The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
At that time Merodachbaladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah: for he had heard that he had been sick, and was recovered.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.
This short chapter is full of dramatic incident and colour and suggestion. It is human life condensed into almost the briefest possible compass. Hezekiah had indeed been sick—sick nigh unto death, and he did not want to die at nine-and-thirty years of age, as we have seen; so he turned his face unto the wall, and cried, and prayed, and wrestled with God, if haply he might continue in existence and see the unfolding of the residue of his days. The Lord heard the moan, and added fifteen years to the life of the king. And now he is no sooner better than he makes a fool of himself! He receives a letter from the king of Babylon, takes the messengers into all the secret places, empties all the boxes of the palace, and says, You see what I have of silver and gold, and things precious and valuable. This comes of getting well again! Well for some of us had we died long ago! Well if the child had not recovered. But you would have it so. The father might have been inclined to give way and say, If so be he must go, Lord take him with an almost visible hand: but it will be hard at the best. But the mother would not have it so; she said, No: he must live: spare him, Lord! I cannot live without the child. Sometimes the Lord grants us our requests, and then sends leanness into the soul. Sometimes he may have allowed us to have our own way in prayer; sometimes we have been permitted in a great wrestling to throw the Almighty: but what has come of it? Many a mother has lived to say with heartache to her child: Would God you had died an infant! for then you would have gone straight up to heaven as the dew goes up to help to make the rainbows: but I could not give you up, I was wrong—God pity me for my selfish ignorant prayer! Why will we take things into our own hands? Here is selfishness. Who can escape that bane? Were it something outside of us we might smite it, but it is within, it is mixed up with our life, it is our life. Herein is the mystery of the Cross of Christ, that it comes to slay self—"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." This was the testimony of Paul. To this ideal we may come, not frivolously, irreverently, or by flux of time, but by the ever-working grace of God, the continual miracle of the Holy Ghost. It takes God a long time to make Christians of some men.
Did Hezekiah act the part of a frank spirit upon this occasion? Nothing of the kind. We now begin to see more of the man's quality than we have ever seen. If a doctor had cured him he could not have been less religious in his communication with the delegates from Babylon; if some adventurous quack had brought him from the brink of the grave he could not have said less about it Not a word was said, according to the record, of the tears, the prayers, the prophetic interventions and communications; nothing was said of the religious element and action in all the movement. It is even so with ourselves. When we are congratulated upon our recovery it is hard for some of us to be religious, and to say, This is God's hand, this is God's miracle: truly I was brought to the very jaws of death, but I prayed mightily to God to spare me if he would, and I owe it to him wholly that I am alive this day: the living, the living shall praise him, and I will not be ashamed of my song. O ye dumb beneficiaries of God, taking his light and not owning the Giver, receiving his morning, and his noontide, and his evening, receiving the "spring blooms that burgeon o'er the world," and his autumnal largesses, and never singing loud, sweet, public song to him. Is this just? Is this honest? Is it in any wise, or sense, or aspect, good? If men would but follow the inspiration of gratitude a new face would be put upon all Christian life. Why are we dumb about God's gifts? It would shock us to hear some men use the name of God piously; we should receive from such an acknowledgment the shock of surprise, it would be so unlike the speaker. He is fluent enough in commercial talk, in worldly conversation; he can bargain like a Jew; but to speak God's name reverently, to say lovingly and simply, "God raised me up from the grave, blessed be his name; I want to serve him now with both hands diligently; no work too lowly for me to do, if so be he will allow me to do it and accept the doing as a sacrifice,"—if men would say this, the old days of enthusiasm would return, and the Church, instead of dying of a dumb respectability, would be alive with an inspired sensationalism. Beware of any man that speaks against sensationalism in the Church, unless he define his terms; he may be but excusing himself for a frost-bound piety. What a missionary Hezekiah might have been! How he would have astounded the Babylonian delegates had he said to them: I receive you with respect, courtesy, and thankfulness, but I must tell you of this miracle; come within, and you shall hear how it was, how it began, continued, culminated; this will be something for you to tell when you go home again. In this way every man might create a home missionary field for himself. "Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul," and I will speak publicly of his name, and proclaim his mercies even to reluctant ears: I will not play a thief's part, and take heaven's blessings as a felon might take them; I will receive them, and return thanksgiving unto God in loud public praise, and men shall know that what I have I have not by right or claim, but because of the condescension and love and pity of God. Let yourself be your text in all your best experiences. Let the facts of your family life be your texts if you are afraid to quote the Scriptures. The man who wants to preach can find texts enough in the infinite drama, the infinite tragedy of human life.
