Isaiah 36-37: Assyria, it's over.
Updated: May 5
We’ve been looking at Isaiah’s prophecies of judgment at the hands of the Assyrians for what seems like a very long time. In chapters 36-39, we get a break from all the hard-to-understand poetry and prophecy. Kind of made my head spin.
This time we get to look at a narrative of prophecy fulfilled. The events recorded in these chapters take place during the reign of King Hezekiah, about 20 years after Isaiah prophesied the news to Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father. Much of what is written in these chapters is identical to historical accounts recorded in 2 Kings 18-20. Did Isaiah plagiarize the work of the writer of Kings, or did the writer of Kings plagiarize the work of Isaiah? Here’s what Motyer says: “The theory which best fits the facts is that both Isaiah and Kings had access to annals and records and used them to suit their own purposes as historians…” (Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 286, InterVarsity Press)
This replication is good news for readers of the One-Year Bible. If you are behind schedule and have read 2 Kings 18-20, you can skip Isaiah 36-38 to catch up. But be careful! There is an incident included in Isaiah that 2 Kings leaves out, and an event that 2 Kings includes but Isaiah leaves out. I’ll leave the sleuthing to you.
Here’s another interesting thing about the record of events: the incidents recorded in chapters 38 and 39 happened before those recorded in chapters 36 and 37! Why were they switched in the scrolls? Because, commentators say, the story about Merodach-Baladan, king of Babylon, is an excellent introduction to the next book.
(Did I tell you that the book of Isaiah is seen by scholars as two books? ”First Isaiah” is a compilation of the words and prophecies of Isaiah and ”Second Isaiah” was written later by his disciples. That explains how the events recorded—not the prophecies, but the events—can span 200 years. )
For now, we’ll consider the acts of Hezekiah, Isaiah, and God in First Isaiah.
King Hezekiah was nothing like his father. While Ahaz was one of the worst kings of Judah, his son was one of the best. Hezekiah was cut from the same cloth as God’s favorite king, King David. He took care of Judah’s idol issue, smashing, cutting, and crushing things that the people were substituting for God. ”He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; and after him there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who came before him. For he clung to the LORD; he did not desist from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses.” (36:5-6)
Quite the commendation.
Wherever Hezekiah went, success followed. But when he rebelled against Assyria, there was trouble. Just as Isaiah had prophesied, Assyrian troops surrounded Jerusalem. Suddenly nervous, King Hezekiah apologized to King Sennacherib for their civil disobedience and attempted to placate him by giving him lots of silver and gold, even trashing the doors of the temple to get it (2 Kings 18:14-16). But all to no avail. King Sennacherib wanted to rumble. He sent his thugs to the Jerusalem wall to deliver his threats.
His spokesman’s name was Rabshakeh. (That name even sounds nasty, doesn’t it?) Not only did Rabshakeh poke fun at Hezekiah’s choice of allies (Egypt), he questioned God’s faithfulness to Judah. In the eyes of the Assyrians, the God of Israel was just one more idol on the shelf. (36:4-7; also 36:18-20)
Rabshakeh said King Sennacherib wanted to make a bet with Hezekiah: “I’ll wager you two thousand horses that you don’t have two thousand riders.” And then he made this fraudulent claim: ”Have I come to attack and destroy this land without the LORD? The LORD himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.” (36:8-10)
Hezekiah’s men on the wall, Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah, said to Rabshakeh, “Shh…keep your voice down! Our men are going to hear you. How about you speak in Aramaic so they can’t understand what you're saying?” (Aramaic was the diplomatic language of the day; chances were the average citizen couldn’t understand it.) I’m not sure how wise that was. It may have been just the thing that prompted Rabshakeh to address all of the men on the wall: “Hezekiah’s trying to deceive you. He can’t save you and neither can the LORD.” (36:13-20)
(If you’ve ever wondered why the Bible writes the name of God “LORD” in some places and “Lord” in others, here’s a great article explaining the difference: https://www.firstorlando.com/stories/lord-lord-whats-the-difference/. In short, the Hebrew language uses both words for the name of God. “LORD” is our translation of the name YHWH, and “Lord” is our translation of the word adonai. There is an important difference. The name YHWH refers to God in all His fullness and is so holy to the Jews they write it without vowels. They used those vowels to create the name adonai, which they use to refer to God in His interactions with us.)
Rabshakeh continues, “Make your peace with me and I’ll make sure you’re fed here and in Assyria. By the way, the food is much better there.” (36:16-18)
Hezekiah’s well-trained soldiers ignored him. (36:21)
“Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the secretary, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and reported to him the words of Rabshakeh.” (36:22)
When Hezekiah heard the report, he did what all God-fearing kings did: he tore his clothes and donned the equivalent of an itchy gunny sack. Then he went into the temple to confess to God Judah’s inability to deliver themselves, while Eliakim, Shebna, and the elders went to see Isaiah. (37:1-3)
They said to Isaiah, “Perhaps the LORD your God will hear the words of Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to taunt the living God, and will avenge the words which the LORD your God has heard. Therefore, offer a prayer for the remnant that is left.’” (37:4)
Isaiah didn’t have to pray about it. He knew exactly what the Lord was going to say: “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Behold, I am going to put a spirit in him so that he will hear news and return to his own land. And I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.” (37:6-7)
Lest you think God has to battle with the forces of darkness, this, as well as other scriptures, makes it quite clear that the spirits of the underworld, even the devil himself, do nothing but what God allows or instructs them to do. In this case, He sent a spirit to Sennacherib to distract him, and Sennacherib withdrew from Judah to focus on his other problems. But not before he sent a message to Hezekiah, attempting once more to corrode his faith in God. (37:8-13)
When King Hezekiah received the message, he did what any God-fearing king would do: he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before Him. Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, saying, “LORD of armies, God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made heaven and earth. (37:16)
Now, we know God saw that letter before Hezekiah ever showed Him. God also knew that He was God, and He knew what Sennacherib had said and done (37:17-19). So why did Hezekiah preface his prayer with all that information God already knew?
Because Hezekiah himself needed to hear it. The most effective prayers we can pray when we are in trouble are those that recount what God has already done. Those prayers remind us who we’re talking to. They stir faith in us. Which, according to Jesus, is pretty important because: “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22)
And, God-fearing king that Hezekiah was, he asked God to deliver them from Assyria for the very right reason: “so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You alone, LORD, are God.” (37:20)
God said He would be happy to do it, and Isaiah sent a message to assure Hezekiah that the Assyrian nightmare was about to end. In answer to Hezekiah’s prayer, God directed His arrows straight at the Assyrian king. Basically, He said, “Look, when you taunted My people, you were taunting Me. When you boasted about all the damage you’ve done, you didn’t realize I was way ahead of you.”
“Have you not heard? Long ago I did it, From ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it about That you would turn fortified cities into ruined heaps.” (37:26)
In other words, “It’s over.”
Then He gave His people a sign: although the Assyrians had ravaged the land and they couldn’t sow their crops, the land itself would produce enough for the people to eat until they could till the soil again. And not only would the land bear fruit again, God’s remnant would flourish. (37:30-32)
Then He repeated the promise of His faithfulness to the house of David: “For I will protect this city to save it for My own sake, and for My servant David’s sake.” (37:35)
That’s when the angel of the LORD visited the Assyrian camp and left 185,000 dead bodies behind. (37:36)
(Side note: If you look for this account in the Assyrian annals, you won’t find it. Historians tell us that the Assyrians didn’t record their defeats. Talk about proud!)
As for King Sennacherib, he was killed by two of his sons while he worshipped in the temple of his gods. Isaiah was right again. (see 37:7)