When I was 10 years old, I started praying a prayer that, when answered, would change the course of my life. It was a prayer for a good thing, for something that I thought that I needed. And it was granted.
I had no idea that this answer to prayer would disrupt my life and set me on an entirely different path, with a lot of pain in the process--which, to some degree, I still have not yet fully shaken.
It was simultaneously a prayer for something that I thought I needed despite God being all that I really need, as well as part of the path to fulfilling God's purposes for my life. One could debate how much was ordained to be and how much was my action--I certainly did at the time. The answer is probably: both.
This blog post is a bit of a cheater--combining Isaiah 38 and 39 into one narrative of what happens when God answers our prayer and something terrible happens. Chapter 39 is teeny tiny anyway, yet it contains crucial elements to round out this story.
It's the story of King Hezekiah becoming very sick. He had been a righteous king who had packed a lot of incredible reforms into the 15 years of his reign. Isaiah comes to tell him, a little tersely, it seems, on the written page, that he would not recover from this illness and that he should put his affairs in order.
Hezekiah weeps bitterly over this news. In addition to the bad news about a terminal illness, he was likely dying childless, which was a bit shameful in these times--a sign that God had not blessed him.
However, as Christopher Knapp says on his Bible Truth site on this chapter (https://bibletruthpublishers.com/manasseh/christopher-knapp/the-kings-of-judah-and-israel/c-knapp/la136777), "Had this good king been able to foresee the wickedness of his unworthy son, he would doubtless have no desire to recover from his sickness. Better by far die childless than beget a son such as Manasseh proved to be."
God answers Hezekiah's prayer, and the healing is accompanied by a miraculous sign to boot--an extra showering of God's blessing.
And yet....Two terrible things happen across final 15 years of Hezekiah's reign that are granted in answer to his prayer. Instead of continuing his path of righteous reforms, Hezekiah, perhaps beaming over what he assumes is God's tacit blessing over anything and everything he attempts to do, develops a pride problem. This is showcased in high definition in chapter 39, where Babylonian envoys hear of his recovery (according to some Jewish accounts, the sign of the sun's shadow on a sun dial is picked up by Babylonian astrologers who come curious about the man whose recovery was accompanied by this momentous sign) and Hezekiah goes all-out in his boasting of the richness of his kingdom. The Biblical account focuses on Hezekiah's pride. Historical accounts focus on his disastrous foreign policy at the time, which will leave his heir with a mess. His is a terrible second term, something that those of us in the United States are starting to get used to in our presidents (in my opinion!).
Speaking of...the second terrible thing is the birth of this heir. Hezekiah must have been overjoyed at yet another sign of God's blessing--the birth of a son, an heir. Had Hezekiah died at the original time, King Manasseh would never have been born. He's born 3 years post-recovery for Hezekiah. Manasseh is considered to be one of the worst of Judah's kings, morally. He is basically the opposite of his father in every possible way. Perhaps growing up in the shame of a country that had once been "great" but was resentful at no longer being an impressive kingdom, Manasseh embarks on a 55-year reign (longest in Judah's history) that, in the Biblical account, is characterized by violence and idolatry--culminating in him sacrificing his own son as part of a pagan worship ritual.
Maybe it's a strange reflection, but I have frequently mused on this strange turn of events. How can an answer to prayer cause harm and destruction to so many? How can a godly man such as Hezekiah raise a monster like Manasseh?
The Bible doesn't spell out a clear answer to this (funny how God seems to like us to try to wrestle through things and develop wisdom for applying His word), but there are some possible applications we can glean:
We don't know what's best for us. That's pretty much it in a nutshell. There's a reason why the wisest and most holy among us teach us to pray so that our will aligns with God's will. Even when we pray for good things, we may not be clearly discerning what is best.
Signs and wonders are exciting, but if we take them as a tacit blessing that we are especially favored by the Lord, it is not His fault if our pride and arrogance take us down a path that leads to destruction of many, many people. God gave Samson special physical abilities, and yet he was certainly not more righteous than, say, the prophet Samuel.
Godly parents can raise ungodly children. While our calling vocationally is important, there is story after story of second-generation believers falling away in their faith and even repudiating the faith and work of their parents. If one has children, that is a calling as well. I am not blaming parents whose children fall away in their belief--there are likely a variety of factors contributing to this, which vary in each case. My heart breaks for pastors such as John Piper, whose son mocks Christianity in his mean-spirited TikTok videos (https://churchleaders.com/news/394762-not-desiring-god-john-pipers-son-criticizes-his-upbringing-to-925k-tiktok-followers.html). It's one thing to chose a different path than one's father, and another thing entirely to try to publicly repudiate everything one's parent has stood for. We need to take this parenting calling seriously.
God is wise when He uses suffering and the basic difficulties of life to help us to draw close to Him, because blessings can often present great temptations. We can probably recognize it in our own lives, and we see it illustrated here in Hezekiah's, that we may unfortunately see our blessings as something that we have earned. It's so easy to fall into this trap and then to act as if we are more righteous than others. We can grow complacent and less watchful over our own behavior, resting instead on this fabulous blessing that God has provided, which must show--we reason--that God is pleased with us. In addition to musing over the Hezekiah-Manasseh situation, I have also mused over the later years of many prophets, teachers, and preachers (wow, I must have a pessimistic frame of mind!) and how so often those are the years when major errors are made. For example, overly trusting in one's own wisdom, acting on auto-pilot, or giving overly harsh judgments and decisions. A lifetime of God's blessing is not a "Get Out of Jail Free card," indicating that whatever one sees fit to do is automatically God's will in a given situation. Also, I hate the game Monopoly, so I should never feel I have a Get Out of Jail Free card or any other type of Monopoly card because--yeckkk, Monopoly!
One final lesson is so effectively summarized by J.D. Greear in his article, "Hezekiah's Tragic End: A Warning and a Promise"(https://jdgreear.com/hezekiahs-tragic-end-a-warning-a-promise/):
Hezekiah had passed the test of adversity but failed the test of prosperity.
Love that--that's exactly it! He goes on to say about Hezekiah,
He shows us that it is so easy to receive the blessings of God and make them all about us. God blesses us, miraculously, with life, with prosperity, with family, with salvation from sin . . . and all we can then think about is our comfort, our needs, our glory.
Tragically, many of God’s people end their lives just like Hezekiah. They forget that God blesses us to be a blessing... Don’t waste your success. It may not look like it, but your prosperity is a test. Don’t use it to stockpile luxuries for yourself. Use it to direct others to the God whose grace led you to where you are. Remember: Hezekiah’s evil wasn’t immorality or murder or overt idolatry. It was simply not leveraging his success to give glory to God.
I can't say it better than this. King Hezekiah is such an incredible example to us, in the good times and bad. As we close this narrative section in Isaiah, we see Hezekiah's early boldness, engaging in spiritual reforms that no one else before him had the guts to do. In his later years, we see him basking in blessing and becoming more self-focused. Very prosperity gospel-ly. It's a wonderful warning for American Christians, who have this temptation all around us.
Does God sometimes answer prayers that may have been better left unsaid? Perhaps. Does what happens show us that, ultimately, God is all that we need--over health, friendship, prosperity? Absolutely.