Hezekiah received the messengers and was glad of them, and showed them all that he had in his house. Bad men can never do good deeds. Could we get this lesson engraven on the memory, and made the light of life in many of our social relations, our preaching in that direction might fitly terminate. Merodach-baladan was a bad man; he could therefore not be courteous in any deep, true, and lasting sense of the term. A corrupt tree cannot grow good fruit. He was a rebel himself; he had thrown off the old king's yoke, and set up an independence of his own in a spirit of defiance and pagan self-sufficiency. His record was not a good record. When the bad man wants to do you a service do not accept it. If he bring you flowers from the garden, he has chilled their juices, and he has looked a curse upon them; if he bring you fruit from the orchard, take care: the hands that plucked that fruit have stolen God's righteousness and defied God's commandment. Bad men cannot be civil, courteous, noble, in any element or quality of life. Only the good man can be courteous, chivalrous, a gentleman. Herein the Church must reclaim much of its stolen property in the way of nomenclature and definition. We say of some men, Though not Christians, they are very honourable. No! I protest against that award: temporarily honourable, superficially honourable, relatively honourable; but honourable is a word that goes right down to the roots, and in that sense no man can be honourable who has not made his peace with God. And as for the courtesy and the civility of those who do not know Christ, verily it is veneer, plating that can be rubbed off, a little decoration that can be bought at school, a simple acquirement that can be paid for if you hire the right posture-master. Courtesy is a branch of philanthropy, and philanthropy is a branch of theology, and true theology begins at and returns to the Cross of Christ. So whatever this Merodach-baladan did, he was a rebel. Would you praise the dog that worried your child because the beast had a well-chased brass collar round his cruel throat? Would you say, Forgive the assassin, for he struck me with a hand that had a diamond gleaming upon its white finger? No: under such circumstances you would be real, you would go down to things fundamental. This is what we want in all the relations of life: go to roots, study the core of things, and unless the fountain is pure the stream cannot be pure; if the well-head is right then the water oozing, bubbling, sparkling, flashing from it will be of its own quality. Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good; make the fountain pure, and the stream will be pure: not until our hearts are right with God can they be right with one another. There can be no philanthropy without Christianity. There can be a show of it, there can be a happy mimicry of it, there can be a cunning theft of many of its features; but only that is philanthropy which does not shrink from the Cross, only that is philanthropy which saves others, itself it cannot save.
Hezekiah was pleased with the Babylonian compliment. He said, Gentlemen, come in, and I will show you all I have got here. So he "shewed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not" (Isaiah 39:2). He was a trustful man! You can get everything out of some men if you have the key of their vanity. Look at Hezekiah; as he takes the men round he says in effect, What an ally I would make if Babylon should ever be in trouble! Or, What an opponent I would make if ever Babylon should be insolent! Or, You see I am one of the great powers of the world. We want large quotation marks for "great powers"! This is the danger of all uncontrolled and unsanctified power, or position, or possibility of dominion: much would be more, more would be most, and most would explode because of its own dissatisfaction.
Was this all Hezekiah had to show? There is nothing in it then. All these things can be stolen. A half-educated thief could take away the silver and the gold; a very young felon could take away the spices and the precious ointment; a man with very poor resources could carry off the armour. Hezekiah laid up his riches where thieves could break through and steal. Ah me, how like us all this is! What should he have shown to the men from Babylon? What we ought to show to every enquirer into our method of life—individual, domestic, municipal, and national: he should have shown them character, high citizenship, large education, self-control, developed to its highest point of discipline,—these are things which no king of Babylon can take away. Nobody can steal the schooling you have given to your boy, but many people could easily take away his silver watch. Feed his brain; nourish his soul; under the blessing of God, seek to excite his appetite for knowledge, truth, wisdom, understanding: say to him, My son, seek them in the dawn, and in the midday, and at eventide; they are more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto wisdom: with all thy gettings, get understanding; she shall preserve thee, love thee, turn the night into day, and make the day sevenfold in brightness, and spread summer beauty all round the year; her ways are ways of pleasantness, her paths are paths of peace. Herein we take our stand as Christian teachers, preachers, expositors, evangelists, instructors of the young, occupants of the sanctuary. When we would show the riches of a country, show the altar of the land, show the church of the land, the schools of the empire, and say to Baby Ionian inquisitors, These are the foundations, and these, too, are the topstones; this is a fabric that cannot be shaken down by military thunder, this is the temple of God. We can all have: a hand in this masonry. He who builds a church builds a fortress. He who teaches a little child that God is love makes a soldier who never gives in. How difficult it is to get men to realise that the spiritual is mightier than the material! There is not a merchantman in the city who would allow a stranger to come in and take one yard of silk from his counter without paying for it: yet any literary thief can come into the best church in the metropolis and steal the preacher's thoughts, and not a constable would interfere. Who cares about the spiritual? whereas, there could be no material without the spiritual. A thought, who shall value it in plain figures, and set out its equivalent in gold and silver? A prayer, that tender violence that storms the throne of God and brings down all grace and love and light, who heeds it? Pay for the burned clay, pay for the tinted glass, pay for the artificial light: but who can pay for thought, sympathy, prayer, spiritual ministry, that secret power over the life which releases it from bondage, which takes away the garments of heaviness and in place of them gives the garments of praise.
