“Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Your prayer to me about Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard.” 2 Kings 19:20
“Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” 2 Kings 19:6
“Whom have you mocked and reviled?
Against whom have you raised your voice
and lifted your eyes to the heights?
Against the Holy One of Israel!” 2 Kings 19:22
Read 2 Kings 16-20 (Corresponding passages; 2 Chronicles 29-32, Isaiah 36-39)
When we are tormented by our enemies, Jesus knows. Our God is not a distant God who doesn’t care about our situations. We are the apple of his eye, the bride for which He gave His life. He not only hears the taunts of our enemies, and sees the distress we feel, but He comforts our hearts, and He acts on our behalf. Moreover, we see in this narrative that God takes the taunts and threats against His people as taunts and threats against Himself.
This is what we see in this familiar story of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem when Hezekiah was king of Judah.
I must admit this is one of my favourite Bible narratives and Hezekiah one of my favourite characters in Scripture. I am looking forward to meeting him in Heaven. (You’ve heard of a nerd-crush? He’s my king-crush, even though most like David.) He ruled, for the most part, as a righteous king. (2 Kings 18:3, 5-7, 2 Chron. 19:3) He brought about reforms to undo the idolatry his father, Ahaz introduced into Judah, and he reinstated true worship of Yahweh. He had a co-regency with his father at first, then a sole regency from 715 B.C. onward. He began his reign at age twenty-five and reigned almost thirty years.
At this point in time, the kingdom is already divided, with ten tribes in the North, called Israel, with Samaria as its capital, and two tribes in the south, Benjamin and Judah, known as Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. (show diagram) The infamous kings of the Assyrian nation, Shalmaneser V and then Sargon II, are rolling through the known world like a juggernaut, flattening nation after nation with the mighty Assyrian army. They are taking fortified city after fortified city, merely laying siege and waiting out the inhabitants who either starve or surrender. They besieged Samaria for three years before it fell. But fall, it did.
They use psychological warfare to great effect, threatening the leaders of the newest city state under siege by standing next to the impaled heads of the previous conquest while they negotiate terms of surrender. The terms are simple; complete surrender with forced tribute or face annihilation or forced servitude. They only imposed heavy tribute if a city did not resist. If they did, the city was plundered then all the prisoners gruesomely tortured.
After centuries of idolatry, God’s patience is at an end. The curses promised because of disobedience are about to fall on the nation. This time, the judgment is not confined to Israel in the north, which has generally been worse in terms of idolatry, but now it reaches Judah, and Jerusalem itself is threatened.
In chapter seventeen some of the reasons are mentioned in verses 16-18. They “made images… worshipped the host of heaven, and served Baal…they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire (child sacrifice) and practiced witchcraft and soothsaying.”
The judgment He has been threatening, finally comes. Assyria attacks Israel. They take one city after another. After a few years, Sennacherib is the new king of Assyria, and he picks up where Sargon left off. News comes to Hezekiah in Jerusalem and he and the people are rightly, terrified.
A little more background on Hezekiah. He was the twelfth sovereign of Judah, excluding Athaliah. Sennacherib invaded Judah around 705-681 B.C.
Hezekiah’s first act was to purge, repair and reopen the Temple which was neglected and polluted by the idolatrous reign of his father Ahaz. It was a thorough reform. He didn’t even spare the high places, but tore them down, “broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah poles.” He also destroyed the bronze serpent, made by Moses in the wilderness, recorded in Numbers 21:9, because the people gave it a name and started worshipping it. He took this object of worship and turned it into scrap metal. This reformation was followed by a celebration of the Passover.
You’d think these were happy times in Judah, but we don’t know how the people responded. They were accustomed to their idols. For many, it was all they’d known. They may have been outwardly conforming to the new way, but secretly worshipping idols. Syncretism, or mixing of true worship with idolatry was common.
“And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, ‘You shall not do this.’” 2 Kings 17:9-12
The term “from watchtower to fortified city” simply means from small hamlets to large cities. This implies that the paganism was rampant.
Hezekiah had ample warning of an Assyrian invasion. He inherited the Assyrian menace from his father, who made an alliance with them. Hezekiah built up the country in order to throw off the Assyrian yoke. He strengthened the national economy and military. He established warehouses and stockyards in strategic places to store food. He developed a national system of defense and ensured an adequate water supply in the event of a siege.
