Isaiah 36
Pulpit Commentary
Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.
Verse 1. - It came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. There is an irreconcilable difference between this note of time, in the passage as it stands, and the Assyrian inscriptions. The fourteenth year of Hezekiah was B.C. 714 or 713. Sargon was then King of Assyria, and continued king till B.C. 705. Sennacherib did not ascend the throne till that year, and he did not lead an expedition into Palestine till B.C. 701. Thus the date, as it stands, is cloven or twelve years too early. It is now the common opinion of critics that the chronology of the Books of Kings, speaking generally, is "a later addition to the Hebrew narrative" (Cheyne, 'Isaiah,' vol. 1. p. 199, note 1). It is uncertain when the dates were added; but it would not be long from the time when the addition was made before "Isaiah" would be brought into accord with "Kings." Another view is that the date belongs to the original writings, but that it has suffered corruption, "fourteenth" having been substituted for "twenty-sixth," from an overstrict rendering of the expression, "in those days," which introduces the narrative of ch. 38. That narrative undoubtedly belongs to Hezekiah's fourteenth year. A third view is that of Dr. Hincks, who suggests a derangement of the text, which has attached to an expedition of Sennacherib a date originally belonging to an attack by Sargon. He supposes the original text to have run thus: "And it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that the King of Assyria came up (against him). In those days was King Hezekiah sick unto death, etc. (ch. 38, 39.). And Sennacherib, King of Assyria, came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them," etc. (ch. 36, 37.). The subject has been treated at considerable length by Mr. Cheyne ('Prophecies of Isaiah,' vol. 1. pp. 196-204), who has accidentally ascribed to Sir H. Rawlinson the second of the above theories, which really originated with the present writer. Sennacherib, King of Assyria. The Hebrew rendering of the name is Sankherib, the Greek Sanacharibus or Senacheribus. In the Assyrian the literation is Sin-akhi-irib - and the meaning" Sin (the moon-god) multiplies brothers." Sin-akhi-irib was the son and successor of Sargon. His father was murdered, and he ascended the throne in B.C. 705 (G. Smith, 'Epunym Canon,' p. 67). Came up against all the defenced cities; rather, all the fenced cities, as in 2 Kings 18:13,or "all the fortified cities" (Cheyne). And took them. Sennacberib tells us that, in the campaign of his fourth year ( B.C. 701), he "captured forty-six of the strong cities" belonging to Hezekiah, King of Judah, while of the "fortresses and small cities" he took "a countless number" ('Eponym Canon,' p. 134). (On the causes of the war and its general course, see the Introduction to the book.)
And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field.
Verse 2. - And the King of Assyria sent Rabshakeh... with a great army (comp. 2 Kings 18:13-17, where we find sufficient ground for believing that this expedition is entirely distinct from that of ver. 1, which was conducted by Sennacherib in person, and led to Hezekiah's submission and the payment of a large tribute). It is inconceivable that, immediately after the grant of terms of peace and their acceptance, Sennacherib should have renewed the war; there must have been an interval, and a fresh provocation. The interval can have been only a short one, since Hezekiah died in B.C. 697. It may have been a couple of years, or perhaps no more than a year, or possibly only a few months. The fresh provocation probably consisted in an application for aid, made by Hezekiah to Tir-hakah, or to the subordinate Egyptian kings, which is glanced at in ver. 6. The Assyrian annals, which never record any reverse or defeat, are wholly silent as to this second expedition. The only profane confirmation of it is to be found in Herodotus (2:141). From Lackish. Laehish, an ancient city of the Amorites (Joshua 10:5), was assigned by Joshua to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:39), and seems to have been still a Jewish possession (2 Kings 14:19). It occupied "a low round swell or knoll" in the Shefelch, or low tract between the Judaean highland and the Mediterranean, and lay near, if not directly on, the direct route which armies commonly followed in their march from Syria into Egypt. The site is now known as Um-Lakis; it lies between Gaza and Ajlan (Eglon), about two miles west of the hitter. Sennacherib represents himself as engaged in its siege on a bas-relief in the British Museum (see Layard, 'Monuments of Nineveh," second series, pl. 21). The conduit of the upper pool (see the comment on ch. 7:3). The spot was that at which Isaiah had been commanded to meet Ahaz some forty years previously. It was probably on the north side of Jerusalem, not tar from the Damascus gate.
Then came forth unto him Eliakim, Hilkiah's son, which was over the house, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, Asaph's son, the recorder.
Verse 3. - Eliakim: Hilkiah's son (see above, Isaiah 22:20). Eliakim had now taken the place of the Shebna who was "over the house" when Isaiah prophesied his downfall (Isaiah 22:19) and Eliakim's advancement (Isaiah 22:21-23). Shebna the scribe. It is not quite certain that this is the same "Shebna" as the former prefect of the palace, but the uncommonness of the name is a strong argument for the identity. The post of "scribe" or "secretary "(marginal rendering) was one of some importance (see 1 Kings 4:3), though inferior to that of palace prefect. Joah... the recorder (comp. 2 Kings 18:18, where the same three officials are mentioned in the same order). We learn from Kings that Sennacherib sent in reality three envoys (2 Kings 18:17) to Hezekiah - the Tartan, or "commander-in-chief;" the Rabsaris, or "chief eunuch;" and the Rabshakeh, or "rab-sak," the "chief captain," the second in command after the tartan. Hezekiah thought it right to appoint an equal number of officials to meet and confer with them.
And Rabshakeh said unto them, Say ye now to Hezekiah, Thus saith the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein thou trustest?
Verse 4. - And Rabshakeh said. Of the three Assyrian envoys Rabshakeh alone obtains mention in Isaiah, probably because he was the spokesman (comp. 2 Kings 18:19, 26, 27, 37; 2 Kings 19:4). He was probably chosen for spokesman because he could speak Hebrew fluently (infra, vers. 11, 13). The great king. "The great king" (sarru rabbu) is the most common title assumed by the Assyrian monarchs in their inscriptions. It is found as early as B.C. 1120.
I say, sayest thou, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom dost thou trust, that thou rebellest against me?
Verse 5. - I say. In 2 Kings 18:20 we read, "Thou sayest" for "I say," which gives a better sense. Dr. Kay holds the two forms to be "complementary." I have counsel and strength for war. Either the words of Hezekiah had been reported to Sennacherib, or he rightly divined Hezekiah's thoughts. It was, no doubt, in reliance on the "counsel" of Eliakim and the "strength" of Egypt that the Jewish monarch had a second time provoked his suzerain.
Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on 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.
Verse 6. - This broken reed; rather, as in 2 Kings 18:21, this bruised reed (comp. Isaiah 42:3). A reed may be "bruised," and wholly untrustworthy as a support, while it appears sound. A "broken" reed no one would lean on. Egypt. There had been times when Egypt was a strong power, feared and respected by her neighbours, and a terror even to Assyria. But these times were long past. For the last fifty years the country had been divided against itself (see the comment on Isaiah 19:2), split up into a number of petty principalities, Recently the neighbouring kingdom of Ethiopia had claimed and exercised a species of sovereignty over the entire Nile valley, while allowing tributary princes to govern different portions of it. Of these princes the most important at the time of Rabshakeh's embassy seems to have been Shabatok, who reigned in Memphis, probably from B.C. 712 to B.C. 698. Egypt is likened to a "bruised reed" on account of her untrustworthincss. "So" (Sabaco) had given no substantial help to Hashes. Shabatok was little likely to imperil himself in order to assist Hezekiah. Even Tirhakah would probably avoid, as long as he could, a conflict with the full power of Assyria. Pharaoh, King of Egypt. Sennacherib uses the generic term, "Pharaoh," instead of mentioning any of the petty princes by name, because he means to speak generally. The King of Egypt, under present circumstances, whoever he may be, is no better than a bruised reed. In his own inscriptions, Sennacherib about this time uses the expression, "the kings of Egypt" ('Eponym Canon,' p. 133, 1.47).
But if thou say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah hath taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, Ye shall worship before this altar?
Verse 7. - If thou say to me, We trust in the Lord. "The Assyrians," it has been observed, "had a good intelligence department" (Cheyne). It was known to Sennacherib that Hezekiah had a confident trust, which seemed to him wholly irrational, in Jehovah - the special God of his people. It was also known to him that Hezekiah, in the earlier portion of his reign (2 Kings 18:4), had "removed the high places" and broken down the altars, where Jehovah had for centuries been worshipped throughout the length and breadth of the land. He concludes that, in so doing, he must have offended Jehovah. He is probably ignorant of the peculiar proviso of the Jewish Law, that sacrifice should be offered in one place only, and conceives that Hezekiah has been actuated by some narrow motive, and has acted in the interests of one city only, not of the whole people. Ye shall worship before this altar. The parallel passage of 2 Kings (2 Kings 18:22) has "this altar in Jerusalem." The brazen altar in the great court of the temple is, of course, meant. Hezekiah had cleansed it front the pollutions of the time of Ahaz (2 Chronicles 29:18), and had insisted on sacrifice being offered nowhere else (2 Chronicles 29:21-35; 2 Chronicles 30:15-24; 2 Chronicles 31:1, etc.). Such a concentration of worship was unknown to any of the heathen nations, and may well have been unintelligible to them.
Now therefore give pledges, I pray thee, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give thee two thousand horses, if thou be able on thy part to set riders upon them.
Verse 8. - Now therefore give pledges; i.e. "bind yourselves under s-me penalty." Rabshakeh here interrupts his message' to introduce an offer of his own. Intent on ridiculing the absurdity of Hezekiah's resistance of Assyria, he promises to make him a present of two thousand horses, if he (Hezekiah) can find two thousand trained riders to mount them. It is quite likely that he was safe in making this promise, and that, notwithstanding the abundant use of chariots and horses by the Jews of the time for purposes of luxury (Isaiah 2:7), they were destitute of a cavalry force and unaccustomed to the management of war-horses.
How then wilt thou turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master's servants, and put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
Verse 9. - How then wilt thou turn away the face, etc.? i.e. "How wilt thou be able to defeat, and cause to retreat, a single Assyrian captain at the head of his squadron?" And put thy trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen; rather, but thou trustest in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen. Consciousness of the weakness, with which Rabshakeh had just reproached them, had led to their application to Egypt for a chariot and a cavalry force. Egypt was well able to furnish both, and had sent a large force of both to the help of Ekron a short time previously ('Eponym Canon,' p. 133, 11. 48-56). That force had, however, suffered defeat at the hands of Sennacherib.
And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.
Verse 10. - The Lord said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it; literally, Jehovah said unto me, Go up, etc. (camp. 2 Chronicles 35:21, where Necho tells Josiah that "God commanded" his expedition against Carchemish). The heathen monarchs frequently represented themselves as directed to make war on a nation by God, or by some particular god. Piankhi Mer-amman says, "I am born of the loins. created from the egg, of the Deity... I have not acted without his knowing; he ordained that I should act" ('Records of the Past,' vol. 2. p. 91). Mesha, King of Moab, declares, "Chemosh said to me, Go and take Nebo [in war] against Israel" (ibid., vol. 11. p. 166). Asshur is generally represented as commanding the expeditions of the Assyrian kings (ibid., vol. 1. pp. 21, 48, 60, etc.). Still, it is surprising that Sennacherib should mention "Jehovah" as the God from whom he had received the order to attack Hezekiah, and we may suspect that the term which he actually employed was Ilu, "God," and that either Rahshakeh, or the reporter of the speech, substituted "Jehovah" as more intelligible to the Jews.
Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews' language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.
Verse 11. - Speak... unto thy servants in the Syrian language; literally, in the Aramaic language. Aramaeans were widely spread over the entire region between the Lower Tigris and the Mediterranean; and their language seems to have been in general use, as a language of commerce. "Private contract tablets in Aramaic and Assyrian have been found in the remains of ancient Nineveh" (Cheyne). Rabshakeh had, perhaps, spoken "in the Jews' language " without any ill intent, thinking that it was the only tongue which Jewish envoys would understand; but his so doing was calculated to affect the minds of the common people, and to shake their allegiance to Hezekiah. The envoys, therefore, requested him to employ a foreign tongue, and suggested Aramaic as one which was familiar to them, and which they supposed that he would understand. His employment of Hebrew had shown them that he was a linguist. In the Jews' language. There was no language peculiar to the Jews as Jews, that is to say, different from the ordinary speech of the Israelites. Both alike spoke Hebrew. In the Old Testament, however, this corn-men language is never called "Hebrew," but either "the tongue of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18) or "the Jewish language" (2 Kings 18:26, 28; 2 Chronicles 32:18; Nehemiah 13:24). Similarly, our own tongue is called "English," though spoken also in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, America, and Australia. In the ears of the people that are on the wall; i.e. of the soldiers placed on the wall to defend it. We must suppose that the conference took place immediately outside the fortifications, so that some of those on the wall could hear.
But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
Verse 12. - Hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall? Rabshakeh was contravening all diplomatic usage, and no doubt was conscious of it. But the pride and arrogance of the Assyrians rendered them as careless of diplomatic etiquette as, at a later date, were the Romans (see Polybius, 29:11, § 6; Liv., 45:12). That they may eat, etc.; rather, to eat. That is, with no other result than that of being reduced, together with you, to the last extremity of famine, when the siege comes.
Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews' language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.
Verse 13. - Then Rabshakeh stood; i.e. "rose from a sitting or reclining posture" - to attract attention, and the better to make himself heard. He continued his speech in Hebrew, and at the same time purposely raised his voice to a loud pitch. The envoys would have been justified in ordering the archers to shoot him from the wall. But they seem to have been struck of a heap, as Epiphanes was by the audacity of Popillius (see the comment on the preceding verse).
Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you.
Verse 14. - Thus saith the king. It is scarcely probable that Sennacherib had expressly empowered Rabshakeh to make a speech to the Jewish people, much less that he had dictated its words. But the envoy regards himself as having plenary powers to declare the king's mind. Let not Hezekiah deceive you. By vain hopes of resisting the Assyrian arms successfully (comp. vers. 5-7).
Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.
Verse 15. - Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in Jehovah. There is nothing improbable in Rabshakeh's having thus spoken. Isaiah had long been encouraging Hezekiah to resist Sennacherib by promises of Divine aid (Isaiah 30:31; Isaiah 31:4-9). Hezekiah would naturally repeat these premises to the people, and could not give their effect in simpler words than by saying, "Jehovah will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the King of Assyria." Spies and deserters would naturally tell the Assyrian envoys what he had 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;
Verse 16. - Make an agreement with me by a present; literally, make a blessing with me. Delitzsch paraphrases, "Enter into a connection of mutual good wishes with me." Vance Smith translates boldly, "Make peace with me;" and Mr. Cheyne, "Make a treaty with me." There seems to be no doubt that b'rakah, besides its primary sense of "blessing," had two secondary senses, "present" and "treaty." Here "treaty" is no doubt intended. Come out to me; i.e. "come out of Jerusalem, and surrender yourselves" (comp 1 Samuel 11:3; Jeremiah 38:17). And eat ye... drink ye. Peace being made, the Jews could leave the protection of their walled cities, and disperse themselves over their lands, where they could live in plenty and security (comp. 1 Kings 4:25), at any rate for a time. They would be safe front the terrible extremities hinted at in ver. 12, and might confidently await the great king's ultimate disposal of them, which would be determined widen the war in these parts was over. The waters of his own cistern; rather, of his own well. All cultivators had wells in their plots of ground. Cisterns, or reservoirs, in which the rain-water was stored, were comparatively uncommon.
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.
Verse 17. - Until I come and take you away. It was so much thee usual policy of Assyria to remove to a new locality a conquered people, which had given them trouble, that Rabshakeh felt safe in assuming that the fate in store for the Jews, if they submitted themselves, was a transplantation. Sargon had transported the Israelites to Gozan and Media (2 Kings 18:11), the Tibarcni to Assyria, the Commageni to Susiana ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2. p. 423). Sennacherib himself had transported into Assyria more than two hundred thousand Aramaeans (ibid., p. 430). It might be confidently predicted that, if he conquered them, he would transplant the Jews. Rabshakeh tries to soften down the hardship of the lot before them by promises of a removal to a land equal in all respects to Palestine. To a land like your own land. This was certainly not a general principle of Assyrian administration. Nations were removed from the far north to the extreme south, and vice versa, from arid to marshy tracts, from fertile regions to comparative deserts. The security of the empire, not the gratification of the transported slaves, was the ruling and guiding principle of all such changes. A land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. The writer of Kings adds, "a land of oil olive and of honey." (On the productiveness of Palestine, see Numbers 13:27; Numbers 14:7; Deuteronomy 1:23; Deuteronomy 8:7-9; Deuteronomy 11:11, 12.)
Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, The LORD will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
Verse 18. - Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you; rather, seduce you (comp. Deuteronomy 13:6; 1 Kings 21:25). Sennacherib claims to be entitled to the people's allegiance, and represents Hezekiah as a rebel, who seeks to draw them away from their duty. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land? The successes of the Assyrians, and the religious character of their wars, justified this boast. The pervading idea of the inscriptions is that wars arc undertaken for the glory of the Assyrian deities, particularly of Asshur, for the chastisement of his enemies, and with the object of establishing in each country, as it is brought under subjection, the laws and worship of Asshur (see 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2. pp. 322-324 and 531). The nations fight under the protection of their own gods, and thus each war is a struggle between the Assyrian deities and those of the nation with which they arc contending. Hitherto, undoubtedly, Assyria had met with almost uniform success (see Isaiah 10:5-14).
Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?
Verse 19. - Where are the gods of Hamath? (comp. Isaiah 10:9). Sargon had reduced Hamath in his third year, B.C. 720. He had "swept the whole land of Hamath to its extreme limit," taken the king prisoner, and carried him away captive to Assyria, where he flayed and burned him; removed most of the inhabitants, and replaced them by Assyrians; plundered the city of its chief treasures, and placed an Assyrian governor over it (see 'Eponym Canon,' pp. 126-128). Among the treasures taken were, no doubt, the images of the Hamathite gods, which were uniformly carried off by the Assyrians from a conquered city. And Arphad. Arphad, or Arpad (Isaiah 10:9), had joined with Hamath in the war against Assyria, and was taken by Sargon in the same year ('Eponym Canon,' p. 127). Of Sepharvaim. Scpharvaim, or Sippara, was besieged and captured by Sargon in his twelfth year, B.C. 710. A severe example was made of the inhabitants (G. Smith, 'History of Babylonia,' p. 122). A discovery made by Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, in 1881, is thought to prove that Sippara was situated at Abu-Habbah, between Baghdad and the site of Babylon, about sixteen miles from the former city (see the 'Transactions of the Society of Bibl. Archaeology,' vol. 8. pp. 164, 173). "Hena" and "Ivah," joined with Sepharvaim by the author of Kings (2 Kings 18:31), seem to be omitted by Isaiah as unimportant. They are thought to have been towns upon the Euphrates, not very distant from Babylon, and have been identified respectively with Anah and Hit. But the identification is in both cases uncertain. Have they delivered Samaria? Delitzsch and Mr. Cheyne translate, "How much less have they delivered Samaria?" Kay, "Verily have they delivered," regarding the sentence as ironical. Sennacherib can see no distinction between the cities where Jehovah was worshipped, and those which acknowledged any other tutelary god. As Samaria fell, why should not Jerusalem fall?
Who are they among all the gods of these lands, that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?
But they held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king's commandment was, saying, Answer him not.
Verse 21. - They (i.e. the people, as in 2 Kings 18:36) held their peace. Rabshakeh's attempt to shake their fidelity had, at any rate, no manifest effect. For the king's commandment was, saying, Answer him not. Hezekiah can scarcely have anticipated that Rabshakeh would so far depart from ordinary usage as to make a speech to "the men on the wall." But he may have been in the immediate neighbourhood, and, when apprised of the envoy's proceedings, may have sent the order. We are not to suppose that the Jewish king was at a loss for an answer. He did not choose to bandy words with an envoy who had behaved himself so outrageously.
Then came Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, that was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah, the son of Asaph, the recorder, to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of Rabshakeh.
Verse 22. - With their clothes rent. Garments were "rent," not only as a sign of mourning, but whenever persons were shocked or horrified (see Genesis 37:29; 1 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 1:2; Ezra 9:3; 2 Chronicles 34:19; Matthew 26:65). The Jewish officials meant to mark their horror at Rabshakeh's blasphemies.

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