Hezekiah seemed to have something which he could catalogue:—"Silver—gold—spices—ointment—armour." "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." A man has what a man is. Who alone stood against excited vanity; nay, who did not permit any such action of the mind as an excitement of vanity? Only one Man. There came to him on a certain day cunning interviewers, who began their plot with these insidious words—Master, we know that thou carest for no man, neither regardest the person of men—he laughed at them in his heart; he allowed the fools to proceed with their lie; then he said—Shew me a penny: whose image and superscription is this? Caesar's. Let him have it! Where was the wit? It was with Christ. Amend that answer if you can, even from an intellectual point of view. It is even from a literary point of view perfect. His vanity, if we may with reverence use such a term in connection with such a name, was not excited; he was not the victim of flattery, or praise, or cruel eulogium. What wonder that men fell back from him and said, Better fight a Caesar than speak to that man, unless you speak words of truth and soberness and love? Let the spirit of display once get into you even as a Church, and you may write Ichabod upon the temple door. The things to be shown in the Church are the Bible, the Altar, the Cross—"God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." If men come to our churches and see the precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the ointment, and see no Cross, they will curse us in the day of account.
Now Isaiah enters upon the scene. Mark the difference in the tone of the two men:—
"Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country unto me, even from Babylon. Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them. Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord" (Isaiah 39:3-6).
It is well to have Isaiahs in society, for Hezekiahs could never keep it together. This is the tone we want. The prophet should be higher than the king. The Christian teacher should stand upon the topmost place. Herein we have given away too much, and receded in mock humility from our right position as prophets of the Lord. Who dare rebuke a king? Who would not rather be pleased, and cut his prayer in two, if the king should say to him, Come and see me in my palace? Who could preach after that? The preacher is the greatest man living. The preacher of the Lord burns up other men like stubble, when they do that which is untrue, unwise, ungodly. Preachers do not take their proper position in this matter. They are quite willing to go in anyhow. Oh, they are so humble! I am afraid they will end in jail, where such humility has ended before today. Why, son of man, if thou hadst God's fire in thee thou wouldst denounce governments if they were unpatriotic, turn out prime ministers if they offend the spirit of civilisation and justice and progress; yea, thou wouldst not be afraid of the chief seat-holder, if he played Diotrephes, thou wouldst put thy hand upon his neck and give him to feel that thou canst do without bread and water, but not without justice and righteousness and truth. You are called, O ordained minister of Christ, to a proud position, a noble, illustrious, immortal function. The Church of Christ is not a place in which men can hear little sentiments which they may receive with the nod of an empty head; it is not a place which is put up for the purpose of saying inoffensive nothings in. O Christ, we have not used thy house aright; we have not uttered thy maledictions in thy tone; we have not spoken thy beatitudes with thy tears: we have made thy house too small a place; it might have been the greatest house in all the land, the house of beauty and music and sympathy, the house of righteousness and truth and spiritual illumination, the house of prayer, of oath, of sacrifice; it might have been a precinct of heaven!
"To the great national drama of Jerusalem's deliverance, there have been added two scenes of a personal kind, relating to her king. Isaiah 38 and Isaiah 39 are the narrative of the sore sickness and recovery of King Hezekiah, and of the embassy which Merodach baladan sent him, and how he received the embassy. The date of these events is difficult to determine. If, with Canon Cheyne, we believe in an invasion of Judah by Sargon in 711, we shall be tempted to refer them, as he does, to that date—the more so that the promise of fifteen additional years made to Hezekiah in 711, the fifteenth year of his reign, would bring it up to the twenty-nine, at which it is set in 2Kings 18:2. That, however, would flatly contradict the statement both of Isaiah 38:1, and 2Kings 20:1, that Hezekiah's sickness fell in the days of the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib; that is, after 705. But to place the promise of fifteen additional years to Hezekiah after 705, when we know he had been reigning for at least twenty years, would be to contradict the verse just cited, which sums up the years of his reign as twenty-nine. This is, in fact, one of the instances in which we must admit our present inability to elucidate the chronology of this portion of the Book of Isaiah. Mr. Cheyne thinks the editor mistook the siege by Sennacherib for the siege by Sargon. But as the fact of a siege by Sargon has never been satisfactorily established, it seems safer to trust the statement that Hezekiah's sickness occurred in the reign of Sennacherib, and to allow that there has been an error somewhere in the numbering of the years. It is remarkable that the name of Merodach-baladan does not help us to decide between the two dates. There was a Merodach-baladan in rebellion against Sargon in 710, and there was one in rebellion against Sennacherib in 705. It has not yet been put past doubt as to whether these two are the same. The essential is that there was a Merodach-baladan alive, real or only claimant king of Babylon, about 705, and that he was likely at that date to treat with Hezekiah, being himself in revolt against Assyria. Unable to come to any decision about the conflicting numbers, we leave uncertain the date of the events recounted in Isaiah 38, Isaiah 39. The original form of the narrative, but wanting Hezekiah's hymn, is given in 2 Kings 20 [Isaiah 38, Isaiah 39, has evidently been abridged from 2 Kings 20, and in some points has to be corrected by the latter. Isaiah 38:21-22, of course, must be brought forward before Isaiah 38:7]."
—Rev. G. A. Smith, M.A.