out of 5
Review by Ruth
After surviving the threat of Assyrian invasion, Hezekiah has seen the kingdom of Judah blessed with extraordinary peace and prosperity. Life seems almost perfect, except Hezekiah lacks an heir. Desperate to retain her husband's affections and secure his succession, Hephzibah vows to sacrifice her firstborn to the pagan goddess Asherah. When Hezekiah discovers her idolatry, he flies into a rage and is critically injured in the resulting fire. Deeply and bitterly wounded by his beloved wife's betrayal, Hezekiah wavers between life and death with nothing less than the future of the kingdom and his people at stake. When God grants Hezekiah a reprieve, the broken king sets about attempting to solidify his legacy, risking everything for a chance at personal glory by signing alliances with neighboring -- pagan -- nations, alliances that bring Assyria once again to Jerusalem's gates. Will Hezekiah find the strength to return to the faith of his youth and once again trust in the never-changing God of Israel to redeem the results of his sinful pride and save his people from annihilation?
The Strength of His Hand is the third volume in Austin's Chronicles of the Kings series to cover a portion of Hezekiah's reign. Taking 2 Kings 18-20, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-39 as her basis, Austin explores Hezekiah's reign at its critical midpoint -- facing death and the systematic dismantling of all the religious and political reforms he'd overseen since his coronation, the Hezekiah we meet at this point is a more vulnerable, almost desperate, man than the assured, faith-filled ruler we were introduced to in the first two volumes of this series. One of the main reasons I love biblical fiction is how it can flesh-out and humanize the individuals forever immortalized in the pages of scripture, reclaiming them from character status and reminding us that they were once living and breathing human beings, ever bit as fallible as we are today. The first two novels in this series sketched a fascinating, compelling portrait of Hezekiah -- but Hezekiah at this point in history, at least as brought to life by Austin -- is frankly unlikable. There is so much time spent on Hezekiah's illness, his regrets, his penchant for making decisions that go against every belief he's professed to hold dear up to this point. But the portion of Hezekiah's life covered in this novel is presented in too repetitive and redundant a manner to make for a truly compelling read. Hezekiah faces some truly appalling prophecies as a result of his decisions -- i.e., when Isaiah prophesies the Babylonian exile (2 Kings 20: 16-19), and the best reaction Hezekiah can muster is relief that this won't happen in his lifetime. One never really gets a clear sense of Hezekiah's remorse until the novel is nearly over, and given the far-flung repercussions of his actions, it is to my view a missed dramatic opportunity.
The strongest characters in this novel are members of the supporting cast -- Eliakim, the man responsible for overseeing the construction of Hezekiah's tunnel in Song of Redemption (and now the Secretary of State), his wife Jerusha, the former Assyrian captive, and Hephzibah, the disgraced queen. In many respects Eliakim as a hero figure foreshadows the leading men of Austin's later works -- atypical, sincere, intelligent, bookish types. I loved Austin's exploration of how the pressure of Eliakim's new government position forced a new set of societal expectations on him -- expectations that clash with the grace-filled tenets of his faith. It is his wife Jerusha, the once-broken and bitter Assyrian slave who reminds Eliakim of the need for grace and forgiveness when she is compelled to reach out to the shunned queen. I love how Austin has developed Jerusha's story, particularly in how she doesn't shy away from the ever-present traumatic impact of Jerusha's years in captivity. I found Hephzibah's battle with guilt and unforgiveness extremely well-drawn and realistically presented, and Jerusha's unexpected friendship with Hephzibah is a lovely portrait of grace and redemption at work in the lives of believers.
Lacking some of the spark that made the first two volumes in this series so fascinating, The Strength of His Hand is nevertheless a competently presented final chapter in Austin's exploration of Hezekiah's life and reign. I look forward to the fourth book in the series, covering the reign of Hezekiah's son -- I think perhaps a new generation's challenges will interject a much-needed infusion of life into the series.