In the last essay in this series we finished the large section of the book that began at 13:1, the section in which Isaiah shows that God is the master of the nations. We saw in chapters 13-23 his judgment on the various nations, in chapters 24-27 his triumph over the nations, in chapters 28-33 the folly of trusting the nations, and in chapters 34-35 the results of trusting God over against the nations.
In this essay we see Isaiah return to Judah’s historical situation, namely, the threat to Judah from the great power, Assyria. The story began way back in chapter seven, where Isaiah set before his readers (including us) a huge question. Will we trust God or the nations? That is, when we are up against it, will we trust God or men?
As the book has unfolded, we have seen two kings of Judah, father and son. The father was Ahaz, and the son Hezekiah. Early in the book, in chapters 7-8, when Ahaz was faced with a threat from the nations of Syria and Israel, he chose to trust Assyria as an ally rather than God. Then later Assyria became an even more serious threat to Judah than Syria and Israel had been. As we shall see today, when Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah faces the threat of Assyria, he ultimately chooses to trust God instead of the nations.
Following the death of Sennacherib’s father, the nations in Palestine and Egypt rebelled against Assyria. So Sennacherib had to put down the rebellion. In 701 he invaded Palestine and quickly defeated all opposition north of Judah. Then he defeated an Egyptian army at Eltekeh (a city about 20 miles west of Jerusalem). After that he moved against Lachish, a city about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. When the siege of Lachish was under control, he turned his attention to Jerusalem.
As verse two says, Sennacherib sent his Rabshakeh, his personal cupbearer, to Jerusalem to dictate terms of surrender. 2 Kings 18:17 informs us that two other top officials, the Tartan who was commander of Sennacherib’s army, and the Rabsaris whose role is unknown, accompanied the Rabshakeh. Three members of Hezekiah’s cabinet met Sennacherib’s officials: Eliakim who was in charge of the palace, Shebna, the secretary, and Joah, son of the recorder.
Verses 4-10 contain the first part of the Rabshakeh’s terms. You will notice that the Rabshakeh makes two basic points in these verses. First, he declares that Egypt, with whom Judah had made an alliance, is a weak broken staff. The Assyrians already had defeated an Egyptian army at Eltekeh, so the Egyptians would be of no help to Judah (vv. 5-6). Of course back in chapter 31 Isaiah had predicted that reliance on Egypt was folly (31:1-3).
Second, the Rabshakeh declares that Judah’s God, the Lord, will not help them either (v. 7). Then in verses 8-9 he mockingly challenges the Judeans to provide 2,000 horsemen. He says, I’ll give you 2,000 horses, if you can find 2,000 riders. And then, to add insult to injury, the Rabshakeh declares that Judah’s God, the Lord, sent him to conquer them (v. 10).
It appears that the Rabshakeh’s claim that the Assyrians were acting at the Lord’s command unnerved the Judeans a bit. So Eliakim and the other Judean leaders asked the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic, the diplomatic language, instead of Hebrew, the language of the Judeans (v. 11).
Aramaic originally was the language of the Arameans, or Syrians. The Assyrians chose to use it as the diplomatic language, because everyone in the region understood it. The fact that it was alphabetically based rather than cuneiform based also may have had something to do with it.
The Rabshakeh immediately rejects the idea. He wants the people to hear. So he shouts out in Hebrew so that the people ranged on the wall can hear him. And he makes two more points, the third and fourth.
The Rabshakeh’s third point, seen in verse 14-15, is that neither Hezekiah nor the Lord can deliver them. And his fourth point, seen in verses 16-17, is that they should make peace with Sennacherib. If they did so, hey would be treated well. In other words, the Rabshakeh tried to get the people to pressure Hezekiah to give in to Sennacherib’s demands by suggesting that they would be much better off if that happened. Instead of suffering from starvation and disease in a siege, they could live on their own land with plenty to eat until relocated to equally good lands somewhere else.
In verses 18-20 the Rabshakeh indicates that he considers the Lord just another of the many gods whose countries Assyria had conquered. The cities mentioned, with the exception of Samaria, are cities in Syria. The point that the Rabshakeh was making was that the gods of those cities could not save them, and neither would the Lord be able to save Judah.
Now then, we have seen Sennacherib’s ultimatum. Next, in verses 21-22, we will see Judah’s response to the challenge. The first thing we notice is that the Rabshakeh’s tactic of trying to turn the people against Hezekiah did not work. They kept silent. And there was nothing for Hezekiah’s official representatives to say either, because the ultimatum was absolute. So they went to Hezekiah to report the situation to him.
Now we come to the crux of the matter. What would Hezekiah do? His response, from God’s point of view, is crucial. Will he fold up and open his gates to the Assyrians? Or will he trust the Lord to save the honor of his name and the country of Judah as well?
As we move to chapter 37, when Hezekiah heard what had happened, he tore his garments and put on sackcloth, both classic signs of mourning, repentance, and humiliation. Then he went to the temple to worship and pray. At the same time he sent Eliakim, Shebna, and the senior priests (also dressed in sackcloth) to Isaiah to seek his counsel.
Verses 3-4 contain Hezekiah’s message to Isaiah. There are four elements to the message. First, there is an admission of failure. Hezekiah uses the image of a breech baby that can’t be delivered to illustrate. A situation like that, especially in those days, resulted in the death of the baby, or the mother, or both. In other words, Hezekiah was facing a near hopeless situation. And he recognized that he was in large part responsible for getting the nation into the mess. Thus it was an admission of failure.
Second, Hezekiah’s message to Isaiah also was an admission of helplessness. There was absolutely nothing Hezekiah could do to save his country, and he knew it. So he confessed his helplessness to Isaiah.
Third, Hezekiah’s message to Isaiah reported the mocking of the Lord by Rabshakeh. This was a key issue for Hezekiah. He was concerned about the honor of God.
And finally, fourth, Hezekiah asked Isaiah to pray about the situation. He specifically asked Isaiah to pray for the remaining remnant of the nation who had not yet been defeated by the Assyrians. He had to mean by that primarily the people of Jerusalem.
There are two matters here on which I would like to comment further. First, you will notice that Hezekiah made absolutely no demands on the lord., In Kings and Chronicles we are told that Hezekiah was a good king. He was a good king. But he was not perfect by any means. He was slow to come to complete trust in the Lord. We don’t know to what extent he was involved in the alliance with Egypt, but he certainly had to be involved. In that regard he made the same mistake as his father, Ahaz. He had trusted in another nation instead of in the Lord. But as we see here, Hezekiah came to realize his mistake, and he repented of it.
Second, I mentioned a few moments ago that Hezekiah was concerned about the Lord’s honor. That was quite important. It is clear that he neither was primarily concerned with saving his own skin, nor with saving his country at all costs. Rather he was concerned about the honor of the Lord. For Hezekiah, the Lord was not just another god. He was the living God. And the Rabshakeh had mocked the living God.
As you can see in verses 5-7, when Hezekiah’s officials arrive at Isaiah’s place, the prophet already had heard from the Lord. And he had a message for Hezekiah. The first thing he wanted communicated was, “Do not be afraid.” The idea conveyed was that the Lord is greater than Sennacherib and his “lackeys.” In other words, God is in control. He easily can deal with Sennacherib by means of something as simple as a rumor. Isaiah declares that Sennacherib not only will return to his own land, but he also will die there.
What is the main lesson here? God is trustworthy, and we must learn to trust him completely, even if things don’t go the way we would wish or hope.