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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.
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.
Hezekiah’s response was also extreme grief, but he went into the temple. He wanted to seek the Lord’s wisdom and help in prayer.
"Happy the nation that has such a ruler." [Note: Young, 2:472.]
It is not clear how involved Hezekiah had been in making the treaty with Egypt, but his personal repentance here set the pattern for the nation.
Then the king sent some of his highest officials and some of the leading priests, who were also in mourning, to visit Isaiah. Notice that Hezekiah did not summon Isaiah into his presence. This reflects the respect that the king felt for the prophet (cf. 2 Kings 6:12).
The leaders of Judah, speaking for their king, acknowledged that he had come to the end of his rope. The Assyrian invasion of Judah had been like labor pains for the king, but now the crisis had peaked and there was no human strength left to expel the enemy. Hezekiah confessed that he deserved the adversity that had overtaken him, which had signaled an end of hope and resulted in great embarrassment. Yet he did not appeal for divine help on the basis of his own needs but because of the Lord’s honor and the needs of His people (cf. 1 Samuel 17:26; 1 Samuel 17:36). The king appealed for Isaiah’s prayers on behalf of the remnant, the remaining Judahites who had not already been devoured by the Assyrians.
"This kind of admission of helplessness is frequently a necessity before divine help can be received. So long as we believe that we only need some assistance, we are still treating ourselves as lords of the situation, and that latent pride cuts us off from all that God would give us." [Note: Oswalt, p. 645.]
The saying "God is my copilot" may reflect a similar attitude.
So the officials came to Isaiah, and the prophet responded by sending them back to the king with a message from Yahweh. Hezekiah was not to fear the blasphemous claims of Sennacherib’s underlings. The Lord promised to lead the invading king away from Jerusalem and back to his own country where he would die by the sword. A report placed in Sennacherib’s ear would be the sovereign Lord’s instrument. The lack of reference to the decimation of the Assyrian troops already gathered around Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 36:2) focuses the promise on the central issue, divine punishment for the king’s blasphemy (cf. Isaiah 14:24-27; Isaiah 31:8).
The Rabshakeh returned to his master, having learned that Hezekiah would not surrender. He found him five miles closer to Jerusalem than Lachish, at Libnah, where he was fighting the Judahites. The message that Tirhakah, King of Ethiopia, was coming to engage him in battle, caused Sennacherib to decide to terminate further campaigns in Palestine and return to his homeland temporarily. Tirhakah was about 20 years old at this time and did not accede to the throne of Egypt and Ethiopia until 690 B.C. However, he was the military leader that Sennacherib did not want to engage at this time.
". . . it is a common practice of Ancient Oriental writers to refer to people and places by titles and names acquired later than the period being described." [Note: K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, p. 82.]
The royal letter 37:8-13
King Hezekiah’s challenge 37:8-35
This section contains two parts: Sennacherib’s letter to Hezekiah, and Hezekiah’s response to it.
Sennacherib warned Hezekiah, through messengers and a letter (Isaiah 37:14), not to let messages from Yahweh deceive him into thinking that Jerusalem would survive. After all, all the lands that the Assyrian kings had invaded had fallen to them, he claimed. None of the powerful cities of the upper Euphrates received help to overcome Assyria from their gods. Likewise, the cities of Aram had not been able to resist takeover.
When Hezekiah received Sennacherib’s letter, he took it with him into the temple and laid all the enemy’s words before the Lord in prayer.
The response to the letter 37:14-35
Hezekiah began his prayer-did Isaiah witness it?-by acknowledging Yahweh’s uniqueness. Yahweh was not like the gods of the nations but the only true God, who dwelt among His people, the Creator who rules and determines everything. Theologically this confession climaxes the whole first part of the Book of Isaiah. Hezekiah asked the living God to pay attention to the reproachful blasphemies of the Assyrian king. He acknowledged the Assyrians’ superiority over the nations they had overrun, but he ascribed this to the fact that those nations had only gods of wood and stone to defend them. Finally, he asked God to deliver Jerusalem so the nations would know that Yahweh alone was God. In short, he prayed for the glory of God.
"Like all true prayer, Hezekiah’s is preoccupied with God: who he is (16); his honour (17); his uniqueness (18-19); and the revelation of his glory to the world (20).
". . . The heart of prayer is not its petitionary content but the acknowledgment of God." [Note: Motyer, p. 281.]
"Hezekiah’s prayer (Isaiah 37:15-20) is saturated with biblical theology and is not unlike the prayer of the church in Acts 4:24-31." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 45.]
God responded to Hezekiah’s prayer by giving Isaiah a message for the king. The prophet first explained what God would do (Isaiah 37:21-29). Then he gave the king a sign that He would indeed do it (Isaiah 37:30-35).
The Lord explained that it was Hezekiah’s trust in Him, expressed through his prayer, that led to his receiving information about what He would do. Hezekiah would see the Lord’s hand at work more clearly because he had prayed.
Assyria had mocked a "person" who was especially dear to the Lord, namely, His "virgin daughter," Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 1:8; Isaiah 47:1). No foreign foe had penetrated Jerusalem. Thus Assyria had incurred His anger.
Moreover, Assyria had spoken disparagingly of the Holy One of Israel. She had reproached, blasphemed, spoken out against, and lifted her eyes proudly against Him. As the person of God filled Hezekiah’s prayer (Isaiah 37:16-20), so the person of God filled Isaiah’s response.