“The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah and all his might and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?” 2 Kings 20:20
“This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works.” 2 Chron. 32:30
He diverted the Gihon Spring, which was exposed to enemy attack. He covered it up and diverted it through a tunnel 1,777 feet long through solid rock, into a reservoir within the city walls. His building projects included the Siloam tunnel, reservoir and pool. The pool was 20 X 30 feet. It was the place where Jesus later healed a blind man.
An ancient inscription by the workmen of the tunnel was found accidentally in 1880 by a boy wading in the pool. It’s at the point where the two sides met. The pic marks can be seen coming from two directions. The original is now in a museum, but the translation is there. It says,
“The boring through is completed. Now this is the story of the boring through. While the workmen were still lifting pick to pick each toward his neighbor and while three cubits remained to cut through, each heard the voice of the other who called his neighbor, since there was a crevice in the rock on the right side. And on the day of the boring through the stone cutters struck, each to meet his fellow pick to pick; and there flowed the waters to the pool for 1200 cubits and 100 cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stone cutters.”
I know I’m a bit of a history nerd, but I find this fascinating. This was a building project done without our modern tools. Think of how they made the Chunnel between England and Belgium or France. We rode in it. I tried not to think that we were not just underground, but also underwater. I remember seeing it on the news when they had a giant boring machine, and once they broke through, they shook hands. In this project, they were in a rush, fearing attack at any time, and started from both sides at once, chipping through the path of the softer limestone. They were aiming in the general direction, but they didn’t know if they would pass each other or go over each other and never meet. They didn’t have GPS. So that’s why this inscription is so interesting. It shows their joy when they heard the other workmen and they knew they got it right.
You can still go into this tunnel today, I’m told. It’s not for the faint of heart, however, as it is very narrow, you are walking in thigh deep water and there is no light. You hold hands with each other and there is only space for one person at a time. It’s disconcerting to be in a tunnel built thousands of years ago in a place known for earthquakes.
We attended the Mesopotamia exhibit at the ROM this year and it was amazing to see the records of some of these kings. The Assyrian account of this third campaign, including the siege of Jerusalem, is preserved in the British Museum. Sennacherib says:
“As for Hezekiah, the Jew, who did not submit to me, all 46 of his strong walled cities as well as the small cities in their neighbourhood I besieged and took 200,150 people…and counted as spoil. Himself, like a caged bird, I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”
Despite their boasts, they were not able to take Jerusalem. The Assyrians record an attack on the city, but not its capture. It’s funny that Sennacherib says he kept Hezekiah in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage, trying to make it seem like that is punishment enough. As is usual in annals of ancient despots, they record only their victories, so it’s not surprising that they would not record the devastating losses when they tried to take Jerusalem.
Early in his reign, Hezekiah revolts and refuses to pay tribute to Assyria any longer. 2 Kings 18:7 He was probably emboldened to do so because Assyria was preoccupied with fighting the Babylonians, and he was establishing his own prosperity. 2 Kings 18:13-16 After the fortified cities of Judah are taken, one after the other, he relents, and promises to pay tribute. He pays 11 tons of silver and one ton of gold. At that time, in Judah, silver was more valuable than gold. Yet, in spite of this payment, Sennacherib still attacks; part of the punitive measures for the revolt.
Assyrian records show it was the second-in-command, known by the title of Tartan, who actually conducted the campaign. The great army was under the Tartan, the Rabsaris, or chief eunuch, and the Rabshakeh, or chief officer.
It’s interesting that the place they chose to negotiate terms of surrender was the same place where Isaiah had earlier encouraged Ahaz to trust God rather than an alliance with the Assyrians. 2 Kings 18:17 compare with Isaiah 7:3
The three representatives from Jerusalem, sent to parley, are Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, who was over the household (possibly senior palace administrator), Shebna, the scribe, who was formerly in Eliakim’s role and also treasurer, and Joah, son of Asaph, who was the recorder.
Let’s look at 2 Kings Chapter 18-20 more closely. Please read each verse and then the comments.
Verse 20: “You speak…but they are mere words.” Accuses Hezekiah of lies.
Verse 21: Heard they may have had some alliances with Egypt, but tells them not to trust in that.
Verse 22: The Assyrians mistakenly believe the high places and altars Hezekiah removed were for the worship of Yahweh, or else they were trying to split the opposition, assuming many were unhappy with the loss of the pagan places of worship.
Verse 23: Challenge. They believed, rightly, that Hezekiah’s army was inadequate. It was made up of some infantry and few cavalry.
