The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass, when king Hezekiah heard it, that he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.The Blasphemy of Rabshakeh
The prophecies of Isaiah constitute a threefold division: first, Isaiah 1-35; second, Isaiah 36-39; third, Isaiah 40-46. We have just considered the noble words which formed the peroration of Isaiah's political eloquence. The four chapters (Isaiah chapters 36-39), were possibly not written by Isaiah himself; they may, it is thought, have been appended by some disciple or editor in the time of Ezra. In proper chronology Isaiah 38, Isaiah 39 should come first. For our purpose it will be enough to pause here and there at some point of direct spiritual utility. For example, here is a man, a chief officer or cupbearer, Rabshakeh by name, who represents the king of Assyria, and embodies the brutality and blasphemy which have ever distinguished the enemies of truth and righteousness. Rabshakeh began his communications with Hezekiah by a taunt. He reminded the king that he had trusted in the staff of a broken reed, that is, upon Egypt; "whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him" (Isaiah 36:6). Rabshakeh had the advantage of truth on this occasion, and he wished to push it to undue uses or extract from it fallacious inferences, on the supposition that Hezekiah being able to confirm his testimony upon one point would be predisposed to accept it on another. Rabshakeh offered to lay a wager when he said, "Now therefore give pledges" (Isaiah 36:8). The proposition is marked by extreme ludicrousness, being nothing less than to find two thousand horses for the use of Hezekiah if the king on his part should be able to set riders upon them. This was the taunt of defiance; this has about it all the brutality of men who know that their proud offers cannot be accepted. Where there is great weakness on the one side, it is easy to boast of great pomp and power on the other.
Rabshakeh continued his empty boast either personally or representatively, when he said, "I now come up without the Lord against this land to destroy it" (Isaiah 36:10). Here we have an instance of a perverted truth. Isaiah had distinctly taught that it was Jehovah himself who had brought the king of Assyria into Judah, and they who were opposed to the people of God were prepared to say that such being the case it was evident that the king of Assyria was really the representative of the God of heaven, and now Rabshakeh or the king of Assyria may be said to assume the character of a defender of the faith.
Rabshakeh made a bold appeal to the people when he said, "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards" (Isaiah 36:16-17). How eloquent was Rabshakeh in the telling of lies! Hezekiah's people had only to leave the besieged city, and to go into the Assyrian camp, and they would be allowed the greatest privileges; thus Rabshakeh adds the torment of sarcasm to the sufferings of war, and actually proposes to the people to accept the doom of exile as if it were a change for the better! It is supposed that the taunt and the promise may perhaps be connected with Senra-cherib's boast that he had made the water supply of the cities of his empire.
The Distress of Hezekiah
The first picture that strikes us in this chapter is that of a panic-stricken king. When Hezekiah heard the messages from Assyria he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. The king and his ministers all clothed themselves in the penitential sackcloth of mourners. Hezekiah was probably weak in body, and therefore had lost true courage of soul. None knew better than he the overwhelming resources of Assyria, and if for a moment he surrendered his faith in God, he knew that the fate of himself and his people was sealed. In all ages the people of God have really had nothing to trust to but God himself. Their temptation, therefore, was to look without, to reckon up resources of a military kind, and discovering the inadequacy of such resources to meet the exigencies of the time they were prone to fall into despair. It has always been difficult to trust the purely spiritual. Given, on the one hand, a boundless army with boundless resources, and given, on the other hand, nothing but simple religious faith, and it is easy to see how men constituted as we are, may incline to seize the soldiery and the armour, and to put their confidence in resources of a palpable kind. The history of providence has been an intentional rebuke of such foolish confidences. They that trust in the Lord are to be as mount Zion; they who believe are to have perfect peace in the midst of storm; they who have the eyes of their hearts enlightened can see infinite hosts gathering around them, though there be nothing patent to the naked eye. In the midst of his distress Hezekiah sent "unto Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz." So far Hezekiah was right. He might have gone himself directly by an act of faith to the living God, but he had regard to the constitution of Israel, and he availed himself of the ordinances and institutes appointed of heaven. Hezekiah made through Eliakim a pathetic speech to Isaiah—"This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blasphemy" (Isaiah 37:3). There are hours, as we have often seen, when prophets come to the enjoyment of their fullest influence. Isaiah had been despised and derided, but now his hour has come, and he stands up as the one hope of Judah. The question was, What can you, Isaiah, do to extract Israel from all the peril which now presses upon the people of God? In the sixth verse we see how nobly the attitude of Isaiah contrasts with the attitude of Hezekiah. Instead of the word of inspiration proceeding from the king it issued from the prophet.
Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words that thou hast heard, wherewith the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumour, and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land (Isaiah 37:6-7).
