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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 36

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


DIVISION V (Isaiah 36-39)

This division is the historical section of Isaiah, corresponding with 2 Kings 18:13 to 2 Kings 19:37. “Except for Hezekiah’s psalm, found only in Isaiah 38:9-20, and for Isaiah’s omission of 2 Kings 18:14-16, including part of Isaiah 36:17 a, much of the material in this Division coincides almost word-for-word with 2 Kings 18-20.”(F1)

There are some unanswered questions about variations in these two accounts: (1) Samaria fell in 722 B.C., which was Hezekiah’s sixth year (2 Kings 18:10); Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah was in 701 B.C., which therefore would have been Hezekiah’s 27th year. Isaiah 36:1, however, states that Sennacherib’s invasion of Judaea came in the 14th year of Hezekiah. All kinds of “explanations” are proposed by critics, most of them involving emendations in the text, the supposition of errors on the part of editors, co-editors, and redactors, etc., but as Rawlinson pointed out the solution of such problems is “quite impossible to determine except arbitrarily.”(F2)

We like the bold manner in which Archer handled this problem. He stated that, “The 14th year (Isaiah 36:1) seems to refer to the Second Reign of Hezekiah, that is, the additional span of fifteen years added to the king’s life after that deadly illness.”(F3) Archer did not relate just how he came up with that explanation; but a number of scholars agree that Sennacherib’s invasion actually occurred almost exactly in that 14th year following God’s fifteen year extension of Hezekiah’s life. This makes as much sense as any other “explanation” we have encountered. To us such discrepancies in the Word of God are not a problem. There were various ways in which the kingly reigns of that era were calculated. Furthermore, the other minor discrepancies that trouble some analysts are of little or no importance.

“The difference in the two copies is little more than what has manifestly arisen from the mistakes of transcribers. They mutually correct each other, and most of the mistakes may be perfectly rectified by a collation of the two copies.”(F4)

As Rawlinson pointed out, “Isaiah wrote the history of the reign of Hezekiah for the general Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (2 Chronicles 32:32), from which the account in 2 Kings is almost certainly taken; and there is a close verbal resemblance”(F5) between this section of Isaiah and the passage in 2 Kings. Isaiah is evidently the author of both narratives.

Some have been impressed by the fact that there are certain particulars in which the Assyrian inscriptions which have thus far been deciphered differ here and there with the Biblical account of Sennacherib’s invasion. As might have been foreseen, those inscriptions make no mention whatever of the loss of 185,000 soldiers on a single night. The Assyrians also might have inflated the number of cities taken and also most probably were in error on other points. We have no patience whatever with scholars who seem to think that the word of Isaiah needs to be confirmed by the boastful, arrogant, and inaccurate monuments erected by some wicked pagan king. Even our own monuments in the U.S.A. are not always correct. In the old Trinity Church Yard at the foot of Wall Street on lower Broadway, New York City, one may read on the monument over the grave of Robert Fulton that he was “the inventor of the steamboat,” which he most certainly was NOT, a fact attested by a corrective monument erected by the United States Government in Berea, Kentucky, on which the REAL inventor, a certain John Fitch, is memorialized.

In this light, who should be concerned that Sennacherib’s inscriptions in some instances claim that the ruthless invader did some things at Jerusalem which Isaiah’s prophecy had foretold that he would not do. All one needs to remember in such an instance is that Sennacherib, am ong other things, was a very wicked man. Any allegation that monuments he erected would always have been truthfully inscribed is a postulation that we cannot possibly accept.


On the “14th year” see the chapter introduction. The invasion of Sennacherib referred to here took place in 701 B.C., at which time the Assyrian ruler did indeed ravage all of the outlying cities of Judaea, laying them waste, depopulating and carrying into captivity their peoples and despoiling them of vast quantities of booty.

It looked as if there would be little or no opposition to him; but suddenly Tirhakah, one of the Ethiopian rulers of Egypt appeared to confront Sennacherib; and that was the principal reason why he wished to bring about the surrender of Jerusalem in order to avoid fighting on two fronts at once. Sennacherib was engaged at the moment in destroying Lachish; and Isaiah 36:1 here states that it was from that city that Sennacherib sent an envoy to demand the surrender of Hezekiah.

