The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to [Hezekiah] and said, “This is what the Lord says: put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover...” Before Isaiah left the middle court the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah... I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you... 2 Kings 20:1-6
It’s a big day in the life of King Hezekiah. He is ill, and God’s servant, the prophet Isaiah, pays him a visit. He doesn’t mince his words: “This is what the Lord says: put your house in order, because you are going to die: you will not recover.”
That’s pretty stark, isn’t it? No ifs, no buts.
And Hezekiah does what many of us might well do in such circumstances: he prays and “weeps bitterly” (verse 3).
But he can’t have prayed for long - for Isaiah is only just on his way out of the palace grounds, no doubt heading for home, when God turns him right round with another message for the king: “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you...”
A completely contradictory message!
God, it seems, has undergone a total change of mind - and all, it seems, in the space of perhaps half an hour.
Good news for Hezekiah, of course. But wait a minute - doesn’t the Bible make it clear elsewhere that changing his mind is one thing God simply doesn’t do? “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind,” declares the prophet Balaam (Numbers 23:9). And if Balaam was a little dodgy, it’s worth noticing that his words are echoed later by one of God’s greatest prophets, Samuel (1 Samuel 15:29).
So, is there in fact a contradiction here? I’m sure there isn’t.
When the Bible says that God doesn’t change his mind, that’s its way of saying that because God is God, he isn’t fickle or flaky: his words can be relied on, and his purposes will unfold. You can’t twist him round your finger, certainly not by the sort of spells and incantations that many false priests and prophets might have used in those days.
Which means that when we do read about him changing his mind, something very different is going on. And the key factor in the Hezekiah story, of course, is prayer.
Not that we should think of prayer as being mainly about changing God’s mind anyway - it’s more about building and deepening our personal relationship with him. But we make a mistake if we go too far down that track and stop expecting any kind of change at all in answer to our prayers. Putting it bluntly, if prayer doesn’t change anything, there’s not really a lot of point in doing it, is there?
Put it another way: prayer is not superstition. We can’t, and mustn’t try, to use it to manipulate God. If we do, we’re going to be disappointed anyway.
No, prayer is far deeper and more mysterious than that - it is, somebody once said, God’s way of giving to human beings the dignity of playing a part in the unfolding of his purposes.
But from our human, earth-bound point of view, it causes things to happen which otherwise wouldn’t have done.
Here are two quotations. I wonder if you could have said one of these things - and if so, which one it would be.
First... The church has been burgled and lots of valuables stolen. As the minister announces this on Sunday morning he asks the congregation to make this a matter of prayer. And then he adds: “Though I don’t suppose it’ll make any difference, as they’re probably out of the country by now.”
Is that you? Do you have that kind of, er, lack of faith?
Second... The preacher is encouraging his congregation to pray for anything and everything, near at hand and far away. The climax of his appeal is: “I believe that if I pray for China, something happens in China!”
Is that you? Do you have that kind of faith?
I frankly admit that I personally wish far more of our prayers were dramatically answered in the way that Hezekiah’s was. But the fact is that they aren’t - not for most of us, anyway. But if I allow that fact to deter me from praying, or to sap my prayers of their conviction, then I’m giving the devil a victory, and that’s a temptation I must resist. Prayer does change things. Pray does make a difference.
Or, as Jesus put it: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).
And when those situations arise where God does indeed do the thing he is supposed not to do (!), and seems to change his mind, well... so be it.
Don’t try and work it out. Just be thankful.
Heavenly Father, give me the faith and perseverance to believe that, though I cannot understand it, prayer is the most powerful and practical weapon in my spiritual armoury. Amen.