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Isaiah 36 and 37: Sennacherib and Hezekiah


Chapters 36-37


The content of these two chapters is almost identical to the narrative contained in 2 Kings 18:13-20:19.  “These chapters also serve as a conclusion to the Assyrian period (Isaiah 1-39) and form a bridge of transition into the Babylonian period (Isaiah 40-66)” (Harkrider p. 82).  


36:1  In 729 B.C., Hezekiah began reigning in Judah.  The commendation in Second Kings  that Hezekiah did right as David had done is made of only three other kings of Judah, Asa (1 Kings 15:11); Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 17:3), and Josiah (2 Kings 22:2).   Hezekiah was a unique individual.  He was raised by an extremely wicked father (King Ahaz, 2 Kings 16), and was followed on the throne by an extremely wicked son—who later repented (Manasseh, 2 Kings 21).  We may have to stand alone in our family. 


Sennacherib (suh NAK uh rib), ruled from 701-681 B.C.  Here is one more place in the Bible where we have secular testimony that confirms the biblical account.  Sennacherib, like many other kings, left a record of his own accomplishments, details of his eight military expeditions, including this one against Judah.  There he claims to have captured forty-six major cities and an unspecified number of villages in Judah and hemmed up Hezekiah in Jerusalem, “like a bird within its cage”.


36:2  The Assyrian staff at this time in history will include included “Tartan” (TAR tan), “Rab-saris” (RAB suh ris), and “Rabshaken” (RAB shuh kuh). Since Sennacherib had not come himself but sent an envoy, Hezekiah decided to respond in a similar fashion.  Although the Assyrian delegation demanded that Hezekiah talk to them, he sent his court officials Eliakim, Shebna (SHEB nuh), and Joah (JOE uh).  36:2 “From Lachish”: The text notes that the Assyrian king was in Lachish at this time.  Lachish” (LAY kish), was a fortified city in Judah about 30 miles SW of Jerusalem.  The capture of this Judean city was so important to Sennacherib that he memorialized it in a magnificent relief on the wall of his palace at Nineveh.  Today this wall relief can be seen in the British Museum.  It portrays the Assyrian king on a portable throne in his military camp outside Lachish.  Prisoners of war are marching by on foot, and all the booty from the city is being displayed on ox-wagons.  The inscription reads, “Sennacherib, king of all, king of Assyria, sitting on his ‘nimedu-throne’ while the spoil of the city of Lachish passes before him”. 36:2 “With a large army”:  185,000 soldiers to be exact (Isaiah 37:36). 


Rabshakeh’s Arrogant Speech


36:4-8  “The message to Hezekiah was couched in terms of brilliant psychological warfare” (Gaebelein p. 258).   The Assyrian’s proudly disdained the nation power of Egypt, calling that nation a broken reed.  Since this is the same terminology Isaiah used to symbolize Egypt (Isaiah 42:3) some have suggested that Sennacherib was familiar with Isaiah’s prophecies.  According to their pagan theology, Judah could no longer call on God because under Hezekiah they had destroyed the high places, which they assumed were the primary sites of God’s worship (22).  Unbelieving and powerful people are often mixed up about what the Bible actually says.  They also expressed arrogant contempt for Judah’s army, making a wager with Hezekiah that even if he were given two thousand horses he couldn’t find enough soldiers to ride them (23).


36:10  This is an interesting verse.  Was Sennacherib aware of Isaiah’s statement that Assyria was the rod which God would use to punish Judah?  (Isaiah 10:5).  If this is true, then Sennacherib hasn’t read enough of Isaiah, for God clearly says that He will punish Assyria after He is done using her for His purposes (Isaiah 10:7ff).   House notes that the Assyrians routinely told their enemies that their gods were angry with them, that the gods had abandoned them, and that these gods counseled them to surrender to the Assyrians.  


 36:11  Hezekiah’s ambassadors requested that the conversation be continued in the Aramaic language, the international language of commerce and diplomatic relations in western Asia.  In so doing they were trying to avoid a panic on the part of the population in Jerusalem who were listening on the city wall.  Only the educated leaders in Israel would understand Aramaic.


36:13-17 Yet the Assyrian’s refused.  They wanted to do everything they could to incite the people to rebel against Hezekiah.  They painted a horrible picture of what a siege would involve, yet they equally painted a rosy picture of surrender, in which they would be transplanted safely to a prosperous and comfortable location in Assyria.   Of course this was not entirely true.  Deportation included long, forced marches, relocation, and a slave status.  Basically, the Assyrians were saying, “better a slave than dead”.


36:18-20  Finally, Rabshaken describes the inability of national deities to save their peoples from the Assyrian war machine.  “In lumping Yahweh with all these impotent gods and in denying that He can save Jerusalem from the Assyrians, Rabshaken was overreaching himself and daring Yahweh to prove Himself” (Vos p. 198). The reference to the inability of the gods of Samaria to deliver the Israelites would have been especially effective in scaring the people, since Israel’s God was also Judah’s God.  “Since the Jews could produce no example of a national god who had been able to withstand Assyria’s might, they should abandon their hope of supernatural deliverance” (Smith p. 628).


36:21-22 To the credit of the people of Jerusalem, they obeyed their kings’ command to hold their peace.  In addition, they did not murmur or complain, or call for Hezekiah’s resignation.  Remember, it was because of his determination to serve God that the Assyrians had them surrounded. “Horrified at the blasphemies of the Assyrian, Hezekiah’s three ministers ripped their robes and returned to the royal palace to report all that had been said” (Smith p. 628).


Be the Glue


The Assyrians know who is holding Judah together (36:11,15,16,18).