Verses 1-3

“Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took them. And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field. Then came forth unto him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder.”

The narrative in 2 Kings points out that Hezekiah had requested this envoy by a message sent to Sennacherib during the siege at Lachish, “I have offended; that which thou puttest on me I will bear” (2 Kings 18:14). Sennacherib demanded and received from Hezekiah 300 talents of silver, and 30 talents of gold, which Hezekiah at great cost had paid. Sennacherib had already carried away over 200,000 captives at the time when he sent this envoy to Hezekiah, which was composed of three men of high rank: Tartan, Rabsaris and Rabshakeh.(F6) Rabshakeh, the commanding general of the invading army, seems to have been the most important; at least, he was the speaker and was alone mentioned in this chapter.

Hezekiah responded by sending three important officers of Judah: Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah. It is interesting that Eliakim’s replacement of Shebna as the officer over the king’s household, as prophesied in Isaiah 22:20-22 had, at this time already occurred, Shebna, at this time being demoted to scribe. “It is also of interest that the spot where this meeting occurred was the very place where Isaiah some forty years earlier had been commanded to meet Ahaz. It was probably on the north side of Jerusalem, not far from the Damascus gate (Isaiah 7:3).”(F7) God’s message to the king of Judah would be the same as it was then, “Do not fear the Assyrians.”

Verses 4-10

“And Rabshakeh said unto them, Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria. What confidence is this wherein thou trustest? I say, thy counsel and strength for the warfare are but vain empty words: now on whom dost thou trust, that thou hast rebelled against me? Behold, thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed, even upon Egypt, whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it; so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust on him. But if thou say unto me, We trust in Jehovah our God: is not that he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and hath said unto Judah and Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar? Now therefore, I pray thee, give pledges to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them. How then canst thou turn away one captain of the least of my master’s servants, and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and horsemen? And am I now come up without Jehovah against this land to destroy it? Jehovah said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.”

This was indeed a master stroke of diplomatic arrogance and intimidation. It was a combination of falsehood, mingled with a few grains of truth. The arrogant offer to provide two thousand horses for Hezekiah, provided that Hezekiah had anybody who could ride them, was the equivalent of the boast of the schoolyard bully who threatened his opponent, saying, “I can whip you with one hand tied behind my back!”

“Say ye now to Hezekiah” Note that Rabshakeh did not even accord to Hezekiah his rightful title as King, whereas he referred to Sennacherib as “The Great King the King of Assyria,” that being the title by which the Assyrian kings referred to themselves.

Evidently, the Assyrians had a thorough intelligence system; because this mention that Hezekiah had tom down Jehovah’s altars was a mistaken interpretation of Hezekiah’s marvelous reforms. The Law of Moses required that “only at Jerusalem” was God to be worshipped by the Israelites; but, in time, high places and altars had been erected throughout the land. Hezekiah had corrected that apostasy, which is exactly what he should have done; but Rabshakeh supposed that this would have been contrary to God’s will.

None of the pagan nations had a religious system that required “one altar only,” as did the Jews; and therefore Rabshakeh, having learned that Hezekiah had destroyed some altars (the illegal ones) that were indeed dedicated to Jehovah, he supposed that Jehovah would have been angry with Hezekiah. As Jamieson said, “Some of those altars that Hezekiah destroyed may indeed have been dedicated to Jehovah; but they were worshipped with idols in violation of the Second Commandment.”(F8) Thus Rahshakeh’s argument was totally contrary to the truth.

One thing Rabshakeh was absolutely correct about was the dependability of Egypt!

Notice the bold lie that “Jehovah” had sent him against Jerusalem. Indeed the Assyrians were God’s instrument in the reduction of the Northern Israel and many of the adjacent cities to Jerusalem, but we may reject as an arrogant falsehood the proposition that God had commanded Sennacherib to take Jerusalem.