Verse 25: Claims a divine imperative; “The LORD told me to attack the city.” This is blasphemy; they are misrepresenting and maligning God.
Verse 26: They speak over the heads of the officials to the people themselves. They bypass the usual language of commerce and diplomacy, Aramaic, and speak in the language of the people, to frighten them. This is psychological warfare.
Verse 27: They threaten horrible conditions if they do not submit; which can be blamed on Hezekiah.
Verse 28: They shout loudly to the people in Hebrew, so they will all be aware of what they will face, hoping they may, in turn, influence Hezekiah to surrender. They don’t even refer to Hezekiah as a king, but just use his name. Whereas, they refer to the Assyrian king as the Great King.
Verse 29: Claim Hezekiah is deceiving them and the LORD cannot be trusted.
Verses 31-32: The old carrot and stick. Stick, or threats in verse 27, now carrot, or promises of abundance in a new promised land, if they surrender. Not likely, based on past actions.
Verses 33-35: Appeal to precedent, even mentioning Samaria. They would have heard about the capital of Israel succumbing to starvation and exile.
Verse 36: Silence from the people, who are obedient to the king’s command.
Verse 37: Report back to Hezekiah, with clothes torn, a sign of grief and distress.
Verse 1: He goes to the right place, the house of the LORD. It’s where we need to go when we are in distress as well.
Verse 2: Hezekiah involves both state and religious authorities in a time of crisis.
Verse 3: His message to Isaiah reflects his helplessness in this critical situation. This was probably a well-known proverb about difficult childbirth.
Verse 4: Hezekiah hopes God will hear the taunts of the enemy and Isaiah’s prayer for the remnant. Because many Israelites fled to Judah for safety, they are also included in the remnant of Israel to carry on God’s name and work.
Verses 5-6: God answers right away through the prophet. “Thus says the LORD,” shows divine authority. God’s answer is consistent with His responses throughout the ages whenever His people were in distress. “Do not be afraid,” even though they had great reason to be afraid. The Assyrians were on their doorstep.
Verses 7-9: Isaiah’s prophecy includes the withdrawal of the Assyrian forces from Judah and Jerusalem. And Sennacherib’s murder in his home country as punishment for his blasphemy against Yahweh. God moves men’s minds and hearts, here using a rumour to divert the enemy’s attack.
Verses 10-13: Now an even more desperate letter from the Assyrians, challenging Israel, as if they are deluded into thinking their God can save them. Also, this time, instead of saying Hezekiah is deceiving them into trusting their God, he actually dares to say God, Himself is deceiving them! More blasphemy. Their mockery puts God on the same level as no-gods. Also, the lists of the cities which were exterminated or utterly destroyed shows that Israel was not alone in using this method of warfare.
Verse 14: Both the prophet (verse 4) and now the ruler pray. Hearing someone’s prayer gives you a good idea of their heart and character. It’s intimate. The practice of spreading out a parchment can be compared to the Mesopotamian practice of placing letters in the temple to be read by the god. They were usually pleas for help. It doesn’t mean Hezekiah thought God needed to see the actual letter in the temple in order to respond, but merely showed his own distress over it. This may also have something to do with how today, people put prayer requests on paper and shove them into the crevices of the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, the only part of Solomon’s temple that remains.
Verses 15-19: Prayer is addressed to God as Creator and King, alive, unique and still ruling. The phrase “enthroned between the cherubim” gives the idea that God is present with His people. “You are God, You alone” compared with verse 18 “they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands.” Therefore they were defeated; they are unable to do anything. For Hezekiah, God is alive (the Living God) verse 16, in contrast to the no-gods. He asks God to incline His ear, and hear. The idea is of a parent bending down to listen to His child. He asks God to condescend to His children. He acknowledges that the Assyrian boasts are not unfounded. Hezekiah gives a reason why God should help them. “…so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the LORD God. You alone.”
Verse 20: God answers Hezekiah, assuring him He has heard. What comfort that must have brought to his heart!
Verses 21-28: Isaiah’s prophecy against Sennacherib. Here we see God stand up to the bully for us, like a big brother who comes to our rescue. This is when you hear Sennacherib gulp. God’s reply is in essence a poetic taunt-song. The image of shaking the head is a sign of derision and contempt. God is not threatened by Assyrian might. Jerusalem and its inhabitants are personified as defenceless as a virgin daughter. Words spoken against God’s people are the same as speaking against God, Himself. God is called, The Holy One of Israel. The Assyrian kings loved to take titles onto themselves, some even took twenty titles or more, all lofty, like ruler of the universe. But this title is the only one that has any power and truth behind it. He is the Holy One of Israel. The speaker and the one who sent him will be held to account. I have to admit, I like the sections of Scripture where God tells people off. Like in the book of Job, he puts us in our creaturely place. We serve a great and awesome and powerful God, who will not share His glory with another. But I digress.
