Tonight we have a longer reading and a shorter sermon. The reasons for that are two. First, the account of Hezekiah and Sennacherib is a unified narrative. It needs to be read at one sitting as it is a single piece of history. Second, it is an event in history that in many ways speaks for itself. I’ll make a few comments and be done when once we have read the account.
Israel, the northern kingdom, had been destroyed. It no longer existed in any form, not even in name. The remainder of Kings is concerned with the history of the southern kingdom and that story begins with the reign of Judah’s best king after David himself.
v.1 Hezekiah was the son of the wicked king Ahaz. Under what influences he came to repudiate his father’s perspective and program we are not told. But it seems clear, even more so in Chronicles than in Kings, that we are to look to his mother. He had a godly mother and she made all the difference to her son and so to Judah as a kingdom.
v.2 All the mothers of the good kings of Judah were Hebrews not imports from somewhere else as so often in Israel and a few times in Judah.
v.4 The removal of the high places was precisely what the previous “good” kings of Judah had not done and immediately places Hezekiah in a category by himself. Hezekiah clearly had set out to reform Judah’s worship according to the Law of Moses. Of course, one reason for this is that he had the immense good fortune of reigning during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah who guided him to these various reforms.
The bronze snake had to go (Nehushtan means “bronze snake”), even this important relic of a great moment in Israel’s history in the wilderness. If the theology is bad, even the best things can become obstacles to true faith.
v.8 Isn’t it amazing that Gaza is a city as often in the news in our day as it was in Hezekiah’s day. One of the reasons the Assyrians felt obliged to deal with Hezekiah was that he had been successful in war against other kings whom they regarded as vassals. In other words, in their view he was muscling in on their territory.
v.9 We have in vv. 9-12 a repetition of 17:3-6. The reason for the repetition is to contrast Hezekiah’s obedience and the Lord’s blessing of it, with Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh and the judgment that she had suffered as a result. But we are also reminded that this was a time in which defiance of Assyria, which was Hezekiah’s policy, was very likely to provoke a violent response! [Provan, 253; House, 360]
v.13 The political and military interests of Assyria were, of course, not limited to Judah. This third campaign into the Levant swept aside opposition to Assyrian rule in Phoenicia and Philistia and reached its climax in a great victory in battle over the Egyptian army. Judah was attacked, among other states, because Hezekiah had not submitted to Assyria and, in several ways, had acted against Assyrian interests. The nation as a whole was subdued by the Assyrian army with only Jerusalem finally holding out. It was besieged by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Walled cities of course were much more difficult to take. The nation as a whole could have been described as defeated, but not Jerusalem and not Judah’s king. Much of this is confirmed in Assyrian annals, including the siege. According to Assyrian annals Sennacherib “shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem his royal capital like a bird in a cage.” Interestingly, it does not say that Sennacherib took Jerusalem as we would expect. Much of what follows is narrated in Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Chronicles 32. In other words, we have three separate accounts of these events in the Bible.
v.14 300 talents of silver is eleven tons and 30 talents of gold is one ton!
v.16 All the more given that the enormous tribute did not mollify the Assyrian emperor, the unanswered question is whether Hezekiah should have made this attempt to buy off the Assyrians. Was this a lack of nerve; an unfortunate beginning to what would become Hezekiah’s finest hour? [Provan, 255] In any case, the Lord will not allow Hezekiah to avoid finding out whether Yahweh can and will deliver him from the Assyrians. [House, 360]
We learn in 2 Chronicles 32:1-5, 30 that Hezekiah also repaired Jerusalem’s walls and provided a source of water in case of siege. This is the famous “Hezekiah’s tunnel” that nowadays tourists troop through by the thousands every year.
v.17 The Rabshakeh was the Assyrian provincial governor for this area of the empire.
v.18 Shebna, if you remember, was once criticized by Isaiah for his lack of faith in God and his worldliness (Isaiah 22:15) So Hezekiah did not necessarily always have a cabinet that shared his spiritual viewpoint.
v.21 There is no evidence that Hezekiah was counting on Egyptian support, but that would be the natural assumption on the part of the Assyrians.
v.22 It appears, as would be likely (these nations and empires had very highly developed and sophisticated organs of intelligence) that the Assyrians were well aware of Hezekiah’s reforms and of the fact that they were not universally popular among the people.
v.25 It almost seems as if the Assyrians were aware that Isaiah had described them as the “rod of God’s anger” (Isa. 10:5-11). In any case, the Assyrians routinely told their enemies that their gods were angry with them, that their gods wanted them to surrender to the Assyrians, and that their gods had abandoned them. It is the ANE equivalent of modern war propaganda in which loudspeakers or leaflets dropped form the sky appeal to the combatants to realize the hopelessness of their cause. Both the Axis and the Allies did this constantly in the Second World War.