This was the message which the Lord sent through Isaiah to King Hezekiah. A terrible thing is it for the Lord to determine to send a blast upon a man. The better rendering is, "I will put a spirit in him;" the word spirit may represent an impulse, mighty and overwhelming, which makes havoc of all previous resolutions and purposes, and indeed drives the man to madness. The Lord troubles the faculties of our nature. He causes us to see sights which have no existence, and to hear voices which are pure suppositions of the fancy. Thus, the king of Assyria was to "hear a rumour;" it might be a mere noise in the ear, it might be of real danger gathering in some distant quarter; or this may be an instance of that prescience which foresees far away the complications of statecraft which drive to despair the sagacity of the shrewdest kings. Whatever may be the precise meaning of the words, it is evident that the Lord takes the whole affair into his own hands, and drives about the king of Assyria as men drive a horse in whose mouth they put a bit and bridle. When the Lord proposes to smite a man as with a sword of lightning, there is a dignity about his reply which makes us pause in wonder and in awe; but when he simply undertakes to trouble the brain, to frighten the eyes, to create an uproar in the ears, we begin to feel how terrible a thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God. We should fix our attention upon the position occupied by Isaiah in this time of exigency. What are prophets for if not to declare the will of God in the midst of thickening danger? What are ministers of the Gospel for, if they dare not stand up in times of political conflict and social distress, and lay down the law of eternal righteousness? There is no need for them to intermeddle with the mere details of policy, or to range themselves in the spirit of partisanship on this side or that, but as ministers of Christ, who came to save the lost, to help the helpless, to open the eyes of the blind, and work miracles of beneficence, they are bound to speak a word for those who are cast down, to rebuke all tyranny, monopoly, and oppression and to declare the word of hope in the ears of men who are being driven by misfortune into dejection and despair. A woful day will it be for the Christian Church when ministers speak nothing but sentiment, and occupy a position so remote from the actual affairs of the day as really to involve them in nothing that is of the nature of pain, loss, and sacrifice. The ancient prophets came down amongst the people, took their place amongst them, heard all the messages that were delivered by foreign sovereigns, and declared the will of the Lord respecting all the events of the time. Prophets and ministers will be quickly allowed to retire to "some boundless contiguity of shade," if they prefer to live a monastic life and to speak only those platitudes which have no reference to the dangers and the sufferings of the present hour. It is not enough for us to admire Isaiah, a prophet who lived thousands of years ago, when he stood up and delivered the word of God in the hearing of the messengers of the king of Assyria: Isaiah's heroism will be wholly lost if it be not copied by ourselves, and so embodied as to have a direct bearing upon all the action and purpose of the day in which we toil.
A beautiful picture is presented in the fourteenth verse, in which Hezekiah receives a threatening letter, and goes up into the house of the Lord, and spreads it before the Lord. This may be described as an action of mute worship. Possibly not a word was said. The letter was simply laid out before the presence of the all-seeing God. Sometimes this is the only thing we can do in the midst of trying providences. We have exhausted all thought, all words, all skill in fence, and our arms now fall powerless by our side: in such circumstances we can but lay the case before God in eloquent silence. He knows what we mean by the act, and in proportion as our spirit is true in its tone towards him will he reply to us. In a moment Hezekiah was enabled to speak, and he offered a most pathetic prayer.
"O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth: thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thine ear, O Lord, and hear; open thine eyes, O Lord, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations, and their countries, and have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord, even thou only" (Isaiah 37:16-20).
The tone of sublimity which marks this address cannot be overlooked. In Psalm 80:1 we have an expression like that which Hezekiah uses when he says "that dwellest between the cherubims"—an expression which is supposed to refer to the dark thunderclouds of heaven. In this case the reference is supposed to be to the glory-cloud which was the symbol of the divine presence, and which rested when it manifested itself between the cherubim of the ark—figures which symbolise the elemental forces of the heavens. Rabshakeh had spoken of "the gods of the nations," but Hezekiah speaks another faith—"thou art the God, even thou alone." We must never forget that monotheism was the faith of Israel. Never was Israel allowed to suppose that God was many and not one. The majesty of the Lord lay in his unity, and not in his divisibleness. This may be called the majesty of simplicity, in contradistinction to the majesty of number, variety, and complication. Now Hezekiah cast the whole difficulty into the hands of the Lord, his plea being that if God would defend Judah, and deliver his chosen Israel, all the kingdoms of the earth would know that God was the Lord, and there was none beside him. It is curious to observe how, by a kind of necessity, we all endeavour to give motives to the Divine Being which may direct his action and account for it. God does not disallow this worship of what may be called suggestive ness. Properly viewed, can anything be more out of reason and out of place, than that man should supply not only a prayer which expresses his necessity, but should suggest reasons on which God himself should act? Throughout the whole commerce of heaven and earth God continually reveals himself to us in condescending forms, and permits himself to be treated in many cases as if he were open to suggestion and reason and eloquence on our part. This is one method of the divine education of the world. Men are driven to find reasons for themselves and to suggest reasons to God, and the whole process may end in mental enlargement, or in intellectual illumination, or in the proof that it is not in man to find reasons but in God to supply both the motive and the end of his actions. Hezekiah's prayer is in some respects a model petition. He lays the whole case before God, and then speaks aloud concerning it. He reviews the history of Assyrian gods; he has seen them one by one cast into the fire: for they were no gods but the work of men's hands, yea, gods that could be destroyed by the very hands that made them; but now Hezekiah's heart rises in a sublime appeal to the eternity which cannot be shortened, to the infinity that cannot be diminished, to the almightiness whose energy can never be modified. The very making of such an appeal stirs and ennobles the heart and brings every faculty to its highest temper and power. This, indeed, is one of the best uses of prayer, namely, the enlargement of soul which follows it, the glow which makes the whole heart glad, and the sense of divine nearness which inspires timidity itself with invincible courage.
Now Isaiah the son of Amoz sends a message unto Hezekiah, and his message constitutes probably the last of Isaiah's recorded utterances, which is undoubtedly one of the sublimest bursts of eloquence attributed even to his inspired lips. It would seem as if the Lord replied to Hezekiah's prayer through the instrumentality of Isaiah, for Isaiah begins his answer to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Whereas thou hast prayed to me against Sennacherib king of Assyria: this is the word which the Lord hath spoken concerning him." This is remarkable as showing in how many ways we may receive answers to prayer. It could not have been thought that the Lord would answer a prayer addressed to him by sending a message through some other man. But thus we are to look for answers to our petitions. We cannot tell how the reply will come—by man, or woman, or child, or unexpected event, or unknown correspondent, or impressions produced upon the mind apparently without any ability on our part to trace their origin or account for their suddenness or their emphasis. We should always be looking for answers to prayers, not always by lifting up our heads and directing our eyes to the far-away heavens; we should open our ears to listen to the words which are being spoken immediately around us, for in the common conversation of the day we may receive some hint as to the destiny and effect of our own prayers. According to the answer which Isaiah was inspired to give to Hezekiah, the virgin daughter of Zion was enabled to despise those who sought to overthrow her, and to laugh to scorn those who had meditated evil things against her beauty and her virtue. The virgin daughter hurls back every taunt of Assyrian pride, and proceeds from one degree of contempt to another, until she inflicts upon the enemy the most signal humiliation. The Assyrians were to be as the grass of the field; they were to be as a field before the blades, or they were to be blasted as with mildew, or they were to be cast into the oven and destroyed; as for proud Assyria, a hook was to be put into his nose and a bridle into his lips, and he was to be turned back by the way by which he came. It is instructive to notice that the Assyrian sculptures represent both beasts and men as dragged in this way. Thus, in Ezekiel 38:4, we read:—"And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords."
"And this shall be a sign unto thee, Ye shall eat this year such as groweth of itself; and the second year that which springeth of the same: and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruit thereof" (Isaiah 37:30).
In this verse the prophet turns to Hezekiah, and offers him pledges sufficiently near to assure him that all the prophecies of larger scope were perfectly literal in their intent. It is supposed that the time of the address was autumn, probably near the Equinox, which was the beginning of a new year. The best historians tell us that the Assyrian invasion had stopped all tillage in the previous spring, and the people had to rely upon the spontaneous products of the fields. "In the year that was about to open they would be still compelled to draw from the same source, but in twelve months' time the land would be clear of the invaders, and agriculture would resume its normal course, and the fulfilment of this prediction within the appointed limit of time would guarantee that wider promise that follows." Thus the providence of the Lord confirms itself. Sometimes we have a remote promise stretching far away beyond the ages, and which the living men can never hope to see fulfilled, but in order to assure their faith and brighten their hope, something is promised to them which they can immediately realise. Thus from point to point, and from day to day, we are drawn forward, we are drawn forward by the good hand and the living Spirit of God.
The prophet says, "The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this" (Isaiah 37:32). It was not to be done by human energy, but wholly accomplished by divine wisdom and power. We may so look at prophecies of a large significance as to be overwhelmed by the range of time through which they had to pass, and thus we may blind ourselves and actually overpower our own faith; whereas we ought continually to look at the living God, and the eternity in which he dwells, and to feel that everything is in his hands, and that how great soever the time required it is as nothing compared with the eternity in which he lives.