He addresses the Assyrian arrogance against God. Notice all the boasts of the Assyrians in verses 23, 24 and the boasts about what “I” have done? But then God tells them they were just part of His plan. He used them as His instruments, in the same way one wields an ax to chop wood. Verse 26, “therefore” tells them the real reason the defeated peoples were drained of power and they had any military success; because God planned it. Always ask what the “therefores” of Scripture are there for; they connect two thoughts. Verse 27 says basically, “I know where you live.” That should strike fear into their hearts. God sees their rage is ultimately against Him. He says it has come up to His ears. He is about to respond.
Verse 28: The Assyrian practice of leading foreign princes captive with a ring or a hook in their nose (seen on some of their wall reliefs), is now happening to them. They are God’s slaves. He has defeated them. They are now the conquered ones.
Verses 29-34: A message of hope for the survivors (remnant). The land will recover within two full years of the invasion. By the third year, all will be recovered.
Verse 31: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this,” shows it is a miraculous act of deliverance of Jerusalem. Compare with Isaiah 9:6,7 which is also the means of accomplishing the birth of a unique deliverer-king to rule David’s kingdom.
Verses 32-34: The prophecy against Sennacherib is authenticated with a “thus says the LORD.” No doubt it will happen. The motivation is God’s own glory and His promise to David. “For my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.”
Verse 35: The deliverance. Exact method of death unknown. Significant defeat.
Verse 36: Sennacherib’s return to Nineveh is confirmed in his annals.
Verse 37: Sennacherib is murdered twenty years later, hence the phrase, “one day” or “it came to pass.” He was assassinated by two of his sons. According to neo-Babylonian sources, there was an Assyrian conspiracy led by an older son, Adrammalech. It was well known that Sennacherib preferred his son, Esharhaddon, and could be the reason he was killed. Esharhaddon did become the next king of Assyria, as the Bible also says. It is also confirmed that the assassination took place between the guardian figures at the temple entrance. It’s those little details included in Scripture that assure us of its veracity.
This event gained international recognition for Hezekiah and his God, for successful resistance against the Assyrian power, just as Hezekiah had prayed, “so that the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the LORD God. You alone.” 2 Chronicles 32:22,23
Later in his reign, Hezekiah foolishly flaunts the riches of his kingdom to the Babylonian emissaries. Isaiah rebukes him. It will eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in the next generation. Hezekiah is spared from seeing it.
Hezekiah’s severe illness while he is still under threat by Assyria, and while he has no heir, causes him to cry out to God for his life to be spared. God grants him another fifteen years and he dies a natural, peaceful death.
Jesus was often taunted by His enemies. They frequently made reference to the questionable circumstances surrounding His birth. John 8:41 They mocked Him prior to His crucifixion by placing the purple robe and crown of thorns on His head. They jeered at Him on the cross. Even one of the other criminals being crucified scorned Him.
Because of this, we can be sure He knows how we feel. He comforts us and will one day vindicate us before all at the judgment.
Questions: What do you think about the obsession our culture has with astrology and mediums? Do you think it’s a harmless practice or a harmful practice?
How does it make you feel to know that God hears the taunts of our enemies and our prayers for deliverance?
Blasphemy is misrepresenting or maligning God’s character. In what ways to we see God blasphemed in our culture?
Prayer: “Our Great God, Who dwells amongst Your people. You Who hear prayer, Who condescends to us, Who inclines Your ear to listen to Your children. Thank You. You not only hear us, but You hear the taunts and jeers of our world. The culture around us Who rages against You. They think they have power, but any power they have is granted to them by You for Your purposes. We know that One day You will vindicate us before the world. Now we are nothing. We are weak. But on that Great Day, we will be shown to be who we truly are; the apple of God’s eye, His own dearly beloved bride, wooed in eternity past, purchased with His own precious blood, and kept for all eternity in the everlasting arms. Lord, we thank You for being our Deliverer, the One Who rescues us from Satan, death and hell. Thank You that You hear us, because of Jesus. Amen.”