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C. The tests of Israel’s trust chs. 36-39
Chapters 36-39 conclude the section of the book dealing with the issue of trust by giving historical proof that Yahweh will protect those who rely on Him. In these chapters, King Hezekiah represents the people of Judah. [Note: See Young, 2:540-55, for an extended discussion of his reign.] These lessons from history should encourage God’s people to trust in Him rather than in the arm of flesh. Chapters 40-66 contain oracles in which Babylonian captivity looms large. So the present section (chs. 36-39) forms a bridge from emphasis on Assyria (chs. 1-35) to emphasis on Babylonia (chs 40-66). They are also almost identical to 2 Kings 18-20 (cf. 2 Chronicles 29-32), except for the inclusion of Isaiah’s poem in Isaiah 38:9-20. The matter of which account came first (the one in Kings or the one in Isaiah) is of academic interest only. Many of the commentators have discussed the issue, which see. I think Isaiah’s account was probably the first one. These chapters consist of more narrative material and fewer oracles than the sections that precede and follow it, in which the opposite is true.
This section contains two parts. The first one (chs. 36-37) involved King Hezekiah’s trust in God and deliverance when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem. The second (chs. 38-39) involved Hezekiah’s failure to trust God and his consequent judgment by God when the Babylonian envoys peacefully visited Jerusalem. In chapters 36-37 we see Judah’s deliverance accomplished, and in chapters 38-39 we hear Judah’s captivity announced. Thus a major hinge of the book occurs between chapters 37 and 38, where emphasis on Assyria ends and emphasis on Babylonia begins.
"Hezekiah faced three crises in a short time: an international crisis (the invasion of the Assyrian army), a personal crisis (sickness and near death), and a national crisis (the visit of the Babylonian envoys). He came through the first two victoriously, but the third one tripped him up." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 43.]
1. The Assyrian threat chs. 36-37
In chapters 7-8, Isaiah tried to persuade King Ahaz to trust God in the face of the Syro-Ephraimitic threat against Judah. Ahaz refused to do so and instead turned to Assyria for help, with disastrous results. Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, faced a similar challenge during his reign, but this time the threat came from Assyria. Hezekiah learned from his father’s failure and from Isaiah’s preaching, made the right choice, and trusted the Lord. The result was deliverance. Thus chapters 36-37 contrast with chapters 7-8.
"Here we are presented with a historical test to demonstrate once and for all whether Jehovah is the one true God, the Sovereign over all the earth." [Note: Archer, p. 634.]
". . . chapters 36-37 put the rock of history under the fabric of eschatology." [Note: Motyer, p. 276.]
"This is history at its best, no dull recital of statistics and dates but an account which enables us to sense the haughty arrogance of the Assyrian and the chilling clutch of despair at the hearts of the Israelites." [Note: A. E. Cundall, Proverbs-Isaiah 1-39, p. 91.]
The fourteenth year of Hezekiah was 701 B.C. [Note: See E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, pp. 118-54.] On an Assyrian record, Sennacherib claimed to have taken 46 cities of Judah during this campaign (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:1). The record is on the Prism of Sennacherib, also called the Taylor Prism, now in the British Museum. [Note: See J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 288; or Young, 2:566-69, or Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 557, who reproduced Sennacherib’s translated description of his campaign into Palestine.]
"He went from the north along the coast defeating (among others) the towns of Aphek, Timnah, Ekron, and Lachish. Lachish was then his staging area for attacking a number of other towns." [Note: J. Martin, p. 1086.]
"The army of Sennacherib is swarming over Judah like a horde of Tolkienian Orcs, and only Jerusalem remains (Isaiah 8:8)." [Note: Ortlund, p. 207.]
The Rabshakeh’s challenge 36:1-37:7
This section demonstrates Hezekiah’s commitment to God, but the next one (Isaiah 37:8-35) shows an even stronger commitment by the king to commit his own fate and the fate of his people to God. The present section stresses Assyrian pride and its result: divine judgment (cf. Isaiah 10:15-19). Isaiah did not record Hezekiah’s attempt to buy off Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:13-16), probably because he wanted to focus on the Judean king’s good example of trusting God.
An ultimatum 36:1-20
Rabshakeh is a title that seems about equivalent to field commander. The word literally means "chief cup-bearer," but this appears to have been the name of the original office from which the present one evolved. The chief cup-bearer was the king’s personal advisor (cf. Nehemiah 1:11). Lachish stood about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem. A bas relief, now in the British Museum, shows Sennacherib besieging Lachish. [Note: See J. B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East in Pictures, pp. 129-32.] Interestingly, the place where the Assyrian commander took his stand near Jerusalem was the same place where Isaiah had stood when he urged Ahaz to trust God 23 years earlier (cf. Isaiah 7:3). 2 Kings 18:17 records that three military officials represented Sennacherib, but Isaiah referred to only the speaker among them. It was because Ahaz failed to trust God earlier that the Assyrian official stood there now (cf. Isaiah 8:5-8). The very nation that Ahaz had trusted proved to be the greatest threat to her safety only one generation later. Father and son both faced a threat of destruction, both recognized the inadequacy of their own strength, but one trusted man and suffered defeat whereas the other trusted God and enjoyed deliverance.
Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah were all important officials in Hezekiah’s government (cf. Isaiah 22:20-23). Some commentators believed that Isaiah’s prophecy of Isaiah 22:20-23 had been fulfilled at this time, since Eliakim was now the prime minister and Shebna was the secretary, a lower position. This may be true, or the exaltation of Eliakim and the humiliation of Shebna may have come later.
