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Commentary on Isaiah 36-39.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons) DD.

Isaiah 36-39 An Historical Interlude.

In the eyes of many interpreters these four chapters are an important interlude separating the book of Isaiah into two halves. They certainly ground all that Isaiah has been saying in the context of history, and reveal the might and arrogance of Assyria, demonstrating at the same time how easily Yahweh can dispose of them when He wishes, and they reveal God’s sovereign power actually at work in even controlling the sun, bring out Hezekiah’s folly in not trusting wholly in God, and confirm why in the end the only hope for the future is the Coming One.

The first two chapters are a description of the ‘contest’ between Sennacherib and Yahweh. They are confirmation of the fact that in spite of all his boasts and fearsome armies God can deal with Sennacherib whenever He wishes. They lead up to the deliverance of Jerusalem by a great wonder, and the humiliation and death of Sennacherib at the hands of his own family. This puts things everything in stark contrast. The great Sennacherib may boast, and strut around and even seem invincible, but mighty Yahweh can smash the vaunted power of Assyria with one wondrous blow, while, when it comes down to it, helpless Sennacherib cannot defend himself against his own family.

In these first two chapters the combatants from the past chapters are laid bare. On the one hand we have in vivid detail the description of Sennacherib, conqueror of nations, boaster supreme, with all that he represents. He is given maximum space in which to trumpet himself. But he proves to be very vulnerable, for his defeat at the hands of Yahweh and his final end are dismissed in three verses (37.36-38). And on the other we have Yahweh, the great Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, Who patiently waits until Sennacherib has finished his boasting and then inevitably wins by a knock out and reigns supreme. In this all that has been said before can be summed up.

The final two chapters of the four will zoom in on Hezekiah. Here is one who, instead of being knocked down by Yahweh is lifted up and given an extension to his life, and is also given a mighty sign which should have enabled him to put his full trust in Him. The final chapter then deals with Hezekiah’s failure to exercise that trust, a fact made clear by his making of a treaty with the King of Babylon’s representatives. It is this that will then lead on in 40-55 to the declaration of a need for the coming of a replacement to the current house of David in terms of the Servant of Yahweh. Even Hezekiah with all his reforms has proved not to be sufficient for the task of bringing God’s people back to Him.

Thus chapter 38 will describe the wonders with which God seeks to bolster Hezekiah. Ahaz had refused a wonder ‘in the heaven above’ (compare 7.11) and so Yahweh now gives one to Hezekiah. It occurs after a time of severe illness when he is given an extra lease of life, and Yahweh then causes the shadow of the sun to move backwards, giving him the guarantee of the fact that Yahweh has the power to deliver Jerusalem and be its great defender and has complete control over that orb which other nations linked to their greatest gods. To both Assyrian and Babylon the sun was important in their worship and their religious outlook. Thus control of the sun was paramount to control of their gods. It is an attempt by Yahweh, as with Ahaz previously (7.1-11), to establish the Davidic king in faith, so that he would look only to Him as Life-giver and Deliverer.

Chapter 39 is the anticlimax. It reveals that in spite of God’s amazing revelation of power, Hezekiah was but weak at heart and all too ready to prostitute his faith by relying on Babylon, that antithesis to all that God desired. Given the choice between trusting Yahweh or trusting Babylon, he chose Babylon. In Isaianic terms it was a backsliding of enormous dimensions. And the result is that he is given a warning that Babylon will come and seize all his treasures, and will carry the sons of David off as court slaves to Babylon (39.6-7). Those who consort with Babylon will be absorbed by Babylon. Note that the impact is restricted to the house of David. Isaiah is not predicting an overall Babylonian exile. This found its fulfilment when Manasseh was carried off to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33.11), no doubt accompanied by other members of the royal family.

But even sadder than this prophecy is Hezekiah’s sad acquiescence to the position, for 39.8 must be seen as Hezekiah’s final surrender of his right to be considered as ‘the Davidic king’. He was revealing that he had no vision. He was satisfied with less. Instead of having the whole future in mind, he was only concerned with the present. He was simply relieved by the fact that it indicated that at present they had nothing to worry about. Thus Isaiah, recognising the situation with sinking heart, and knowing that there is no hope to be sought in the descendants of Ahaz, will go on to draw attention to the fact that Israel will have to look elsewhere for the Great Deliverer than to the current house of David. If salvation is to be found it must be found elsewhere than in the regular succession to the throne of David, for they had failed in their response to God. And that is what he will deal with in the remainder of the book.

So these four chapters divide the book into two halves. They separate the collection of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah, brought together into the compilation we have already considered, from his later prophecies which are more in the nature of a continuous work, these last written when he became less active and tended more to meditate on the more distant future and the implications of his earlier prophecies. They form an important connecting link between the two, besides containing their own message, and explain the difference of emphasis in the two sections.

Most of what is found here in chapter 36-37 can also be found in 2 Kings 18.13-20.19. The authors of Kings may well have borrowed their narrative from Isaiah, or, more likely, from an expansion by Isaiah of his work (2 Chronicles 32.32). That is really the only explanation of the order of the narratives, which ignores the chronological sequence but provides one ideally suited to the book of Isaiah. However, that passage in 2 Kings includes the further information of an earlier submission by Hezekiah to Sennacherib which was accepted on the payment of huge tribute (2 Kings 18.13-16) which was sent to Nineveh. What the exact relationship was between that submission and the later invasion and siege described here is disputed. Some see the one as occurring immediately after the other, with Sennacherib reneging on his treaty (something for which he became well known), others consider that there was a gap of a few years between them. One thing appears clear, however, and that is that Isaiah and Judah both saw Sennacherib’s further action as a betrayal of what he had earlier promised (21.2; 24.16; 33.1).

Perhaps we may consider at this point a brief resume of the history of the time as far as we know it. When Sennacherib came to the throne of Assyria in 705 BC on the death of his father Sargon II the opportunity was taken by many subject nations to rebel and break free from Assyria, refusing tribute. The great tyrant who had had them in submission was now dead, and their hope was that internal problems would keep Sennacherib busy. This kind of insurrection regularly happened on the death of powerful tyrants, when their successors were seeking to establish their positions.

So Merodach Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina II) of Babylon, taking advantage of the situation, searched far and wide seeking to ferment trouble, and he included Judah in his plans (39.1-8). Those who expressed interest included the king of Tyre, who played a major part in the rebellion, together with associated Phoenician cities; the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ekron (whose loyal king was deposed and imprisoned by Hezekiah); probably Moab, Edom and Ammon; and some of the Arabian tribes. But Sennacherib did not take long to establish his position in Assyria and he then moved against Babylon and its near allies, including Elam, defeating them totally.

Once he had accomplished this we know from Assyrian records that he then turned his attention to the rebels elsewhere. Firstly he crushed Tyre, (whose king fled to Cyprus), along with their associated cities, although being unable to take the island city. It was, however, in dire straits, and had to be provisioned from the sea. This resulted in a number of the other tentative rebels hastily resuming tribute. Then he turned his attentions further south and advanced on Judah whom he saw as a major rebel, for it was Hezekiah who held captive Padi, king of Ekron, the king who had remained faithful to Sennacherib and had refused to join the rebellion.

At his approach, once a number of his cities had been taken, Hezekiah submitted and paid a huge ransom (2 Kings 18.13-16). This included some of his royal daughters, concubines, and male and female musicians, who were carried away to Nineveh, a ransom which was apparently accepted. Meanwhile other men of Judah had already been carried off as captives on the surrendering of their cities, as Sennacherib claims in his annals.

Under the treaty thus arranged Hezekiah had to release Padi, the king of Ekron whom he held as a prisoner, lost a large amount of territory which was divided among kings loyal to Sennacherib, and was required to send certain of his daughters to Nineveh as proof of his loyalty. He did not, however, have to appear before Sennacherib in person, for Sennacherib’s annals say, ‘he sent a personal messenger to deliver the tribute and make a slavish obedience’. This being interpreted may basically mean ‘he surrendered, but would not do it in person, and I had to give way on that point, because I had other matters to deal with’.

This is quite significant, for it demonstrates that Sennacherib was so keen to make peace that he did not enforce absolute demands. This was possibly because news had reached Sennacherib of the gathering by Egypt of an army to attack him so that he wanted to guard against attacks from all sides. It may even be that it was the fact that he was then later informed that the Egyptian army contained elements from, or was supported by, Judah, that made him feel that Hezekiah had betrayed him, thus causing him to think that the new treaty had already been broken. It would not be the first time that a king acted on inaccurate intelligence. On the other hand there may have been truth in it for Egypt may have had Judean mercenaries in its army. But whatever the case might be he broke the new treaty and again besieged Lachish preparatory to an advance on Jerusalem. That is where this account begins.

Perhaps it should be noted here that Sennacherib’s own records themselves confirm that Jerusalem was never taken, for he lays great stress on his capture of Lachish, which he would not have done if he had captured Jerusalem. (The principle for recording history was simple. You put the best gloss on things, and ignored all failures). All that he does claim is that he besieged Jerusalem and shut up Hezekiah there like a caged bird. Had he captured it, it would have been headline material.

Chapter 36 The Challenge of The King Of Assyria to Hezekiah and Yahweh.

36.1 ‘And it came about in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib, king of Assyria, came up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them.’

Compare for this verse 2 Kings 18.13 where the verse precedes the description of the surrender of Hezekiah and the paying of tribute mentioned above. This would strongly support the idea that the actual siege of Jerusalem followed closely on that affair. But it may be that the authors of Kings had Isaiah’s scroll before them and simply inserted verses 14-16 as a parenthesis.

‘The fourteenth year of king Hezekiah.’ This was in 701 BC, which appears to conflict with 2 Kings 18.1, 9 which would make this the twenty eighth year of Hezekiah’s reign. The probable explanation for this is that 729/8 BC was when Hezekiah began to reign as co-regent with his father, his father dying around 715 BC. Co-regency was favoured by the kings of Judah as it ensured a secure succession, the successor thus already being in a position of authority and recognised as the heir. This then assured the preservation of the line of David.

Sennacherib records this in his annals as follows: ‘But as for Hezekiah the Judean, who did not bow in submission to my yoke, forty six of his strong-walled towns and innumerable smaller villages in their neighbourhood I besieged and conquered, by stamping down earth-ramps and then by bringing up battering rams, by the assault of foot soldiers, by breaches, tunnelling and sapper operations. --- he I shut up like a caged bird within Jerusalem, his royal city. I put watch-posts strictly around it, and turned back to his harm any who went out of its city-gate.’

Archaeology bears testimony to the strong fortifications of cities of Judah at this time. Sennacherib thus had to engage in a drawn out campaign, and was clearly proud of his achievement. Note that he only mentions a watching brief on Jerusalem, a process of slow starvation. The larger part of his army was busy elsewhere. The tough fighting for Jerusalem itself was intended to take place later when everywhere else had been subdued.

36.2 ‘And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem to king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the launderer’s field’

‘The Rabshakeh.’ This was probably the king’s most powerful officer. It will be noted that he acted as spokesman. The word may mean ‘chief cupbearer’ or ‘head of rulers’. In the former case it does not mean that he was a table servant. Official Cupbearers were highly important, for they would receive the cup on the king’s behalf and taste it prior to handing it on, thus demonstrating that it was free from poison. They alone were in a position to slip in poison after they had drunk to test the drink. The chief cupbearer at court (compare Nehemiah’s influential position) did the same for the king, taking the cup from a servant, testing it, and then handing it to the king. He was thus very exalted, and was chosen because he was seen as totally trustworthy. The title thus indicated a powerful overall position of which the ‘cupbearing’ was but a small part. The title ‘head of rulers’ would more accurately describe what he was.

2 Kings 18.17 tells us that he was accompanied by the Rabsaris (possibly rabu sa resi - ‘chief one who is at the head’) and the Tartan (turtanu - ‘commander in chief’). Such a powerful messenger as the Rabshakeh would not come alone but would also be attended by the chiefest of his officers. That the Rabshakeh took precedence demonstrates how important he was. His presence, and the presence of the other powerful men, also serves to indicate how important the submission of Hezekiah was seen to be.

‘From Lachish.’ That is, from where the siege of Lachish was taking place, or had been recently completed. Lachish was a very large city, and difficult to take. It was surrounded on three sides by the River Lachish, dry in summer but full in winter. But it did eventually succumb and the result of its capture was vividly portrayed in picture form on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh in commemoration of the event. That also demonstrates that he had failed to capture Jerusalem, the greatest prize of all, for had he done so it would have been that that was displayed.

The city was surrounded by a double wall with towers at intervals. The siege ramp in the south west corner has been identified in excavations and evidence of the siege, including sling stones, arrowheads and fragments of armour have all been found. The excavations demonstrate the tough opposition that Sennacherib faced. Mass burial caves related to the siege have been found nearby.

‘And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the launderer’s field.’ Compare 7.3. The comparison is deliberate. It was the same place as the one where the son of David, Ahaz, had rejected God’s offer of deliverance. The implication is that had he accepted God’s offer, no enemy would ever have stood there. But now an enemy did stand there, who was the fruit of Ahaz’s choice. And he would once again give the house of David an opportunity to choose whether to follow Yahweh or not. It is a reminder to the reader that this is the result of Ahaz’s failure. Failure to trust God will always come back to haunt us by its consequences.

36.3 ‘Then came out to him Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder.’

‘Came out’ signifies that they came out on to the wall to speak to him from it. These names were popular names at the time and the names, though not necessarily the persons, are attested to on seals that have been discovered. For Eliakim see 22.20, where we are probably to see the same person. He was the royal chamberlain, acting in the king’s name. Shebna, however is a scribe and probably not the one mentioned in 22.15 who was the ‘treasurer’. The recorder (or ‘remembrancer’) would be there to keep a strict record of what was said. The presence of these three powerful men might serve to confirm that there were three important Assyrians waiting to speak to them, ensuring a balancing of the sides.

36.4-5 ‘And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say now to Hezekiah. Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this on which you now rely? I say your counsel and strength for war are but vain words. On whom do you trust now that you have rebelled against me?” ’

‘Hezekiah.’ Note the lack of title which expresses extreme disdain. He is being treated as not worthy to be called a king. In deliberate contrast the king of Assyria is called ‘the great king’, (sharu rabu - a recognised royal title). He wants the people of Judah to recognise the contrast. Are they going to trust in this Hezekiah creature or in the Great King?

‘What confidence is this on which you now rely?’ He is questioning the very basis on which Hezekiah’s confidence is placed. It may well be that he is quoting words put together by Sennacherib’s chief advisers.

‘I say your counsel and strength for war are but vain words (‘a word of lips’).’ He recognises all the discussions that will have gone on about purpose, strategy and arms assessment, and the decisions that have been reached, and dismisses them all as ‘vain words’, a ‘word of lips’. That is, they are spoken but carry no power. They were just words. They were a waste of time because whatever they decided will prove useless. It may even be that spies had brought back the details to him of what had happened in those meetings.

‘On whom do you trust now that you have rebelled against me?’ Let them contrast those on whom they are relying with his own great king. Note that he only recognised two possible rivals on whom they might be relying, the Pharaoh of Egypt or their God Yahweh. Hezekiah was dismissed as a possibility. Well, let them consider the facts about them both.

36.6 “See, you are trusting on the staff of this bruised reed, even on Egypt, on which if a man leans it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to all who trust in him.”

If they are trusting in Egypt let them consider how unreliable Egypt was. His words about Egypt would have gained Isaiah’s approval. That was just what he thought as well. Egypt was but a battered reed, which if a man used it as his stay, would go into his hand and pierce it. There is here both a reflection on Egypt’s comparative weakness (a bruised reed) and on the fact that she tended to let her allies down (piercing the hand that looked for help). In fact, he says, this is what Pharaoh is like, incapable and unreliable, just as he had proved in the past.

36.7 ‘But if you say to me, “We trust in Yahweh our God.’ Is not this he whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar?” ’

But what if they claimed to trust in Yahweh? This was the second possibility. That they trusted in their God, Yahweh. And it is now that he reveals how efficient the Assyrian intelligence system was. For they had received reports on what Hezekiah had been doing in Judah and Jerusalem, in getting rid of high places and altars and insisting on worship in the one place on the one altar. And to them this suggested an insult to Yahweh. So did Judah really think that Yahweh would support such a king, this destroyer of His sanctuaries?

The Assyrians clearly saw what Hezekiah had done as an anti-Yahweh act, a belittling of Yahweh, for to them the more high places and the more altars and the more images the greater the appreciation of a god. What they did not appreciate was that the religion of Judah was totally different, a unifying religion, meeting at the one sanctuary which was alone valid (like the Tabernacle of old). It was a religion that avoided a proliferation of altars which could result in the introduction of innovations which would mar the purity of their beliefs and religious thought and behaviour, and would really belittle God. For their God was a unique God, the only God, and could not be proliferated.

But he may also well have known the resentment that the reforms had caused, and be playing on the fact in the hearing of the people. ‘And has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar?” ’ This is a phrase guaranteed to stir up any grievance that there was, a dictatorial king demanding acknowledgement only of what he had established, rather than what they loved, the old traditions. He was not to know that that was what Yahweh had told him to do as well.

36.8 “Now therefore, I pray you, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able for your part to set two thousand riders on them.”

Now he sought to emphasise Hezekiah’s weakness by further derision. Let them simply compare the size of their cavalry. The verb ‘arab means ‘to pledge’ and the hithpael ‘to pledge oneself’, for example in a wager. The challenge was as to whether Hezekiah could produce two thousand capable horsemen. Then, if he succeeded in doing so, the king of Assyria would give them two thousand horses for them to mount. The purpose of the offered wager was in order to demonstrate both Judah’s poverty with regard to capable manpower in that regard, and also in order to emphasise that they had few horses of their own. That they had no cavalry to speak of. In contrast Assyria for their part could easily spare two thousand horses, and not notice it. The emphasis is on how weak Hezekiah’s cavalry were, comparatively a mere handful, in contrast with the huge Assyrian cavalry which all could see there, eagerly awaiting their opportunity. It was intended to weaken the resolve of the listening people on the wall.

The Rabshakeh’s bad Hebrew, faithfully recorded here, is in fact smoothed out in 2 Kings, confirming that Isaiah is not a copy of that record.

36.9 “How can you then turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master’s servants? And do you put your trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?”

His contempt is openly expressed. The cavalry position being what it was, how can they hope to turn away even the very lowest of the Assyrian captains? Or perhaps they are looking for cavalry and chariots from Egypt with which to do it? The impression given is, ‘what a hope!’

36.10 “And am I now come up without Yahweh against this land to destroy it? It was Yahweh himself who said to me, Go up against this land and destroy it.”

But what about trusting in Yahweh? Let them now consider this. It is in fact at the behest of Yahweh that they have come, in order to teach this altar-destroyer a lesson. This may reflect some knowledge of what Isaiah had already been declaring (10.5), but represented as having been said by Yahweh to Sennacherib himself. After all Sennacherib is favoured by all the gods! (In his annals Sennacherib actually gives the credit for his victories to Ashur). Or it may have been speaking of what would be the obvious consequence of Hezekiah’s reforming actions to those who saw things as they saw them.

‘This land.’ 2 Kings has ‘this place’, emphasising more the impact on Jerusalem. But as Isaiah made clear elsewhere, Sennacherib’s invasion of God’s land was one of the things that had aroused His anger (14.25).

36.11 ‘Then Eliakim and Shebna and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Speak I pray you to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it, and do not speak to us in the Judean language in the ears of the people on the wall.” ’

The three were becoming concerned about the effect on the people of the Rabshakeh’s words, and requested that the Rabshakeh continue in Aramaic, the official international language. There is an implied rebuke here, the suggestion that it was not polite for him to proclaim an official message to Hezekiah in such a public fashion. It should be made in the language of diplomacy. There was also possibly an indication of offence being taken because he seemed to be implying that they could not speak Aramaic.

36.12 ‘But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to your master and to you to speak these words? Has he not sent me to the men who sit on the wall, those who will shortly eat their own excrement and drink their own urine with you?” ’

The Rabshakeh’s reply is that it was in fact to these people that his master wanted to send his message. It was not intended to be an official secret, it was intended to be received by all. Then he points out to the people the straits to which the siege will soon bring them. They will have nothing to eat and drink but their own excrement and urine (‘waters of the feet’). ‘With you.’ It will eventually be true of the leaders too.

