In the Near East, the 8th and 7th centuries BC were much like our own time. In the kingdom of Judah it was a time of “trespass and distress.” After nearly two centuries of burgeoning wickedness under worldly leaders, with few exceptions the people had forgotten the Lord. King Ahaz worshiped Baal and “burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen” (2 Chron. 28:2-3).
Trespass weakened Judah, and distress followed. A small kingdom, Judah was mercilessly besieged by the surrounding powers of Edom, Sidon, Ephraim, Philistia, and Syria. But the most fearsome of all was Assyria. It was the superpower of the age. During this period, Assyria ruled from the Persian Gulf to the Nile, and has been called the first real empire in history. With 120,000 people, the capital Nineveh was the largest city in the world.
The king of Assyria referred to himself as “the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of the four quarters, favorite of the great gods . . . perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive.” The high and mighty Assyrian emperors gained their wealth by subjugating and plundering weaker neighbors. In imitating their master Satan, more arrogant disciples of the Devil never lived.
In the face of the Assyrian threat, King Ahaz stripped the temple at Jerusalem of its gold and silver vessels as tribute to ward off destruction, “but it helped him not.” Instead of turning to the temple, he pillaged it and closed it: “He shut up the doors of the house of the Lord and made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem” to worship his idols.
“In the time of his distress did he trespass yet more against the Lord: this is that king Ahaz” (28:20-25).
In other words, the answer of Ahaz to the encroaching evil around him was to do evil himself, to indulge himself like his neighbors in the perverse worship of gold and false gods.
This was the situation when the 25-year-old Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, came to the throne. We don’t know why, but Hezekiah was quite different from his father. “He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord.” Perhaps his devotion to the Lord came from the teachings of his mother, Abijah, daughter of a. prophet named Zechariah, who “had understanding in the visions of God” (29:1-2; 26:5).
Open the Doors of the Temple
As king, Hezekiah invited the members of the priesthood to meet with him. “Our fathers have trespassed, and done that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord our God, and have forsaken him,” he announced. “They have shut up the doors of the porch, and put out the lamps, and have not burned incense nor offered burnt offerings in the holy place unto the God of Israel.” There had been total neglect of temple worship, of the light of the Lord, of prayer as represented by incense, and of the sacrifice of a repentant heart as represented by the offerings. Judah had abandoned God.
The result? “Wherefore the wrath of the Lord was upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he hath delivered them to trouble, to astonishment, and to hissing. . . and our sons and our daughters and our wives are in captivity for this” (29:6-9). Assyria was bleeding the land dry of wealth and enslaving the people because they had spiritually enslaved themselves.
The Judahites had brought upon themselves the natural consequences of turning away from the Lord—oppression from within and without. Having wiped out the northern Kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians now encroached on the people of Jerusalem, on their lands, their wealth, and their families like a spreading plague.
Exactly the same consequences await us if we become lax and negligent in our prayers, in our repentance, and in our duty to God. How do we fend off the encroaching evil of the empire of this world?
By doing as Hezekiah did—by turning to the House of the Lord.
Sanctify Now Yourselves
“It is now in mine heart to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel, that his fierce wrath may turn away from us,” the king proclaimed. “Sanctify now yourselves and sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers, and carry forth the filthiness out of the holy place” (29:5, 10).
I was assigned recently to help clean the Bountiful Temple near my home.
We put on clean white work clothes. The temple staff explained to us that on a cleanliness scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being highest, the temple was to be a “10.” This meant, in my case, that I took a tiny toothbrush to the corners and crevices in the walls to remove the dust. I carefully dusted picture frames and polished the glass. I went on hands and knees beneath the rows of seats to inspect for fluff or lint the vacuum cleaners had missed.
Although it wasn’t a temple ordinance, my late-night cleaning shift when I was virtually alone in the silent temple had symbolic importance to me. As I removed even the slightest coat of dust, I realized more emphatically what the Lord means when he says no unclean thing can enter his house. And I realized that the same principle must be true of my own heart.
Cleansing the House of the Lord is of course symbolic of cleansing the heart, which is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Like Hezekiah, we must sanctify ourselves and purge ourselves of the “filthiness” of this world. We do so through sincere repentance and through the atoning ordinances of the priesthood.
After opening the doors and purifying the temple, the priests of Judah resumed those ordinances. They “made reconciliation with blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel” (29:24). Then the king invited all the people of Jerusalem to come forward and unburden their sinful hearts: “Come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings into the house of the Lord . . . [and] as many as were of a free heart burnt offerings” (29:31). The gift of a “free heart,” liberated from the heavy weight of sin, is perhaps the sweetest blessing of the Atonement of Christ. Like the Judahites of Jerusalem in those days who offered sacrifices at the temple, we can become “free of heart” by bringing to the sacrament table the offering of a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.”
Like the Savior, King Hezekiah wanted all Israel to enjoy the privileges of the house of the Lord, so he “sent to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the passover unto the Lord God of Israel.”
Turn Again Unto the Lord
Hezekiah’s message was one of mercy and deliverance: “If ye turn again unto the Lord, your brethren and your children shall find compassion before them that lead them captive. . . . the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn his face from you, if ye return unto him.”
The messengers went from city to city throughout the land of Israel, “but they laughed them to scorn, and mocked them” (30:1, 9, 10). We are reminded that the house of the Lord is always the focus of mockery in the empire of this world.