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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 36

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22


Isaiah 36:1—39:8

These chapters are a historical appendix to the collected materials in the first part of the Book of Isaiah taken largely word for word from 2 Kings 18:13; 2 Kings 18:17—20:19. If, in order to account for the different prophecies of Isaiah concerning Jerusalem, we accept the hypothesis that there may have been two campaigns of the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib against Jerusalem, the first in 701 b.c. and the second some years later, about 690 b.c. (see Introduction), then chapters 36-37 would come from the second of these two periods. Chapters 38 and 39, however, would come from the earlier period, unless chapter 39 comes from a still earlier time, between 714 and 711 b.c., when Babylon had revolted from Assyria and there was a general attempt to persuade many nations to revolt against Assyria (see Introduction).

The Surrender of Jerusalem to Assyria Demanded


The editor of the narratives in chapters 36-37 has dated them by quoting 2 Kings 18:13, “in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah.” This must be 701 B.c.; that is, the year of Sennacherib’s campaign against Jerusalem. The curious thing about the Isaiah version of these events is that 2 Kings 18:14-16, which describes Hezekiah’s surrender to Sennacherib and his payment of heavy tribute to save the city of Jerusalem, is omitted. The historical reliability of these omitted verses, however, is confirmed by the Assyrian monarch’s own detailed account of the incident. He tells us that Hezekiah was involved in a revolt which included certain cities of the Philistine plain. One of them, Ekron, had a king by the name of Padi who refused to rebel, whereupon he was taken prisoner to Jerusalem and another man was put upon the throne of the city-state. Sennacherib first led his army down the coast, demanded and secured the release of Padi from Hezekiah, and put him back on the throne of Ekron. He then defeated an Egyptian army which had come to help the coalition in a battle of the Plain of Eltekeh, not far from Ekron, following which he turned against Judah. On reliefs found in his palace at Nineveh he portrays his army besieging the Judean frontier fortress of Lachish and himself sitting on the throne receiving obeisance from the leaders of the Judean city. He says that he laid siege to forty-six Judean walled cities and forts, not counting “the countless small villages,” and drove out from them 200,150 people, a figure which may well represent the approximate population of Judah at that time. Finally, he says, he made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” The city was besieged but was spared when Hezekiah surrendered and paid the heavy tribute demanded of him.

The account in Isaiah 36:2—37:38 is taken from 2 Kings 18:17—19:37 and contains a number of very significant differences from the situation in 701 b.c., though the general over-all resemblance of the two is such that one could see how an editor might think of them as one and the same event. This section concerns the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the threats of the Assyrian conqueror. The deliverance was caused by the destruction of the Assyrian army (37:36). That such a destruction occurred during one of Sennacherib’s attempts to conquer Egypt appears to be confirmed by the Greek historian Herodotus, who in his history says that the Assyrian army marched across the Sinai desert to Pelusium and there prepared to engage the Egyptian army. Herodotus reports: “As the two armies lay there opposite one another, there came in the night a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all of the quivers and bow-strings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning, they commenced their fight, and great multitudes fell as they had no arms with which to defend themselves.” It is possible to interpret this tradition as also involving bubonic plague, which is carried by vermin. In that case the report in Isaiah 37:36 would be in line with it.

An additional difficulty is furnished in 37:9, which indicates that the Ethiopian, Tirhakah, was the king who led the Egyptian army into Palestine to oppose the Assyrians. According to recent information, Tirhakah became king only in 690 b.c., at which time he was twenty years old. This would mean that in 701 b.c. he would have been only nine years old, scarcely of sufficient age to lead an army. Another factor to take into account is the fact that in 701 b.c., Jerusalem was spared and as far as we know very few people were exiled from the country. In 36:17, however, the official of Sennacherib threatens the deportation of all of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. It was Assyrian policy, as a rule, to give a country a second chance for loyalty before destroying it and exiling large sections of its population. The threat in 36:17, therefore, would most naturally be interpreted as referring to a second campaign rather than to the campaign of

These various points have not in themselves been entirely convincing to all historians. The mention of Tirhakah in 37:9, for example, could be a simple anachronism, while the material in chapters 36 and 37 as a whole would be considered as a popular and less accurate report of the events in 701 b.c. parallel to 2 Kings 18:13-16. Yet, when the two types of prophecy m First Isaiah in relation to the city of Jerusalem are considered (see Introduction), the assumption of two campaigns of Sennacherib against Jerusalem, one in 701 b.c. and the other between about 690 and 688 b.c., becomes the hypothesis which best explains the otherwise conflicting data.

The narrative in chapter 36 concerns Sennacherib’s demand that Jerusalem surrender. He has sent his Rabshakeh from his camp at Lachish as his envoy to Hezekiah in Jerusalem. “Rabshakeh” is not a proper name, but the title of a high Assyrian civilian official. According to 2 Kings 18:17 he was accompanied by other high military and civilian officials. The place where the officials of Hezekiah met the Assyrian officials was the same as the one where Isaiah had met King Ahaz at another critical moment, over thirty years before (see comment on 7:3). Among Hezekiah’s officials at the consultation is Eliakim, who now has the position Isaiah earlier had predicted he would have (22:15-24). That was the office of prime minister of the realm, which we now know to be the signification of the phrase “over the household.” The second official was Shebna, called the scribe or “secretary,” a position perhaps roughly corresponding to Secretary of State. The third official was Joah, called “the recorder,” though a better translation of the Hebrew term would be “herald.” That is, he was the officer in charge of all public contacts between the king and the people, perhaps only roughly comparable to a press secretary.

The message which the Rabshakeh has for Hezekiah is very clever and almost unanswerable propaganda. He makes five main points, all asked in a series of rhetorical questions: Do you think words are a substitute for military power and strategy? Do you think you can rely on that broken reed, Egypt? Do you say that you rely on “the Lord” your God? If so, how can you worship him or get an oracle from him when Hezekiah has removed all of the high places and altars so that it is possible to worship only at the one altar in Jerusalem? (This is a very clever reference to the great reform movement which Hezekiah had conducted, and which is described most fully in 2 Chronicles 29:3—31:21.) Do you have enough remaining military power to repulse a single Assyrian company? Finally, do you think I would come against your country without the support of your God? Indeed, he has said to me, “Go up against this land, and destroy it.” (This also was a clever reference to earlier prophecies of Isaiah which interpreted the Assyrian army as God’s agent in the punishment of his people; see 10:5-11.)

The colloquy is represented as going on in a public place with a number of people listening. The Rabshakeh’s words are so effective that the Judean officials ask him to speak in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew! (vs. 11). At this point the Rabshakeh addressed in a loud voice everyone within hearing (vss. 13-20). He told them that they should not be deceived by Hezekiah, their king. It would be better to make peace with the king of Assyria before it was too late. Has the God of Hezekiah or the gods of any of the nations saved a given land from the Assyrian king’s power? In verse 19 and again in 37:12-13, cities are mentioned which the Assyrians had conquered in their push into the west all the way to the border of Egypt in the years since Tiglath-pileser III had come to the throne in 745 b.c. The Assyrian’s words were so powerful and frightening that the hearers went in to see the king with their clothes rent as a sign of mourning (vs. 22).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 36". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/isaiah-36.html.
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