There may in all this be an intended contrast, stressing the polite diplomacy of Judah, and the arrogant and crude diplomacy of Assyria. Judah are clearly gentlemen, whereas Assyria are merely bullies.

36.13-15 ‘Then the Rabshakeh stood and cried with a loud voice in the Judean language, and said, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria, ‘Thus says the king, Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Nor let Hezekiah make you trust in Yahweh, saying, “Yahweh will surely deliver us, and there will not be a giving of this city into the hand of the king of Assyria.” ’

The Rabshakeh now turns his attention more directly to the people. All pretence is now thrown overboard. Note again the reference to the Great King and the disdainful reference to ‘Hezekiah’. The insult clearly shows that they do not expect Hezekiah to yield (he is not attempting to win him over) and that his words are therefore simply seeking to undermine the confidence and morale of the people. The message is simple. Hezekiah will not be able to deliver them. Nor will Yahweh be able to deliver them.

It is clear that his intelligence sources had informed him that there were voices in the city saying, ‘Trust in Yahweh’, which was, of course, the message of Isaiah. This explains his words here. Let them recognise that such an idea was ridiculous. This latter was his first mistake, which he would shortly develop, for what his intelligence sources had failed to explain to him was the real power of Yahweh, and that Yahweh was the living God.

Note the constant reference to ‘the king of Assyria.’ He wants them to recognise who they are dealing with. What chance do they have against this great and mighty king, the Great King? Notice also the impersonal ‘there will not be a giving’. He does not want their minds to associate the words too directly with Yahweh in case they thought that Yahweh might deliver them. It is a perfect example of balanced diplomacy.

36.16a “Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria.”

The contrast is again drawn out. On the one hand this nonentity Hezekiah, on the other the king of Assyria. Whose word are they going to listen to?

36.16b “Make a blessing with me, and come out to me.”

The blessing was a form of greeting, thus he is saying here, ‘Greet me in a welcoming way, and come out and receive me.’ It was a specific offer that if they did so they would be dealt with leniently. Alternately it may mean ‘make a pact with me and thereby receive a blessing’.

36.16c “And eat every man of his own vine, and every one of his own fig tree, and drink everyone the waters of his own cistern.”

Let them but surrender and they will immediately again have access to all their possessions, and food and water in plenty. He is seeking to appeal to their recognition of the hardships of the siege, and to their personal interests. All must have had nightmares about what was happening to their fields and vineyards. And they could have them again as soon as they surrendered.

36.17 “Until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards.”

But he is offering a treaty and therefore recognises that he must lay out the terms fairly. If he did not do so it would rebound on the honour of his master, for treaties were treated very strictly. So he now acknowledges that his offer was not strictly true. Many of those listening must rather expect deportation, but he makes it sound as appetising as possible. They need not fear. Even if they are deported they will be taken to a land of plenty (he omits the details of how unpleasant the deporting will be).

As all knew, deportation of important people in the case of rebellious states was Assyrian policy. Its purpose was in order to weaken the leadership (by removing many of them) and to divide the nation, thus making them more amenable. (2 Kings expands on the offer, and includes the offer of ‘life’ instead of death).

36.18-20 “Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, ‘Yahweh will deliver us.’ Have any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? And have they (i.e. have their gods) delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who are they among all the gods of these countries who have delivered their country out of my hand, that Yahweh should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”

The Rabshakeh now called on them to consider the experience of all the other nations. This demonstrated quite clearly that no gods could deliver a nation out of the hands of the king of Assyria, for his gods were too powerful. Let them consider Hamath, Arpad and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 18 adds ‘Hena and Ivvah’ compare 37.13). And above all let them consider Samaria. Samaria even included Yahweh among their gods (an indictment indeed of their polytheism), and yet they fell. Thus how can Jerusalem expect to be any different? Do they really think that Yahweh on His own is superior to all these gods?

These words were a mistake for two reasons. Firstly because Judah did see their God as different from the gods of the nations and he was therefore by these words stirring latent faith. But secondly because Yahweh wasin fact different, and would react accordingly. It was a direct challenge being laid down to Yahweh.

Hamath was in central Syria and Arpad in northern Syria. Sepharvaim may have been Sibraim in Syria. Thus he is drawing attention to fairly local gods, those of Syria and Israel.

36.21-22 ‘But they held their peace and did not answer him a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him”.’ Then Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.’

His words were heard in disdainful silence. They returned no answer because Hezekiah had commanded that no reply be given. The matter was not to be decided in front of the people, and time for thought was required. The disdainful silence was also a reply to the insults of the Rabshakeh.

So the three went to Hezekiah bearing the message that they had been given, symbolically tearing their clothes to indicate their mourning over the content of the message. It would also alert the king to the fact that the message they brought was negative. And they told him what had been said.

Chapter 37 Hezekiah’s Reaction and Its Consequences - The Miracle of Jerusalem.

Hezekiah reacted to the words of the Rabshakeh by praying to Yahweh, and turning to Isaiah for guidance, a fact which indicated Isaiah’s prestigious position. On this Isaiah assured him that he need not be afraid because God would deal with the matter. This was followed by a further demand from Assyria, which Hezekiah also laid before God. Isaiah then came to him with the assurance of what God was going to do. The result was that the Assyrian army was destroyed and the king of Assyria, having failed to capture Jerusalem, returned to his own land, where he was later slain.

King Hezekiah Pleads For the Intercession of Isaiah (37.1-7).

37.1 ‘And it came about that when king Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of Yahweh.’

The result of King Hezekiah’s receiving of the message was that he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth, signs of mourning and repentance, and went to the Temple to seek God. In spite of his failures he was a godly king, and humbly sought God over Jerusalem’s difficulty. He was acting here in his position as ‘a priest after the order of Melchizedek’, coming before God on behalf of the people in a non-sacrificing priesthood (Psalm 110.4). We note that he is now dignified by being called king. It is no longer the Rabshakeh who is speaking.

37.2 ‘And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests, to Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz.’

He next sent an official deputation from the Temple to Isaiah. This included his two chief ministers and the leading men among the priests, ‘the elders of the priests’. So both secular and religious leadership were being involved. It was an appeal from the whole nation to God through Isaiah. This brings out how Isaiah was now viewed, as an exceptional prophet who had special influence with God. The fact that he does not summon Isaiah into his presence possibly indicates the sense of humility that he feels. He recognises his present unworthiness.

37.3 ‘And they said to him, Thus says Hezekiah, “This day is a day of trouble, and of reproof, and of blasphemy. The children have come to birth and there is not strength to bring them out.” ’

Note that ‘king’ is dropped again. The words are from Hezekiah’s mouth and he is sending as a suppliant to the representative of the great King Yahweh, not as a lord and master. He is feeling humbled. Hezekiah’s message begins by bringing out the position. It is a day of trouble and distress. It is a day in which God has reproved His people. It is a day when God’s name has been horribly blasphemed by the king of Assyria, or alternately it is a day of disgrace.

So the emphasis is on the fact that this is a day of great distress, although a day of admittedly deserved distress, and a day when they are all disgraced. And he admitted that they did not know what to do. They had brought this trouble on themselves and they did not know how to cope with it. (It is often only when we admit that we have come to the end of our own strength that God steps in).

‘The children have come to birth and there is not strength to bring them out.’ This was probably a well known saying, indicating that something was occurring which they could not cope with.

37.4 “It may be that Yahweh your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master has sent to reproach the living God, and will rebuke the words which Yahweh your God has heard. For this reason lift up your prayers for the remnant who are left.’

This statement supports the translation ‘blasphemy’ above. The king of Assyria has brought reproach on the name of Yahweh in front of the people. Now Yahweh’s reputation is at stake. His hope therefore is that Yahweh will respond in some way in order to clear His name, and he asks Isaiah to pray for what is left of the kingdom, once so large, and now reduced to a pitiful remnant (see 1.9). Thus he centres his prayer on concern for the name of Yahweh. (This should in fact be the central factor in all our prayers, for only then can we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’).

Note the humble ‘Yahweh your God’, repeated twice (not ‘Yahweh our God’). It suggests a feeling of unworthiness, and a recognition of Isaiah’s special place before God. The reference to the living God, however, does demonstrate a certain level of faith. He knows that Yahweh can do something, if He will.

‘Lift up your prayers.’ He sees Isaiah as having a special power in prayer due to his close relationship to God.

‘For the remnant who are left.’ Only a small remnant of Judah was left. Sennacherib in his annals claimed to have taken into captivity ‘two hundred thousand, one hundred and fifty’ of the people of Judah together with great spoil (probably two hundred large units, one smaller unit, and a half unit as they were organised for the march). There were therefore many of the people of Judah who had already been taken into exile, even if we do not accept the number literally, and a great many would also have been slaughtered. And many others had by now been made part of other kingdoms, their region having been handed over by Sennacherib to other kings, while even others would be hiding in the mountains. Thus those left in Jerusalem were a relatively small minority of what had once formed his kingdom.

In fact the quaint number of those taken into captivity, a round number and yet not a round number, suggests either an exaggeration of a not very clever kind, or that in the ‘two hundred thousand’ the ‘thousand’ signifies something other than a number, possibly say two hundred family groups or units organised for marching, and a further one hundred and fifty persons. There are certainly many indications in Scripture that in Hebrew an ’eleph (‘thousand’) originally did indicate such family groups or military units of a certain size, only later becoming solidified to mean a thousand. And it was not an age when numeracy was prominent among non-experts.

37.5-7 ‘So the servants of king Hezekiah came to Isaiah, and Isaiah said to them, “Thus shall you say to your master. Thus says Yahweh, Do not be afraid of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, and he will hear a rumour, and will return to his own land, and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’

‘So the servants of king Hezekiah came to Isaiah.’ This is a resume of what has already been mentioned, a regular feature of Hebrew literature. We would write ‘thus the servants ---’, or ‘so the servants having come ---’.

We note firstly that the narrative now calls him king again. It is an official narrative, and Isaiah sends him a reply from Yahweh in stately style. He gives King Hezekiah the respect that is his due. He has no need to pray because he knows that Yahweh is about to act. There is a time when prayer becomes unbelief. They are to tell King Hezekiah that he is not to be afraid because God intends to rid him of Sennacherib by means of a rumour which will cause him to return to his own land, where he will be murdered. No time limits are given. He is not saying that it will all happen immediately, only that he will not interfere with Hezekiah again. The facts are within God’s timing.

This does not contradict what follows. This is an assurance to Hezekiah, weak in faith. God knew that to promise a wonder would be too much for Hezekiah’s faith, while a rumour would probably appear to him as an acceptable possibility. And it is indeed quite probable that one reason why Sennacherib did return home was because of ‘a rumour’, either of a further Egyptian force being gathered, or of dissension at home, or both.

For God did not at this stage wish to publicise the great wonder that He intended to do. When it happened He wanted it to have its full impact. It was to be a wondrous and unexpected sign to His people and to the king with a hope of producing repentance and faith, and was to be a judgment on Assyria for their behaviour and attitude. It was not just to be seen as a means of relieving the city. Whereas here He is speaking of relieving the city in response to Hezekiah’s request so as to ease Hezekiah’s mind.

Note first Yahweh’s charge of blasphemy. He had heard what had been said, and was passing judgment on it. The king of Assyria was a blasphemer who had brought on his own head what was about to happen.

‘A spirit in him’. A presentiment of doom that would cause him to act swiftly. It may have been news of family intrigue, or warning of a possible dangerous rising elsewhere, or apprehension at the possible size of the Egyptian army. But we are not told.

‘And I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’ To fall by the sword in his own land indicated treachery. This occurred around twenty years later when he was assassinated in 682 BC (see verse 38).

‘Young men.’ A description dismissive of these great men. To Him they are of little account. They are ‘youngsters’. They are but boys compared with the Rock of ages.

The Rabshakeh Sends Messengers to King Hezekiah (37.8-13).

37.8 ‘So the Rabshakeh returned and found the king of Assyria warring against Libnah, for he had heard that he had departed from Lachish.’

Meanwhile the Rabshakeh had returned to the king of Assyria, finding him at Libnah. Whether this meant that Lachish had been subdued, or whether that siege continued while the one at Libnah was also going on we are not told. It is probably Isaiah’s way of indicating the surrender of Lachish. No doubt the siege at Jerusalem also continued. In 2 Kings 18 where he is mentioned there is no suggestion that the Tartan returned with him. He possibly remained behind to supervise the siege of Jerusalem. The Assyrian annals suggest that the siege was not pressed heavily but was more in the nature of an encirclement of the city, ensuring no movement out or in. The positive pressure would come later when more troops were available once the other cities had been subdued. They knew that Jerusalem would be the most difficult to take, and were trying to slowly starve them out.

37.9a ‘And he heard say concerning Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia, “He has come out to fight against you.” ’

On his arrival at Libnah news came that the long awaited Egyptian army was making its way northwards under Tirhakah. The suggestion that Tirhakah was too young at this stage to lead an army is no longer tenable. He was not yet king (the description was by the author looking back, which was common oriental practise), for the crown was held by his brother Shabatarka , but he himself became king around 690 BC. Tirhakah was the son of Piankhy who died at least fourteen years before the accession of Shabatarka (702-690 BC) to the throne, and he had been summoned by his brother to join him on his accession, being about twenty years old. Thus at this time he would be about twenty one, and that meant in those days that he was of full age.

Whatever their stated views about the Egyptians the Assyrians knew that they were a real threat, and that they would need to rally their siege forces in order to meet their army. Thus he determined to try to end the siege at Jerusalem as quickly as possible, and sent messengers there with that end in view.

37.9b-10 ‘And when he heard it he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah, king of Judah, saying ‘Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you, saying, Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ ” ’

We note immediately the change of tone. Now he is addressed as King Hezekiah, and rather than him it is said to be Yahweh Who is at fault, seeking to deceive the king. Nor is there any mention of Egypt. That threat is now too real and he does not want Hezekiah, if he knows about it, (and these things had a way of getting through siege lines), to have it brought to his attention.

37.11-13 “Look, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by destroying them utterly. And will you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered those whom my fathers have destroyed, Gozan and Haran, and Rezeph, and the children of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, and the king of Arpad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, of Hena and Ivvah?”

The old argument is once more produced, and it was a solid one. All that was claimed was true. All these cities and places had at one time or another been conquered by the mighty Assyrian army. And had Jerusalem worshipped Baal or Molech (which of course some did) then the same would have been true for them. But Hezekiah had introduced reform and had concentrated worship on Yahweh, and large numbers had followed him. Thus they served the living God (verse 4), and therein lay the difference.

Gozan is Akkadian Guzana in the region of Tel Halaf on the Upper Habur river. Israelites were deported there in 722 BC. It was an Assyrian provincial capital but had rebelled in 759 BC and was harshly dealt with. Haran was an Assyrian centre that had rebelled in 763 BC and was sacked by the king of Assyria. Rezeph is Akkadian Rasappa and was an important caravan centre on the route from the Euphrates to Hamath. It is modern Resafa, two hundred kilometres east north east of Hama in Syria. No details are known of its sacking, but clearly it had happened at some stage. ‘The children of Eden’ (Ben-eden, an abbreviation of Bene-beth-eden) were south of Haran on the Euphrates (compare Amos 1.5; Ezekiel 27.23). It is probably to be identified with the Aramean state of Bit-Adini. It blocked the path of Assyrian expansion to north Syria and became an Assyrian province in 855 BC. Telassar is probably Til-Assur (mound of Assur), but is unidentified.

Hamath was in central Syria and Arpad in northern Syria. Sepharvaim may have been Sibraim in Syria. Ivvah is probably Ava (2 Kings 17.24) and Hena is probably Ana on the Euphrates.

King Hezekiah Seeks To Yahweh (37.14-20).

37.14 ‘And Hezekiah received the message from the hand of the messengers and read it, and Hezekiah went up to the house of Yahweh and spread it before Yahweh.’

Hezekiah was slowly learning what he must do. No longer did he call for ambassadors from other countries but took the message and spread it before God in the house of Yahweh. It was a direct appeal to Yahweh by the intercessory priest of the order of Melchizedek, who represented his people before God, pleading for his city. The idea was that Yahweh Himself would then see it and know what had been said.

37.15-20 ‘And Hezekiah prayed to Yahweh, saying, “O Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel, who dwells between the cherubim, you are the God, even you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Bend your ear, O Yahweh, and hear, open your eyes, O Yahweh, and see, and hear all the words of Sennacherib which he has sent to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Yahweh, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the countries and their land, and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Yahweh our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you are Yahweh, even you alone.” ’

He describes Yahweh as dwelling between the cherubim. In the Holiest of all, the inner chamber in the Temple, was the ark of the covenant, over which was the mercy seat, the throne of Yahweh. And to each side of the mercy seat was a cherub (Exodus 37.6-9). This was seen as depicting the heavenly reality (see 6.2-3; Psalm 99.1-3). Yahweh was Lord over creation.

He declares his faith that Yahweh is the only God and over all the kingdoms of the world, He is the Creator and maker of all things. Then he appeals to Him to listen to what he has to say. Let Him consider how His name has been blasphemed and what reproach is being brought upon it. (If our prayers had more concern for God’s glory and less for our own desires they would be more effective. Compare the Lord’s prayer).

But then he has to admit that the king of Assyria was to some extent right. They had indeed laid waste many countries and humiliated many gods. But that was the point. Those gods had been made of wood and stone and therefore could be destroyed. They were simply man-made.

Then he prays that Yahweh will reveal this difference and show His great power by intervening as He has promised (37.7), demonstrating to the whole world Who He is and what He can do.

The whole prayer emphasises that the teaching of Isaiah has not been lost on him, and that his mind is now clear on these central truths of the uniqueness of Yahweh, the folly of idolatry, and the transcendent power of Yahweh.

Yahweh’s Reply Through Isaiah (37.21-35).

37.21-22 ‘Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says Yahweh the God of Israel, In lieu of the fact that you have prayed to me against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, this is the word which Yahweh has spoken concerning him. ‘The virgin daughter of Zion has despised you and laughed you to scorn. The daughter of Jerusalem has shaken her head after you.’ ” ’

God’s reply to him came through Isaiah. It is Isaiah who is in control of things not Hezekiah. God has heard Hezekiah’s prayer, and, because he has put his trust in Him, tells him what His word against Sennacherib is. ‘Yahweh has spoken.’ And being the word of Yahweh it is not only spoken but will be powerfully effective.

His message is in derisory tones. Sennacherib is likened to the great and important suitor who is scorned by the young woman, Jerusalem. She has rejected his offer with laughter because she despises him. She shakes her head at him as he departs, the forlorn and rejected suitor. Such is Jerusalem’s reply to the Great King. He is dismissed as an unsuitable suitor, to walk away with head bowed.

God’s Reply to Sennacherib’s Claim to Omnipotence.

37.23-25 “Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice and lifted up your eyes on high? Even against the Holy One of Israel. By your servants you have reproached the Lord (i.e. the One Who is truly Lord), and have said, ‘With the multitude of my chariots I have come up to the height of the mountains, to the innermost parts of Lebanon. And I will cut down its tall cedars, and its choice fir trees, and I will enter into his furthest height, the forest of his fruitful field. I have dug and drunk water, and with the sole of my feet I will dry up all the rivers of Egypt.’ ”

But it is not only his rejection by Jerusalem that needs to be considered. That was dealt with in derisory fashion. Now the more serious charge is to be dealt with. By his actions and words he has brought into disrepute the Unique One, the Holy One of Israel, the Sovereign Lord Who is over all things, and challenged His omnipotence. His words have been a reproach against His very Name and therefore sheer blasphemy. The picture is vivid. He has raised both his voice and his eyes in arrogant defiance. ‘On high’ stresses the crime. He had to lift up his eyes because he was challenging the One Who is on high.

‘Raised your voice and lifted up your eyes on high.’ The verbs were used of God’s glory in Isaiah 6.1. So the idea may be of one who was seeking to imitate God.

Furthermore he has boasted about what he was going to do with his power and might, his omnipotence (his multitude of chariots, those final proofs of man’s might). He was going to humiliate Lebanon and dry up Egypt. ‘Lebanon’ here includes the whole land of Canaan, as often elsewhere. The destruction of trees except for specific purposes was by general acknowledgement not a part of warfare, but Sennacherib defies convention. He is above them. He comes to destroy the trees, bringing dismay on the population. But he does not only intend to destroy the trees, he sees them and the rivers as also representing the proud peoples who live there whom he will humiliate. So Lebanon will be denuded of both great men and trees. He, Sennacherib, is lord of the land and of what it produces, and will rid Lebanon of its choicest fruit.

And he is also lord of water supplies. Whenever he digs, he drinks water. His diggings never fail. In other words, when he wishes for it, it is always there under his control. And thus he can, and will, dry up the Nile and its tributaries by the use of his foot, by simply treading on it, together with people who live by it (the whole of Egypt). In this way all that Lebanon and Egypt were renowned for will be destroyed by his seemingly omnipotent power, and all their people will be cut or trodden down. All will be humbled before him. He would show the world what he was. It is quite probable that this was based on exact words known to be used by Sennacherib in his diatribes.

And indeed, rather ironically, showing the world what he was is exactly what he did do, and was the reason why God would destroy him.

Yahweh’s Reply. The King of Assyria Is But Yahweh’s Tool And Will Be Dealt With Accordingly (37.26-29).

Yahweh’s reply to Sennacherib is to point out what He has accomplished in the past. He wants it to be clear that Assyria is not the only one that can cite prior victories, and that indeed Assyria are the new boys on the block.

37.26-27 ‘Have you not heard how I have done it long ago, and formed it of ancient times? Now I have brought it about that you should be to lay waste fenced cities into ruinous heaps. That is why their inhabitants were of little power, they were dismayed and confounded. They were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops and as a field before it is grown.’

Yahweh points out to Sennacherib that he ought rather to recognise that he himself is but a recent phenomenon. Let him therefore now consider what Yahweh has done. Who was it Who formed the world in the first place? It was He, Yahweh, who set up the world and shaped it, and Who is Lord of fruit and water. And Sennacherib should recognise that it is only because it is within Yahweh’s plans that he has even been permitted to make ruins out of defenced cities. That is the real reason why the peoples have been so easy to deal with. It is because Yahweh has brought it about. In that he had spoken truly (36.10).

‘That you should be to lay waste fenced cities into ruinous heaps.’ Bringing cities into a condition of ruin has already been shown to be part of God’s final purposes (17.9; 24.10-12; 26.5; 27.10), Sennacherib is thus but helping on God’s process.

‘They were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops and as a field before it is grown.’ That is, they were temporary and passing (Psalm 37.2; 103.15-16; 129.6), soon withered and struggling to survive. Note the fourfold description which is a prominent feature of this passage, pointing to universality.

37.28 ‘But I know your sitting down, and your going out, and your coming in, and your raging against me.’

Again the fourfold structure. God wants him to know that He knows everything about him. He may try to hide his movements and his plans from men, but he cannot hide them from God. He knows all that he does. He knows when he sits down, He knows when he goes out, He knows when he comes in, and He is privy to every word he speaks. And He is especially aware of his diatribes against Himself. ‘All things are open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.’

37.29 ‘Because of your raging against me, and because your insolence has come up to my ears, therefore I will put my hook in your nose, and my bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way by which you came.’

God wants him to know that He has noted his words and his insolence and will therefore deal with him for what he is, a recalcitrant. The picture language expresses the reality of what is happening. He may think that he is going back to Assyria of his own volition, but it is actually because God is ‘dragging’ him there. The hook in the nose was, as monuments reveal, Assyria’s regular bestial way of controlling prisoners, and the bridle was especially for guiding and holding back the horses of which he was so proud. So, as Sennacherib’s master, Yahweh will drag him along towards his homeland, in the same way as many prisoners have been dragged, and, as Sennacherib’s rider, He will pull on the reins and direct him back to where he came from. Yahweh would accept Sennacherib’s offer of horses to ride on so contemptuously made. He will use the king himself as a horse to ride on. Sennacherib’s contemptuous offer has rebounded on him (compare 36.8).

Yahweh’s Assurance of Deliverance to Jerusalem (37.30-35).

At this point Isaiah turns his thoughts back to what Hezekiah really wants to know. What is about to happen to Jerusalem?

37.30 ‘And this shall be the sign to you, you will eat this year what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that, and in the third year, sow, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.’

The sign that what he has described will come on Sennacherib is given by a promise of what is to occur in the future (compare 7.14-15). While for the next year or so they will have to survive on crops that grow of themselves, they have Yahweh’s promise that by ‘the third year’ they will once again be eating cultivated crops and grapes. (Even if we take it literally this is not exactly three years. Part of the first year had gone so that the period was less than three years). But the sign is found in the promise. The fact that Yahweh could promise crops within three years was a satisfactory sign that His words could be depended on.

The words reveal the practicalities of the situation. What is gathered by the population once the Assyrians have left, ‘what grows of itself’ (compare Leviticus 25.5,11) will be sparse. It would be required for survival. For no sowing had taken place since their arrival, and the Assyrians will have made use of much that was there. By the second year enough would grow to enable some to be set aside for sowing. Thus the fuller harvest awaited the third year. The vines would take a little longer to bring under control, but would be sufficient to produce some sort of crop within the period, for some vines would have survived the ordeal. It would be a case of restoring them to fruitfulness. He may also have had in mind that the Assyrian withdrawal would take time.

This incidentally demonstrates that the Assyrian army were still encircling Jerusalem. Had they not been, some sowing would have taken place. People were used to taking advantage of lulls in the fighting in war-torn countries, but here there had been no lull.

37.31-32 ‘And the remnant who are escaped of the house of Judah will again take root downwards and bear fruit upwards, for out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion they who will escape. The zeal of Yahweh of hosts will perform this.’

Then the remnant who remain will flourish. The mention of Mount Zion stresses that this will be Yahweh’s deliverance. It is reminding us that it was because Mount Zion was His earthly dwellingplace, and was in Jerusalem, that Jerusalem will be delivered. Through His power they will have escaped destruction, and will be able to rebuild their shattered lives. We must remember that Jerusalem would not only have its own population but would be packed full with refugees. They will again be able to take root (find security) and bear fruit (enjoy blessing and prosperity).

This is the closest that Isaiah comes to equating Mount Zion with Jerusalem, but its distinction must be maintained. It is not without significance that ‘escaping’ is linked with Mount Zion. They escaped because He was protecting them. The deliverance was Yahweh’s, the result of His zeal on behalf of His people.

The remnant here are not the godly remnant of 10.21 but the remnant of 1.9, they are survivors, like the one tenth in 6.13a rather than the holy seed of 6.13b. They are, however, a reminder that God is preserving the nation with a view to what He will produce from it in the future.

37.33-34 ‘Therefore thus says Yahweh concerning the king of Assyria, “He will not come to this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor will he come before it with a shield, nor cast a mount against it. By the way that he came, by the same he will return, and he will not come to this city,” says Yahweh.’

The besieged city would expect that one day Sennacherib himself would come to supervise the final taking of the city. He would want to be in on the final action, and like kings often liked to do, he would want to fire a symbolic arrow there. But here Yahweh promises that he will not even approach it, never mind arriving and shooting a token arrow, and bearing a shield and supervising the building of a siege mount.

It was typical of even great men that they liked to be thought of as warriors, and to display themselves in armour and have at least a token part in the action so as to mention their presence there in their inscriptions. (Compare the heads of armed forces today who love to display row upon row of medals which mean little). But Sennacherib would not go through these false paces here. His departure to Assyria would be soon enough for this not to happen. He would return to Assyria by the route that he had taken, and it would not lead past Jerusalem.

Interestingly the reliefs in Sennacherib’s former palace illustrate this, for they did portray him as personally viewing the spoils from Lachish, a siege in which he did personally take part. So he did like to be personally connected with his triumphs, a fact which is brought out in these verses.

Alternatively this may be referring to the fact that Jerusalem is ring-fenced by the Assyrian army but not actually under attack, so that Yahweh is saying that that attack will never come.

Note again the fourfold description, “he will not come to this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor will he come before it with a shield, nor cast a mount against it.’

37.35 “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake, and for the sake of David my servant.”

The defence of the city is not for its own sake but because of His past promises, and because of His future intentions. And especially because of His promises to the Davidic house. His future intentions include within them a crucial place for the line of David, as Isaiah has already made clear, especially in chapters 6-11, even though it will not apply to the current house of David. It is not without significance that David is here called ‘my servant’. This is preparing for Isaiah’s coming revelation concerning God’s Servant, and linking Him back to the coming David.

Yahweh Reveals His Omnipotence And His Promise Is Fulfilled (37.36-38).

Having made His ‘boasts’ Yahweh now fulfils them, so much so that within one night the army of Assyria is decimated, and not by a human hand.

37.36 ‘And the angel of Yahweh went out and smote in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty five thousand, and when men arose in the morning they were all dead corpses.’

In response to Yahweh’s words the vast army of Assyria was decimated by the Angel of Yahweh, that is, by Yahweh Himself acting through His ‘angel’, His ‘other self’. Compare here 2 Samuel 24.15-17 where a similarly described occurrence was through pestilence. The comparison might suggest that this also was through pestilence. Whether this took place outside Jerusalem or whether it was in the main camp at Libnah, or even in both, we are not told.

Interestingly enough Herodotus speaks of large numbers of vermin being connected with the camp of Assyria around this time when he speaks of ‘a multitude of field mice which by night devoured all the quivers and bows of the enemy, and all the straps by which they held their shields --- next morning they commenced their flight and great numbers fell as they had no arms with which to defend themselves.’ This reflects a plague of vermin which resulted in disaster. Knowing nothing about Bubonic plague the source probably sought some rational explanation of the decimation of the army, for the rats who spread the plague would also eat the edible parts of any armour.

‘One hundred and eighty five thousand’ might signify one hundred and eighty five military units, for eleph could mean ‘a military unit, a captain’. It is unlikely that anyone would count the number of dead in such a situation, while the loss of a certain number of military units would certainly be noted.

We know little about the Assyrian encounter with the Egyptian army. Sennacherib’s account, while claiming victory, is very guarded and his description of the after effects limited to the capture during the battle of certain Egyptian and Ethiopian charioteers and nobles. Had it been a resounding victory he would undoubtedly have said much more. If in fact the Egyptian army came on them after the plague had done its work (as Herodotus words possibly suggests), and after the rumour of verse 6 had reached them, and they were in the process of withdrawal, we can appreciate what a mixed up affair it must have been. We might gather from the description that the battle was a stalemate, and sufficient to hasten the Assyrian withdrawal and ensure their non-return for some time.

37.37 ‘So Sennacherib, king of Assyria, departed, and went, and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.’

The overall result of his loss of men was that Sennacherib returned to Nineveh with his army. Note the fourfold verbs ‘departed, and went, and returned, and dwelt’, indicating something doubly witnessed and therefore certain. Hezekiah and Jerusalem were able to return to normal life.

37.38 ‘And it came about that as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, smote him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned instead of him.’

Finally we learn of the assassination of Sennacherib, as God had declared (verse 7). This took place through members of his own family. Of course he would have many sons with many different loyalties (always the problem of having too many wives) and attempts at the throne would explain such an assassination. Alternately they may have been gaining revenge for some injury done to them or their families. These were not his actual heirs who in fact would seek to track down the murderers and kill them.

So these three verses are a summary indicating the fulfilment of what God had said He would do and more (37.7). They glorify Yahweh. On His own He had smitten and defeated the Assyrian army, on His own he had caused Sennacherib to leave His land and return to Nineveh, and on His own He had arranged the assassination of him there. To the author it is irrelevant when these things happened. What mattered was that they did happen. In point of fact the assassination took place twenty years later (unless with some we see two invasions by Assyria, the one ending in the treaty that was made (2 Kings 18.14-16), and the other a later act of rebellion. Assyrian records are not intact for this period).

‘Ararat.’ That is Urartu as found in Assyrian inscriptions. It was in the neighbourhood of Lake Van in Armenia and was at this time enjoying a brief revival of strength after its battering by the Cimmerians. The sons clearly saw it as a safe refuge from the wrath of Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s heir.

The house of Nisroch may possibly be the Temple of Nusku at Nineveh. (This assumes a waw changed to a resh - Nswk becomes Nsrk - whether deliberate or accidental. Although waw and resh are very similar in Hebrew, it is quite possible that the change was deliberate. Such changes were frequently made, sometimes in order to indicate contempt, and at others in order to bring out a specific idea. Note how Arad is also changed to Adra, and Nergal is dropped altogether. It is in order to demonstrate that these deities are unimportant and that their names do not matter). The names Adrammelech and Sharezer probably signify Arad-Melek and Nergal-shar-usur. (Arad and Nergal were two Assyrian deities). On the other hand a western Semitic name is a possibility for one of his sons and would not be unlikely, for Sennacherib was married to, among others, Naqi’a-Zakutu, a woman of western Semitic origin. Shar-usur means ‘he has protected the king’ and we would expect it to be preceded by the name of a god. The late Greek writer Abydenus refers to them as Adramelus and Nergilus.

The Babylonian Chronicle confirms this by telling us that ‘his son killed Sennacherib, king of Assyria, during a rebellion.’ The Nineveh Prism of Esarhaddon says, ‘my brothers raved and did everything that was not good against both gods and men and plotted evil, even drawing the sword within Nineveh against divine authority. They butted against each other like young goats in order to exercise the kingship.’ The Rassam cylinder of Ashurbanipal says ‘I smashed the rest of the people alive by the very figures of the protective deities between which they had smashed Sennacherib, my own grandfather.’

Chapter 38 Hezekiah’s Illness And the Wondrous Sign From God Guaranteeing the Deliverance of Jerusalem.

This was prior to the visit of ambassadors from Merodach-baladan (39.1) and thus chronologically prior to chapters 36-37. The chronological transposition suits Isaiah’s purpose. He wanted to bring the threat of Babylon in juxtaposition with the second part of the book where Babylon is revealed as finally destroyed. But it would not be understandable in 2 Kings unless 2 Kings was influenced by Isaiah. Thus it is unlikely that 2 Kings can be primary. But it is also unlikely that 2 Kings is simply an expanded version of Isaiah 36-39. The explanation that fits all situations is that Isaiah also wrote a longer version of the events described here at the time that they happened, which was incorporated in 2 Kings (2 Chronicles 32.32), while also being summarised here.

Chapters 38-39 cap the first part of the book. They demonstrate that Yahweh did indeed give a wondrous sign of His willingness to deliver a member of the Davidic house when he was acting on behalf of his people. Ahaz had refused such an offer (compare 7.11-14), but now He was giving the house of David another chance. Here Hezekiah was to see that the sun performed Yahweh’s bidding. But instead of this resulting in Hezekiah trusting in Yahweh, he turned rather to Babylon for help. This final failure to trust Yahweh completely, revealing even the good king Hezekiah and his descendants in a bad light as unsuitable to be the Coming King, resulted in his being cast off. The final verdict is that in fact his descendants in the Davidic house will not achieve glory, but will rather be led into humiliating captivity and prevented from bearing children. So all Isaiah’s exhortations to Judah/Israel and to Hezekiah had proved in vain, just as God had said they would at his inaugural call (6.9-10).

This then leads on into the second part of the book, where the emphasis is not on the coming Deliverer as a member of the Davidic house, but on the humble but glorious Servant (compare ‘David My Servant’ - 37.35), although as also introducing the ‘sure mercies of David’ (55.3). He is still a greater David, descended from David, or the sure mercies would not apply, but not a crowned king in an earthly sense. Rather he is to be essentially Yahweh’s Servant (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 52.13-53.12).

Hezekiah’s Illness and The Great Sign (38.1-8).

The centrality and importance of this chapter must not be overlooked. It was God’s final attempt to woo over the reigning house of David to a life of obedience and trust. From this chapter onwards (along with its consequence in chapter 39) attention turns to the coming Servant of Yahweh Who will accomplish what the current house of David has proved itself incapable of doing.

38.1 ‘In those days Hezekiah was sick unto death. And Isaiah, the prophet the son of Amoz, came to him and said, “Thus says Yahweh, Set your house in order for you will die and not live.” ’

‘In those days.’ An indeterminate phrase, the plural of ‘in that day’ Here it simply loosely connects what is to happen with the days of which Isaiah is speaking.

Hezekiah is declared to be very ill, indeed dying. He has a mortal illness. He was ‘sick unto death.’ And the prophet comes to him with confirmation from Yahweh. ‘Thus says Yahweh --- you will die.’ He must prepare for death and do all that is necessary for a king to do to ensure that affairs of state are passed to his successor smoothly. God is concerned for the future of his people.

This verse with its subsequent narrative is quite remarkable. It demonstrates that even the word of Yahweh can be reversed by repentance. For here is a prophetic word which will be so altered. What seems to be a situation which cannot be altered, is altered through prayer. The same was always true of God’s judgments (compare Jonah and Nineveh).

38.2-3 ‘Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to Yahweh, and said, “Remember now O Yahweh I beg you, how I have walked before you in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept grievously.’

Outwardly Hezekiah’s concern would appear to be for the situation he found himself in personally. There is nothing sacrificially noble about his prayer. It is presented as outwardly purely selfish, as 39.6-8 also reveals him to be. He was a good king, a godly king, and yet his perspective was limited and selfish. It was not stated to be the future of the kingdom or the purposes of God that concerned him. What concerned him was his own survival. How many there are of God’s people who are like this. When it comes down to it they are the godly selfish, (what a contradiction in terms, and yet how true of so many) and that is why they will achieve little. Outwardly it would appear that Hezekiah was successful, but he failed deeply in the purposes of God because his own ambitions took precedence. He presided over an almost catastrophe.

Nevertheless here part of his problem was also that he saw his premature death as resulting from sin. So he was not only crying out for life, he was crying out for forgiveness. One reason why he wanted to live was because in his eyes it would prove that he had become right with God. So his personal concern is to some extent understandable.

‘Turned his face to the wall.’ He could not get to the privacy of the Temple so this was second best. He wanted to be alone with God.

He summed up his life to God a little idealistically, and yet it was basically true. He had sought truth, he had sought to do what was right, he had sought to please God. He had lived a godly life. But we are intended also to see that his life was flawed, as we will learn in the next chapter. For he was unable to get away from his own selfish ambitions.

Yet having said all that we may well see hidden under his tears a concern for his people. While it was not prominent in the way his thoughts were expressed, he would know that in losing him his people were losing one who could strongly affect their future, for he had no grown sons. It may well be therefore that we are to see this thought as included in his prayer. And it may possibly be that God recognised his concern, which might be why the next verses speak of deliverance from Sennacherib’s hands.

‘And Hezekiah wept grievously.’ He did not want to die. He was fighting for life.

Given all this we can sum up Hezekiah’s prayer as indicating,

  • 1). That he was horrified at the thought of premature death.
  • 2). That this was at least partly because he saw it as indicating that God saw him as having sinned grievously so that he was being punished for it, and was thus unforgiven.
  • 3). That underneath, unstated but known by God, was his concern for his people in the trying days that lay ahead of them, and in the face of the threat of invasion.

Yet we cannot hide from the fact that he did not articulate all these thoughts in his prayers. His prime concern is presented as being for his own deliverance. It was God Whose major concern was for His people.

38.4-6 ‘Then came the word of Yahweh to Isaiah, saying, “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says Yahweh, the God of your father David, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. Look, I will add to your life fifteen years. And I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city.”’

Hezekiah knew that his behaviour in the religious and political field had angered the king of Assyria. He had purified the temple, removing the Assyrian gods; he had refused to pay tribute; he had had discussions with his neighbours (2 Kings 18.7). He could hardly doubt that this had been noted and that the detail was known to Sennacherib’s spies. Thus he could have had little doubt that he would at some stage be called to account. This must surely have been part of the reason for his distress, that he was dying when his country needed him.

That also explains why God sends to him and promises him, not only an extension of life, but also deliverance for him and Jerusalem out of Sennacherib’s hand. He promises that He will give Hezekiah a further fifteen years, and will successfully defend Jerusalem. This met his major concerns. But it is also clearly implied that it would not be because of his own worthiness but because of God’s promises to David - it is to be from ‘the God of your father David’.

The figure of ‘fifteen years’ is probably significant. Five is the number of covenant, and threefold five is covenant completeness. Thus it implies that God is acting within the covenant and for covenant reasons. Hezekiah will be living on borrowed time so that he can further the application of that covenant. (Fifteen and other multiples of five were a regular measurement in the Tabernacle. Compare also the twofold ‘five words’ of the commandments, and the five books of the Law and of the Psalms, all aspects of the covenant).

By these promises God is revealed as the giver of life and as the Great Defender of His people, and Hezekiah as the great beneficiary. Surely now he will be dedicated to Yahweh with all his heart and lean wholly on Him. And in order to seek to ensure this, God in His graciousness goes further. He adds to this an even greater wonder.

38.7 “And this will be the sign to you from Yahweh, that Yahweh will do this thing that he has spoken. Behold, I will cause the shadow on the steps, which has gone down on the steps of Ahaz with the sun, to return backward ten steps.” So the sun returned ten steps on the steps on which it had gone down.’

It is futile to seek to speculate on how this happened apart from the fact that we know that it was Yahweh’s doing. The steps of Ahaz are not said to be a sundial, although it is often assumed by commentators. They are rather chosen here as a reminder of the person of Ahaz, the one who refused God’s sign, the one who would not listen to Yahweh. They are possibly the steps that had led up to Ahaz’s house of idolatry (2 Kings 23.12). But as that may have been designed for the worship of the sun god, it may well be that the steps had also been designed to follow the sun’s shadow, thus linking it with the passing of time. But the point is that what faithless Ahaz set up was to be used as the conveyor of a sign from God to his successor who was now being given the same great opportunity as he had had, the opportunity to see God producing a miracle enabling him to trust in God alone and reject all earthly support.

The sign will be indicated by the movement of the shadow caused by the sun on these steps. The advancing shadow will retreat ten steps. Those ten steps which had come into the shade will become once more open to the sun. This was too great a degree of change to be mistakable. Only an act of God could produce this phenomenon. And it was clearly witnessed, probably by Isaiah himself, for he asserts that it happened.

It is possible that the retreating of the shadow was intended to be an indication that God would remove the shadow which was hanging over Hezekiah, and the shadow which was hanging over Jerusalem, the ten indicating covenant witness and certainty (twice five). It was certainly in order to indicate that the Creator could do whatever He would on the earth. And if the shadow of the sun could be controlled how much more Sennacherib, and the ‘host of heaven’ (2 Kings 17.16; 21.3-5) whom he worshipped.

It may also indicate that God was giving the house of David a second chance. Time was, as it were retreating, thus eliminating the failure of Ahaz.

(How God did it is not a question we can look at scientifically for we do not have all the facts. We are not told that the phenomenon achieved a permanent change in the position of the sun. Nor indeed is the sun said to have been observed as moving. It was the shadow caused by the sun that was observed as moving, and that only on the steps of Ahaz. We can only look on and wonder, as they no doubt did).

The greater detail in 2 Kings at this point is against 2 Kings being just an expansion of Isaiah here, unless they had further material from a more detailed written record of Isaiah to go on. Perhaps there was an original detailed record from which he extracted what is written here, selecting the salient points for what he wanted to convey. In 2 Kings the great sign is more closely related to Hezekiah’s healing.

The significance of all this must not be lost. God’s purpose in Hezekiah’s illness was to establish his faith and to give him the opportunity of reversing what Ahaz had done in bringing about the rejection of the earthly house of David. In the same way as the shadow of the sun had reversed, God could reverse that rejection. Indeed He gave him multiple evidence that he would if only Hezekiah would believe. He demonstrated that He had control over life and death, and over the movements and effects of the sun. And He guaranteed the deliverance of Jerusalem by His own hand. What more could He do? We are at the ultimate climax. Surely this Davidic king will now fully do His will? Chapter 39 will be the anti-climax, and will give a negative answer.

Hezekiah’s Psalm of Praise (38.9-20).

38.9 ‘The writing of Hezekiah the king of Judah when he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness.’

This was clearly originally a record on its own, written by Hezekiah. It was then incorporated by the compilers into the book. It stresses that it was Hezekiah who wrote it down. It was his purpose that it be sung in the Temple (verse 20), and was in gratitude for his deliverance from death.

38.10-12b

‘I said, in the noontide of my days,
I will go through the gates of Sheol,
I am deprived of the residue of my years.
I said I will not see Yahweh,
Yah in the land of the living,
I will look on man no more,
Among the inhabitants of cessation.
My period of life is removed,
And is carried away from me like a shepherd’s tent,
I have rolled up my life like a weaver.
He will cut me off from the loom.’

In the first part of the Psalm Hezekiah picturesquely describes his sense that, for him, life is over, and bemoans the fact that he is to be cut off without reaching old age. He was concerned that he would go through the gates of the grave-like world of the dead while still not old, deprived of part of his allotted years; that he would no longer be able to see the activity of God among living people; that he would no longer be able to enjoy life, and watch man about his activities, for he himself would be among the inhabitants of that world where all such activities have ceased.

He sees his life as temporary, as being as transient as the pitching and striking of a shepherd’s tent, and reluctantly consigns himself to death, as someone who would be cut off like a piece of cloth would be cut off from the larger piece on the loom and rolled up. He has woven his life and now it has been prematurely cut off. He is totally despondent.

‘He will cut me off from the loom.’ Literally, ‘from the thrum.’ The second figure is that of a web completed and removed by the weaver from the loom. The thrum is the ends of the threads by which the web is fastened to the beam.

38.12c-14

‘I thought over things until morning. Like a lion he breaks all my bones.
From day even until night, will you make an end of me.’
Like a swallow or a crane so did I chatter on,
I mourned as a dove, my eyes fail to look upward.
O Yahweh, I am oppressed. You be my surety.

He then recognises the finality of death, and feels that his life is being wrenched from him. He feels that he will be like the prey of a lion, leaped upon and crunched to pieces almost immediately. He will no more experience day and night, for God will have made an end of him. That is why he does nothing but can only chatter on, uselessly and nervously, like the birds, mourning like a dove with downcast eyes. But then he takes hold of himself and calls on Yahweh to act as his surety, the One Who stands up for him, and all is then changed.

38.15

‘What shall I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done it,
I will go carefully all my years, because of the bitterness of my soul.’

God has spoken to him and answered him directly by His action. Thus he is not to die, but will have many years ahead (‘all my years’). But he will treasure them and use them carefully because of the bitterness of what he has endured. He has learned through suffering to make the most of life, walking in obedience to God’s ways.

38.16

‘O Lord, by these things men live, and wholly in them is the life of my spirit,
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So do you make me recover, and make me live.’

‘These things’ are the bitter experiences he has gone through, learning the lessons of life. It is such things as these that tend to make men seek and find life, and his own spirit has now been inspired by them. Compare Deuteronomy 8.3 where we read, ‘And He humbled you and made you suffer hunger, -- that He might make you to know that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God does man live.’ Such suffering, says the writer, is in the end what makes men seek true life through the word of God. And so, having experienced suffering, he prays that God might now make him recover so that he can live that life in His will.

38.17

‘Behold it was for my welfare (peace) that I had great bitterness,
But you have in love for my soul, delivered it from the pit of corruption.
For you have cast all my sins behind your back.’

He acknowledges that it was for his own good that he has gone through these experiences. He has learned from them the importance of life (‘I will go carefully’ - verse 15). But he also rejoices because he now knows that God has in love for him cancelled out the effect of his sin, the sin which would have produced premature death, and He has done it by casting his sins behind His back. That is why he has been allowed to live. That is why God has delivered him from the pit where he would have become a rotting corpse. He recognises that had it not been for the suffering he had undergone he would never have experienced this forgiveness so fully. So overall he acknowledges that the experience has been good.

Israel at its best recognised clearly the connection between sin and death as it is described here. The man who sinned would die (Ezekiel 18.4). Thus death resulted from sin, and premature death was a pointer to sin. The corollary was that death could be delayed by true repentance and looking to God, and finding forgiveness for sins committed. This was their simple faith. What lay beyond they did not know, unless they had read Isaiah’s earlier revelations.

38.18-19

‘For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot celebrate you,
Those who go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth.
The living, the living, he will praise you as I do this day,
The father to the children will make known your truth.

The idea is that once a man has died, it is too late for him, either to seek to praise God, or to celebrate Him. It is too late to look for truth. That is only available to the living. And it is the living who will praise God as Hezekiah was doing this very day, it is the living who teach and pass on truth. The father teaching the children was the main way in Israel of them growing up in the truth about Yahweh and His covenant (Deuteronomy 11.19). So death is to be avoided if at all possible, and it is good that Yahweh is restoring him to life.

Hezekiah is not commenting on the afterlife as we know of it. He is speaking of the certainties that he knew of. What he says positively is true. What lay on the other side he did not surmise. Indeed, as far as he was aware there was nothingness, a shadowy world of the grave. Thus a man should seek to live by following the word of Yahweh.

38.20

Yahweh is ready to save me,
Therefore will we sing with stringed instruments,
All the days of our life in the house of Yahweh.’

As a result of Hezekiah’s experience he now knows that each man can know that God is ready to save him, if he turns to Him, as Hezekiah, had done in repentance. Each can say, ‘Yahweh is ready to save me.’ That is why they come to the house of Yahweh and sing with stringed instruments all their days.

This ending reveals that Hezekiah expected his Psalm to be used in worship in the Temple. It was his public testimony to God. Alternatively it may have been added once the Psalm was presented to the Temple for such use.

Final Conclusions (38.21-22).

It would be a mistake to see these as comments as words casually added on with no real significance, and to pass over them too quickly. The first states how his healing was brought about, by a laying of a poultice on his eruption of the flesh, bringing out that it was indeed God Who had restored him. The second was even more significant, for it leads on into what follows and stresses that it is to be seen in the light of the fact that Hezekiah had asked for and received a God-given miraculous sign.

At first sight both seem to be equally pious comments. Isaiah confident that Yahweh would heal him, Hezekiah eager to go up to the house of Yahweh. But what a difference in attitude. One was eager that God’s power might be revealed, the other simply concerned about the certainty of his own healing.

38.21 ‘Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and lay it for a plaster on the boil, and he will recover.’

