What minister is entirely free from the vestiges of self? Is it not the very best, most effective, most productive pastors who are most frequently assaulted by temptations to pride? Is it not a humbling fact that the hearts of Christian elders are so easily puffed up? If Satan was the originator of pride, and if sinners, at times, seem to thrive and revel in pride, is not every believer also in danger of succumbing to pride?
Such questions and thoughts as these have been whizzing round my neurones since the case of Hezekiah came before my mind. What, we have to ask, was going through his brain when he committed this sin? So I started to attempt to tease out the thought processes of one of Judah’s stellar monarchs. I began to meander my way slowly through the accounts of the sin of Hezekiah in scripture (2 Kings 20.12-19; 2 Chronicles 32.24-31; Isaiah 39.1-8). I was rocked by the force of the many valuable and instructive lessons and warnings to be scavenged from the spiritual carrion of the accounts of the carcass-like sin of the pride of Hezekiah.
1. Godly leaders who do much for the wellbeing of the Kingdom and honour of the House of God are still capable of committing serious, disgraceful sins that bring trouble on the Church.
Hezekiah had, by all accounts, a remarkable career, in reformation of worship, re-institution of long-neglected feasts and re-promulgation of Covenant Law throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom (you can read through the catalogue of historic achievements in 2 Chronicles 29.1-31.21). Yet in one disastrous stroke, when he failed to return thanks to God, he was left to his own devices, and his actions proved disastrous. 2 Chronicles 32.25 states bluntly:
“But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud” (E.S.V.)
It is with a ‘Gadzooks!’ and a gulp we read the shocking indictment:
“Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem” (E.S.V.)
Was this godly leader of Judah’s spiritual reformation in the 8th Century B.C. capable of such sins which, at least in the short-term, heaped disaster on the church? Be warned, overconfident leaders, that ‘sin is crouching at the door’ and desires to drag you off. Lord, in your mercy, keep us from such complacency, and grant a humble, contrite heart.
2. Remarkably used instruments or leaders can become very proud and puffed up when they are granted remarkable providences in answer to heart-broken, faithful, prayer.
We must gloss quickly over the breathtaking rescue from the hands of Assyria’s army (2 Kings 19.1-37 – see especially vv.35-37). Hezekiah had, what appeared to be, a fatal diagnosis. His boil, it seems, had spread sepsis through his system. Conscious of the danger he cried to God that his life might be spared. The prophet Isaiah was sent by the LORD to announce sure recovery – the poultice would serve as a kind of sacramental sign.
“And before the prophet Isaiah had gone out of the middle court the word of the LORD came to him ‘Turn back and say to Hezekiah, the leader of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold I will heal you!” (2 Kings 20.4-7 – E.S.V.)
As if that were not enough, Hezekiah then sought a sign from God. His wish was granted. What subsequently took place was one of the most miraculous events in the whole of human history – the shadow of the sun went back on the steps of Ahaz.
“And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz,” (2 Kings 20.11 – E.S.V.)
It created such a stir in the nation and further afield in Babylon, that envoys came to enquire about what they heard (or had possibly seen – 2 Chronicles 32.31b). It was at this moment (of the cure and sign) that godly Hezekiah should have given thanks to God and been humbled by God’s grace. Instead, it seems, the opposite was the case – he became puffed up. Herein lies a solemn warning to the most used servants of God: brothers ‘you are only one mighty blessing away from the sin of ruinous pride which will destroy your entire legacy by a single act of folly!’ Lord, in your mercy, purge us from pride and may we not bring disgrace, hardship and misery on your people.
3. Servants appointed by God must not presume on His sustaining grace if they forget to give all glory, thanks and honour to Him.
We are specifically told that, because Hezekiah did not give thanks, the LORD withdrew from the king and left him to his own devices. This was to test him to see what was stuff he was made of spiritually. Of course, in the case of Hezekiah (and all other bible kings), we are being shown by the scriptures that no mere human king is qualified to redeem or be the everlasting ruler – the shoes of the One True Messiah, whom the others dimly prefigured, could only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-Man Mediator. Hezekiah, like all other leaders, was, spiritually speaking, a monumental failure of demerit who needed a Redeemer!
Yet, there is also, on the other hand, a valuable reminder given by the author of the accounts: gifts and graces, supplied by God’s Spirit, must not, under any circumstances, be taken for granted. The minute we do that, a certain fall awaits, and who but the Lord can tell how many our arrogant assumption might affect. Lord, in your mercy, grant us deeper, persistent, humility. Help us always to be thankful for all the goodness and grace you lavish upon us.
4. Spiritual pride in leaders is most unfitting.
Everything we have is all of divine sovereign grace: that includes our existence, birth, life and death; but especially we must ponder our election in Christ, from which flow our calling, justification, sanctification and hope of glory; we must not forget being set apart for office and Christ’s special calling in our vocation – here we include all the gifts and graces supplied by the Holy Spirit, who prepares, equips, sustains and utilises us as instruments for God’s glory. Were we sinless like elect angels such honour would flow from an amazing fountain of grace. However if we can consider and ponder what we were, in our state of dead, lost, wicked rebellion; and then if we go on, though knowing this, to preen ourselves like eagles and strut around like peacocks; if we puff up like balloons, swollen with our foolish pride; this is a concession to the flesh which is unfitting in the best and unworthy of our Christ. In your mercy Lord, break our human pride, grant us humble hearts, for the duration of our course; whatever pride remains cut it off at root.