v.26 Aramaic was the language of international diplomacy. Judean, of course, was the local language, what we know as Hebrew.
v.27 The Rabshakeh obviously wanted to divide the population of the city and to turn as many as possible against Hezekiah and his determination to resist.
v.32 In other words, no matter what they are going to be exiled. They are going to be taken from their home and sent elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire; but that could happen more peacefully or more violently.
v.35 These last remarks were the Assyrians’ undoing. It was one thing to say that the Assyrian army was Yahweh’s instrument of judgment. It was another thing altogether to claim that Yahweh could not deliver his people! Now it is the Assyrians, not Hezekiah, who are out of touch with reality! [Provan, 257] In any case, this is typical ANE polytheistic theology. The worth and power of a god is measured by the success and grandeur of the nation that worships him. [House, 364]
19:2 We know from his book that the prophet Isaiah was outspokenly anti-Egyptian and anti-Assyrian. He had always counseled Judah’s kings to trust the Lord for their deliverance and that would be the advice he would give once again to Hezekiah.
v.3 That is probably a proverbial statement expressing despair and helplessness.
v.4 The remnant in Jerusalem would have included some faithful folk from Israel who would have moved south when it became clear that Israel was doomed.
v.7 The rumor would be of the approach of Pharaoh with his Egyptian army. Sennacherib would be murdered in Assyria in 681 B.C., some twenty years later.
v.8 Sennacherib had attacked Libnah perhaps as a part of his strategy to prepare for the advance of an Egyptian army, by far the most significant enemy he had to face on this particular invasion. Assyrian reliefs depict Jews being taken into exile from Lachish at this time (701 B.C).
v.10 This time the Assyrian emperor is even more disrespectful of the Lord. What does the third commandment say: “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
v.13 His point is that although the Assyrian army must withdraw to fight the Egyptians, the Jews ought not to conclude that they have given up or that they didn’t intend to take Jerusalem as soon as they are free to do so.
v.15 To say that the Lord was “enthroned between the cherubim” was to say that he was present in Jerusalem, for the ark of the covenant with its cherubim, that occupied the Most Holy Place in the temple was the sign of the Lord’s presence with his people.
v.18 Pious Israelites always knew that ANE idols were a fantasy. There was but one God, and idols were, therefore, nothing more than the outward form of an illusion.
v.19 As so often in the prayers of God’s people in the Bible, the great concern is for the Lord’s own reputation: the glory of his name and the vindication of his character. The Assyrians had slandered it, made Yahweh seem of no account. Hezekiah asks that God will act to defend his honor and demonstrate to the world that he is the living God, the only God, the Lord of heaven and earth.
v.21 “Wagging the head” was a gesture of derision or contempt. Assyria had nothing but contempt for Judah and, humanly speaking, with good reason. But that contempt would be her downfall.
v.24 The point of the metaphors is that Sennacherib has a vastly exaggerated view of his own powers!
v.25 Assyria’s mistake was to assume that it had gone in conquest in its own strength and failed to realize that the Lord had ordered and planned it all. Assyria was his tool and the failure to recognize that fact would be its undoing. [Provan, 259]
v.28 It was the Assyrian’s practice to lead captured kings in procession by a ring in the nose. What they had done to others would now be done to them.
v.29 The devastation of the land by the Assyrian army will be fully recovered by the third year.
v.36 We don’t know that Sennacherib was in camp with the army outside Jerusalem. He may have been at Libnah or somewhere else when news came to him of the disaster at Jerusalem.
v.37 Once again a question is raised by the number, 185,000. It seems too large for a single army, indeed only part of the Assyrian army, as other parts were at Lachish and elsewhere. It is true that some scholars have argued that the numbers could be legitimate even taken literally, though a century before the allied army that defeated the Assyrians at Karkar numbered only about 50,000. Again it is possible that the Hebrew word for “thousand,” when used in a military context, is being used in a different way, perhaps as the name for a military unit of uncertain size. The point remains the same: the numbers of the dead made for a catastrophe that could not be overcome.
Assyrian sources make no mention of the disaster as is expected. Only victories are recorded. Political speech remains this way even in modern times does it not? You very rarely hear Democrats say they really blew the last two years of their congressional rule and that they deserved the disaster of the last election. You rarely hear Republicans say they really made a hash out of the last time the population entrusted them with political power. No wonder they kicked us out. It is always the victories that they want to talk about, never the defeats. The Assyrian annals do confirm, however, that the Assyrian army left the region suddenly with Hezekiah still in power, a remarkable development given the relative military strength of the two nations and the fact that Jerusalem had been besieged. Egyptian sources also speak of a sudden if not miraculous deliverance from Sennacherib in 701 B.C. There is some independent confirmation of some remarkable divine intervention against Sennacherib in Herodotus. He mentions a swarm of mice that has led some to suggest that it was the bubonic plague that devastated the Assyrian army. [cf. Histories, ii, 141] Assyrian annals also confirm the manner of Sennacherib’s death, his being executed or assassinated by two of his sons and Esarhaddon succeeding him in power. The silence in those annals is thunderous!
