We are very near the end of the first major part of Isaiah. In the last essay we studied the dramatic account of Sennacherib of Assyria’s demands delivered to Hezekiah, king of Judah, by Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh (commander in chief). The story is found in Is. 36:1-37:7. In this essay we will finish chapter 37.
Verse eight tells us, “the Rabshakeh returned,” meaning returned to Sennacherib. When he did so, he learned that Sennacherib had left Lachish and was engaged in a battle with the city of Libnah. He also learned that King Tirhakah of Ethiopia was marching against Sennacherib. Although Tirhakah was an Ethiopian, he eventually became Pharaoh of Egypt, so he likely was leading an Egyptian force. Because of these developments, Sennacherib sent messengers to Hezekiah with a letter that repeated the demands delivered earlier by the Rabshakeh. The apparent purpose was to pressure Hezekiah into surrendering before Sennacherib had to deal with Tirhakah. As you can see the demands are very similar to those made earlier.
We see Hezekiah’s response in verses 14-20. Hezekiah’s first response is to go to the temple to pray. We are told that he spread the letter out before the Lord. Now Hezekiah did not spread out the letter in order to inform the Lord of its contents. The ancient Hebrews were more sophisticated than that. Oswalt believes it was a prayerful gesture. It was a way of praying, Lord, “Surely this cannot be left unanswered” (p. 653).
In verses 15-16 we see the verbal part of Hezekiah’s prayer. Notice that he addresses the Lord as King and as Creator. He addresses him as one “enthroned above the cherubim.” And of course only kings are “enthroned.” Then Hezekiah declares that the Lord “made heaven and earth.” Thus Hezekiah clearly thought of God as King and Creator. He rules over all, because he created all.
Oswalt goes on to remind us that biblical religion is untenable apart from these truths. If God is not a being who exists outside of the created order, and who created everything, and if he is not sovereign over everything he created, he cannot be the ultimate authority that the Bible says he is.
Oswalt also points out that Hezekiah’s confession provides a kind of climax to the entire first part of the book. If the Lord is King of all, then he is greater than any nation. Thus he is the one in whom to place trust, not other nations or men.
Notice in verse 17 that Hezekiah appeals to the Lord as one who can see and hear without eyes and ears, something that idols of wood and stone cannot do. He is a living God. And Hezekiah points out that Sennacherib has been mocking “the living God.”
Notice in verse 20 that Hezekiah makes no demands on God. He asks for deliverance from Sennacherib, but his main concern is that the nations will know that the Lord alone is God. In other words, he is primarily concerned for God’s glory. The implication of this for our prayers is that our prayers would be more effective if we more often kept our focus on God’s glory rather than on our needs.
At this point in the account Isaiah sends a message to Hezekiah. The process that we see here is quite interesting. Hezekiah prays in the temple, but God gives an answer through Isaiah who was somewhere else. Again there is a lesson here regarding our prayer lives. God has his own ideas about how and when he will answer our prayers.
Now then, let’s look at the first part of the message from the Lord in verses 21-25. This is a bit difficult to understand, because although it is an answer to the prayer of Hezekiah, it is a word regarding Sennacherib. As Isaiah has understood the message from God, he pictures Jerusalem as a virgin maiden who is helpless before Sennacherib, but who despises and scorns him behind his back, because Sennacherib and his servants have mocked the Holy One of Israel.
Sennacherib himself had made outlandish claims (not an uncommon practice among conquerors). He had scaled the highest mountains, felled the tallest trees, dug many wells, and dried up with the soles of his feet all the streams of Egypt. The idea is that nothing can stop him, not mountain heights, dense forests, deserts, or swamps. He is invincible. But he was wrong.
In verses 26-29 God has something significant to say! Interestingly back in chapter eight, verses 6-8, Isaiah had predicted that the Assyrians would sweep over Judah right up to the neck. Now it has happened. But God has something to say. First, he announces that he has been in charge all along. Sennacherib’s exploits were part of God’s larger plan. Of course this raises the issue of divine sovereignty versus human freedom.
Some believe, because of biblical statements like this one, that God determines everything, even human choices. Most Christians, including myself, believe that statements such as this are expressive of God’s permissive, rather than his intentional, will. That is, Sennacherib did what he did because he decided to do it, not because God made him do it. But God permitted him to make those decisions. So it was God’s permissive will that he make them. Thus in that sense, God determined that Sennacherib would make the decisions. Regardless of how one comes down on that issue, the point is God is in control.
Second, in verse 29, God announces what he will do to Sennacherib. Sennacherib had raged against God, and had belittled him. Now God would reign him in. He would hook him by the nose and put a bit in his mouth and force him to turn around and go home. Having rebuked the would-be conqueror, the Lord, in verses 30-35, promises to deliver Jerusalem.
Notice in verses 36-38 that the Assyrian monarch did not return home because he reached his objectives, or because of a crisis somewhere else in his empire. He went home because God defeated him.
The big lesson for us in this is that God can be trusted. It doesn’t mean that God always will deliver us in dramatic fashion, as he delivered Jerusalem. Sometimes he doesn’t. But I have no doubt that he shields us many times without our ever knowing it. In other words, we should be more concerned with being faithful to and trusting in the Lord than with complaining when a calamity hits us. We always should be thankful for the protection from the many calamities that do not befall us.