Assyria’s sin included her failure to recognize God’s hand in her fortunes. She proudly thought that her own might was responsible for the victories she had gained and that she controlled her own destiny. She considered herself omnipotent rather than acknowledging that Yahweh was. These verses read much like the portions of the Assyrian annals in which the kings boasted of their conquests.
Assyria had not heard the truth. She lacked the divine revelation that helps people see the realities of life. It was the Lord, not the Assyrians, who was responsible for all of Assyria’s conquests. He not only planned them long ago, but He also brought them to pass. That explains why she was able to subdue her enemies and take over their territories. God is sovereign.
The Lord knew everything about the Assyrians, including their raging against Himself. Because they raged against Him and felt complacent about controlling their own destiny, He would teach them who was sovereign. He would lead them away as they had led prisoners they had taken captive in war, by putting hooks in their noses. Assyrian monuments picture this. As they directed the horses they took so much pride in, God would put a bit in their mouths and turn them back to their homeland.
Isaiah next offered a sign to Hezekiah to assure him that God would indeed do what he had said. Compare the sign that God gave believing Hezekiah’s unbelieving father Ahaz (Isaiah 7:14; cf. Isaiah 38:7; Exodus 3:12).
"Some signs are aids to faith, like that in Isaiah 38:7. But others, like this one, aid later recognition that God was indeed at work." [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 45.]
For two years normal agriculture would be impossible around Jerusalem, but God would cause the land to produce enough to sustain the inhabitants. Probably the two years of interruption resulted from Assyrian military activity in the region. Fruitfulness has always been God’s blessing on those who trust Him. Then the third year, planting and harvesting as usual would resume. It was particularly unusual that the Judahites would be able to plant vineyards and eat their fruit shortly after that because it often took several years for new grapevines to yield a crop.
Additionally, the surviving remnant of the Judahites would increase in numbers and become stronger, like the plants just mentioned. They would enjoy security and prosperity.
The Lord would preserve a people for Himself from among the Jerusalemites. This would include the Davidic line of kings, as He had promised (2 Samuel 7:16; cf. Isaiah 9:6). His own zeal to remain true to His Word and to bless His people would perform this (cf. Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 59:17). It would not depend on the faithfulness of His people (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13).
The Lord promised Hezekiah, in closing, that Sennacherib would not even besiege Jerusalem, let alone attack it, either from close range or from farther away. He would, instead, return to his own land the same way he came. On his prism, discovered by archaeologists, Sennacherib claimed to have shut Hezekiah up like a bird in a cage, but it was really Yahweh who protected Hezekiah. [Note: See Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near . . ., pp. 287-88.] Yahweh would defend Jerusalem and preserve it, not so much for the sake of Hezekiah and as a reward for his faith, but for the Lord’s own reputation and for David’s sake, to whom He had promised an everlasting dynasty, which culminated in Messiah. [Note: See Avraham Gileadi, "The Davidic Covenant: A Theological Basis for Corporate Protection," in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, pp. 157-63.]
The Lord Himself slew 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers in one night. Evidently this was an act of the angel of the Lord similar to the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn before the Exodus (Exodus 12:12-13; Exodus 12:23; cf. 2 Samuel 24:1; 2 Samuel 24:15-16; Luke 12:20). The angel of the Lord may have been the preincarnate Christ, since He is identified as the Lord (Yahweh), and yet distinct from the Lord, in various Old Testament passages. Some scholars believe the angel of the Lord was an angel whom the Lord sent who was intimately identified with the Lord in the Old Testament because he represented the Lord and carried out His will precisely. Probably the phrase designates the preincarnate Christ in some places and simply an angelic representative of Yahweh in others. The verb "to smite" implies smiting with a disease. [Note: Young, 2:505. Cf. Josephus, 10:1:5.] Sennacherib had sent a messenger to intimidate Hezekiah’s people and, ironically, Yahweh responded by sending a messenger to destroy Sennacherib’s army. George Robinson reproduced Lord Byron’s famous poem, "The Destruction of Sennacherib." [Note: George L. Robinson, The Book of Isaiah, pp. 122-23.]
The Lord’s deliverance 37:36-38
Isaiah had predicted that God would break Assyria’s power in the Promised Land (Isaiah 14:24-27). This short section records how He miraculously fulfilled that promise. This divine act of massive proportions settled the issue of Assyria’s fate and provided the crowning demonstration that Yahweh controls world history. He will always fulfill His promises. The literal fulfillment of these near prophecies should encourage us to look for a literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s far distant prophecies.
Sennacherib, the great "king of Assyria" (cf. Isaiah 36:4; Isaiah 36:13), then returned to Assyria, having lost a large part of his army, and having heard a rumor about the advancing Ethiopian ruler (Isaiah 37:7-9). He lived in Nineveh for 20 years before his death, and he conducted other military campaigns, but none in Palestine.
Ironically, it was while worshipping in the temple of his idol in Nineveh that God effected Sennacherib’s assassination, whereas it was while worshipping the true God in His temple in Jerusalem, that God moved to spare Hezekiah’s life. Hezekiah went into the house of his God and got help, but Sennacherib went into the house of his god and got killed. The Babylonian royal chronicles recorded the assassination of Sennacherib and the accession of Esarhaddon in 681 B.C. [Note: Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near . . ., pp. 288-89.] It was not the Assyrian way to record their national disasters, so it is understandable that archaeologists have discovered no Assyrian accounts of Sennacherib’s humiliations.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 37". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter