Isaiah (Part 40): Relationship Trust (Ch 36-38a)
The Assyrian Rabshakeh (advisor to King Sennacherib) came to Jerusalem with a large contingent of the Assyrian army on orders from Sennacherib who remained with the rest of the army finishing up the battle of the last Judean forces at Lachish and then at Libnah. Judean officials came out of Jerusalem to meet with the Rabshakeh and two other Assyrian officers at the upper pool (Gihon Spring) outside the east gate of Jerusalem. The Rabshakeh called for the surrender of Hezekiah and Jerusalem with four main points: (1) their ally Egypt could not help them; (2) Hezekiah had offended the Jewish God, so he would not help them; (3) the people should not depend on Hezekiah but rather on Sennacherib, who could provide better for them; and (4) their God would be no more help to them than the gods of the other cities/nations that Assyria had conquered. The last two points, delivered intentionally to the Jews listening on the wall rather than simply to the three official Jewish negotiators, contained arguments which no true Jew could accept. First, the Rabshakeh had told them that the Assyrians would remove them from their land. This cut to the heart of God’s promises to the nation. The Jews found religious and cultural identity tied to the land. Second, the Rabshakeh had insulted their God whom the Jews rightly believed was no mere national, ethnic, or local deity, but rather the God of the universe.
We read in verses 21 and 22 that the people remained silent under orders by Hezekiah. At first thought, we may think that the Hezekiah ordered the people to be silent because he did not want the responding positively to the Rabshakeh’s message. But a positive response would mean that they had rejected God and Hezekiah. If rejecting Hezekiah, why would they follow his order to remain silent? More likely, Hezekiah anticipate their emotional rejection of the Rabshakeh’s attack on their God. But hoping for continued negotiation, Hezekiah did not want angry retorts to inflame the Assyrians to immediate attack.
We read Hezekiah’s response to the Assyrian challenge. He shows true humility. He tears his clothes and wore sackcloth. This is no covering up of worry. This is a public display of release of control. Further, Hezekiah prays to God. This is also not done in the confines of his inner chamber, but he marches to the most public place in all Jerusalem—the Temple—to implore God on Judah’s behalf. He also calls for Isaiah, that most public of prophets, to ask him to call on God for help. In all this, Hezekiah shows a total commitment to God, recognizing that only God and not Hezekiah can care for Judah.
Besides humility, Hezekiah shows repentance. This is not simply some danger for which they will call on God to help. Hezekiah recognizes the situation as judgment by God for their sin. He calls it a “day of…rebuke.”
Isaiah’s response is immediate. He does not rebuke Hezekiah, recognizing the humility and repentance Hezekiah has already expressed. Isaiah does not even need to pray as Hezekiah requested because God already speaks to him, answering Hezekiah’s temple prayer. That answer, Isaiah informs them, is that God would provide care: he would remove the threat and he would deal a death blow to Sennacherib for his blasphemy.
Chapter 37 does not record an answer given to the Rabshakeh, and perhaps no answer was given. Apparently the Rabshakeh hears the rumor of the advance of the king of Egypt/Cush and decides his master, Sennacherib, will need him and this large army contingent there at Jerusalem. The Rabshakeh, therefore, heads back to Sennacherib, finding him at Libnah (near Lachish).
Archaeological history tells us that the Assyrians did march south toward Egypt. But before the go, Sennacherib sends a letter to Hezekiah basically letting him know that although they were leaving to go deal with the greater Egyptian threat, he would be back to crush Jerusalem later. The letter holds only the last point of Rabshakeh’s challenge: God would not be able to save Jerusalem any more than the gods of the other cities/nations were able to save their people.
Hezekiah takes the letter to the temple and spreads it out before God. He declares his faith in who God is. And he declares his trust that God would be able to save them and show the world that he is the sovereign Lord of creation.
God answers Hezekiah’s prayer. In verses 21 through 29, we see first God’s answer directed at Sennacherib. In that address, God calls his people “Virgin Daughter Jerusalem.” This shows Sennacherib that as a father cares for his virgin daughter, so would God care for his people. The people would shake their heads behind Sennacherib, meaning that the Assyrians would be retreating, marching away, as the Jews in triumph would shake their heads.
God lets Sennacherib know that although he may think he is fighting against Hezekiah, he is really fighting God. All Sennacherib’s boasts of the defeat of other nations were because God was controlling the battles. This was his plan of judgment. And God would now control Assyria in pulling them away from attack on Jerusalem.
Next God’s answer is directed to Hezekiah. He gives him a sign that Hezekiah and the Jews can connect with God’s removal of the Assyrian threat. “This year you will eat what grows on its own, and in the second year what grows from that. But in the third year sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Is 37:30). This does not really mean that it will take two or three years for Assyria to be removed. The Jews had not been able to plant and grow as normal during the Assyrian invasion. Therefore, that year they were able to eat only what came up wild. Apparently it was already late in fall so that it was too late for the fall planting. That meant that the next year they would have no crops to eat either. But they could take advantage of the spring planting so that the following year they could eat of that crop. Thus, we are talking only of about 6 months from their current situation until they could begin planting again—less time than that for the Assyrians to leave. The sign is to give them assurance. As life returns and they sow seed, they are to be reminded by that activity of God’s care in fulfilling the prophecy.
The sign also parallels the sign given in Ahaz’s time. Ahaz had been presented with the same challenge of trusting God or trusting Assyria. Ahaz chose Assyria. God still gave the sign of the Messiah (“The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel” Is 7:14) in association with judgment. In Hezekiah’s situation, as Hezekiah chooses to trust God, a Messianic sign is also given—judgment for Assyria but rescue for God’s people. We notice that Sennacherib will not even come back to Jerusalem to “enter the city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or build up an assault ramp against it” (37:33). Instead, he will “go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city” (37:34). God defends the city based on his purpose (“because of Me” 37:35) and for Messianic purpose (“because of My servant David” 37:35).
In verses 36 and 37, we see God rout the Assyrian army. 185,000 are cut down by disease. Herodotus wrote of this incident speaking of mice eating the Assyrian bowstrings. In Egyptian culture, mice were the symbol of disease. Thus, the disease decimated Assyrians warriors. Sennacherib decided to return to Assyria to regroup, but he never returned to Jerusalem. Some years later, as verse 38 recounts, Sennacherib is struck down for his blasphemy against God—appropriately murdered while worshipping his own false god.
Chapter 38 begins stating, “In those days….” Those days refers not to the immediate preceding story of the final Assyrian attack and defeat, but rather to the Assyrian story in general which began 10 years earlier in Hezekiah’s 14th year of reign (36:1). Therefore, the events of chapter 38 (and 39) take place prior to the events of chapters 36 and 37 that we just read.
Hezekiah is sick. Isaiah appears with a word from God telling Hezekiah that he will die from this illness. Hezekiah prays to God, reminding him of his faithfulness. And God relents, giving him 15 more years of life.
The first thing to notice about this is the appearance that God changes his mind. Was it not his will for Hezekiah to die? Did God not know that he would “change” his mind and allow Hezekiah to live? Yes, of course, he knew. God knows the end from the beginning. But God’s approach shows us a couple truths. First, God is always ready to be entreated, and he is always ready to bless. Second, God reveals so that we may see a particular course and repent of it. Upon repentance, God may change a course of judgment to a course of blessing. Thus, the picture here is not of God vacillating in choice, but a controlled exchange to help Hezekiah see that God is not a distant king who demands only obeisance. He is a caring Father who wants relationship. And relationship is dependent on knowledge and trust. We see the same interaction in our own time. God wants us to pray. Some, citing God’s sovereignty, may think that prayer never changes things. But it is through prayer that we interact, learn, and grow. And it is not for our sake alone. God created for relationship. God redeems for relationship. And relationship deepens only as both parties know each other more intimately. So God cares and joys in a deepening relationship with us as we learn more of him and trust more in him.