Isaiah (Part 39): Judgment / Rescue Summary (Ch 34-35)
Chapter 34 begins with a demand that all nations pay attention. We can imagine the cheering that had been going on with God’s judgment on Assyria. But Isaiah delivers a blast to turn their concentration to a greater matter. All of them are guilty. All the nations have turned from following God. All care only for their glory and their independent control. Thus, all the nations are just as guilty and deserving of judgment as powerful Assyria.
In verses 4 and especially 5, we read of an oft-used expression of God’s anger. The heavens roil in cosmic confusion showing God’s displeasure. The sun and moon dimming or turning to blood while stars fall and the sky splits are all figurative expressions designed to convey the intensity of God’s anger (Eccl 12:2; Is 13:10; Jer 15:9; Ez 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Micah 3:6). They are not actual literal physical events, and they shouldn’t be assumed to be either here or in Matthew 24:29 or in the book of Revelation.
Then the judgment summary flows in earnest as Isaiah uses the nation of Edom as representative of all these nations that have turned against God, demonstrated primarily in their attack on Judah, the covenant people of God. Esau was in constant competition with Jacob (Israel), and Edom (the descendants of Esau) were in competition with the descendants of Israel. Isaiah uses that competitive rivalry to highlight the judgment to all the nations as a result of their “hostility against Zion” (34:8).
This judgment summary concludes in verses 16-17 as Isaiah urges a look at God’s scroll (God’s revealed plan) that matches exactly with his prophecy of judgment.
In Chapter 35 the attention turns from judgment summary to rescue summary. The people are urged to wait for God. While the judgment showed disobedient nations turning into desert, the rescue portion shows God’s people in a land turning from desert to life. From history we recognize that this too is no mere physical comfort, but rather it is the spiritual rest of those who trust in God. It extends to Christ’s rescue and our age of kingdom-gathering. It extends even further to Christ’s return and the resurrection of material creation.
With the end of chapter 35, the section of Isaiah begun in chapter 25—Remnant Rejoice—concludes. The next section—Relationship Trust—will finish Book 1 of Isaiah—the OT portion of chapters 1 through 39. In chapters 36 through 39, Isaiah returns to narrative to highlight the events of the last conflict between Assyria and Judah, and to provide the actual events that conclude the thoughts of Book 1.
Chapter 36 begins by relating that Assyria under Sennacherib comes to attack Judah in the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign. Sennacherib, according to historical and archaeological record, became king in 705 BC. Based on other records and the time necessary for him to put down the Babylonian rebellion, the earliest that Sennacherib would have come up against Judah would be about 702 BC. If that is the “fourteenth year of King Hezekiah,” as verse 1 tells us, Hezekiah must have become king in 716. And, indeed, several websites listing the kings of Judah show Hezekiah beginning his reign in 716 BC. However, an examination of the kingly lines in II Kings along with other historical record actually starts Hezekiah’s reign in 726 BC, ten years earlier. This seeming discrepancy is resolved by understanding the 14th year in verse 1 of chapter 36 as the beginning of Hezekiah’s conflict with Assyria. The events of chapters 36 and 37 come at the end of that conflict, which corresponds approximately with Hezekiah’s 24th year.
Sennacherib had brought his army down from the north to fight against Egypt at Eltekeh, a city about 20 miles west of Jerusalem. After defeating Egypt’s army, Sennacherib continued to Lachish where the last Judean defense was met. Apparently, Sennacherib was finishing up with that battle at Lachish when he sent three officers and a sizeable portion of his army to Jerusalem to deliver a message to the Judean king. The three officers, II Kings 18:17 tells us, were the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh. The Tartan was the head of the army. The Rabsaris is some official about whom we’re not certain. The Rabshakeh, whose name comes from the Akkadian word saqu, meaning to drink, may have been a chief cupbearer like Nehemiah and was therefore the chief personal advisor for Sennacherib. As the king’s advisor, the Rabshakeh is the principal speaker.
The three Assyrian officers are met by three Judean officials—Eliakim, palace governor; Shebna, court secretary; and Joah, court historian. They meet at a point immediately outside the east wall of Jerusalem at the upper pool (the Gihon Spring) by the road to the Fuller’s Field. This spring had an underground tunnel into the side of the mountain, which the Jews could access from within the city (on top of the mountain) by a connecting tunnel that went straight down into the mountain. What is incredible about the meeting is that it takes place at the exact spot where Isaiah had challenged Judah’s king, Ahaz, about 20 to 30 years earlier. In Isaiah 7:3 we read, ”Then the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of tht upper pool, by the road to the Fuller’s Field.’” Thus, the book is arranged with narrative at the beginning showing Judah’s king, Ahaz, confronted with a decision whether to trust God for rescue and choosing wrongly, and then narrative at the end of Book 1 at the very same spot confronting Judah’s king, Hezekiah, with the same decision of whether to trust God for rescue. Hezekiah chooses for God.
The Rabshakeh’s message for Judah included four points. The first was to emphasize that Egypt would be of no help. Obviously, the Rabshakeh could speak of this with some confidence since Assyria had just defeated Egyptian forces in the Eltekeh battle. The second point was that Judah’s God would be no help since Hezekiah had offended their God by tearing down the high places of worship. The Rabshakeh was evidently not too familiar with how God wanted Israel to worship him. The Rabshakeh claimed that God had instructed Assyria to come against Judah. And that, although to the Rabshakeh was probably false propaganda, was in reality the truth. God was using Assyria to bring judgment against Judah.
At this point, the Hebrew officials interrupt and ask the Rabshekah to speak in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the Semitic region. The Rabshekah refuses, insisting that the people had a right to know their supposed folly.
The Rabshekah continues, even more directly directing his message to the Jews listening from the wall of the city. But he makes a couple of errors in his propaganda. First, in insisting that Hezekiah was no help to them and that the Assyrian king would be kind, he lets them know that they would eventually be deported to another land. To a Jew, deportation was a horrendous attack on their religious life. God had specifically given them that “promised land.” It had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the nation under Moses.
The second mistake was to tell them that their local God would be as much help as other local gods who did not save their cities and regions from Assyrian victories. No Jew believed God was a mere local deity. Their God was the only God of all creation. Therefore, although Hezekiah had told the people not to reply, they probably did not need urging to reject the message of the Rabshakeh.