Note that Isaiah’s work of healing is not described as though it was the most important aspect of the account. It almost has the appearance of an afterthought. For the concentration of the passage is not on the healing but on the significance of Hezekiah’s experience. But it is an important afterthought. It is brought in to emphasise that the healing was indeed genuinely of God through His prophet.

The boil and the seriousness of the illness possibly indicate some kind of plague illness. The method of using a poultice to draw the boil was clearly known. And it equally clearly worked. If it was a miracle no emphasis is laid on the fact that it was so. The emphasis is rather on the fact that it was God’s doing. Once the boil was drawn healing could go on apace. But Hezekiah certainly saw it as a miracle of forgiveness and healing. A similar kind of plaster (of dried raisins) for use on horses is witnessed to in a Ugaritic text.

38.22 ‘Hezekiah had also said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of Yahweh?” ’

Hezekiah’s main concern was whether the healing would occur as quickly as Yahweh had promised (2 Kings 20.28). This note is added in order to prepare for the following verses. ‘The sign’ here must be the one described in verse 7, for it is the only one mentioned in the passage. Here in Isaiah that sign was stated as having a twofold purpose, ‘Look,’ had promised Yahweh, ‘I will add to your life fifteen years, and I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city. And this will be the sign to you from Yahweh, that Yahweh will do this thing that He has spoken’ (verse 5-6). Thus the sign was intended to point both to his healing and the certainty of the coming miraculous deliverance.

But 2 Kings 20.28 explains that the sign that was given to Hezekiah had in fact been asked for by him as evidence that he would be healed so that he could go up to the house of Yahweh within three days. And it is made clear here that that is his main concern, his own healing, and progression from it. While God had wanted it also to be the greater sign of His power to deliver and His promise of future deliverance (verse 6), Hezekiah only thought in terms of his own healing. So Hezekiah, instead of being taken up with, and excited about, the promise of future deliverance, expresses concern lest he be unable to go up to the house of Yahweh on the third day. This again brings out Hezekiah’s selfish concentration on his own need rather than on his people’s needs. It sounded pious enough, but it was proof of his mediocrity.

No doubt he also saw himself as being restrained from going up to the house of Yahweh because the eruption rendered him unclean (see Leviticus 13.18), and it suggests that he longed to do so as soon as appropriate. He wanted to be ‘clean’ again. Such an ambition was not to be despised. It was good that he wanted to go up to the house of Yahweh. But why did he want to do it? Are we to see this as because he longed to carry out his intercessory prayer as the priest after the order of Melchizedek? (compare 37.1, 14). But that was no longer necessary. The sign had been God’s guarantee of deliverance. Or are we to see it as in order that he might give thanks for his recovery? That he saw it as putting the cap on any delay in his recovery? The context suggests the latter.

In other words his mind was concentrated on the wrong thing. While God had tried to direct his thoughts to the great deliverance, all Hezekiah could think of was his own restoration. There could be no greater contrast than that between this current representative of the house of David, whose only desire was to survive and to whom the coming deliverance was secondary, and the coming Servant whom Isaiah will shortly describe, Whose whole concern will be to do the will of God and Whose whole attention will be on the final deliverance, even though He would have to face death in order to bring it about (52.13-53.12). The Hezekiah revealed here fits well with the Hezekiah revealed in 39.8.

Chapter 39 Visitors From Babylon.

‘At that time.’ That is at the time of his having received the sign from God and having gone up to the house of Yahweh to acknowledge and give thanks for His power. What better time for ambassadors from Babylon to arrive? Surely he would now tell them to be on their way because God was able to deliver Jerusalem and Judah from the Assyrian yoke. God had primed him up and had given him two remarkable signs, his extension of life and God’s revelation of His power over the sun. How then could he do otherwise? But as this chapter demonstrates, he did do otherwise.

In human terms it is understandable. While Hezekiah was highly esteemed among the local peoples, he could not be compared to a king of Babylon. And he must have been highly flattered that that great king should seek him out and ask after his welfare and desire an alliance with him. We are given to understand that he was right to welcome them, but that that should have been all. Indeed we are given the picture of Isaiah waiting apprehensively, wondering what choice he would make.

And he chose disastrously. He unbared all his treasures and armour to the ambassadors, a clear indication that he was offering his strength to back up the rebellion. It was fatal. Not only did it mean that he was putting his trust in alliances with godless nations, and especially godless Babylon, rather than in Yahweh, but it also showed Babylon what treasures he had. And the wise old Isaiah knew instinctively that to a great and arrogant city like Babylon this could only be like a light to a moth, drawing it onwards until the glittering treasures were its own.

Of what purpose then had been God’s miraculous sign? Ahaz had refused the sign. Hezekiah had received the sign and then ignored its significance. Both were as bad. The house of David had rejected its second chance.

39.1 ‘At that time Merodach-baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he had heard that he was sick and had recovered.’

There can be little doubt that Merodach-baladan, who was at that time in rebellion against Assyria (this was probably early in 702 BC), was using Hezekiah’s recovery as a means of intrigue. The visit was to be seen outwardly as for an innocent reason, but it had a far deeper significance. Merodach-baladan was seeking and offering support in a rebellion against Assyria. The choice then lay with Hezekiah. He could politely receive them and send them on their way, because his trust was in Yahweh. Or he could enter into negotiations and show what he could offer.

39.2 ‘And Hezekiah was glad of them, and showed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures. There was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah did not show them.’

Flattered, and desirous of their admiration, and very willing to enter into an alliance, Hezekiah forgot the significance of his deliverance from death and the great sign that had accompanied it. He committed himself totally. All his riches and all his armour was available to assist in the rebellion. And he took the ambassadors round the country, showing them the great cities with their powerful walls, and the men of war stationed in readiness for any attack, and the general wealth of the nation. It was a renunciation of Yahweh that was total and complete, and the sad thing is that Hezekiah seemed totally unaware of the fact. The impression given is that he did not realise what he had done.

If we do not keep in close touch with God when making our decisions, but allow ourselves to be carried forward by the emotion of the moment, we also, like Hezekiah, may very well go ahead with something, unaware that it is contrary to God’s will, and thus prove to be a hindrance to God’s work instead of carrying it forward.

39.3 ‘Then Isaiah the prophet came to king Hezekiah, and said to him, “What did these men say, and from where did they come to you?” And Hezekiah said, “They have come to me from a far country, even from Babylon.”

Isaiah had seen these rich and powerful lords, and knew that mischief was afoot. But he was unable to do anything until they had gone. No doubt a great deal of secrecy had been preserved. (If there is one thing men love more than showing off it is being involved in intrigue, and to feel that they are a part of the inner circle). But then, once they had departed, he immediately sought the king’s presence and asked who they were and where they had come from. It is, however, probable that he already had a good idea what the answer would be.

As we read Hezekiah’s reply we can sense the great pride that he felt at the visit. These men had come a long way from a great king of a mighty city and country, who had proved his power in the past by at times achieving independence from the Assyrians, and they had come to see him.

39.4a ‘Then he said, “What have they seen in your house?”

It must have been with great apprehension that Isaiah asked this question, for he knew how much depended on it. He must have had high hopes after God’s great signs and deliverance that Hezekiah would trust totally in God and not look to alliances, and now he realised that the whole of the future depended on Hezekiah’s answer. But we get the impression that he already knew in his heart what the answer would be.

39.4b ‘And Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house. There is nothing among my treasures that I have not shown them.” ’

Hezekiah replied promptly and openly. He had shown them everything. He was fully committed to an alliance. He had committed all that he had. It is as though he did not know what he had done. Isaiah knew instinctively what the only consequence of this could be. If you show off your treasures to a great and proud king of a powerful nation one day he will come and collect them from you. What other end could there possibly be for a small kingdom like Judah when it got mixed up with such giants? Especially when it showed them how rich it was. And on top of this Hezekiah had earned his own Protector’s anger by putting his trust in Babylon. What hope then could there be for him?

So Hezekiah had aligned himself with Babylon of hosts? What about his commitment to Yahweh of hosts? Did Hezekiah not realise that he had betrayed Him, and thus His protective hand would be on him no longer? Yahweh of hosts Himself would now allow him to be robbed of all that he possessed. Nothing would be left. His protective shield was gone. As a result his descendants, the seed of the Davidic house, would become slaves in the palace of the king of Babylon. He had forfeited all that God had intended for him. He was now Babylon’s plaything, and there was nothing worse than that.

If the word ‘eunuchs’ is to be taken literally, although the word is not necessarily always so specific and can mean high-level servants, this spelled the end of Hezekiah’s dynastic hopes. This might explain why his descendants are brought into the equation. In fact in the future both his son Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33.11), and his descendants Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24.12) and Zedekiah (2 Kings 25.7) would be taken captive to Babylon. And none would have gone alone.

We note, however, that there is no mention of a general captivity. This is not strictly forecasting the exile. King’s sons were often taken as hostages even when no general exile took place. The point being made is that he will lose his treasures and his ‘sons’. His dynasty will cease. And Judah will be made tributary to Babylon.

39.8 ‘Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of Yahweh which you have spoken is good.” He said moreover, “For there will be peace and truth in my days.” ’

That Hezekiah lacked Messianic ambition comes out clearly here. He was not concerned with the distant future. He had no vision of the future that God had promised through Isaiah. He was simply satisfied that it meant that in his own day peace and truth would prevail. He was quite prepared for the future house of David to be in slavery (what a contrast with Psalm 2) as long as he could have freedom now. How totally different he was from the coming Servant. No wonder the coming King would have to be miraculously born. David’s sons were to become eunuchs because of his folly! The words confirmed the promise that God had made of deliverance from Assyria and beyond that Hezekiah was not concerned. But it was the deathknell of any hopes of a Deliverer from his house. Israel would have to look elsewhere.

In their division of the book commentators often treat chapter 40 that follows as a new book. But in the Hebrew text 40.1 simply continues on from 39.8. Furthermore, while there is certainly a massive change of subject, what follows is actually Isaiah’s response to this situation. 39.8 is a comment indicating that Hezekiah is satisfied with the status quo, and an indicator that he is not fitted to fulfil the role of Israel’s Saviour. Chapter 40 onwards indicates that Yahweh is not satisfied with such a situation because of Who He is (chapter 40), and will Himself find a Saviour (chapter 41-55), Who will save through suffering.

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