Sennacherib was in the temple of his god when he was murdered. He who mocked the power of Judah’s God to protect and deliver his people not only was sent packing with his tail between his legs by Hezekiah’s God but found out at last that the gods of Assyria could not protect him even from his own sons.
You don’t need to be reminded that this is one of the most memorable moments in biblical history. It is akin to Elijah’s triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, though more like the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Armaeans of which we read in 2 Kings 7, a deliverance prophesied by Elisha, just as this deliverance was prophesied by Isaiah. It is one of the great historical demonstrations of the existence and nature of God, of his faithfulness to those who trust in him, and of the certain deliverance of God’s people from their enemies. The gospel is a message of deliverance, of salvation, and stupendous historical events like these are God-given illustrations of the certainty of deliverance, no matter the seeming hopelessness of the situation.
Humanly speaking the situation was hopeless. All of the arguments that the Rabshakeh deployed in the hearing of Hezekiah’s officials and the people on the wall appeared incontrovertible. But, of course, Yahweh was the factor that he left out and Yahweh proved to be the one factor that mattered. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Now, don’t sentimentalize this remarkable event in history. Don’t make it less than real history in your mind and its narrative a real theology of the Christian life. To keep us from doing so let me draw your attention to three important details in this narrative.
First, while God could certainly have prevented the advance of the Assyrian army into Judah in the first place, he did not. He could have destroyed the Assyrian army at any time, but he waited until a critical moment in the siege of Jerusalem. And the crisis of the Assyrian invasion came after Hezekiah had so faithfully reformed Judah’s worship; indeed reformed it in a way no previous king of Judah had been willing to do. In fact this point is made even more explicit in Chronicles where we read that after Hezekiah had so faithfully served the Lord, Sennacherib came against Jerusalem to besiege it (2 Chron. 32:1). There is a role for affliction in the Christian life and even the most faithful of believers must endure all manner of trials for the sake of their benefits. The trial that the Lord allowed Hezekiah to suffer certainly set the king to work. We wouldn’t have Hezekiah’s tunnel – that remarkable piece of ancient engineering – otherwise! And it set him to prayer, real prayer, earnest, urgent prayer. We see Hezekiah in the temple on his face with his letter spread out before the Lord and we see a man praying the way we all know Christians ought to pray. We ought to speak to God always with this expectation and this urgency. We ought always to make an argument like Hezekiah made. But very often that kind of prayer is missing from our lives; it is trial and affliction that puts it back. A Christian ought always to be speaking to God, but absent affliction, such prayer is often missing from our lives. But, most of all, our trials provide the opportunity for the Lord to prove himself as he did so dramatically here. John Newton put it this way:
“The far greater part of the promises in Scripture are made and suited to a state of affliction; and though we may believe they are true, we cannot so well know their sweetness, power, and suitableness, unless we ourselves are in a state to which they refer. The Lord says, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver.’ Now till the day of trouble comes, such a promise is like a city of refuge to an Israelite, who not having slain a man, was in no danger of the avenger of blood.”
Or as another old writer reminds us:
“The Lord ties terrible knots just to have the pleasure of loosing them off from those he loves. He lays nets and sets traps only that he may get a chance of healing broken bones and setting the terrified free.”
In Psalm 30 David admits that “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” But later he was much the better to have been able to say, “I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths… I called to you for help, and you healed me.” Do you think Hezekiah would have preferred never to have been besieged rather than have the Lord come to his aid in such a memorable, life-changing way?
Second, the deliverance is astounding, but the sudden departure of the Assyrian army with its tail between its legs is not heaven. Judah was delivered but she had suffered and she still had difficulties to face. Not only did Hezekiah spend much of the nation’s treasure in a futile attempt to buy off the Assyrians beforehand, it would still take three years, so we read in 19:29-30, for the land to recover from the ravages of the Assyrian invasion. We can’t be sure whether Hezekiah’s effort to pay tribute was a failure of faith on his part, a mistake, an unnecessary capitulation to an enemy he needn’t have feared. But it might well have been. That happens a lot to us, doesn’t it? The Lord delivers us from our sins – he destroys their guilt and frees us from their power – but sometimes we still have to face some of the enduring consequences of what we have done or failed to do. Perhaps that is part of the message here. Even the stupendous intervention on Hezekiah and Judah’s behalf didn’t restore all the treasure that had been lost so foolishly and unnecessarily.