Hezekiah Seeks Help from Isaiah:  Chapter 37


37:1 When Hezekiah heard from his ministers the boastful and blasphemous words of Sennacherib through his spokesman Rabshaken, he did the right thing, he humbled himself before God.  “Here is a pungent example of a person with power and position who has come to that painful place where he must admit that he is not sufficient in himself” (Dilday p. 440). 


37:2 Immediately, Hezekiah sends for Isaiah, God’s prophet.   Hezekiah is so unlike his predecessors.  Before, the prophets sought the kings, only to be rebuked.  Now this king actually wants a word from God.  Note, Hezekiah is not acting out of desperation, rather he acts out of his personal convictions. 


37:3 Hezekiah compared Jerusalem to a mother who was about to have a child but was too weak to deliver the baby.  Basically, he is admitting that he does not have the forces to prevent the Assyrians from taking Jerusalem.  Note Hezekiah also called “this day”, as a day of rebuke, and rejection.  He humbly realized that because of their sins, Judah deserved to be punished. 


37: 4 Yet Hezekiah thought that perhaps God would take note of the contemptuous words that Rabshaken had spoken against the living God, and reprove those words with some mighty act of judgment.   


37:5-7 An immediate answer comes from God.  God has heard the blasphemy and He will act!   On hearing a certain report, the Assyrian king would return home and there meet a violent death.  God is assuring Hezekiah that He has everything well in hand—even the details.   Evidently, Hezekiah then sent a “no” answer to the Assyrian proposal of surrender.


37:8-13  After the fall of Lachish, Sennacherib had moved a few miles northward against Libnah and closer to Jerusalem, intending to tighten the noose on the Judean capital.  But about the same time, word came that Tirhakah (tur HAY kuh) (of the Cushite and Sudanese dynasty that had taken over Egypt), an ally of Hezekiah, was marching north against Sennacherib.  It is known that in 701 B.C., Tirhakah was 20 years old. Before Sennacherib left the region, he fired off another blasphemous letter to Hezekiah.   He did not want Hezekiah to get the idea that he was home free while the Assyrians were off fighting the Egyptians.  In these verses it is clear that the Assyrian king granted the true God no greater respect than the idols of the nations. 


37:14-20 Hezekiah entered the temple area and spread out this letter before God.   Hezekiah in simple faith laid the issues in God’s sight for resolution.  Hezekiah knew that the Mercy seat over the Ark of the Covenant represented God’s throne.  He also knew that God was the only true God.  He realized why the Assyrians were so boastful.  Sure enough, they had laid waste the aforementioned nations together with their lands.  Certainly they had destroyed all the gods of these nations, but they were mere idols.  None of that proved anything, for the Assyrians now stood in the presence of the only true God.   The objective of his prayer was the defense of God’s reputation so that the whole world would acknowledge Him.  David and Elijah had made similar requests (1 Samuel 17:46; 1 Kings 18:37).  


37:21-27 Here is God’s response.  This time the Assyrians were not mocking idols, the work of men’s hands, this time they were mocking the true God!   The braggart speech of the Assyrians was just like Pharaoh, who centuries before had said to Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice” (Exodus 5:2). The Assyrians (like many people today) were under the assumption that “they had done it their way” (37:24), yet God was the one who had enabled them to have success, God was the one who determined the rise and fall of nations (Jeremiah 18:1ff; Acts 17:24).  Sennacherib’s success has been possible only because God allowed it.  His boasting has no foundation, because it was God who brought all his accomplishments to pass (37:26).   


37:28 God knew everything about Sennacherib, including all the boastful things that this Assyrian king had said (Matthew 12:36 “every careless word”).  The Assyrian monuments often portray the Assyrians leading captives by cords that passed through rings in their noses.  This is what God will do to Sennacherib, He will lead him like a dumb animal to his destruction.   This expression truly reveals God’s power, His timing, and providential control.


37:30 To Hezekiah, God promised a sign, that He would deliver them from the Assyrians.  Though in the midst of the ravages of war (and a siege) the Hebrews had been unable to plant crops, and they would be able to harvest some food that year and the next from seed that had been sown naturally.  In the third year there would be a full recovery with a return to the normal cycle of sowing and reaping. Judah would once again experience a degree of peace and prosperity.  The people who were left in the land would once again exhibit all the outward signs of prosperity.  This restoration would be brought about because Hezekiah was zealous for God, and God was zealous for His people.


37:33-36 Sennacherib’s fate is now revealed.  He would not forcefully take Jerusalem, besiege it, or even shoot one arrow against it.  Instead he would return to his homeland without even entering Jerusalem.  God would defend Jerusalem for the sake of His own reputation and because of His promise to David (1 Kings 11:13).  That very night, as the Assyrian army lay sprawled across the Judean countryside, the Angel of the Lord executed 185,000 soldiers.   The Assyrians could and did amass large armies, for example, Shalmaneser III moved across the Euphrates westward with an army of 120,000 men in 845 B.C.  “With little detail, almost matter-of-factly, the author of Kings declares that the angel of the Lord wiped out the army of Sennacherib in one night” (Dilday p. 449). 


37:37-38 Some twenty years later around 681 B.C., as he was worshipping in the temple of Nisroch, Sennacherib was assassinated by his own sons.  Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (2 Kings 19:7).  “The Assyrian records do not give the names of the assassins but state that one of his sons killed him.  They also allude to a civil war after Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon came to power; during the struggle he defeated his enemies and pursued them in the direction of Urartu” (Vos p. 203).  “The great gods of Assyria, whom he worshipped, were not to deliver this seemingly invincible conqueror from the dagger of the assassin, not even in his temple and in the act of worshipping his god” (The Old Testament, Its Claims and Its Critics, Oswald T. Allis p. 342).