We learn from Isaiah 36:10 that the purpose of Sennacherib was the total destruction and devastation of Jerusalem, despite all of the lying promises he had made when he exacted that scandalously large tribute from Hezekiah. The truth comes out right here.

Verses 11-12

“Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah, Speak, I pray thee unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews’ language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall. But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, to eat their own dung, and to drink their own water with you?”

The purpose of Hezekiah’s envoys here is plain enough. They did not want the men on the wall to understand the arrogant intimidation in the terrible words of Rabshakeh; and therefore they requested that the message be delivered in the Syrian language. Rabshakeh, fully aware of their purpose, addressed his next taunt to the men on the wall themselves, promising them that, when Sennacherib took over the siege of the city, they would be compelled to eat their own dung and drink their own urine! What a horrible and revolting promise!

Jamieson pointed out that it was not “Syrian” which the Assyrians spoke, but “Aramean.”(F9)

Verses 13-20

“Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria. Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you; for he will not be able to deliver you: neither let Hezekiah make you trust in Jehovah, saying Jehovah will surely deliver us; this city shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make your peace with me, and come out unto me; and eat everyone of his vine, and everyone of his fig-tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, Jehovah will deliver us. Hath 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 delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who are they among all the gods of these countries, that have delivered their country out of my hand, that Jehovah should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”

The strategy of Rabshakeh here was to destroy the faith of the people in their king Hezekiah, and in their God Jehovah, and in themselves. If he could have accomplished that, there would not have been very much left for Jerusalem to rely upon. One may only admire the arrogant and skillful verbal assault upon the city.

All the promises about every man eating of his own vine and fig-tree, etc., all but concealed the brutal truth that all of that period of peace would last “only” until Sennacherib carried them away to Assyria (Isaiah 36:17); and even that terrible fate was disguised by the promise that Assyria was a productive and fruitful land “like your own land!” But he did not mention the long lines of captives strung together with hooks and bridles through their noses, ears and lips, or the fact of their ultimate destination in the brickyards, mines, and factories where they would be worked to death, starved to death or beaten to death. What an unconscionable liar Rabshakeh really was?

Note the boast in Isaiah 36:19 that Sennacherib had defeated the gods of Hamath, Arpad and Sepharvaim, along with those of Samaria; but it was not Sennacherib who had won those victories. They belonged to Shalmaneser or Sargon, or Tiglath-pileser III.

Hamath was a city on the Orontes river on the northern border of Israel; Arpad was a citadel on the road between Damascus and Hamath (Jeremiah 49:23); Sepharvaim cannot certainly be identified, but the context indicates that it was in Syria. See The New Bible Dictionary (in loco).

In Isaiah 36:20, Rabshakeh classified Jehovah along with all the other gods of the nations destroyed by the Assyrians, having already stated in Isaiah 36:10 that “Jehovah” had commanded him to destroy Jerusalem, posing in that remark as one who was acting upon Jehovah’s orders! As Jamieson said, “This contradicts what was said in Isaiah 36:10. Liars need good memories (which evidently Rabshakeh did not have). He here classes Jehovah with the idols of other lands, and even thinks him to be inferior.”(F10)

Verses 21-22

“But they held their peace, and answered him not a word; for the king’s commandment was, saying, Answer him not. Then came Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rabshakeh.”

The rent garments of the three envoys whom the king had sent to receive the communication from Sennacherib’s messengers indicate the shameful, tragic nature of the word they brought back. Their king had been insulted, unconditional surrender had been demanded, the captivity of the people had been promised, their God, even the Holy One of Israel, had been blasphemed, Jerusalem had been consigned to the ban and would be totally destroyed. Therefore, in sorrow, disgrace, grief, and the utmost despair, indicated by their rent clothing, these envoys returned to Hezekiah. This was indeed a dark moment in the history of God’s chosen people. Under such dreadful circumstances as these, Hezekiah reacted as a believer in Jehovah should have done; and that is fully developed in the next chapter.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 36". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-36.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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