5. Proud acts of officers in the Church are both despicable, thoughtless and damaging to the Kingdom.
Leaders should reflect that for all their preaching, pastoring, discipling, decisions and actions there is a ‘law of unintended consequences’ to be considered. Hezekiah no doubt was relieved, in some sense, that while in the end future generations would be exiled, in his life time there would be security and peace. Doubtless it was a blessing that God would delay judgment while he was still alive. Personally it was happy that God would spare the godly king sorrow upon sorrow. In one sense, of course, the LORD was working out his purpose according to His own diary, pencilled in his secret counsels. Yet, in another sense, the attitude of Hezekiah displays a selfishness of heart. A soft-hearted, servant, would have been expected to lament the downfall of the Church of God to Babel. One would have thought that a truly repentant individual at this point would have been broken by the damage that his pride heaped on his progeny. A man filled with a sense of public responsibility for his official spiritual capacity under normal circumstances might have been utterly distraught. Does not the Spirit of Christ produces tears, in union with our Lord Jesus, who wept as he contemplated the desolate debacle of Zion’s brutal, bloody fall to Rome (Luke 19.41-44). Note, in 2 Chronicles 32.27-31, just how often the third person personal pronoun (or its reflexive form in English), crops up with telling force.
“And Hezekiah have very great riches and honour, and he made for himself treasures for silver, for gold, for precious stones, for spices, for shields, and for all kinds of costly vessels …He likewise provided cities for himself, and flocks and herds, for God had given him great possessions …And Hezekiah prospered in all his works. And so in the matter of princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to enquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself,” (E.S.V.)
The same species of spiritual defection is present more than we would like to concede. How often pastors or elders can be tempted to make subtle compromises. We congratulate ourselves, that though there are many things we should not give ground on, that at least in our lifetime, and for the duration of our ministry, we have tried to hold the fort and at least arrest the slide. Yet the very actions we take, either by pragmatic not principled thinking and acting, are little pernicious seeds which have been sown for the future. Instead of stating the truth and working out carefully how it applied, or rather than explaining what the bible actually teaches, we opt for some kind of ‘sticking plaster’ temporary fix, and refuse to stand courageously and bear the cross, criticism and cost. To all appearances the peace of the Church has been secured by our stance. Yet we have failed to see that in this ‘microshift’ we have opened the door for decline, decay and demise. Picture, for a moment children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who will suffer for your weakness while you, in your lifetime, are tucked up in ‘peace’! If this is the case we need regularly to pray: “Lord, we beseech you, deliver us from the kind of selfish pride, which success in ministry brings. Grant us the humility to resist the approach of the world, flesh and devil, by which our own hearts turn blessings into occasions for generational misery”.
6. In spite of the greatest defects of the most eminent leaders, the purpose of God are sure to keep advancing apace.
As indicated above, the pride of Hezekiah was included in God’s purpose. It was the Lord, in His own sovereign wisdom, who decreed both the occasion and permitted the defection, though by withholding grace, the king alone is culpable. Surely we know that even all sustaining grace is a totally unmerited gift of God, and not a godly desert which even a reformer-king might earn! As 2 Chronicles 32.31b puts it:
“God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart,” (E.S.V.)
The writer of 2 Kings 20.16-18 depicts the results of the future carnage of exile. Yet, difficult thought it seems, and devastating for those who would be butchered by Babel’s hoards, all of this is under the umbrella of God’s eternal purpose. We are being shown by Scripture, not just the error of a man, or the bad example of a king, but the futility of hope in any merely human leader. The purpose is evident, not just to unearth what was present in the proud heart of godly Hezekiah, but to expose the truth about the best men, ‘they are only men at best’ and ‘we all have feet of clay’. The hope of redemption cannot rest on human figures or institutions which would be pulled down to the dust. Hence one key purpose of these passages is to generate and foster expectations of a Messiah, one more than mere man but also God made flesh. The purpose of God will and must be advanced through Him – the Lord Jesus Christ, who one day would suffer exile for the crimes of Hezekiah, and for preening peacock antics be forsaken, despised, rejected and crucified. If such strokes of sovereign genius humble us to dust, also in our day, we must be sure to keep our heads – always behind the scenes of the most inexcusable ministerial defection and scandal, our confidence holds firm in the person and work of Jesus, who, as exalted Lord of the Cosmos, invested with all power, is bringing His purpose to consummation (Matthew 28.18).
We have barely started drawing out truths from these texts. For the moment, at least, I shall have to close my laptop. No doubt there is much more could be said about the dangers of sinful pride in leaders – but I pray this may be sufficient by grace, to help purge hearts of pride, re-alert us to the danger, and seek to crucify self and remember we are servants of the Lord, as long as we live: small things we do may have, in the providence of God, great potential for blessing, yet also massive capability to do harm. May the King of kings, grant us wills to apply for the former and shun the latter.