As so often in our lives, God’s deliverance, dramatic, wonderful, miraculous as it is, comes in medias res. God’s acts to rescue and save us do not lift us out of this world, but maintain us in it. They do not leave us in a situation of unqualified prosperity and happiness, they enable us to face our challenges and go on with our life of serving the Lord. This magnificent picture of divine power unleashed on behalf of God’s people – a marvelous encouragement of our faith as it was a marvelous reward for Hezekiah’s faith – is the more valuable for being so realistic. Hezekiah’s experience is our experience and we would immediately see that if only we could see how impossibly wonderful it is when the Lord kills 185,000 of our sins and delivers us from their guilt and power as he does again and again and again! Some of us have had dramatic experiences of God’s intervention in our lives to deliver us from trouble. Many of us have, I’m sure. But after that deliverance we still must live in this world full of enemies of our souls. In this world still today, God intervenes on behalf of his people as he did for Hezekiah long ago, but he does so in a world in which it remains the fact that we must go through many trials to inherit the kingdom of God and in which the man who would be godly must suffer persecution. So it would be for Hezekiah. One deliverance, even a stupendous one such as this, did not an entire life of godliness and prosperity make!
Third, we have in this narrative as well a classic case of prophetic foreshortening or what has often been called the prophetic perspective. We have encountered this many times in our reading and study of the Bible. If you remember we discussed this biblical phenomenon at length in our Sunday evening studies in biblical eschatology several years ago. A prophecy, like the one we have here in 19:7 sees in a single vision of the future events that, it turns out, are separated from one another in time. We compared this prophetic foreshortening or prophetic perspective to a mountain range that seems from the distance to be peaks on a single axis but proves to be when once among them to be successive ranges of mountains, some nearer, some farther, separated from one another by valleys and rivers that one could not see before. Here we are told that Sennacherib will hear a rumor and return to his own land and fall by the sword there.
That was Isaiah’s first word and it all came true. But the rumor took Sennacherib away from his siege of Jerusalem for only a short while. He would return to Jerusalem to continue his siege of the city. That isn’t what we might have expected having only 19:7 before us. Further, in 19:7 nothing is mentioned of the reason why he would depart for home – which proved to be the devastation of his army by the angel of the Lord –, something we might have expected Isaiah to mention. And, finally, his murder by his own sons, while it occurred just as Isaiah said it would, didn’t happen for another twenty years. This is all typical of biblical prophecy. It majors on the most important things, rarely descends to the details of how and when, but always proves out in the end. It leaves much unsaid, much to surprise us, even to confuse us. But we can count on the Word of God, it stands forever. There are some prophesies made by the prophets of God that have not yet come true, nor do we have the information to determine precisely how they will come to pass; but we know they will because so many others have before them!
This is our God, brothers and sisters, the God of Hezekiah and of Jerusalem’s deliverance. When you feel yourself surrounded and beset by enemies far stronger than yourself, this is the God to whom you are to turn: the God who holds in his hand both the present and the future. This is his power and his willingness to use it on behalf of those who trust in him. This is the one to whom you are to make a breast of your troubles as Hezekiah did when he spread the letter from Sennacherib before the Lord. And this is the God who can deliver you when you are tempted to think your situation hopeless. Whether your enemies are the world, the devil, or your own flesh they are as subject to God’s terrible power as were the Assyrians outside the city of the Lord. Your battles may prove costly and the aftermath may be a challenge, but who would not think it worthwhile who was privileged to see the mighty arm of the Lord wielding his sword on your behalf?
To live the Christian life is to do what Hezekiah did: to believe in the faithfulness and the power of the living God, to appeal to the Lord for help, and to count on the Word of God that has been spoken. That is what Hezekiah did and that is what we must do today. Put it in these very terms to yourself: I have enemies as Hezekiah did; they seem so often too powerful for me; I have made attempts of my own to defeat them and those attempts, like Hezekiah’s tribute have had little or no effect. So I must turn to the Lord as Hezekiah did, trust myself to his power and might, and remember what he has told me in his Word. I am not to expect to live an easy life, but I am to expect the Lord’s intervention on my behalf whenever that is my great need. That is what Christians think and that is what Christians do. And that is why such uncounted multitudes of believers have said and will say, “I know this narrative of Sennacherib and Hezekiah is true because the Lord has intervened for me in the same way!”
Who are your enemies really? What are they? What have you to fear? They are Sennacherib hot-footing it back to Assyria with his tail between his legs, hating the thought of having to explain why he left Judah’s king safe and secure in his capital; a man who doesn’t yet realize that his own sons are going to take his life in due time. Not much of an enemy after all when all is said and done. Lord Byron had it right.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the angel of death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still.
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the form of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
[“The Destruction of Sennacherib,” George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1815]
Your enemies; your God; your victory! Carry it with you!