lot of interest in rights. I'm not even familiar with the concept of a unitary right. So I'm not sure I'll be much help.

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