The point of the Rabshakeh’s first speech (Isaiah 36:4-10) was that there is no salvation in faith; no deliverance would come from trusting Yahweh. Judah should surrender because Egypt would not help her (Isaiah 36:6), Yahweh would not help her (Isaiah 36:7), she did not have enough military manpower to win (Isaiah 36:8-9), and Assyria had authority from Yahweh to attack Jerusalem (Isaiah 36:10). This speech challenged everything Isaiah had been preaching. [Note: The Hebrew word for "trust" occurs seven times in the Rabshakeh’s speech (Isaiah 36:4-10) making it the key word.]
The Rabshakeh told the Judean officials to give Hezekiah-he did not call him a king-a message from "the great king," a title the Assyrian monarchs arrogantly claimed for themselves (cf. Isaiah 10:8; Isaiah 30:33). He questioned Hezekiah’s confidence that led him to rebel against Sennacherib. Clearly Sennacherib wanted the Judahites to know that he regarded Hezekiah as a minor chieftain incapable of resisting the massive power of the Assyrian Empire.
The commander claimed that Hezekiah’s strategy lacked wisdom and arms, that it only amounted to empty words (cf. Isaiah 28:9-11). Ironically, it would be the "empty words" of a rumor that would defeat him (cf. Isaiah 37:7-9).
He knew that some of the Judean nobles had put their trust in Egypt and had sent ambassadors there to make a treaty (cf. Isaiah 30:1-7). But he also knew, better than those officials, that Egypt was not only an unreliable ally but a dangerous one, an opinion Isaiah shared (cf. ch. 20; Isaiah 28:15; Ezekiel 29:6). Sennacherib had already defeated the Egyptians, who for the first and last time had unsuccessfully come to the aid of the Philistines, at Eltekeh northwest of Lachish.
The Rabshakeh knew about Hezekiah’s religious reforms in which he had removed many of the altars from the land (cf. 2 Kings 18:1-7; 2 Chronicles 29-31). Evidently the commander believed that removing altars would antagonize Yahweh, but Hezekiah was really purifying Yahweh worship. However, many of the Judeans probably believed that the removal of those altars was a bad thing, and it was to those people that the Rabshakeh was evidently appealing.
Judah was so inferior militarily that the commander felt safe offering his enemy 2,000 horses. He believed that the Judeans did not have enough cavalry soldiers to ride them. His offer was the equivalent of giving one’s rival a long lead in a foot race.
The Judeans did not have enough strength to repulse even a minor Assyrian officer or enough soldiers to man the horses and chariots that they were looking to Egypt to supply.
Perhaps the commander was referring to Isaiah 10:5-6, Isaiah’s prophecy that God would send Assyria against His people. Alternatively, he may have just been claiming divine authorization for Sennacherib’s invasion when there was none. It was not unusual for ancient Near Eastern conquerors to claim that the god of the invaded people had joined the invader. [Note: See Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near . . ., pp. 277, 278, 283, 286, 289, 290, 291, 293, 301, 312-15, 462.]
Hezekiah’s officials interrupted the commander when they heard this last unsettling claim.
Aramaic was the common language of diplomacy; politicians normally conducted diplomatic talks in that language. It did not become the common language of Palestine until many years later. The Rabshakeh, however, spoke to the kings’ officials in the common Hebrew that all the people of Jerusalem understood. He probably did this so all the people, not just the king’s officials, would understand his message and take it as an insult to the king’s officials. By using Hebrew the commander was also implying that they did not know Aramaic, that they were backwater ignoramuses.
He explained that his message was for all the people, many of whom were sitting on the city wall listening, not just the politicians in Jerusalem. All the people were, after all, doomed to the horrible conditions of siege warfare. He wanted to separate the people from their king and his policy of resisting Sennacherib. He also wanted to shock and terrorize the people by using the most crude and disgusting terms he could to picture siege warfare.
The commander then resumed his prepared speech. In his second speech (Isaiah 36:13-21), the Rabshakeh used the word "deliver" eight times.
The Rabshakeh next addressed the people of Jerusalem who could hear him. He appealed to them to listen to Sennacherib’s message to them. Hezekiah could not deliver them, he boasted, nor would trusting in Yahweh work. Evidently the Assyrians knew that Isaiah’s policy of trusting Yahweh was a popular one with many of the Jerusalemites. The Rabshakeh promised that if the city surrendered, the people would enjoy peace and prosperity rather than war and starvation. They would be deported, a well-known Assyrian policy toward conquered peoples, but he portrayed the land where they would go as similar to their own but even better.
The commander made the fatal mistake, however, of comparing Israel’s God to the gods of the nations, specifically Aram (Syria). Even Samaria had fallen to Assyria 21 years earlier; their gods, including Yahweh, did not deliver them. Of course, Yahweh had handed over the Northern Kingdom to Assyria because of her idolatry, but the commander viewed its demise as a result of Assyrian supremacy.
"The Assyrian accuses Hezekiah of seducing the people (Isaiah 36:18); in fact, it is the Assyrian who has been seduced by his own power." [Note: Oswalt, pp. 640-41.]
The Rabshakeh stated the people’s choice in terms that the first part of this book presented. Was Yahweh able to deliver His people when they simply trusted in Him, or was He no better than all the other gods of the nations?
The response to the ultimatum 36:21-37:7
How would the Judeans respond to this blasphemous challenge? How they did, determined their destiny-not only at that moment, but for years to come.
The people listening to this invitation did not respond out loud because Hezekiah commanded them to remain silent.
Hezekiah’s officials then returned to their king, who had not dignified the occasion with his presence, to report what had happened. They tore their clothes as a sign of extreme distress over the present crisis.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 36". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany